The 17th-century philosopher, poet, playwright and essayist Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), has waited a rather long time for public recognition, despite her prodigious output. She was largely ignored in her own era — in no small part because of misogynist assumptions about female intellect — and succeeding epochs were no kinder, with her work either dismissed or, at best, viewed as an eccentric curiosity. Even Virginia Woolf claimed that Cavendish “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly.”

Today, however, there is no hotter early-modern philosopher — if that is not an oxymoron — than Cavendish. After nearly 40 years of pioneering work by feminist historians of science and literary scholars, her work is now routinely studied in university classrooms. Even more recently, she has been adopted into the philosophy canon — a notoriously slow-changing discipline — with an upswing in interest so vertiginous that it seems impossible she remained unstudied for so long. Her work has started to filter into popular culture as well, with authors such as Alan Moore, Siri Hustvedt and Julie Schumacher paying tribute to Cavendish’s audacity, ingenuity and imaginative fecundity.

This growing renown is timely: 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of Cavendish’s birth, and the author has so much to tell us, her modern interlocutors, about power, gender and class; about nature and our place within it; about materialism and materialist theories of consciousness; about the limits of human knowledge. What makes Cavendish unique, though, is her ability to peek around the corners of her own historical moment and to critique the triumphalist and often masculinist assumptions of the “Scientific Revolution.” Reading her today therefore allows us a fresh vantage point to view the development of modernity itself.

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Unlike most Restoration women, Cavendish had the benefit of some education. She was privately tutored by her brother-in-law, Charles Cavendish, and she read widely and deeply. Across her career, she published tomes in natural philosophy — an all-encompassing category that included meteorology, medicine and human nature — and developed her own system of metaphysics that responded to the major intellectual debates of her era yet remained entirely distinct (especially in her vitalist-materialism, which proposed that all natural matter is infused with life, knowledge and sentience).

While Cavendish enjoyed aristocratic wealth and privilege, her life was tumultuous: She lived through the English Civil Wars (1642-52), a violent internecine conflict that culminated in the 1649 beheading of Charles I and the Interregnum, the only period in British history when there was no reigning monarch. During this time, royalists like Cavendish were forced to flee to the continent, as their estates were confiscated and their fortunes lost. Eventually, with the 1660 Restoration of Charles II, royalists returned to England. But the trauma of those years stayed with Cavendish, and she never felt fairly compensated for her family’s losses. Her later work from the 1660s reflects the harrowing experiences of a nation torn apart and a long, uncertain exile.

Cavendish wrote in the midst of not just political upheaval but intellectual ferment: The later 17th century saw a major “paradigm shift,” in the words of Thomas Kuhn, as British philosophers began to adopt the scientific models that we have inherited today. Many concepts that now seem self-evident — among them “facts,” “empiricism” and even “science” — are historically specific constructs that emerged at this time. Cavendish’s natural skepticism and her position on the margins of scientific discourse meant that she dared to contradict (and sometimes belittle) a wide range of esteemed men who saw themselves as the patrons of a new, enlightened age.

Indeed, she critiqued power and authority in ways that seem strikingly modern: She recognized the gendered construction of intellectual authority, for instance, as well as the damage done to women in denying them education. She was also wary of the tendency to assume that humans are at the top of the natural hierarchy, rather than one small part of nature, thus anticipating a line of inquiry that is still underway in the work of contemporary philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum.

Across her career, Cavendish developed a comprehensive philosophical program, which is often called “organic materialism.” This system posits that nature is not just material but also eternal, infinite, self-moving, self-knowing and alive. When any particular creature dissolves — a human, a tree, a rock — its matter simply migrates into new forms (and thus there is no real death in Cavendishean nature, nor are there entirely new substances). Along with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Cavendish was one of the few thinkers of the period to espouse a thoroughgoing materialism and, importantly, she was also an early proponent of the separation of theology and science. For her, all spiritual matters were fundamentally unknowable and best left “to the Church.”

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Where to start with Cavendish’s diverse canon depends on what you like, as her corpus ranges from comedy to demanding philosophical prose. Her final work, “Grounds of Natural Philosophy” (1668), is a good place to start for those interested in philosophy or the history of science, if only because it is shorter and more accessible than other works. Alternatively, “Philosophical Letters” (1664) critiques the major philosophical players of the period — Hobbes, René Descartes Henry More and others — while showcasing her skepticism and sharp wit.

Cavendish’s prolific literary output is no less impressive than her philosophical and scientific contributions. Lively, mercurial and complex, her work is innovative in ways only now being fully appreciated. Certain core themes — about nature’s self-governance, for instance, or the author’s quest for fame — echo across these works in ways that demonstrate her playful approach to genre and her audience. Indeed, Cavendish wrote long before modern disciplines coalesced, and thus her work often eludes our best categorical efforts. She also wrote across almost every genre — from biography to drama to poetry — and so your taste can direct you.

If you enjoy fiction — science fiction especially — it makes sense to start with the intensely imaginative “The Blazing World”: Part utopian romance, part autobiography, part satire of experimental science, it narrates the story of a “lady” who becomes supreme empress of another, fantastical realm. As in much of Cavendish’s work, her characters tend to blur distinctions between fiction and life in disorienting ways. Here, for example, we meet a character known as the “Duchess of Newcastle,” who both is and is not the author.

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Admirers of poetry might instead turn to her inventive, playful verse, which is easily read in shorter bursts. “Poems and Fancies” (1653) and “Natures Pictures” (1656) contain many options. Those who prefer drama, on the other hand, might pick up her plays “The Convent of Pleasure” (1668), “Bell in Campo” (1662) and “The Sociable Companions” (1662), all of which satirize the period’s curtailing of female agency. For those with a more general interest in the period, “Sociable Letters” (1664) offers an insider’s view of aristocratic life, especially matters concerning women.

Reading Cavendish can be difficult work, but accepting that challenge pays off in the end. To think with her is to think through another time, with all its parallels and sharp distinctions. To think with her, then, allows us out of the echo chamber of the present. Surely, that is good for us all.

Anne M. Thell is an associate professor of English at the National University of Singapore. Her most recent book is the Broadview edition of Cavendish’s “Grounds of Natural Philosophy.”

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