Serving up a tasty Cavendish

Or, that's a fine how-to-ragoo!

I am, as ever, unable to resist doing that for which John Dennis would surely have condemned me. But Pope thought Dennis was a prat, so there's that.

In my futile but ongoing attempt to audit the encyclopedic texts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I came across a word with which I unabashedly admit I had hitherto been utterly unfamiliar. Eliza Haywood, in Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) -- a novel which like so many of its mid-century peers is thoroughly involved in encyclopedic discourse -- titles Chapter XVI of the second volume thus: "Is a kind of olio, a mixture of many things, all of them very much to the purpose, though less entertaining than some others."

As Christine Blouch's footnote tells us, an olio is "a hodgepodge of heterogeneous elements." The note is somewhat severally redundant; "hodgepodge" itself refers to a mixture of heterogeneous elements, so indeed the note in itself adds nothing to the chapter title by way of explanation. The interesting part occurs in the etymologies of both olio and hodgepodge. Each comes from the world of food---the former from Spain (ollo), the latter from French (hochepot). This discovery put me in mind of Henry Fielding, who offers up Tom Jones as a "ragoo" of human nature, seasoned with all "the affectation and vice which courts and cities can afford."

So the links between literary variegation and the culinary arts are several. Having left "olio" out of my ESTC searches of "dictionary," "encyclopedia," and the like, I decided to go round once more with "olio," and discovered (as many of you are already undoubtedly aware) that it is Margaret Cavendish who gives us the first recorded use of "olio" to mean a sort of miscellany, or collection of literary pieces. The OED confirms her The Worlds Olio of 1655 as the earliest instance.

Cavendish has in the last few years started to get the attention she deserves, but even Paper Bodies (2000), the excellent Broadview Cavendish reader only offers the preface, and unless one happened to read the thing cover-to-cover one would likely pass over the Olio in favor of the better-known and complete The Blazing World. The entire Olio is available through EEBO, and those of you interested in aesthetics (pre-Romantic), genre studies, or indeed almost any subject under the sun might want to take a look at Cavendish's quasi-encyclopedic treatment. The organization leaves a great deal to be desired in an ease-of-use way, to be sure, but I think through no fault of their own the good people at OED reinforce a mischaracterization of the text. Miscellany an olio may be, and certainly the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were full of magazine-miscellanies that didn't shy away from advertising themselves as "universal," "compleat," or what have you. But a World's Olio--that to me suggests the foundation of a system, the suggestion that these heterogeneous elements are only heterogeneous in presentation. They are meant to cohere, or at least reflect and reinforce the possibility of coherence. It's a far cry from the encyclopedias of the eighteenth, but I think if they listened closely they might hear Cavendish shouting.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Cavendish's first entries are on fame, and why men write books (a subject to which she gave some attention in The Blazing World. Books, she hopes, will be the paper bodies that extend her life beyond the death of flesh). Here are perhaps my favorite of her words on the subject:

"Fame makes a difference between man and Beast."

"Next, the being born to the glory of God, Man is born to produce a Fame by some particular acts to prove himself a man, unlesse we shall say there is no difference in Nature, between man and beast; For beasts when they are dead, the rest of the beasts retain not their memory from one posterity to another, as we can perceive, and we study the natures of Beasts, and their way so subtilly, as surely we should discover some-what: but the difference betwixt man and beast, to speak naturally, and onely according to her works without any Divine influence, is, that dead men live in living men, where beasts die without Record of beasts; So that those men that die in oblivion, are beasts by nature, for the rational Soul in man is a work of nature, as well as the body, and therefore ought to be taught by nature to be as industrious to get a Fame to live to after Ages, as the body to get food for present life, for as natures principles are created to produced some effects, so the Soul to produce Fame."

Heady stuff. Does this go in my introduction, or my chapter on encyclopedias?


Anonymous said...

Marvelous post! I love Cavendish! And I'm still hoping her work will be the subject of my first chapter. But I'm starting my dissertation from the tail-end, so who knows what I'll be doing next semester. Anyway, I am very excited about your discovery of the word "olio," I too am new to this. Your encyclopedic angle is helping me think about her and a question I'm very interested in regarding how women write or what forms they choose to write in from a different angle. Barker's "patch-work" and Cavendish's "olio" seem to me related (even though Barker may seem less encyclopedic but I'd like to see what you have to say on this matter). The mixture that seems unsystematical by nature but is ultimately gesturing towards some kind of system or, in fact, a very specific kind of system. For Barker, transferring the female accomplishment form to the printed word was, I believe, ultimately an attempt to systematize female reading and writing practices. I think I have to think more about the "olio" and I look forward to more Scriblerus thoughts on Cavendish. NICE NEW LOOK, BY THE WAY!

Scriblerus said...

Thanks! I've been spending a lot of time looking at your blog for design tips--clean lines, and what not.

Barker's is at least as quasi-encyclopedic a text as Cavendish's, and I think it may have been another response to being "gendered out" of knowledge production (Richardson would try to do the same with the novel--the encyclopedic novel, no less--in his time). Women were more or less left out of the main encyclopedic efforts--Chambers, Diderot, the Britannica (though these are all post-Patchwork).

I'd write more, but I have terrible crick in my neck. Seriously, I can't turn it. Ow.

Marissa said...

This is great info to know.