Lara Dodds | Mississippi State University


Detraction directed at Margaret Cavendish’s personal characteristics and her writing is a persistent and well-known element of her critical heritage. Understandably, Cavendish scholars have responded by defending her writing and, through the rhetorical trope of paradiastole, redefining it in terms of its good qualities. In this essay, I suggest that Cavendish’s so-called bad writing deserves more attention, both in itself, as a set of formal principles that can be used to provide a rigorous description of her style, and also as a form of critical judgment that has shaped her legacy. Through case studies of the tropes of the bawd and the housewife, two figures common throughout her oeuvre, I propose a preliminary formal catalogue of the characteristics of Cavendish’s “bad writing,” with a particular focus on its technical faults (i.e. the “vices” of style), its failure of decorum, and its obscenity or lewdness. In readings of two poems, “Natures Cook” and “Motion Makes Atoms a Bawd for Figure,” I propose that Cavendish’s literary achievement occurs through, rather than in spite of, her stylistic excesses.