About a year ago we catalogued in the Library a seventeenth-century book entitled Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663) written by the Marchioness of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673). We knew little about the book and the author when we first started cataloguing this volume, but we came across an intriguing manuscript note in ink when we opened the cover: “1663. The gift of the Marchioness her foolish selfe”. It seemed that the author herself had donated the book to the College. Following trails we discovered that indeed our Library held eleven volumes written by the Marchioness, published between 1655 and 1688, and donated by her to the College. Nevertheless, the question remained, who was this seventeenth-century prolific female writer and what is the importance of her collection? And, furthermore, why did the author herself give the volume, or set of volumes, to King’s?
Margaret Newcastle (née Lucas) belonged to the English aristocracy of the seventeenth century. She worked as Queen Henrietta Maria’s maid of honour and fled to Paris in exile with the royals during the English Civil War. She married William Cavendish, later appointed 1st Duke of Newcastle, in 1645 and remained in exile until the Restoration due to her husband’s royalist political allegiance. This had a negative impact on William’s estate and on the economy of the family. The couple returned to England in 1660 and recovered part of their estate. They moved later to Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire where Margaret died in 1673. Her body was reburied in Westminster Abbey in 1674.
During her life Margaret Newcastle became a controversial figure among the English aristocracy due to her writings and public persona. Since then she has been both praised and criticised, even to the point of mockery when referred to as “Mad Madge” or foolish in the bequest inscription. Among her works we can find diverse genres and topics such as poems, plays, orations, biographies, politics, philosophical treatises, and gender discussions. Unlike numerous other women of her time who chose to publish anonymously or pseudonymously, Margaret Cavendish signed her own works, challenging the traditional publication hierarchies. The topics discussed in her works made her prone to criticism by male intellectuals of the time who questioned her authority and education to address them, often disregarding her books. Thus, she was perceived as a threat for crossing the boundaries of the traditionally established roles for women in society and academia. This was emphasised by her appearances at public events where she wore vests and trousers.
Margaret often responded to these criticisms stating that she only wrote to pass the time and that her writings should not be taken seriously. However, she recurrently expresses in her books and letters her desire to become a famous intellectual. As such, despite being considered mad and mocked by academics, Margaret Cavendish, as found in our own Donors’ Book, indeed donated entire collections of her books to King’s and other colleges in Cambridge seeking for a place in history. Furthermore, in recent years her works and importance as an academic have also been vindicated.