Female authorship in the 17th century England at the example of Margaret Cavendish

Term Paper, 2010

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1 The 17th Century Britain
1.1 Political Background
1.2 Population and Religion
1.3 Literature and Theatre

2 Female Authorship
2.1 Situation of Women
2.2 Writing and Publishing as a Woman

3 Margaret Cavendish
3.1 Biography
3.2 Life and Work as a Writer
3.3 Cavendish’s Natural Philosophy
3.4 The Atomic Poems




The present paper deals with the topic oft female authorship in the literary world of the seventeenth-century England and puts the emphasis on an exceptional and prolific female writer: Margaret Cavendish.

This works is divided into three main parts. The first section serves as an introduction to the main topic and provides the reader with background information about the political, social, religious and literary situation during that time. It presents a review of the tumultuous succession of the English throne, the rising Puritan movement throughout the century and the development of English theatre after the era of the Elizabethan Stage at the end of the sixteenth century.

The second part describes women’s role in the patriarchal society of the seventeenth century and the difficulties of their every-day life. It also points out the obstacles and difficulties women encountered when trying to enter the male-dominated literary world and names Aphra Behn and Katherine Philips as two women, who, nevertheless, established themselves as successful female writers.

Finally, the third and last part of this paper is dedicated to the prolific writer Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. It contains an overview of her life and work and especially examines her as the first woman to publish her own natural philosophy, for which she was criticized by many of her contemporaries.

1 The 17th Century Britain

1.1 Political Background

The seventeenth-century England was a tumultuous time and can mainly be divided into two phases: the early seventeenth century, from 1603 till 1660, and the later seventeenth century, from 1660 till 1714, also called Restoration. With the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, the reign of the Tudors came to an end. Her closest male Protestant relative was James IV, King of Scotland, of the House of Stuart. He became King James I of England in a Union of the Crowns and the reign of the Stuarts began. The First English Civil War broke out in 1642, mainly as a result of ongoing series of conflicts between James’ son, Charles I, and the Parliament. The war ended in 1649 with the execution of King Charles I. The Commonwealth was declared in the same year and Oliver Cromwell was given the title Lord Protector in 1653. The monarchy was restored in 1660, with King Charles II returning to London from exile, followed by his coronation. After the death of Charles II in 1685, his catholic brother King James II was crowned, which led to various factions pressing for the Dutch protestant Prince William of Orange and his wife Mary to replace King James II. The overthrow of King James II in 1688 was a bloodless compromise between monarchy and parliament and was also called the Glorious Revolution. William of Orange accessed the throne as William III of England in the same year. In December 1689, one of the most important documents in English history was passed – the Bill of Rights. It established restrictions to the royal prerogative and contributed a great deal to the establishment of parliamentary sovereignty. With the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the reign of the Stuarts and the phase of the later-seventeenth century came to and end.[1]

1.2 Population and Religion

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, most people were farmers and over 80 percent of the British population lived in the countryside and rural areas. The initial population growth was followed by a later stagnation. The average family bottom line sank to four people, due to the late age of marriage, especially amongst women, but also because of the Civil War and major outbreaks of plague. At that time, London was the ultimate centre and the biggest city in Western Europe. Throughout the seventeenth century, more and more people lived in cities and at the end of the century, there was a permanent migration and England became one of the first urbanized countries. The general expectation was to leave the countryside, in order to improve one’s life situation and to make money, the change of social structures forced many people to leave, as well: Property concentrated in very few hands, the rising gentry exercised excessive power, which led to dramatic social mobility on several levels. England profited from this social mobility, since it formed the basis of a certain social success in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but it also brought many problems like poverty, a much higher mortality and a big restlessness. About 25 percent of the population suffered from poverty.

The basic structure of society was formed by the family, based on patriarchal order with the man as the ruler. An important role in this development played the constantly rising Puritan movement. Their aim was to go beyond religious belief into community structures and to establish a more rigid moral and suppress any form of disorder. Collective rituals and activities should maintain this order – those who didn’t follow the strict collective system should be punished severely. Many people opposed against this system, the underlying resistance especially appeared amongst women and meant a large gap between ideal and reality. Puritans stood in opposition to the Protestants and Catholics, who had mediation between the person and God, whereas Puritans believed in direct contact with God. They were keen on Bible-reading and didn’t trust the established structure of the church. In the countryside, Puritans were particularly supported by the rich gentry, whereas merchants and businessmen supported them in the big cities. They were also very popular among the poor and poorest people because of the donations and relief projects for them, which were part of the Puritanism.[2]

1.3 Literature and Theatre

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, from 1558-1603, English theatre, also called Elizabethan theatre, experienced its height and drama was the leading literary genre. The rising Puritan movement throughout the sixteenth century was hostile against theatre, since Puritans considered it being sinful and a form of low entertainment that showed vicious things, like degradation, violence and prostitution. Playwrights and actors were clients of the monarchy and aristocracy then, but when the Puritans gained control of London in the English Civil War, they ordered the closure of the London theatres in the 1640’s. Before that, the English theatre recorded about 20,000 visitors per week. Theatres remained closed almost for the next twenty years and were reopened step-by-step after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The English theatre of the later seventeenth century gained its own distinctive character by the new genres of Restoration comedy and Restoration spectacular, but it never became as popular as in the Elizabethan era, again.[3] It also meant the end of drama as dominating genre. With the decline of drama, there was a little boom of poetry, but mainly not in public. It was considered as something intimate, for personal exchange within closed circles and not supposed to be published. It declined more and more of traditional forms and developed a new direction like, for example, the so-called metaphysical poetry, with themes that went beyond the real physical world. The sonnet was the basic and most structured form of poetry in the seventeenth century and dealt with love matters and had also homoerotic elements. Other common forms were the elegy and the song. The novel did not exist then and prose and fiction were about to come up. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, for instance, was one of the first examples for science fiction.[4]


[1] Cf. Kishlansky, Mark. A Monarchy Transformed. Britain 1603-1714. Penguin Books, 1996. P. 34-64

[2] Cf. ibid. P. 6-33.

[3] Britain Express. English History. Elizabethan Theatre. http://www.britainexpress.com/History/elizabethan-theatre.htm.

[4] Cf. Cavendish, Margaret. "The Convent of Pleasure" and Other Plays. Edited by Anne Shaver. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. P. 1-14

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Female authorship in the 17th century England at the example of Margaret Cavendish
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
Culture and Literature of 17th century England
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ISBN (Book)
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Kommentar des Dozenten: very informative, well-structured, some concepts should be elaborated
female authorship, 17th century England, Margaret Cavendish, British female Writers, Female Writers, Women in 17th Century England
Quote paper
Luise Ihlo (Author), 2010, Female authorship in the 17th century England at the example of Margaret Cavendish, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/144588


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