Early forms of human symbolic communication testify to pre-literate notions of fame, which Homer metaphorised in Mount Ossa, while Virgil, in the Aeneid, posited "no evil faster than [fame].” Plato and Aristotle took fame seriously as the pursuit of honour and glory, while the Stoics tended to view it as a by-product of living in harmony with nature and virtue. As a result, during the classical revivals, the concept of fame was often associated with notions of honour, virtue, and achievement. Petrarch's sonnets, Chaucer’s dream, Shakespeare's plays or Pope’s vision concretized the humanist tradition of seeking immortality through renowned literary works. But how women were portrayed, or women writers dealt with it? We might then turn to the University of Seville’s emblem, which features a coronary statue of Fame, as a female “public messenger.”

Across her career, Cavendish was obsessed with fame. While she was critical of the pursuit of fame for its own sake, and expressed reservations about the vanity, wealth, or false learning that might lead to “bastard fame,” she nonetheless devoted her writing career to the pursuit of a “true fame” that might be earned through virtue, originality, wit, and wisdom. She also recognized, as an early female author and iconoclast, that fame was her only avenue to a more sympathetic future audience. Indeed, her work abounds in haunting expressions of her desire for longevity. As she frequently expounded, she sought to climb “Fames Tower” and “Live in Many Brains.” Now, in 2024, the world is finally listening. 

Cavendish offers a unique opportunity to discuss fame, its impact on individuals and societies, and its continuities with concepts of immortality. More broadly, she offers valuable insights into the human condition and the power of public perception. Of course, the trope of fame continues to resonate today, as we explore the human complexities of ambition, desire, vanity, and identity.

Speakers
James Fitzmaurice
University of Sheffield
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