112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

"The Quintessence of Wit": Domestic Labor, Science, and Margaret Cavendish's Kitchen Fancies

Samantha N. Snively, University of California, Davis

Margaret Cavendish’s “kitchen fancies” in Poems and Fancies deploy domestic conceits and recipe formats, combining elements of recipe books, conduct manuals, and scientific treatises to acknowledge women’s work as a form of scientific investigation. The poems highlight networks of knowledge and textual production that formed around Renaissance women’s recipe-book exchanges.


Within her collection Poems and Fancies (1653/1664), Margaret Cavendish includes thirteen poems that look like recipes and describe a personified and feminized “Nature” engaged in domestic labor. These poems naturally group together in a subgenre which I call “kitchen fancies.” In the kitchen fancies, Cavendish combines generic elements of early modern recipe books, conduct manuals, and treatises of experimental science. These poems speak simultaneously in each of these registers and to the communities that formed around these various texts, drawing together the gendered realms of domestic work and scientific inquiry. The culinary conceits throughout the kitchen fancies situate the work of scientific investigation within the sphere of domestic management, gesturing to a similarity of methods between the two realms that suggests knowledge of nature can be gained through the practices of the kitchen. Using the prefatory materials of Poems and Fancies to delineate Cavendish’s philosophy of writing as an extension of and supplement to women’s domestic arts, I argue that Cavendish's kitchen fancies call attention to the interdependence of the realms of scientific investigation and women’s domestic labor. I also draw on archival material from the collections of the University of California, Davis as well as recent scholarship on early modern women’s recipe collections and manuscripts to suggest that Cavendish’s “kitchen fancies” acknowledge repositories of female, domestic knowledge supplementary to her philosophically- and scientifically-minded text. While other scholars have noted Cavendish’s anti-blazonic tendencies in these poems or their resistance to typically male forms of knowledge-production, I will emphasize that the kitchen fancies work to craft a positive space for female domestic labor in scientific endeavors. By situating her kitchen fancies alongside poems about atomic theory, natural philosophy, and other scientific questions, Cavendish elevates women’s roles in experimental observation and the emerging new science and raises the status of the kitchen to that of the laboratory. By presenting female domestic work in Poems and Fancies as a lens through which to explore ostensibly masculine scientific questions, the kitchen fancies represent women’s domestic work as a valuable epistemological source. The poems’ content and format invoke early modern circles of women’s textual production and circulation, namely the communities that formed around collections, exchanges, and productions of recipe books such as Gervase Markham’s The English Hous-Wife or the domestic guides of Hannah Woolley. Cavendish crafts her recipe-poems by drawing on what Wendy Wall has called the “kitchen literacy” that such texts required, while making the kitchen fancies’ inclusion in a scientifically-minded text a way to allow her poems to circulate in these female communities. Calling on other women to defend her writing while validating their labor as contributive to scientific explorations, Cavendish envisions a community of female readers and consumers forming around her work and engaging in dialogue with new scientific inquiry.

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