Print and perception: The literary careers of Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips

Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips both wrote across a range of genres and achieved considerable success in their day. Tamara Tubb explores their different approaches to the difficulties of being a 17th-century female writer: Philips created a reserved and modest literary persona, presenting herself as the ideal woman of the time, while Cavendish openly challenged literary and feminine conventions.

The names Shakespeare, Donne and Milton resound loudly down the centuries and are known by students and teachers of literature the world over. But what of their female contemporaries? Where were the women writers in this golden age of literature?

Social factors

The patriarchal system in 17th-century Britain upheld a combination of social and cultural factors which made it extremely difficult for women to express themselves outside of the domestic sphere. Women lacked access to education and were assumed to be inferior to men, to whom they were expected to defer to on all matters. The medieval model of femininity – encapsulated in the mantra ‘chastity, silence and obedience’ – still dictated in the most rigid terms what was expected of women. In this context, the idea of a female author publishing original literature was unacceptable, even scandalous. Publishing contradicted the maxim of silence, and it was also considered to be an act of physical exposure to a large and anonymous audience. The sexualised stigma associated with publishing was intensified by the commercial nature of printing: not only were women writers revealing themselves to the public, but they were also doing so for financial gain.

A woman wearing a scold's bridle, 1655

A woman wearing a scold's bridle, 1655

A detail from a book describing the harsh punishments for so-called ‘scolds’ inflicted by local magistrates in 17th-century Newcastle. In this image a woman is shown wearing a scold’s bridle or ‘branks’ – an instrument used to humiliate and inflict pain on women.

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Exceptions to the rule

Despite these restrictions, a handful of women including Emilia Lanier and Lady Mary Wroth published original literature in the early 17th century. Following in their footsteps, Katherine Philips (1632–1664) and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623?–1673) produced works that traversed genres and broke boundaries during the turbulent middle years of the 17th century. Though not the first women to venture into print, Cavendish and Philips were the first to construct literary personas through which to legitimise their work and forge lasting careers. Their success at navigating through deep social prejudice is demonstrated by the sheer volume of Cavendish’s output, the number of posthumous editions of Philips’s poems and plays, and the contemporary popularity of both authors.

During her lifetime Cavendish published 13 original volumes, in multiple editions, and was the first woman to write about natural philosophy (science) in both non-fiction and science-fiction genres. She can also be considered as one of the first literary celebrities: so great was Cavendish’s fame in the 1660s that wherever she went in London she was greeted by throngs of people desperate for a glimpse of her. Samuel Pepys (diarist and man-about-town) recorded a failed attempt at seeing her in Hyde Park in May 1667:

... that which we, and almost all went for, was to see my Lady Newcastle; which we could not, she being followed and crowded upon by coaches all the way she went, that nobody could come near her.[1]

Philips was the first female writer to have a play performed on the commercial stage (Pompey, 1663), and her poems and translations were read and widely praised at court throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries. Her work, which was inextricably entwined with the legend of her personal virtue, became the standard by which the (male) literary establishment of the 18th and 19th centuries appraised women’s writing.

Though both women achieved literary recognition at the same historical moment, their writing styles and methods of negotiating the social prejudices they faced were very different. Philips was coy and reserved, while Cavendish was original and indignant. Mary Evelyn (c. 1635–1709), a lady of letters and an acquaintance of Cavendish, wrote that ‘one [was] transported with the shadow of reason [while] the other [was] possessed of the substance and insensible of her treasure’. In this assessment, Philips’s lyric poetry surpasses Cavendish’s eccentric literary style.

Mary Evelyn's contemporary comparison of Cavendish and Philips

Handwritten letter from Mary Evelyn

Mary Evelyn's letter comparing the literature and personal style of Cavendish and Philips.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Katherine Philips

In order to build a literary career Philips worked within the conventions of the era by subtly manipulating masculine models of authorship while upholding the feminine virtues of chastity and humility.

Manuscript transmission and coterie circulation

During her short lifetime Philips rarely appeared in print. Instead she circulated handwritten letters and volumes of poetry to a carefully selected group (or coterie) of friends and patrons. Manuscript circulation had traditionally been used by gentlemen writers, such as Sir Philip Sidney, who did not deign to commercialise their poetry for the undiscerning masses. Philips followed this convention in order to create a small, elite but sympathetic readership, and to avoid any accusations of immodesty. Her coterie consisted of men and women united by their Royalist politics, forming a social circle that first protected her writing during the Interregnum and later promoted it after the Restoration.

Autograph poems by Katherine Philips

Page containing the opening of a poem titled 'The Queen's Majesty', handwritten by Katherine Philips

First page of a poem composed by Philips to celebrate the return of the Stuart monarchy.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Friendship poetry

Friendship was a complicated and diverse concept in the early modern period. While friendship did refer to companionship-based relationships, as it does now, it could also encompass much more intense spiritual and emotional (though not necessarily sexual) attachments. Male same-sex friendships were widely written about in classical literature, and the concept was re-examined with gusto by Renaissance writers. Michel de Montaigne’s Essayes emphasised the spiritual bliss that came from platonic love as opposed to the earthly pleasures of romantic love. Shakespeare also explored male same-sex friendships in The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. Echoing this tradition, some of Philips’s most vivid verses are about the delights of female friendship.

Poems by Mrs Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda

Poems printed on page 36, from Poems by Mrs Katherine Philips

‘Friendship in Embleme, or the Seal. To my dearest Lucasia’: a friendship poem by Philips.

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Writing on the theme of friendship also allowed Philips to engage with the tradition of love poetry. But instead of addressing the idealised and eroticised mistresses found in the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, she wrote about female friends. In her poem ‘Friendship in Emblem’ Philips borrowed the romantic and metaphysical conceit of the compass from Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, and refashioned it into a symbol of platonic attachment conveying the joy she found in her friend’s company and her longing for reunion. In this way Philips used literary conventions to write sentimental poetry and create a diverse body of poetic work while honouring her marriage and staying within the accepted bounds of 17th-century feminine conduct.

First edition of John Donne's Poems, 1633

Page 164 from the first editon of John Donne's Poems

Philips borrowed the conceit of the compass from John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. This is how the poem was printed in the first edition of Donne's Poems (1633).

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Piracy and protest

In 1664 a pirated edition of Philips’s poetry was published, an event which she viewed as a threat to both her reputation and the integrity of her literary circle. In a letter to Sir Charles Cotterell – coterie member and King Charles II’s Master of the Ceremonies – she lamented her works’ involuntary entry into the marketplace:

... but tis only I who am that unfortunate person that cannot so much as think in private, that must have my imaginations rifled and exposed to play the Mountebanks, and dance upon the ropes to entertain the rabble; to undergo all the raillery of the Wits, and all the severity of the wise, and to be sport for some that can, and some that cannot read a verse. (published in the Preface, Poems by Mrs Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda, 1667, sig.A1v)

Philips viewed the act of pirated publication as theft, and an act of violence (‘rifled’, ‘exposed’) against herself as a ‘private’ person. She personifies her works as being vulnerable to the disdain, scorn and, perhaps worst of all, the ignorance of the ‘rabble’ or book-buying public. By describing her poems as mountebanks (travelling quack doctors and charlatans) and rope dancers, Philips betrays her fear about the reception of her work. She assumes that because her poems were written by a woman they will be considered freakish, as something to be gaped at and gossiped over.

The letter was published as part of the preface to the posthumous folio edition of Philips’s Poems, printed in 1667. The lengths to which Philips went to distance herself from the unauthorised 1664 publication demonstrated to the 17th-century literary establishment that she was a humble, chaste woman who never intended to display herself or her work for commercial gain. Her virtuous protests founded the legend of ‘the Matchless Orinda’, which to a large extent overshadowed the reception of her poetry over the following centuries.

Poems by Mrs Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda

First page of the preface printed in Poems by Mrs Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda

The preface to the posthumous folio edition of Philips’s Poems.

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Margaret Cavendish

Unlike Philips, Cavendish did not choose to work within the established system; instead, she attempted to sidestep societal prejudices by creating her own distinct authorial identity, independent of her predecessors. She was brave, flamboyant, but deliberate in her disregard for tradition, and repeatedly and unrepentantly voiced her desire for fame and a literary legacy. She proclaimed herself the absolute monarch within her volumes by being unequivocally present in every text, in every genre and in every style she could conceive of. As Cavendish states in the preface to The Blazing World (1668):

I am not covetous, but as ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which is the cause, that though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be Margaret the First. (sig.A4v)

Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World

First page of the preface, addressed 'to all noble and worthy ladies', printed in Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World

Preface to the first edition of The Blazing World, 1668.

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Print and persona

In the relatively new form of print Cavendish saw the potential to construct an authorial identity and to produce a physical body of work which would last over time. She eschewed manuscript transmission for the very same reasons that Philips favoured it. Cavendish actively sought the large, extended and unrelated audiences (or ‘rabble’) that Philips disdained. She also shunned the inclusive and interpretive element of coterie transmission that saw friends or patrons editing and adding to literary works. Instead, she used the relatively fixed medium of print to ensure that there could be no confusion over her status as author.

To address potential criticism from the public or her peers Cavendish created an authoritative presence within her texts by communicating (albeit one-sidedly) with her readership. She wrote numerous letters, introductory poems and prefaces for all of the editions of her work, and she was the first woman to publish a secular autobiography, ‘A true Relation of my Birth, Breeding, and Life’ (Nature’s Pictures, 1656), which explained her compulsion to write. She describes herself as:

[b]eing addicted from my childhood, to contemplation rather than conversation, to solitariness rather than society, to melancholy rather than mirth, to write with the pen than to work with a needle, passing my time with harmless fancies, their company being pleasing, their conversation innocent. (p. 385)

This list of traits, with their opposites, itemises the elements of Cavendish’s character that she considered essential to her authorial persona. Her melancholia – a fashionable affliction associated with creative genius in the early modern period – suggests that deep introspection and a desire to express herself intellectually through writing were an integral and medically diagnosed part of her personality. The direct comparison between pen and needle positions writing within the domestic sphere and suggests that because she has no aptitude for one then it is natural that she should create with the other. Furthermore, her ‘harmless fancies’ and ‘innocent’ musings validate her writing because, for Cavendish, they are the fruits of a safe, solitary domestic pursuit that contrasts with the promiscuous dangers of ‘society’, ‘mirth’ and ‘conversation’.

Margaret Cavendish's Nature's Pictures, 1656

Page 368 from Margaret Cavendish's Nature's Pictures

The first page of Cavendish’s autobiography, published in Nature’s Pictures (1656).

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Margaret Cavendish's melancholic frontispiece

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, depicted sitting alone at her desk surrounded by writing materials, with cherubs placing a laurel upon her head

This frontispiece depicts Cavendish as a lone, melancholic creative, comfortably ensconced in her domestic surroundings.

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Physical presentation

Cavendish also commissioned three beautiful, extravagantly engraved portraits of herself in various costumes and settings, which appear as frontispieces to her books. They were designed to introduce the reader to ‘Margaret Cavendish the Author’ and invite them, as guests, into her literary world. Inside that world Cavendish positioned herself as the ultimate authority (‘Margaret the First’). Her ever-present prefatory epistles cajole, flatter and remonstrate with the reader in equal measure, ensuring that her written presence permeates the works and reminds her audience that they enjoy her literary hospitality because of her goodwill: ‘those that do not like my Book, which is my House, I pray them to pass by, for I have not any entertainment fit for their palates’ (‘An Epistle to the Reader’, World’s Olio, 1655). By locating her personal authority within her texts Cavendish challenged the idea that publishing was an act of violation which stripped the writer of her power and virtue. She reclaimed the printed page as a secure place of individual expression by linking it to the feminine domestic sphere and to her elevated social position as a landowner and member of the aristocracy.

Margaret Cavendish's Nature's Pictures, 1656

Illustration depicting a family scene in which Margaret and William Cavendish are sat with their children and grandchildren, telling stories next to a roaring fire

The ‘family frontispiece’ to Nature’s Pictures shows Cavendish surrounded by her step-family in the heart of her home.

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Margaret Cavendish's classical frontispiece

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish wearing an ermine robe and raised high on a pedestal, flanked by statues of the gods Apollo and Athena

By associating herself with classical gods and classical literature, Cavendish attempted to establish a literary precedent for her work.

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Literary experimentation, ‘various and extravagant’

This is to let you know, that I know, my Book is neither wise, witty, nor methodical, but various and extravagant ... (Margaret Cavendish, The World’s Olio, p. 135)

At the centre of Cavendish’s literary purpose was what she termed ‘fancy’, or the expression of original ideas in innovative ways. In order to fully communicate her ‘fancy’ she experimented with the ways that literature could be composed and presented, creating an extensive oeuvre which enabled her to reach a diverse audience. Cavendish wrote poetry, plays, allegories, essays, satires, prose fiction pieces and philosophical discourses on a range of topics that spanned the breadth of 17th-century interests. Cavendish’s most widely read text, The Blazing World, exemplifies her pioneering approach to writing: combining her own (original) scientific ideas with an imagined fantasy plot, the story is an early example of the novel and the science-fiction genre. This combination of two ground-breaking forms allowed Cavendish to present her theories (which featured in other strictly non-fiction texts within her oeuvre, such as Observations in Experimental Philosophy, 1668) to both academic and non-academic readers.

Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World

Printed title page from Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World

Title page of The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World as it appeared in Observations in Experimental Philosophy.

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Literary legacies

Interest in both authors and their literature has waxed and waned over the centuries. Cavendish’s work was widely read during her lifetime, but was largely forgotten or dismissed after her death, while Philips’s works found posthumous acclaim that lasted up until the late 18th century when aesthetic sensibilities shifted towards Romanticism. Cavendish and Philips both experienced a revival of interest in the 20th century as a result of the feminist movement, which rediscovered and republished many historical women writers in the latter half of the century. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries Philips’s work has been viewed through the lens of queer theory, and, due to her Welsh heritage, as a colonial or geographically peripheral writer of the early modern period. Cavendish is currently of interest because of her early manipulation of the materiality of print and the published book, as well as her genre-defying experimentation with literary form and convention. Their importance lies not just in the study of the literary output of historical women, but in the history of women’s writing itself.


[1]Diary of Samuel Pepys, deciphered by the Rev. J Smith, MA, from the original shorthand MS (London and Toronto: J M Dent & Sons; New York: E P Dutton & Co, 1924), p. 229.

  • Tamara Tubb
  • Tamara Tubb is an Exhibition Curator in the News, Radio & Moving Image team at the British Library. She has previously worked as a researcher and writer for the British Library’s Discovering Literature websites. 

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.