heart_in_the_margins: (Letters)
[personal profile] heart_in_the_margins
One thing I will say for this particular class, I'm doing a lot more reading in the later seventeenth century than I thought I would ever get the chance to do. I'm an eighteenth-centuryist at heart, and mostly a mid-to-late eighteenth-centuryist (my dissertation will probably start with Richardson and Fielding and end with Austen and Scott, at this point), because mostly I care about the novel. But I do care, more broadly, about what it means to constitute communities in print, and as a result I am starting to care about the rise of the periodical press, and apparently, about the ways in which royalist women writers dealt with their figurative and literal isolation during the civil wars and Interregnum and after the Glorious Revolution.

For this particular paper, I'm interested in representations of virtual vs. actual communities of women, particularly in print (because print circulation itself can create a virtual community out of its readership, the way that manuscript letters don't really accomplish). As a result, I turned to Margaret Cavendish's Sociable Letters (1664) and read them through to see how this collection constructs female sociability and to what ends it does so. Some of these letters may have been written before the Restoration; all of them are written in light of the trauma of the civil wars, which forced Cavendish into exile on the Continent and cost her husband a great deal of his property and wealth. And this is important, because my current thesis about the function of virtual vs. actual (female) communities in Sociable Letters is that Cavendish associates the world of actual sociability with damaging gossip and insecure alliances reminiscent of the civil wars, and as a result casts the royalist retreat from the country (or into the countryside, away from the city and the actual sociability it represents) as a retreat from the warfare amongst women and a retreat to virtual sociability via letters which will always offer more security, and therefore more pleasure.

Now, to back up and actually talk about the evidence that seems to support this.

The Frame

SL is framed as representing
the Correspondence of two Ladies, living at some Short Distance from each other, which make it not only their Chief Delight and Pastime, but their Tye in Friendship, to Discourse by Letters, as they would do if they were Personally together, so that these Letters are an Imitation of a Personal Visitation and Conversation, which I think is Better (I am sure more Profitable) than those Conversations that are an Imitation of Romantical Letters, which are but Empty Words, and Vain Complements. (42)
This introduction suggests a few things, not just about the letters that will be present in this collection, but about the ways in which Cavendish believes these letters will differ from letters written in the "Mode-style" of "our Modern Letter-writers" (42). Her emphasis on the idea that these letters will represent virtually the same kind of discourse these ladies would have "if they were Personally together" suggests that letters typically did not function in the same terms as "Personal Visitation and Conversation." Furthermore, her argument that letters imitating conversation are better than conversations imitating letters suggests that the sincerity of the language employed is of greater importance to her than the distance that separates the conversant parties: be it face to face or via the post, conversation should and can be "personal" (which I suspect she's using in much we way we'd use the phrase "in person" today).

[It's also possible that the fact of there only being two ladies is significant -- when I move on to talking about gossip, I want to suggest that Cavendish finds it most problematic when it happens in larger groups, as opposed to when it happens as a way of passing news between two good friends.]

The first letter of the collection lays out much the same framework: "You were pleas’d to desire, that, since we cannot converse Personally, we should converse by Letters, so as if we were speaking to each other […] so that our Letters may present our personal meetings and associatings" (47). The very notion that letters can "present our personal meetings" suggests that the letter is a powerful vehicle for the creation of virtual sociability that is no less intense (and no less valuable) than the kind of sociability that inheres in face-to-face "personal" encounters.

[I just want to note here that the frame closes weirdly. There are some letters in the end of the collection that are obviously written to Cavendish's real-life acquaintances, rather than to this fictitious "lady," but the final letter acknowledges this and treats the fictitious lady as real, in so doing pointing up the virtual and print-mediated nature of this collection. "As I began this Book with those Letters to you," she writes, "so I will end it, hoping you will Pardon me for Mixing some Letters with those to your self" (286) -- and yet none of the letters have thus far acknowledged that they are being written for a book, rather than being actually written. By suggesting that the recipient of these letters a) is real, and b) knows all along that the letters are part of a "Book" and not part of a correspondence, Cavendish both affirms and breaks down the notion that these letters might be representative of a real correspondence. I don't know quite what to do with this yet, but it really interests me.]

Gossip and women's resentment of other women

The letters that represent women's sociable interactions seem to suggest that these will always end in anger and strife, due to women's need to compete with each other for pride of place and tear each other down in order to promote their own interests. These relationships may be couched under the language of "friendship," but Cavendish seems to be of the opinion that with friends like these, who needs enemies? In an early letter, she writes that “Friendship that is made out of fond Humours, seldom lasts long, especially when they live and bord together...especially Women” (69), and continues,
Thus they may be Friends and Enemies all their Life time, and perchance take a pleasure in being so, for Women for the most part take delight to make Friendships, and then to fall out, and be Friends again, and so to and fro, which is as much Pastime and Recreations to them, as going abroad and staying at home. But I wish all Friends were as constant Friends as your Ladiship and I (70)
The inconstancy Cavendish accuses so-called "friendships" of exhibiting is mirrored in the paired oppositional terms of these sentences: "Friends and Enemies," "to and fro," "going abroad and staying at home." The last sentence, in contrast, concludes by pairing the presumably like terms of "your Ladiship and I." What I find interesting is that this letter begins with the assertion that the reason this particular other pair of women have for being on-again-off-again friends is that they actually "live and bord together" and have to see each other in person on a daily basis. Thus, the slightest suggestion that a virtual correspondence is more salutary to female friendship than an actual series of personal visits.

This idea of women being at odds with each other is developed throughout the collection, leading to statements like the following:
it is so Unusual for one Woman to Praise another, as it seems Unnatural; wherefore she doth not Delight to be Prais’d by her own Sex (116)

it is not only Men that Slander Women, but one Woman Slanders another, indeed, Women are the Chief Dishonourers of their own Sex, not so much by their Crimes, as by the Reproaches of each other (229)
These "slanders" are most often talked about as gossip, and for Cavendish, gossip is thing that begins with women's physical interactions with one another. Directly after a letter discussing an actual plague, which she pleads her friend to escape by removing herself from the city, Cavendish writes, “in this Age there is a malignant Contagion of Gossiping, for not onely one Woman Infects another, but the Women Infect the Men, and then one Man Infects another, nay, it Spreads so much, as it takes hold even on Young Children” (143-4). Here women are at the start of the causal chain, and the language of disease and infection suggests the necessity of physical proximity (or actual interaction) to pass along the disease. Taking the comparison literally, Cavendish suggests that "there is nothing more Dangerous in all Malignant Diseases, than Throngs or Crowds of People" and suggests that retirement from society is "the best Preparative against the Plague of Gossiping" (144). 

The need for retirement

As the above might suggest, SL makes a pretty clear juxtaposition between the "Solitary Country Life" and the "City Life, which is but a Gossiping, and Vain Life" (285). In fact, issues of female sociability seem to cluster around these different ways of life: on the one hand, solitary life is associated with virtual sociability, friendship, and genuineness, whereas city life is associated with actual sociability, gossip, and fashion. While the association of the country life with a more genuine way of living, as opposed to the ridiculous fashions of the town, is a pretty common pastoral trope, it's clear from the letters that the pastoral retreat is perhaps most appealing as a retreat from competition between women and its expression as gossip. Cavendish goes so far as to say that "the less Acquaintance we have with each other, the better, unless they be Chosen by an Immaculate, and Pure Sympathy, and Honour Knit the Knot of Friendship, otherwise the more Acquaintance we have, the more Enemies we have; wherefore to Live Quietly, Peaceably, and Easily, is to be Strangers to our own Sex" (221). She continues in the same letter to say that "a Retired Life is most Happy, as being most Free from Censure, Scandals, Disputes, and Effeminate Quarrels" -- i.e. the quarrels of women! -- "but our Sex is so far from Retirement, as they seek all Occasions, and let no Opportunity slip, by which they can go to Publick Meetings, or Private Visitings, or Home-Entertainments, they will Ruin their Friends, Fortunes, or Fame, rather than Miss, or Want Company" (222). It's interesting to see that "retirement" for Cavendish is not about privacy, for "Publick Meetings, or Private Visitings" are equally in violation of the desire for retirement. The real problem is the need to be always in someone else's actual company (just like the problem with the two women who are such on-again-off-again friends is that they live together, are always in each other's actual company).

[Ironically, Cavendish imagines her critique of gossip as making herself an enemy to other women, precisely because she is critiquing other women: "But if this Letter were not written to you, but to another Lady, it were Probable that Lady would become my Enemy upon this subject, as speaking so much against our Sex; wherefore there is Male-Gossipping, and Male-Brabling as well as Female, and there are more Effeminate Men than Masculine Women" (222). I'm interested in the gendering of gossip being so specific that she needs to distinguish between "gossiping" and "Male-Gossipping," and I'm also interested in the way that "effeminate" and "masculine" are being used here, because they seem to have the valence that they come to acquire later in the time period as distinguishing between two fundamentally different sexes...]

***See also Letter 26

The civil wars

So as it turns out, one of the early meanings of "gossip" was "One who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism" (OED 1). One of the most interesting letters in SL discusses what happens when its writer is "Invited to be a Gossip, to Name the Lady B.Rs. Child, of which she Lyes in" (157). What starts out as an older concept of gossip soon turns into a newer one (something more like "A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler" (OED 3)). Suddenly all of the other women present at such an occasion begin complaining about their terrible husbands. The letter-writer sits and listens in silence for a bit before entering the conversation to tell these women that their complaints won't do any good if they aren't directed at their husbands, and that in fact it reflects poorly upon them if their husbands are poorly behaved.

The resultant scene is metaphorically one of warfare: “the Ladies […] with Anger fell into such a Fury with me, as they fell upon me, not with Blows, but with Words, and their Tongues as their Swords, did endeavour to Wound me [...] it hath so Frighted me; as I shall not hastily go to a Gossiping meeting again, like as those that become Cowards at the Roaring Noise of Cannons, so I, at the Scolding Voices of Women” (158). Being in the midst of a group of women whom you've angered is like being in the midst of a war.

And this isn't the only letter to take up these metaphors. Another describes the way in which high society in towns and cities represents a situation in which “every One is against Another; indeed, every One is against All, and All against every One, and yet through the itch of Talk, Luxury, Wantonness and Vanity, they will Associate into Companies, or rather may I say, Gather into Companies” (79). Cavendish plays on "company," which can mean both a group of people gathered for social purposes and a group of soldiers, gathered to fight in a war, and shortly makes the metaphor explicit by referring to her desire for “Retirement from the publick Concourse and Army of the World” (79). Again, this is connected specifically to gossip as an action primarily undertaken by women against other women: in society, “if any Woman be more Beautiful than commonly the rest are, if she appears to the World, she shall be sure to have more Female Detractors and Slanderers, to ruin her Reputation, than any Monarch hath Souldiers to fight an Enemy” (78-9). The reference to soldiers that might help a monarch fight off an enemy has particular resonance in the writings of a woman whose husband gave a great deal of money to raise armies for the English monarchy during the civil wars, and who lost almost all that he invested [indeed, SL contains a great number of letters about the loss of property the Cavendishes have sustained as a result of the civil wars -- need to reference those in paper]. There are more women gossips, Cavendish suggests, than there are loyal soldiers to support their king. And though it might be something of a stretch, I think it's possible to make an equation between gossip and rebellion/treason [might not make it in this paper as it doesn't seem the kind of thing that M would really buy into, though I totally do]. As a result, Cavendish is left “wish[ing] for the honour of our Sex, that Women could as easily make peace as war” (53) -- both in the nation at large, and amongst themselves.

The one complication

The letter that launched me into thinking about this text in the first place provides a very different take on the kind of relation women might have to the civil wars. Letter 16, instead of accusing women of being in a perpetual war of gossip against each other, that depends on their socializing in person and in large numbers, suggests that women's removal from politics (their status as non-citizens) also makes them non-participants in the war that's tearing apart their nation: “But howsoever, Madam, the disturbance in this Countrey hath made no breach of Friendship betwixt us, for though there hath been a Civil War in the Kingdom, and a general War amongst the Men, yet there hath been none amongst the Women, they have not fought pitch’d battels” (61). I don't know what to do with this in light of the other letters, because this one seems to present a very different general point of view than all of the rest. I think one way around this is to suggest that this letter represents a more idealized notion of how women and men might differ in their relationships to national politics vs. personal friendships, but that doesn't actually seem strong enough.

In the end, I only have 10 pages' worth of paper to write, which means that I'm gonna wind up with a ridiculous number of footnotes.


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June 2017


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