Ground-breaking Essex writer is celebrated for commemoration project

20th September 2021

Margaret Cavendish – visionary Essex-born playwright, poet, novelist, scientist and philosopher – is finally remembered in Colchester, 400 years after her birth in the town.

A commemorative plaque is to be unveiled by Jennifer Tolhurst, Lord-Lieutenant of Essex, on Wednesday 22 September 2021 at 5pm, adjacent to St John’s Abbey Gate, Colchester, the birthplace of Margaret Cavendish in 1623.

Mrs Tolhurst said: “It is a privilege to be able to mark the extraordinary achievements of a remarkable woman born in Essex and in so many ways centuries ahead of her time. I hope that greater knowledge about her work will inspire today’s generation, especially women and girls in our county”.

Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) published under her own name when most women writers remained anonymous.

Her topics included biography, philosophy, poetry, a novel (one of the earliest examples of the sci-fi genre), short stories, children’s fables and more than twenty plays.

As a scientist, she was deemed important enough to be the first woman invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. She was the first person ever to write a critique of one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Graham Watts, Essex Women’s Commemoration Project team member, adds: “Margaret Cavendish is one of those remarkable people from the past who seem indelibly linked to the present. Describing the experiences of women, she depicts gaslighting and emotional abuse, the pain and dangers of bearing children, and the constant battle to save them from starvation. Cavendish was aware that society was not ready to hear her: ‘I regard not so much the present but future ages, for which I intend all my books’.”

Her publications challenged the contemporary belief that women were inherently inferior to men. She wished she could have had the benefit of attending school, like her brothers, but that was a privilege denied to women of the day. Nevertheless, as the range and quality of her output testifies, she more than held her own while being a life-long advocate for women’s education.

This unveiling is the first of a series of plaques being planned across the county of Essex.

Each will commemorate the life and achievements of individual Essex women so far overlooked by history. Fields will include the arts, writing, politics, science, philanthropy, education, social and military welfare, medicine, horticulture, activism and leadership.

Further details will follow as each plaque is announced.

The Essex Women’s Commemoration Project was launched last year, following a proposal to the Lord-Lieutenant by Essex theatre director Graham Watts to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of Margaret Cavendish.

The objectives support the work of the Essex Women’s Advisory Group, a charitable fund that is managed by Essex Community Foundation.