mad marge goes on

An Extraordinary Duchess, cont.

She makes her entrance into the London theater in a lace dress whose see-through bodice almost exposes her nipples; speculates on the nature of the moon and infinite matter; comes running out of her castle laboratory with her petticoats on fire; designs gowns for herself and her ladies in waiting; critiques the notion of sole truth, Hooke’s optics and the experimental method; and, realizing that her thoughts flow more swiftly than her plume, she hires a scribe, instructing him to sit by her door waiting for the cry: “John, John, I have ideas!”

Before surrendering to her graphomania, young Margaret (neé Lucas, the daughter of a wealthy landowner) was a maid of honor to Queen Henrietta Maria, whom she accompanied into exile in France. Here she met her future husband, Lord William Cavendish, whose courtship generated a volume of love poems. In the preface to her Observations on Experimental Philosophy (1666) the Duchess writes: “It is likely that, as they say, my habit of constantly writing is a disease. But it must be the noblest of afflictions, as I have the honor of being infected with the same malady that marked the lives of Augustine, Cicero, Homer, Paracelsus…” (and the list goes on).

From Mad Marge to Myspace
Seventeenth-century science abounds in violent, politically incorrect metaphors. Bacon wrote that the scientist must despoil nature of her secrets, pursuing her all the way to her inner sanctum and raping her should she persist in refusing to concede them. Her contemporaries viewed the intellectual discussion that Margaret sought in vain as an unfathomable occurrence; while the English feminist canon never forgave her her untidy prose, her eccentricities and her excesses, all of which were deemed harmful to the cause. (This last was perhaps reciprocal: accustomed to wandering about her castle, the Duchess might have found a room of her own uninhabitable.)

Like the Countess Báthory, who would also prove to be prolific, but as a serial killer, Lady Cavendish is both unable to comprehend her crime and baffled by others’ censure: her idyll with her writer’s Self is absolute, her pleasure radical. Her literary feats correspond to her highest dignity; and she pioneered making the act of writing, in which she flaunted her adventurous nature, one of self-display and self-love.

As soon as I discovered Lady Cavendish I decided to translate The Blazing World and the Atomic Poems (there are no Spanish editions of her works). I found that the poems would be difficult to render without altering their music; and in trying to solve this problem I came up with a melody. Enlisting the aid of a friend, the composer Esteban Insinger, we set the rest of the Duchess’ poems – which, besides atomic theory, also explore topics such as the sun’s magnetism, nymphs and hares - to music and posted them on myspace. We chose the lieder because it is timeless, classical, free-form and loop-friendly; allowing the voice, like the Duchess herself, liberty to revel in drama and seduction. back

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