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The pioneering writer with nipples painted scarlet

Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century Duchess of Newcastle, was variously described as a romantic heroine (by Samuel Pepys), “a devil in a phantom masquerade” (King Charles II), and “a giant cucumber” (Virginia Woolf). A new “erudite and entertaining” biography details the author’s unconventional life, says Lucy Hughes-Hallett in The Spectator. Born in 1623 to a well-off family, she endured an early trauma when the Civil War broke out in 1642: parliamentarian soldiers stormed her house, dug up the chapel vaults and “made themselves wigs of hair cut from the corpses of her recently dead mother and sister”. She joined the Queen in exile in France, where she married William Cavendish, 30 years her elder. They moved to Antwerp, and, with intellectual company including Hobbes and Descartes, Margaret was soon writing “essays, allegories and discourses”.

These included “treatises in iambic pentameter in which she came as close as anyone in her era to quantum physics”, and a satirical novel, The Blazing World, which has been described “as the first work of science fiction”. She was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. And she “loved to make a spectacle of herself”. Margaret arrived at the opening of one of her plays “in a chariot drawn by eight white bulls, with her breasts bared and her nipples painted scarlet”. When she drove to court wearing a man’s jacket in black velvet, “some hundred boys and girls ran behind her silver-ornamented carriage whooping and pointing”.

Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish by Francesca Peacock is available to buy here.