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Absent Parents and Female Libertinism in Margaret Cavendish’s 'The Convent of Pleasure'

Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University and has a passion for literary and film analysis.

"Jane Needham, Mrs Myddleton (1646-92)" by Peter Lely

"Jane Needham, Mrs Myddleton (1646-92)" by Peter Lely

Absent Parents and Female Libertinism in Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure

Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure (1668) is a play that is often seen as creating a space in which female agency can emerge because of temporarily absent patriarchal figures. In this play, men and women’s relationships with one another are redefined once the father figure – in the form of the familial father, the husband, religion, the Church, and the State – is removed.

Though the male and female characters seemingly reconvene under traditional heteronormative constructions by the end of Cavendish’s play, they also ultimately destabilize these constructions, and while they suggest the return of the husband, the father, the Church, etc., they also show what has fundamentally changed in their absence.

Several theorists, such as Erin Lang Bonin, have recognized the significance of the absent patriarchal figure in Cavendish’s plays. What is often overlooked, however, is the equally significant absence of the mother, and how that absence contributes to the gender politics being displayed. While the absent father figure allows a certain degree of freedom, the absent mother figure allows a total redefinition of womanhood that would not be possible otherwise. Without the mother, the female protagonist is free to adopt a concept of womanhood that is separate from all that the mother represents – marriage, childbirth, physical pain and sacrifice, and patriarchy-imbued family values.

The absent mother figure allows the young female to align herself with a pleasure-seeking libertinism that would not otherwise be conceivable. This female libertinism is inherently different than male libertinism in that it is based in feminine ideals and female reason, and that it is used as a secularizing force that separates women from all patriarchal institutions and constructions – such as Christian religion, the Church, the State, fathers, and the oppressive definition of motherhood.

This temporary repose from male authority allows women to reconstruct themselves in the image of their own inherent natures, and puts the protagonist on more equal footing with the man she marries at the end of the play when she reenters the patriarchal world, destabilizing that patriarchal force. By examining Lady Happy and the Prince(ss)’s relationship in The Convent of Pleasure I hope to demonstrate how Cavendish removes father and mother figures – in the religious, nationalistic, social, and familial sense of the words – in order to create an illusory and secular space where feminine libertinism works towards a re-conception of woman that doesn’t necessarily aim to overthrow patriarchal power altogether, but effectively undermines its power over women.

The female libertinism I’ll be referring to throughout this essay has some notable differences from late-seventeenth century Restoration libertinism. Restoration libertinism is believed to be primarily a masculine and aristocratic identity, often associated with King Charles II and his courtiers, most notably John Wilmot the Earl of Rochester. This libertinism has philosophical roots in Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, first published in a full English translation in 1682 by Thomas Creech (Tomlinson, 355). Though it is possible that Cavendish may have had access to John Evelyn’s translation of Book One of De Rerum Natura published in 1656 (though not likely), The Convent of Pleasure and Cavendish’s death predate the full translation of Lucretius’s text and the literary and aristocratic libertinism that it later inspired. Neo-Epicurean ideas, however, were of considerable interest among English authors in the 1650s and 1660s (Tomlinson 359), and had definite influences on Cavendish’s earlier poetry.

Though Cavendish often criticized “mechanical and experimental philosophy, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, and alchemy” (Sarasohn 2), and is known to have rejected the “doctrine” of Epicureanism in the 1650s (Cottegnies 179), she also revealed “the revolutionary potential of many of the ideas and practices she questioned” (Sarasohn 2) and may have been roused by Epicurean skepticism of religious ideas and its attention to the senses. Cavendish’s familiarity with Epicurean thought may have encouraged a philosophical libertinism that emanates from her female characters, particularly Lady Happy from The Convent of Pleasure.

According to Sophie Tomlinson, “Whereas Epicurean philosophy comprised a physical theory of matter and a discussion of ethics, the philosophy of libertinism represented above all ‘a theory of senses and the body’” (359). During this period, the term ‘epicureanism’ was often “used as a synonym for libertinage” (Cavaillé 17), and Epicurean preoccupations with matter and the senses may have inspired Cavendish’s thematic focus on pleasure and freedom as being tied to reason that predates Aphra Behn’s female libertinism in The Rover (1677) and “The Disappointment” (1680) and Rochester’s “licentious” poetry. In The Convent of Pleasure, Cavendish acts as a predecessor to Restoration libertinism, creating pleasure-seeking women characters that show an inclination towards the senses of the body and who promote an understanding of human/female nature and reason through sensual, rather than religious, experience.

Aside from the sensual quest for pleasure, Cavendish uses libertinism to redefine womanhood and imagine the possibilities of women’s roles by questioning religious and patriarchal conventions. In the “exclusively insulting and slanderous use” of the word, libertinism is “interpreted as moral licentiousness, religious disobedience, and political disorder” (Cavaillé 16). It also often signified the “adoption of a relaxed lifestyle, as well as impertinence in language and expression, and the lack of submission to and respect for authority” (Cavaillé 17). Both of these interpretations arguably could be applied to the female libertinism displayed by Lady Happy and her followers, though their female libertinism is slightly more complex and works to complicate the notion of ‘woman’ for the audience/reader. According to James Turner in Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London, “three distinct movements of thought” are inspired by the word “libertinism”: religious or “spiritual” libertinism, “originating with sixteenth-century radical Protestant sects such as the Anabaptists or the Family of Love;” “philosophical” libertinism, which combines “antireligious skepticism and scientific materialism;” and “sexual” libertinism, which is most often associated with Rochester and the courtiers of Restoration England (Tomlinson 357). Sarah Ellenzweig notes, in The Fringes of Belief, that in Restoration England, libertinism “denoted a challenge to orthodox religion” (Tomlinson 358). The Anabaptists’ version of libertinism is “the refusal to obey the magistrates, […] and the claim of a freedom that is in fact the ‘freedom of the flesh’” (Cavaillé 15-16). In a book published in 1583, the Catholic “William Rainolds wrote that ‘libertinism is the end of justification by faith alone’” (Cavaillé 16). Female libertinism combines elements from all of these thoughts, in that it promotes: a skepticism for religious doctrine and convention (philosophical libertinism); the call for a new form of worship that is based in “freedom of the flesh” (spiritual libertinism); and sensual pleasure as the highest form of living (sexual libertinism, which is different from male promiscuity in that this freedom is carefully eroticized without making women ‘whores’). What female libertinism works towards is a redefinition of woman alongside man rather than through man – or, in other words, rather than through patriarchal definitions of woman.

Portrait of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester by Jacob Huysmans

Portrait of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester by Jacob Huysmans

The Convent of Pleasure sets the stage for female libertinism by eliminating the most prominent markers of patriarchy for a young woman – the parents. The play begins with two gentlemen discussing the funeral of Lady Happy’s father, Lord Fortunate. From these two men, we learn that as a result of her father’s death Lady Happy is now “very rich” and that she is free to choose a husband from among her many “Wooers” (97). We enter the play at the moment of Lady Happy’s liberation from immediate patriarchal influences. Lady Happy’s mother is never mentioned, though the play itself gives very clear negative perceptions of motherhood and childbearing. These are displayed most prominently in the short play enacted later in the convent, where the actresses play out the tribulations of women who are wives and mothers. In this play, a scene with a woman experiencing back pains while pregnant precedes a scene where a Lady is experiencing troubles with her grown children: “I have brought my Son into the World with great pains, bred him with tender care, much pains and great cost; and must he be now hang’d for killing a Man in a quarrel?” (115). In the next scene, the pregnant woman that had been in labor for “three days of a dead child” could not deliver “and so she died” (116). These negative portrayals of motherhood are never relieved by the presence of a positive mother figure; instead, they underline the sorrowful, terrifying heaviness of such a role. The absence of Lady Happy’s mother sheds the weightiness of motherly burdens and rids the looming biological fate of wives from Lady Happy’s presence, and serves to liberate her from all sense of womanly obligation. While the absent father gives Lady Happy money and agency, the absent mother removes the ingrained patriarchal conception of woman as wife and mother and allows Lady Happy to imagine a new role for herself.

Without the influence of parental figures, Lady Happy forgoes choosing a husband and uses her new freedom and money to create a ‘convent,’ built for the sole purpose of living away from the sufferings caused by men and from the 'nonsensical' conventions of religion. Lady Happy’s convent has three purposes, none of which are religious: to enjoy pleasure (sexual libertinism), to serve nature (spiritual libertinism), and to escape the chains cast on women through marriage and motherhood (philosophical libertinism). Lady Happy creates a secular space where the idea of the convent transforms from a place previously conceived as religious confinement to a libertine paradise – a revised Garden of Eden in which there is only women, nature, and sensual pleasure, without the pain and suffering caused by men. Lady Happy’s utopian design drastically differs from other literary utopias, like those of Thomas More and Francis Bacon. According to Bonin:

For the most part, early modern utopias depend upon carefully controlled heterosexual reproductive economies. Because such utopian narratives valorize natural law and depend upon patriarchal paradigms for marriage, family and the state, they seldom question women’s nature and place (339).

Unlike these popular ideas of utopias, Lady Happy’s convent is a purposeful denial of “heterosexual reproductive economies.” Instead, the convent is an example of a “makeshift, ambiguous” utopia “that simultaneously challenge[s] masculinist assumptions and imagine[s] feminine possibilities” (Bonin 340). Lady Happy’s utopia adopts the qualities of the Garden of Eden, full of creation and pleasure and where suffering and reproduction are removed from the human condition. The play itself parallels many aspects of the original creation story from Genesis, with some notable differences that seem to free women from the guilt and shameful living cursed upon them because of the ‘Original Sin’ performed by the first wife and mother, Eve.

The first of many connections to Genesis, in Act I Lady Happy seems to associate God (or the “gods”) and religion with men, in that they similarly work against the pleasure of women. This relationship between God and man adheres to Genesis, where “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him (Gn 1:27). In Cavendish’s play, as in Genesis, God, man, and religion become almost synonymous, particularly in their exclusion of women and as the cause of their suffering. I say “almost synonymous” because God in many of Cavendish’s texts (as many Cavendish theorists have noted) is incomprehensible, but man’s interpretation of God’s will is often the tool of patriarchy. Lisa T. Sarasohn notices that for Cavendish a “woman’s relationship with man seems analogous to nature’s relationship with God” (“A Science Turned Upside Down” 296). Lady Happy’s speech in Act I then becomes a significant avowal to turn to nature as a way of escaping religion and men, and therefore God, and as a way of exploring feminine identity:

And if the gods should take pleasure in nothing but in the torments of their Creatures, and would not prefer those prayers that are offer’d with ease and delight, I should believe, the gods were cruel: and, What Creature that had reason or rational understanding, would serve cruel Masters, when they might serve a kind Mistress, or would forsake the service of their kind Mistress, to serve cruel Masters? Wherefore, if the gods be cruel, I will serve Nature (100).

The skepticism of religious convention that Lady Happy displays is based in “reason or rational understanding,” and it is this philosophical and spiritual libertinism that leads her into creating the convent. The poem Lady Happy recites at the end of Act I uses language to create her new world, and in a similar way to God in Genesis: she invokes the seasons, the land and the sea, fruit and meats, but she adds aristocratic indulgences such as silk clothing, “perfumed Air,” music, and “savory Sauces” (101). In her act of creation, Lady Happy experiences the “good” that God “sees” in the first chapter of Genesis. In this chapter, God takes sensual pleasure in the ‘sight’ of his creation and equates this with goodness, just as Lady Happy similarly conceives the ‘good’ for women as being linked to sensuality: “For every Sense shall pleasure take,/And all our Lives shall merry make” (101).

Through the apparent success of her convent, Lady Happy proves that women can exist happily without the company of men. Her revised Garden of Eden has woman living alone and being content with this situation, unlike Adam who became lonely and needed woman for companionship. Indeed the male characters of the play are shown as similarly needing women, more than women need men. In the beginning of the next scene and also in Scene IV of Act II, we are shown how worried the men are about the success of Lady Happy’s convent, proving that men cannot live peacefully without women:

Monsieur Adviser: […] I make no doubt but you would all be content to encloister your selves with me upon the same conditions, as those Ladies incloister themselves with her.

Monsieur Take-pleasure: Not unless you had Women in your Convent (Act II 108).

The gentlemen only further prove here that men and women are not the same; they would not be able to incloister themselves and be happy like Lady Happy and her women. But, while showing the difference between men and women, the power is shifted to women who are able to live without men in their company. Instead of women being defined through men and patriarchal constructions, men in Cavendish’s play are defined in context of the women. This is another play on Genesis. According to Chapter 2 of Genesis, woman is created from Adam’s rib, displaying that women can only be defined within the context of men: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man” (Gn 2:23). In Lady Happy’s convent woman is redefined to the point of inconceivability for not only men, but all those who exist within the patriarchal realm, such as wives and mothers. As Bonin puts it, “Cavendish suggests the convent’s pleasures are inaccessible, and even inconceivable to those positioned within the patriarchy” (348). Neither men, nor women who are socially incapable of freeing themselves from men, are able to experience the pleasure of the convent because it is here that women are redefining themselves outside of the patriarchal realm. The women of the convent, according to Theodora Jankowski, become “queer virgins” within the convent’s walls, using that space to “confound the sex/gender system not by trying to men, but by not being ‘women’” (224). Lady Happy uses the convent as a space in which women throw off patriarchal constructions in order find their own identities.

"The Rebuke of Adam and Eve" by Charles-Joseph Natoire

"The Rebuke of Adam and Eve" by Charles-Joseph Natoire

The identities that Lady Happy primarily revises for women are the roles of mother and wife, turning them into acts of pleasurable companionship and creation rather than the curses of womanhood. In Chapter 3 of Genesis, when Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, God curses woman with motherhood and subservient wifely duties, turning feminine creation into a source of pain rather than pleasure and removing the possibility of pleasurable, equal companionship: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to they husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gn 3:16). It is at this point of the curse that Adam names his wife, marking her with motherhood and patriarchal subservience: “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living” (Gn 3:20). Lady Happy works to change the stigma of motherhood by becoming a surrogate mother to the women of her convent, acting as mentor and role model to them, and highlighting her status as creator (of the convent). We learn this through Madam Mediator when she is discussing the convent with the curious suitors who long to know what is happening on the inside. The men think that Madam Mediator is the mother figure of the convent, and assume that she is Lady Prioress there, but Madam Mediator corrects them:

[…] the Lady Happy is Lady-Prioress her self, and will admit none of the Masculine Sex […] she has also Women-Physicians, Surgeons and Apothecaries, and she is the chief Confessor her self, and gives what Indulgences or Absolutions she pleaseth (103).

As Prioress, Lady Happy embodies a positive matriarchal figure that encourages female intellect while taking pleasure in the role of mother. Lady Happy turns the Eve figure into a queen; she keeps class hierarchy (she “hath a numerous company of Female Servants” [104]) and enjoys her matriarchal power in order to elevate the status of the mother. By reclaiming motherhood and woman’s position as creator, Lady Happy becomes a reimagined Eve that is a model to women and promoter of the enjoyment of being a woman, rather than the crux of their shameful existence.

When the Princess comes into the convent in Act III, it is much like the serpent entering the Garden of Eden in Genesis, as she brings confusion, doubt, and desire to Lady Happy’s paradise. Though the Princess is really a Prince in disguise, both the audience and Lady Happy are unaware of this until the end of the play, making her role in the meantime highly significant to the redefinition of woman. According to Bonin,

In contrast to most crossdressing plots in early modern drama, we never see an initial scene in which a prince dons a woman’s clothes and announces his intent to disguise himself in order to gain access to his beloved mistress. Thus, the romance between the Princess and Lady Happy has homoerotic potential and significance until the end of the play (350).

Indeed, these two women act as courting lovers through the majority of their time together, and upon meeting one another they quickly fall into heteronormative roles, where the Princess ironically assumes the masculine position. The Princess, much like the Serpent from Genesis, confuses Lady Happy with an offer of love that seems too good to be true – a love that consists of only pleasure and gender equality, without the transference of wealth that lead to neglected, hard working wives and violent, philandering husbands (who spend the wife’s money on alcohol, gambling, and prostitutes) and without the result of painful, dangerous childbirth and the “misfortunes” that come with children (hardships represented by the play performed in the convent [Cavendish 115]). Lady Happy at first finds this to be the most perfect form of companionship and love: “More innocent Lovers never can there be,/Then my most Princely Lover, that’s a She” (111). But, she quickly becomes confused by the nature of their love, wondering if it serves Nature or goes against it:

My Name is Happy, and so was my Condition , before I saw the Princess; but now I am like to be the most unhappy Maid alive: But why may not I love a Woman with the same affection I could a Man?

No, no, Nature is Nature, and still will be

The same she was from all Eternity (118).

Lady Happy goes on to express her concerns to the Princess, who attempts to console her and confuse her even further:

L. Happy: […] your Presence is more acceptable to me then the Presence of our Goddess Nature, for which she, I fear will punish me, for loving you more then I ought to love you.

Princess: Can Lovers love too much? […] Can any Love be more virtuous, innocent and harmless then ours? (118)

Despite Lady Happy’s confusion and ‘blaspheme’ towards nature, she ends up embracing the Princess as her lover, and uses this relationship to redefine the notion of marriage. Dressed as a Shepherd and Shepherdess, performing heteronormativity while undermining it, Lady Happy and the Princess engage in a marriage act that is surrounded by pleasure, equality (in their status as women), and love as they exchange vows:

Princess: May I live in your favour, and be possest with your Love and Person, is the height of my ambitions.

L. Happy: I can neither deny you my Love nor Person. […] we shall more constant be, And in a Married life better agree.

Princess: We shall agree, for we true Love inherit, Join as one Body and Soul, or Heav’nly Spirit (122).

This ‘marriage’ seems to complete Lady Happy’s goals of redefining what is means to be a wife, but it is ultimately a fruitless victory, and actually makes Lady Happy “lean and pale” (124). It is unclear what specifically is making Lady Happy unhappy, but it is likely because the ‘marriage’ seems to reiterate the patriarchal construction of marriage rather than promote companionate pleasure, and that their love seems to go against 'Nature,' whom she strives to serve. Though the Princess is presumed to be a woman, she acts like a man and, in some instances, a controlling husband, causing Lady Happy to question the innocent pleasure she gets from a society of women.

Summer, freco by Francesco Sozzi. Detail view. Photo by Palazzo Isnello.

Summer, freco by Francesco Sozzi. Detail view. Photo by Palazzo Isnello.

When it is revealed in the next act that the Princess is a man, it is much like the occurrence of the fall in Genesis. Just as Adam and Eve became aware of their naked bodies once eating the forbidden fruit, and hide in shame, so the women of the convent “skip from each other, as afraid of each other” (128) upon learning that there is a man in the convent. Dolores Paloma notes the uniqueness of this type of gender reveal in drama:

The staple of Elizabethan comedy, the girl disguised as a boy, allows Cavendish to question the assumptions behind gender as an identity. Because Shakespeare’s audience always knows of the disguise, they can laugh at the characters who misjudge sexual identity, secure in the knowledge that the girl/boy will return to her proper woman’s place. Not so in two Cavendish plays, however, for the audience as well as the persons on stage is kept in the dark, and therefore it is we who misperceive sexual identity and we who experience it as ambiguous (63-64).

Though the Prince is responsible for the fall of the convent, his disguise also calls into question the stability of gender, demonstrating its performativity á la Judith Butler. His performance, though it disintegrates Lady Happy’s paradise, helps Lady Happy transition back into the ‘real world’ and actually assists in the redefinition of motherhood; his transformation emphasizes the fact that men are born from women – the Prince emerges from the Princess, just like a son from a mother, and serves as a reversal of Eve springing from Adam. His performance undermines the notion that women are naturally male-constructions, built for man’s purposes, and that their roles are malleable and not predetermined.

The marriage of Lady Happy and the Prince in the Church at the end of the play is extremely ambiguous, with suggestions of happiness and celebratory restoration to the patriarchal Church, but, in comparison to all that has occurred prior, hints at both tragedy and hopefulness that emphasizes the disparity between how the play began and how it is ending. The revelation that the Princess is a Prince almost completely silences Lady Happy for the remainder of the play. The only lines we get from her are after the wedding, as she talks to Lady Vertue and her husband Mimick:

Mimick: […] but you’ve now a Mimick of your own, for the Prince has imitated a Woman.

L. Happy: What you Rogue, do you call me a Fool? (132).

It is unclear whether Lady Happy is being playful or defensive in these lines, but shortly after, the Prince discusses how he will divide up the convent, showing that she no longer has any power over it or its fate. The equality that is clearly missing from the marriage in this last scene, intensifies the equality and happiness felt in the first pagan-like marriage between them. The uncertainty of what Lady Happy is feeling during these moments, however, inspires the idea that she is now blank, wiped clean as she reenters the patriarchal world, ready to be rewritten as she enters the role of wife and perhaps mother. It is ultimately up to the audience/reader to define what her role is in the context of a now undermined patriarchy.

The ending of The Convent of Pleasure can either be seen as tragic, in that Cavendish is restoring patriarchal order in order to demonstrate that women are unable to escape their fates no matter how they attempt to redefine themselves, or it can be seen as hopeful. Jankowski opts for a hopeful interpretation, and believes that “While in Shakespeare the comic error of sexual confusion is corrected and traditional social order restored, the Cavendish plays never refer back to an order that has been momentarily disturbed; instead, they open up to a new future” (64). Whether the ending is tragic or points ahead to a “new future,” it seems wrong to view it as purely a celebration of patriarchy. Lady Happy, by adopting female libertinism in her convent and using pleasurable freedom to reimagine women’s roles as mothers and wives, successfully undermines patriarchy and patriarchal conceptions of women despite her return to those conventions by the end of the play. Through her convent the image of Eve has been restored to positive connotations, men are found to be as guilty as women for the fall of paradise, and the curse of motherhood and wifedom is lifted enough to reveal the pleasurable potential of these roles. Even gender itself is revealed to be performative and malleable rather than naturally permanent. The return to patriarchy by the end of the play allows the audience to imagine and figure out for themselves the integration of the ‘new’ woman into the still existing patriarchal world. Cavendish’s female libertinism, therefore, becomes a powerful, thought-provoking tool that forces women to reexamine the nature of their existence. Whether this is for better or for worse is for the audience to decide.

Works Cited

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