Margaret Cavendish (nee Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle

I first came across Margaret’s story during my volunteering at Bolsover Castle. I admired her determination to be what we would view as a modern woman, which during the seventeenth century, was an incredibly difficult thing to do. The saddest thing is that she was often nicknamed ‘Mad Madge’, when really, the exact opposite was true. Margaret was a highly intelligent woman who was interested in science, art, laboratories, and literature.[1] She was a prolific writer of books and essays on these topics and much more, including a biography of her husband, William Cavendish, poetry, and plays which often reflected her life experience. Best of all, William actively encouraged these interests his wife, who was 30 years younger than himself, had. He often spoke out about the reasons her being criticised as being unladylike and socially inappropriate in her pursuits, as pure sexism.[2] In Margaret he saw an intellectual equal, which it a very unique relationship for the times. I completely commend them for it. They received a huge amount of criticism for this, meaning they often spent long periods away from court, but that didn’t stop them from showing genuine love and acceptance of each other’s talents.

P. Lely, Margaret Cavendish, Wikimedia Commons

Margaret was born Margaret Lucas in 1623 to a respectable, royalist leaning family, in Colchester. We know little as to how she became interested in the usually male reserved topic of science and literature, but it is probable that she accessed these during her private tutoring at home.[3] What is clear is that she had an innate understanding of these topics. It was this that probably attracted William Cavendish when they met at the exiled court of Henrietta Maria in 1645. By this time, Margaret was a lady-in-waiting to the exiled Queen of England and William’s first wife, Elizabeth, had died. This first marriage, although is deemed to have eventually become a love match, was more a typical match of convenience, despite it producing 8 children. In Margaret, William had found his equal in all things, other than age and status.  

The couple’s early courtship was full of romance, despite the unhappiness that Henrietta Maria felt about the match.[4] From these letters we can clearly see the emotions that William felt for Margaret. They often referenced the large age gap between them, hoping that it would not hinder their love.

“I know that I’m old, it is too true,

Yet love, nay, I am in love with you.

Do not dispise me, or be cruell

For thus I am loues best fuell

No man can love more, or loves higher

Old, and dry wood, makes the best fier.”[5]

Even more touching is the references made to the lack of financial stability during his time in exile on the continent, following on from the Battle of Marston Moor and the English Civil War.

“The Princess Mary, marrys Kinge of Poland,

And you my Deer, do marry Prince of Noland”[6]

These letters offer us an incite into what appears to have been a genuine love between William and Margaret. It would appear that William didn’t hide his faults at this time, but he certainly made it no secret that he had a true love for Margaret, despite the small differences between them. However, they also had a lot in common.

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne by Peter van Lisebetten, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The exile they endured until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 didn’t hinder their enthusiastic collecting of books and scientific instruments, amongst other things, a hobby they often shared together. The couple amassed a large collection of microscopes and telescopes during this period. Margaret even had her own ones to use personally, which was why she later went on to critique the use of them in the Royal Society. Many at the time used this to rubbish her opinion, believing that them as childlike. However, as she used such instruments herself, she knew very well that the instruments could offer imprecise readings, especially as the grinding of lenses was a common problem.[7] These critiques of microscopes would later be reflected in the work of John Locke and Thomas Sydenham, but were largely brushed off.[8] These were not the only dealings Margaret had with the Royal Society, she often attended their public experiments, much to the comment of others. Sadly, this meant that after Margaret, women were excluded from the Royal Society until 1945.[9]

Science wasn’t the only interest Margaret had. She also published a lot of material, starting with Poems and Fancies in 1653. At the time, as William also was a writer, they believed it was truly her husband, using his wife’s name as a pen name. William always supported his wife, claiming it was always her own work. Margaret did the same but did credit William as a writing mentor. As Billing suggests, the pair actually relied on each other in print, in order to maintain a certain reputation in the public sphere: William as a supportive husband and loyal subject to the king, Margaret as a dutiful wife and writer in her own right.[10] It was for this that Margaret so wished to be remembered. Instead, society wished to rubbish her as a woman whose opinion on usually male dominated topics wasn’t required.

Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne by Pieter Louis van Schuppen, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The relationship she had with William’s children and household also proved to be a rocky affair, probably not helped by the fact her marriage proved childless. Margaret blamed Henry, William’s longest surviving son, for abandoning his father during the exile. This alongside her unusual approach to societal norms caused a lot of tension within the family.[11] In October 1670, not long before the death of both William and Margaret, these tensions came to a head. William wrote over more of his lands to Margaret in the hope of sustaining her during her widowhood, believing he would die first (although sadly that was not to be the case).[12] This move angered William’s children, especially Henry, who believed she had had enough lands and was now stealing the inheritance. At the same time, William’s steward, Andrew Clayton, began to spread malicious rumours about Margaret, suggesting she was being unfaithful, and was purposefully stockpiling money and land to fund a second marriage after William’s death.[13] However, Margaret herself died on the 15th of December 1673 at their main house of Welbeck Abbey, nearly 3 years before William himself. Probably still hurt by the turn of events in 1670, William instead used the money he had saved for Margaret to begin reworking Nottingham Castle.[14]

Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, England from Jones’s Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, 1829

Sadly, I don’t have enough time or words to go into depth about the many works published by Margaret, or the influence they had. If you would like to know more, I would recommend looking into The Blazing World, often referenced as a proto-science fiction novel, almost Jules Verne in character. For now though, I hope this post has managed to highlight the unfair attitude that Margaret Cavendish was treated with in her own time. During the Seventeenth Century, intelligence in a woman, whilst accepted to a small degree, was often seen as far too dangerous, and in the case of Margaret, was dismissed as childish. However, she did have similar views to men in her field, but she was always excluded. From this, it is no surprise that she advocated for better education for women and believed that women were being forced to obey men.[15] That is why I am glad she married William, because without his support and understanding her as an equal to him, she wouldn’t have been allowed to follow her interests and talents. This can be seen in the epitaph he gave her tomb:

This Dutches was a wife wittie and learned lady, which her many books do well testifie. She was a most virtuous and a louieng and careful wife and was with her lord all the time of his banishment and miseries and when he came home never parted from him in his solitary retirements.[16]

[1] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy (London: Fabor and Faber Ltd, 2007), p. 219.

[2] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 223.

[3] British Library, Margaret Cavendish,

[4] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 177.

[5] BL Add MS 32497, f. 11or, cited in Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 178.

[6] BL Add MS 32497, f. 11or, cited in Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 179.

[7] Wilkins, E., ‘Margaret Cavendish and the Royal Society’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 68.3 (2014), p. 247.

[8] Wilkins, E., ‘Margaret Cavendish and the Royal Society’, p. 248.

[9] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook (London: English Heritage, Revised Edition, 2016), p. 43.

[10] Billing, V., ‘”Treble marriage”: Margaret Cavendish, William Newcastle, and Collaborative Authorship’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 11.2 (2011), p. 95.

[11] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, pp. 229-230.

[12] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 230.

[13] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 43; Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 230.

[14] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 43.

[15] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 43; Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 223.

[16] Lees, L. E., ‘Introduction: A Glorious Resurrection’ in Lees, L. E. (ed), Margaret Cavendish (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 1.

Life After Dickens: The Mistress Who Hid Her Previous Life

Charles Dickens is one of my favourite authors. He so easily describes a version of the Nineteenth Century that has become cemented as fact. Despite his genius in novel writing, like us, he was still only human and was as complicated as the next person. As Claire Tomalin so nicely describes, “everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens… the angry son, the good friend, the bad husband the quarreller, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father, the brilliance in the room.”[1] For me, this sums Dickens up as really, he was all of these things. He was two parts of the same self: the charitable, kind and imaginative man but also the hardworking manic who lived a double life after causing a lot of pain to his family during the separation from his wife, Catherine. I do not think any person with a heart could deny the way he separated her was unfair and deeply horrible. Dickens openly blamed Catherine for his behaviour in a public justification for the marriage breakup in his own magazine, Household Words.[2] Sadly, other than the oldest son, Charley, none of the children were allowed to see their mother, although Katey did see her mother regularly. Katey later wrote that her father caused a lot of pain by not allowing them to visit, but also honestly realised that Dickens would have done the same, no matter who it was he had been married to at the time. The real reason for this was not just marital unhappiness, but Dickens had met Ellen Ternan, a much younger actress, and wished for her to become his mistress.

Bryant, H. C., Charles Dickens (c. 1870), Credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Ellen, also known as Nelly, Ternan had only been 18 when she first met Dickens as part of a play called The Frozen Deep, of which Dickens was a co-author and actor in. She was the youngest of three sisters, all actors, who were associated with the production, under the supervision of their mother, who also an actress. Two years after this meeting, Dickens would separate from Catherine, surrounded by rumours that he was having an affair with a younger woman. Whilst this part was true emotionally, it is uncertain as to when their relationship officially became physical. During this time, the rumours falsely involved Georgiana Hogarth, Dickens’ sister-in-law, who acted as housekeeper and nanny.[3] Despite the break up of the family home, Georgiana carried her role as housekeeper until Dickens death in 1870, and continued a friendship with Ellen, hoping this would help preserve the author’s posthumous legacy from scandal.

The relationship with Ellen was described by Dickens at the time as being purely paternal. However, his love of small and young women was known, and can be seen in some of his characters. He often referred to these types of women as a “little mother”, possibly to rekindle a lost sense nostalgia from his traumatic childhood working in the blacking factory.[4] However, he viewed his wife in the last years of their marriage is totally against this angelic image of his ideal woman, viewing her as idle and uncompromising. Holbrook argues that this shows the two-sided part of himself, where he could easily change his attitudes towards women, compartmentalising them into different stereotypes depending on how useful they were to him.[5]

Maclise, D., Catherine Dickens (1847), Credit: Charles Dickens Museum, London

Whatever Dickens reasons were for choosing Nelly over Catherine, there is no denying the fact she did profit from his attention. When the affair was first made public in a newspaper article written by Thomas Wright in 1934, Ternan was branded as a cold-hearted gold digger.[6] Personally I do find this assessment unfair as there is no direct evidence about the personal feelings of Ellen towards Dickens. However, as the Ternans were given houses by Dickens and Ellen herself was left £1,000 (£62,600 in today’s money) in Dickens will, the evidence that survives does unfortunately provided a very one-sided view.[7] Three novels written by Ellen’s sister, Frances, were also published in Dickens’ periodical, All Year Round, again showing that Dickens was willing to advance not just Ellen, but her family too.[8]

Despite a thirteen-year relationship, Dickens was to die in June 1870, surrounded by his family following a stroke after a hard writing session in his Swiss chalet at Gads Hill Place in Kent. This death followed all the Victorian ideas of the perfect death. I myself had never questioned this version, until I recently read A. N. Wilson’s book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which was recently published to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Dickens death. In it he puts forward a rather convincing case of what really caused the stroke that killed the author. Instead of writing causing the stroke, Wilson argues it was actually one of Dickens’ illicit visits to Nelly in her home in Peckham.[9] She used this house for these visits as it would have been too noticeable to have him visit the family home in Camden. Peckham was also easily reachable by train from Kent in just under an hour. He had had to be helped onto a train and safely delivered to Gads Hill so he could receive his acceptable death surrounded by his children.[10] Whether this is true or not, life would certainly change for the Ternans following Dickens death.

Photograph of Ellen Ternan, Wikimedia Commons

They moved to Oxford and that is where Ellen met her future husband, George Wharton Robinson, who was studying theology at the university. When the pair met, George was 18 and Ellen was 30, pretending to be 20.[11] They finally married in 1876. By the 1881 census, Ellen was claiming to be 28 but was in fact 42. Their married life revolved around their two children, Geffrey and Gladys, and the school they ran in Margate. Ellen was heavily involved in the social side of it, teaching French and even doing public readings of the works of Charles Dickens.[12] It’s unknown whether George really knew the type of relationship Ellen had had with her favourite author, but her son, Geffrey, apparently found out following her death from breast cancer in 1914, apparently burning any incriminating papers.[13] He stayed remarkably quiet on the matter following the accusations in the newspapers. Gladys however, commented on her disbelief. She denied the association and suggested if it had existed “it could only be because her love for him was so strong it swept aside all other considerations”.[14]

Dickens giving the last reading of his Works. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Whilst we may never know Ellen’s thoughts in her own words, it is the opinions of others that have followed that remains the dominant narrative. There are those that do believe they had a full-blown affair, which is now considered fact. Still, some historians and biographers do not consider this an option, as they continue to argue that it was an entirely platonic relationship or only invested in on Dickens’ part.[15] Nelly’s legacy will always be connected to Dickens in whatever form that relationship took. Sadly there is little know about the real woman behind the mistress, but she was said to have enjoyed politics, books, music and theatre for much of her life.[16] The gold digger version of her does still persist, but after her husband died in 1910, she could no longer afford to life alone. If she did have that nature, surely, she would have known how to maintain her money.

[1] C. Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life cited in Balee, S., ‘Charles Dickens: The Show (But Don’t Tell) Man’, The Hudson Review, 64.4 (2012), p. 653.

[2] Sawyer, R., ‘He Do Redemption in Different Voices: Dickens and the Failure of Atonement’, South Atlantic Review, 68.2 (2003), p. 60; Balee, S., ‘Charles Dickens: The Show (But Don’t Tell) Man’, p. 660.

[3] Sawyer, R., ‘He Do Redemption in Different Voices’, pp. 59-60.

[4] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women (New York: New York University Press, 1993), p. 170.

[5] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 168.

[6] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 213.

[7] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens (London: Atlantic Books, 2020), pp. 12-13.

[8] Bowen, J., ‘The Life of Dickens 2: After Ellen Ternan’ in Ledger, S. and Furneaux, H. (eds), Charles Dickens in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 12.

[9] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, pp. 12-13.

[10] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 13.

[11] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 21.

[12] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 211; Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 21.

[13] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 22.

[14] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, pp. 211-212.

[15] Pruitt, S., The Secret Relationship That Charles Dickens Tried to Hide,

[16] Spartacus Educational, Ellen Ternan,

Jane Austen During World War One

Jane Austen is one of Britain’s most well-known and best loved authors. Alongside Dickens, she is definitely my favourite author. There is something happy and uplifting about her novels. It also helps that you can find lots of other things to fill your Austen need. You can so easily find sequels, academic articles, merchandise, virtually anything related to Austen or her novels. Admittedly this ‘Austenmania’ started in the 1990s with a number of TV and film adaptations, with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice being the one that comes to mind the most. However, this type of fame has been hard come by and the beginnings of it certainly didn’t come into force until the late nineteenth century.

Engraving of a young Jane Austen based on a sketch by Cassandra Austen from James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoirs, Wikimedia Commons

The term ‘Janeite’ that is usually given to Jane Austen fans was only invented in 1894 by George Saintsbury, a writer and literary historian.[1] Whilst this was nearly 80 years after the author’s death, this was mainly due to her unpopularity in the Victorian period. To the Victorians, Jane Austen’s novels didn’t conform to their ideals as her heroines were “ungenteel” and they often made fun of the clergy.[2] It was only after the publishing of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his little known aunt in 1870 that her image began to change to a domestic woman, reflecting Victorian expectations of femininity.[3] Whilst this helped to increase Jane’s popularity, it was only seen in a select group of people. The types of people known to be Janeites at this time were mainly men, which is surprising as contemporary society views Austen’s fans as largely women. These men were largely publishers, professors, novelists and other literati, including Montague Summers (novelist and clergyman), R. W. Chapman (editor of Jane Austen’s works) and E. M. Forster.[4] The status of these admirers meant that they flaunted the idea that they were part of a select cult who viewed her works as miracles that were above that of authors who others read.[5]

With the outbreak of the First World War, ideas on reading began to change. The National Home Reading Union’s Annual General Meeting just three months after the start of the war invited Michael Sadler, a recognised educationalist at the time to be a guest speaker. In his speech he suggested that reading was needed to keep “minds fresh and sane” and that reading “good fiction” would do this.[6] This appeal applied to those at home and on the front lines. The speech was then published and distributed to many soldiers’ camps to know this also applied to them.[7]

John Warwick Brooke, Highland Gas Sentry Reading a Letter from Home, National Library of Scotland

Reading fiction became a part of war life as it was an easy way to distract and provide entertainment but also bolstered patriotic sentiments.[8] The patriotic feeling this brought was by an increased understanding of what British culture was and what was at risk. To some, reading books was just as important as letter writing to loved ones back home as it helped to “overcome perceived boundaries between home and battle fronts” and helped maintain pre-war identities and interests.[9]

For Jane Austen’s novels, they often became a lifeline for fighting soldiers. Siegfried Sassoon was one of many who would have read Austen during his time in the trenches.[10] It’s claimed that Pride and Prejudice was the most read of all books by soldiers during the First World War.[11] There may be some truth in this as Austen and Dickens were the main authors prescribed by doctors to wounded soldiers and those suffering from shell shock.[12] Perhaps these choices were made because by the time of the First World War, Jane Austen had come to represent Englishness that soldiers were fighting for and helped give a nostalgic view that England had remained unchanged from the past which was seen in these Georgian era novels.[13] Unfortunately, those serving in the trenches were living a very different reality of war than George Wickham’s militia regiment. Surely though it would have made some difference of distraction to those who were bored or injured.

C.E Brock, ‘Love and Eloquence’ from Macmillan’s 1895 edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, British Library

The 6 novels of Jane Austen may have even been read out in groups. Reading in the trenches had to be more informal than people at home as it had to fit around active service.[14] To ensure this happened many charities were set up to send mainly donated books to the front lines. These included the Camp Libraries, Red Cross Library, St John’s War Library Committee and Worker’s Educational Association, who between them sent active and wounded soldiers, as well as prisoners of war.[15] Jane Austen’s books would have been included in these as ensuring that soldiers read good quality fiction was seen as a way of stopping them from seeking unacceptable entertainment elsewhere, particularly in taverns and brothels.[16]

World War One: Islington Public Library used as a hospital ward. Photograph by Langfier Ltd., 1916. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Regardless of the reasons why Austen was given to soldiers to read, there is no doubting the unity a love of the author can bring, either today or in the past. This was something Rudyard Kipling knew in his story The Janeites he wrote about a group of WW1 soldiers who found solidarity over their love of Jane Austen. The story was published in May 1924 in an international magazine called Storyteller. The men purposefully named a loud gun Lady Catherine de Bugg as a joke about the infamous Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice.[17] The idea for the story came from a visit Kipling took to Bath in 1915 and from his time researching the history of his son John’s regiment, following his death in the First World War.[18] Following his son’s death, Kipling read aloud all of the Austen books to his family, using it as a tool for solace, just as many of the soldiers on the front also did.[19]

Just as we today often read Jane Austen as a source of refuge and distraction from difficult times, so did the soldiers having to endure the hell of the trenches. I only hope that it really did offer the comfort they craved and helped to be a defence against the war environment around them.[20] What is certain is that the popularity of reading books during the First World War had been vital for helping soldiers and civilians alike. By the end of March 1919, Britain had sent 16 million books to the front.[21] The Red Cross alone had sent 2.8 million donated ones and 1.2 brought ones to fill these frontline libraries.[22] Even on the Homefront the amount of patronage for public libraries increased.[23] Jane Austen’s works would have played a part in this. As William Dean Howells notes, Austen “has not yet died” because of her enduring popularity and this is even more the case during WW1 as it helped those in their time of extreme need and possibly even in their own dying moments.[24] No wonder that at the time she was seen as a redemptive figure who was part of England’s bygone glory and a symbol for a soldiers duty to protect it.[25]

[1] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 8.

[2] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2013), pp. 22-23.

[3] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 23.

[4] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, p. 8.

[5] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, pp. 8-9.

[6] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort: The National Home Reading Union During the First World War’, First World War Studies (2015), p. 2.

[7] National Home Reading Union, ‘Work Among the Troops’, HRM, XXVI, no. 4 (Jan 1915) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[8] J. Potter, Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literary Responses to the Great War, 1914-1918 (2005) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[9]  Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, pp. 9-10

[10] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[11] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[12] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front: Books and Soldiers in the First World War’, Paedagogica Historica (2016), p. 5.

[13] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24; Roper, M., ‘Nostalgia as an Emotional Experience in the Great War’, The Historical Journal, 54.2 (2011), p. 441.

[14] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 10.

[15] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 11.

[16] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front’, p. 5.

[17] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[18] Lewis, L. and Kieffer, G., ‘The Janeites’,

[19] Lewis, L. and Kieffer, G., ‘The Janeites’,

[20] Roper, M., ‘Nostalgia as an Emotional Experience in the Great War’, p. 439.

[21] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front’, p. 4.

[22] British Red Cross, What We Did During the War,

[23] A. Ellis, Public Libraries and the First World War (1975) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[24] William Dean Howells cited in Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, p. 8.

[25] Johnson, C. L., ‘Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures’ in Copeland, E. and McMaster, J. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 239.

The Construction of the Male Dominated Narrative of Pocahontas

I have always had an interest in the lives and culture of Native Americans. In the stories that have been told about the violent struggles between settlers and the Native Americans, I have always found my sympathies lay with the Native Americans. As a very young child, I must admit this probably stemmed from Disney’s Pocahontas, but my parents always taught me, when I was old enough to understand, the hardships and discrimination the Native American nations were forced to endure, most notable the Trail of Tears and the forced movement away from their ancestral land to reservations on the other side of America.

Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe, Lebrecht History / Bridgeman Images

As a bit of a whim recently, I decided to investigate where this anti-Native American sentiment came from. I guess this was probably from my knowledge that their culture is focused around hospitality and the greater good of the tribe. Did the early settlers experience this side of the Native American culture and how did things manage to turn violent? These were the questions I wanted to answer for myself. What became clear is that despite the early settlers portraying the Powhatan nation as pagans and fundamentally different, Pocahontas was regarded, and has continued to be, a large part of the founding story of English settlement in America.[1] Unfortunately this founding myth has been based on what has been written by the white men who encountered her and her people, as Pocahontas left no written record for herself. This has meant that a very Western and male view has been placed upon her.

Pocahontas’ narrative has had two main focuses placed upon it: her friendship and/or possible relationship with John Smith and her eventual conversion and marriage to John Rolfe.[2] These have tried to place her in contexts that could be understood from the contemporary viewpoint that the New World was a female figure, hence the naming of Virginia by Walter Raleigh.[3] From this viewpoint various images were used to symbolise the New World. First, the New World became a female gendered space to suggest that it was just passively waiting to be conquered by male settlers.[4] Secondly, America was later represented by a Native American princess in some form, whether this be an unclothed one, one as the daughter of Britannia or as the embodiment of qualities that would later be attributed to United States sovereignty.[5] With Pocahontas’ role as the first female native the settlers mixed with, it was clear that she easily mixed with these ideas. It has led to the story of her and her relationship with the early settlers to be retold more “than any other American historical incident” during the colonial period.[6]

Simon de Passe, Captain John Smith, Private Collection, Peter Newark American Pictures / Bridgeman Images

The first misunderstanding about Pocahontas that has been inherited is how she became acquainted with the early settlers. A letter from John Chamberlain to the Hague ambassador during her visit to James I’s court in 1617 suggested that Pocahontas had “ben with the King and graciously used, and both she and her assistant placed at the maske. She is on her return (though sore against her will)”.[7] Chamberlain in his description of Pocahontas made her seem to be at the mercy of others but still able to have her own will.[8] The theme of Pocahontas using her own will derives from the belief that settlers had about her early visits to Jamestown. They believed she had flouted the will of her father in order to meet and know the new Englishmen. However, this was a misunderstanding of how Powhatan society and Pocahontas’ own status within it worked.

Pocahontas was the favourite of Powhatan’s many children. This was because her mother was his love match made before he became the paramount chief of the Tsenacomoca nation. In Powhatan tradition, it was custom for the paramount chief to marry women from each of the tribes he controlled to create unity and relationships between each of them.[9] No woman was forced to marry any man, not even the paramount chief, but it would have meant higher status for the woman and it was only a temporary match until they gave birth.[10] Once they had given birth, they were free to choose whether to stay in the capital Werowocomoco as a wife of the chief, or to return to their village to find a love match.[11] This meant that Pocahontas meant a lot to Powhatan, even more so as her mother died giving birth to her. Due to this bond that subsequently formed between Powhatan and his daughter, it is clear that if Powhatan had believed the English to be a threat, he wouldn’t have let a child, and his favourite child at that, go to Jamestown. Instead, in the Powhatan culture, a child was often placed at the front of a group entering the village of another tribe to show they came in peace.[12] Pocahontas was also still a child and so would have had supervision, as a royal child, she would have also had a large amount of bodyguards as well as Powhatan’s permission to visit the Jamestown settlers.[13] As selfishness and the advancement of personal welfare over others and the greater good of the tribe was seen as one of the worst things a person could do, it would not have been in Pocahontas’ nature to go to Jamestown against her father’s will.[14]

The band of warriors and priests that would have accompanied Pocahontas were showing the English settlers the general sharing of food and hospitality customs that were second nature to their people.[15] This helped the unprepared settlers to survive during the periods of harsh weather and poor health that threatened the entire existence of the settlement. However, it is also due to the status the Powhatans placed on John Smith. Just as the settlers saw Powhatan as a King, the Powhatans saw Smith as the ‘chief’ of the English.[16] The position that the Powhatan’s viewed Smith as having sheds light onto the infamous saving of Smith by Pocahontas.

Pocahontas saves Captain Smith’s Life (19th century), Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

There has been much debate about whether Pocahontas really did save John Smith from a near death by the hands of her father. What makes the difficult to understand is Pocahontas real motivations behind the act, we only have Smith’s side of the story.[17] The early seventeenth century writings on Jamestown are surprisingly quiet on the matter. Smith himself didn’t even mention the rescue until 1624, seventeen years after the event was supposed to have occurred and ironically after both Pocahontas and Powhatan had died.[18] Among many interpretations that have been put forward, most have been sceptical about its occurrence. It may have been added for political reasons after the 1622 massacre of the settlers by the Powhatans as a response for the increasingly violent treatment towards them, in order to vilify the Powhatans.[19] Another option for it not appearing is that if it did happen, Smith had purposefully emitted it for as long as possible as it ruined his reputation as a military and brave man.[20] Philip Barbour suggests a more logical explanation that runs alongside the contemporary explanation given by the narrative passed down through the Mattaponi people’s oral history. He argues that the rescue did happen but as Smith was not aware of local customs, he misinterpreted the situation. Both the Powhatans and the settlers have been known to misinterpret each other’s cultures in these early interactions as they could only base their knowledge of it on their own assumptions as a comparison to their own culture. Barbour argues that it may have been a ritual re-enacting a fake execution, rather than an actual one, to show that he was accepted by the nation and was seen as a chief in his own right.[21]

Unfortunately, we may never know the exact truth of some of the things that occurred in those early stages of the English colonisation of America. What is known that the early settlers began a narrative that was to be seen as mainstream until fairly recently (in some ways still is). It paved the way for Pocahontas being the embodiment of voluntary cultural connection and assimilation, whilst forgetting that she was in fact a captive between the ‘rescue’ and her marriage to John Rolfe.[22] This narrative became especially prevalent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when a lot of the legend of Pocahontas started to become invented by various writers.[23] The creation of this narrative coincided with wider circulation of John Smith’s writings, which portrayed her as saviour of Jamestown, and also to create a founding myth to justify the increasingly despicable treatment of Native Americans.[24] Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe was also more prevalent at this time to provide evidence of the supposed harmony and less cultural violence more interracial marriages would have created.[25]

The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1613, From The History of Our Country, published 1899 / Bridgeman Images

The only thing that is certain is that without contact with the English, Pocahontas’ life would have carried on much the same as her predecessors. Powhatan’s sister was a village chief in her own right, so Pocahontas probably could have easily followed in her footsteps.[26] She also wouldn’t have died from the Western disease that killed her, of which there is also much speculation. However, whatever the ifs and buts of her life, she has remained one of the key figures of Native American history and I hope will continue to be for centuries to come.

[1] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America (London: Trascript Verlag, 2014), p. 89.

[2] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[3] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, pp. 91-92.

[4] S. Schulting, Wilde Frauen, Fremde Welten: Kolonisierungsgeschichten aus Amerika cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 92.

[5] E. McClung Fleming, ‘The American Image as Indian Princess, 1765-1783’, Winterthur Portfolio, 2 (1965) cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 93.

[6] Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (Cambridge: Press Syndicate, 1994), p. 1.

[7] John Chamberlain, The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert Chirelstien cited in Robertson, K., ‘Pocahontas at the Masque’, Signs, 21.3 (1996), p. 552.

[8] Robertson, K., ‘Pocahontas at the Masque’, p. 552.

[9] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2007), p. 5.

[10] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, pp. 5-6.

[11] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 6.

[12] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 26.

[13] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 25.

[14] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p.

[15] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 23.

[16] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 24.

[17] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 95.

[18] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 96.

[19] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[20] G. Mackenthun, Metaphors of Dispossession: American Beginnings and the Translation of Empire, 1492-1637 cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 96.

[21] Philip Barbour, Pocahontas and Her World cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[22] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 102.

[23] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 102; Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 10.

[24] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 103; Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 11.

[25] Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 12.

[26] Tremblay, G., ‘Reflecting on Pocahontas’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 23.3, p. 121.