Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of, 1624?-1674
"The Convent of Pleasure", as first published in "Plays, never before printed." London: Printed by A. Maxwell, 1668.
I admit that I cannot resist a February title that plays upon the questions of gender, sexual attraction, and what is natural and unnatural. We have Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, to thank for a rolicking play that I would love to see staged. "The Convent of Pleasure" never graced the boards during Cavendish's life -- or indeed, for several hundred years after her death. Its first known performance was by Gweno Williams and students at the University of Ripon and York in 1995. Depending on the director, widely varying interpretations could be presented of this clever, enjoyable, and witty script.
"Retiredness bars the life from nothing else but Men."
-- So saith Lady Happy, whose father has just died, leaving her young, beautiful, wealthy -- and independent. She gathers friends and followers and creates a world apart, one consisting solely of women. Of course, one must be fabulously wealthy and upper class to live, like Lady Happy, a life "incloister'd with all the delights and pleasures that are allowable and lawful."
While she and her friends enjoy a life of ease, lower class women do the work of all the servants and farmers needed to support the elaborate household. Yet Lady Happy considers poor women too to benefit from a separation of the sexes, which frees them from an oppressor: A set of plays-within-a-play graphically illustrates the dangers and abuses that women of all classes may experience in relationships with men.
"Men are the only troublers of Women; for they only cross and oppose their sweet delights, and peaceable life; they cause their pains, but not their pleasures. Wherefore those Women that are poor, ... are only fit for Men; for having not means to please themselves, they must serve only to please others; but those Women, where Fortune, Nature, and the gods are joined to make them happy, were mad to live with Men, who make the Female sex their slaves; but I will not be so inslaved, but will live retired from their Company."
Of course, the men are quite put out :-) so to speak, about their exclusion from feminine bliss, and in particular that feminine bliss that comes with possession of a WEALTHY wife. Various plots are proposed to regain access to the women, but only one man, the Prince, is willing (or able) to pass as female in order to enter the precincts of the women's cloister. Presenting himself as a Princess desirous of engaging in the women's cross-gendered exploration of sex roles, a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man, he seriously disturbs the Lady Happy's contentment, causing her to reflect that:
"My Name is Happy, and so was my Condition, before I saw this 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?"
What is the nature of gender? Throughout the play Newcastle delights in teasing her characters, and her audience, with this question. She concludes, perhaps somewhat ambiguously still, that
"No, no, Nature is Nature, and still will be
The same she was from all Eternity."
I hope you will enjoy this valentine (of sorts), with all its clever wit, as much as I did.
Mary Mark Ockerbloom