This letter provides an insight into the reception of two famous 17th-century women writers, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and Katherine Philips. Sent by Mary Evelyn (c. 1635–1709) to Ralph Bohun (1639–1716), her son’s tutor at Oxford University, the letter describes a meeting she had with Cavendish in April 1667 and her impressions of the writer.
Evelyn is harsh but extremely witty in her appraisal of Cavendish: ‘I hope, as she is an original, she may never have a copy. Never did I see a woman so full of herself, so amazingly vain and ambitious’ (f. 6r).
She considers Cavendish’s literary endeavours to be ‘whimsical, and rambling’, and ‘commonly [ending] in nonsense, oaths, and obscenity’ (f. 5r).
Significantly, Evelyn compares Cavendish to her contemporary and fellow writer, Katherine Philips (1632–1664):
what contrary miracles does this age produce. This Lady and Mrs Philips, the one transported with the shadow of reason the other possessed of the substance and insensible of her treasure, and yet men who pass for learned and wise not only put them both in equal balance but make the greatness of the one weigh down the certain and real worth of the other. (f. 6r)
In Mary Evelyn’s opinion Philips and her poetry have ‘certain and real worth’, while Cavendish is regarded as delusional. She also suggests that the ‘men who pass for learned and wise’ favour Cavendish because of the ‘greatness’ of her social status rather than the quality of her writing.
Who was Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn was married to the acclaimed diarist, writer and founding member of the Royal Society, John Evelyn (1620–1706). She is recognised in her own right for her artistic and literary works, especially her pithy correspondences which shed light on many of the intellectual debates and public characters of the era.
I am concerned you should be absent when you
might confirme the suffrages of yr fellow Collegiates and
see the Mistresse both Universities court, A person who
has not her equall in the world, so extraordinary a woman
she is in all things, I acknowledge though I remember her
some years since, and have not ben a stranger to her fame.
I was surprised to find so much extravagancy and vanity
in any person not confined within four walls, Her
Habit particular, fantasticall, not unbecoming a good shape
which she may truly boast of, her face discovers the
facility of her sexing being yet persuaded it deserves the
esteeme years forbid, by the infinite care she takes to place
her curls and patches, her mien surpasses the imaginations
of Poets or the description of a Romance Heroine greatnesse;
her gracious bows seasonable nods courtious stretching
out of her hand twinkling of her eyes and various gestures
of aprobation shew what may be expected from her discourse
which is as Ayery, empty, whimsicall and rambling as her
books, ayming at science, difficulties and high thoughts,
terminating commonly in nonsense, oathes and folly. Her
way of addrisse to people more than necessarily submissive,
a certaine generall forme to all, obliging by repeating
affected generous kind expressions, endeavouring to show her
humility by calling back things past ˄still to improve her present
greatnesse and favour to her friends. I found Doctor Charlton
with her complimenting her learning and witt in a high manner
which she tooke to be so much her due that she swore if the
scooles did not banish Aristotle and read Margaret
Duchesse of Newcastle they did her wrong and deserved to be
uterly abolished, after this my part was not to speake but
admire, especially hearing her go on magnifying her owne
generous actions, statly buildings, noble fortune, her Lord’s
prodigious losses by the war, his power, valour, witt and
indeed what did she not mention to his or her owne
advantage. Sometimes to give her breath, came in a fresh
admirer, then she tooke occasion to justify her faith to
give an account of her religion as new ˄ and unintelligible as her philosophy,
to cite her own pieces XXX line ˄ and page in such a book to tell
the adventures of some of her Nimphs, at last ˄ being weary I came out
of my resuery [reverie] and concluded that the creature called a
Chimera which I had heard of was now to be seene, and that
it was time to retire for fear of infection; Yet I hope
as she is an Original she may never have a Copie, never
did I see a woman so full of her selfe, so amazingly vain
and ambitious; what contrary miracles does this Age produce.
This Lady and Mrs Philips, the one transported with the
shadow of reason the ˄ other possessed of the substance and
insensible of her treasure, and yet men who passe for
learned and wise ˄ not only put them both in equal balance but
and make the greatness of the one whugh downe the
if certaine and reall worth of the other, This is all I can
requite yr rare verses with, which as much surpasse the
merit of the person you endeavour to represent, as I can
assure you this description falls short of the Lady I
would make you acquainted with XXXX; but she is not
of mortall race and therefore cannot be defined