The ‘Quintessence of Wit’
Poems and recipes in early modern women’s writing
in Reading and writing recipe books, 1550–1800
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Margaret Cavendish has transmuted her feminine skill in distillation and has used it to create the 'Quintessence of Wit', which has its own unique power to preserve and transform. Examining extant manuscript and printed recipe books owned and compiled by early modern women, this chapter traces the process through which women could reimagine and re-create their worlds. It explores the relationships, rhetorical, formal and imaginative, between recipes and poetry in the period 1550-1700, focusing on recipes for quintessences and distilled waters. Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, juxtaposes the recipe with good poem. Isabella Whitney, Katherine Philips and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu used the recipe as a form with particular resonances for women readers to engage with issues of particular concern to women. Those particular concerns included the question of how to preserve one's sexual reputation, unrequited love and melancholy, and fears of ageing.

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