Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 April 2022
There are two major threads in the 350-year history of Cavendish’s literary reputation, both deriving from views of her life. In the first thread, she was a highly virtuous woman and a passionate writer, though what she wrote suffered from her poor education and lack of discipline. Her virtue was manifest in her biography of her husband and her passion, poor education, and lack of discipline apparent in her poetry. In the second and less-well-known thread, she had an eye for young men and included objectionable passages in her drama and poetry. Both threads are related to a set of categories historically used to evaluate women writers. Cavendish, thus, was like Katherine Philips who also was understood to be highly virtuous and like Aphra Behn who was thought to have written passionate but objectionable drama and verse. Largely outside of the major threads are observations offered by Samuel Pepys, who reacted to Cavendish as a celebrity. Her most important and nuanced critic was Virginia Woolf, who owed something to both threads and who wrote with a touch of irony. Evidence suggests that William Wordsworth and Horace Walpole knew and were influenced by Cavendish’s writing.