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Margaret Cavendish. Bell in Campo and The Sociable Companions.

Ed. Alexandra G. Bennett. (Broadview Literary Texts.) Orchard Park, NY and Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2002. Pbk. 230 pp. append, bibl. $12.95. ISBN: 1-55111-287-6.

As prolific a playwright as a writer of prose fiction, verse, and philosophical speculation, Margaret Cavendish published nineteen plays in two collections in 1662 and 1668. Yet Cavendish's dramatic works have come more slowly to modern editions than her writing in other genres. Alexandra G. Bennett provides a valuable addition to the Cavendish play texts by making the comedy The Sociable Companions; Or The Female Wits available in a modern edition for the first time, pairing it with the heroic romance Bell in Campo.

As Bennett states in her introduction, the two plays are linked by their concern with "the circumstances of war, its effects, and its aftermath, particularly in relation to women and their social roles" (13). Bennett suggests that Bellin Campo, from the 1662 Hayes, was written during the Civil War, while The Sociable Companions, from the 1668 Plays Never Before Printed, was written shortly after the Restoration. Reading the two plays together highlights Cavendish's exploration of war's destabilizing effects on gender roles, as well as her experimentation with dramatic form.

Bell in Campo renders the causes of war in vague allegorical terms, with "two gentlemen" reporting an impending battle between the kingdoms of Reformation and Faction. Cavendish's interest lies in the responses war evokes in women, and so she surveys wives' reactions to their husbands' departure for battle, from Lady Passionate's emotional displays to Madam Jantil's stoical acceptance. But the central "heroickess" is Lady Victoria, wife of the Reformation's Lord General, and likely modeled in part on Queen Henrietta Maria. Cavendish's coinage "heroickess" signals Lady Victoria's unconventional virtues. She insists on following her husband to the front and, when he leaves her behind "in campo," she forms a female army. Cavendish makes explicit that the women act not solely to aid their husbands and king but, as Victoria declares, to prove women's fitness to be "copartners in their governments" (48) and "make ourselves equal with men" (81). To this end, Lady Victoria sets up a training regimen for her troops identical to that of male soldiers, enabling the female army to rescue the male army and defeat the Kingdom of Faction.

At times Cavendish's royalist sympathies rest uneasily with her proto-feminist sensibilities. Though Lady Victoria is elected "Generalless" by her troops, Cavendish thereafter grants her absolute authority, having the female army respond to commands in unison: "We agree and consent to whatsoever you please" (49). And as the war and the play end, a more traditional gender hierarchy reasserts itself. Instead of the copartnership Lady Victoria sought, the King grants women the right to be mistresses "in their own houses and families," choose their own clothes, and "go abroad when they will" (116-17). Yet these more modest rights may reflect Cavendish's desire for women of all classes to have the freedoms she enjoyed as an aristocrat. The public celebration Victoria and her troops receive marks a greater wish fulfillment, transforming monstrous Amazons into national heroes.

In a preface to the 1662 collection, Cavendish predicted her plays would be criticized as "too serious" and for having "no plots, not designs, nor subtle controversies" (211). With The Sociable Companions: Or The Female Wits, she lays both charges to rest. While less radical in its gender politics than Bell in Campo, The Sociable Companions abandons the lengthy orations and expository gentlemen of the earlier closet drama in favor of the plot intrigues and rapid-fire dialogue typical of Restoration comedy.

As in Bell in Campo, women carry the central action of the play. The civil war has left the female wits of the title with no dowries and no hope of support from their recently cashiered Cavalier brothers. When the women learn that "usurers, lawyers and physicians" (159) are the only men made wealthy by the war, they plot to marry into these professions. In one of several scenes satirizing platonic love, Peg prosecutes the usurer Get-All for child support, claiming he impregnated her through "an incorporeal motion" (179). Jane disguises herself as a law clerk to gain access to the lawyer Plead-All, which leads to Lady Riches falling in love with the "she-clerk" Jane/Jack. The women's schemes succeed not through deceit, but through the men's eventual enlightenment and admiration for female wit. In both plays, Cavendish suggests that gender is a product of social training, and men and women alike benefit from redefining traditional roles.

Alexandra Bennett's introduction is useful, if brief, and she includes an extensive bibliography and five contextualizing appendices. Of particular note are contemporary accounts of "warrior women" in the English Civil War, including a letter from Henrietta Maria to Charles I, in which the queen refers to herself as "her she-majesty generalissima" (217). These provocative plays by Margaret Cavendish should find a place alongside Aphra Behn's in the study and performance of seventeenth-century British drama.


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Author:Garrett, Cynthia
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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