The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

While The Blazing World is mostly referred to as a Utopian text (and it is), I have also seen it be described as proto science fiction. Proto science fiction is literature written before the genre of science fiction, where you can see some of the tropes that would end up as the science fiction genre. But, before I talk about the book I have to talk about the Duchess.

Margaret Cavendish sounds like an amazing woman, which you probably had to be to be margbigable to get work published under your own name as a woman in 1653. She was the maid of honour for Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I). At this time there was a civil war, Cromwell beheaded Charles I and turned the UK into a republic. This forced Margaret to flee, since she had supported the royal family. She fled to France, where she met William Cavendish, a marque whom had fought on the royalist side. They got married and William later becomes Duke. Margaret writes herself that she suffers from bashfulness or melancholia, which “repent me from going abroad”.  While she didn’t like to talk about her work in public, she was known to wear unique dresses and even once wore a dress with a bear breast. She studied philosophy and science and published works within natural philosophy (natural science). All of this is present in her works. She published 21 works spanning different genres, among others natural philosophy, plays, poems and novels.

That she clearly expressed a desire to be famous is a work in progress.

The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World is about a Lady whom is kidnapped while out sea, taken to the North Pole and enters The Blazing World. Here she is made Empress and get to rule as she sees fit, and she rules as she sees fit. A huge part of the story is about natural philosophy. She talks with different types of researchers, alchemist, astronomers, doctors etc. and pretty much tell them why they are wrong and how they should do things. There will always be a problem with these types of stories, because we know more about how the world works now. Some of what she states is out of date and considering it’s presented as fact you don’t really know how to deal with it. But, this part (which is one element of what makes it a proto science fiction) has an aspect that I found interesting and that I rarely see in science fiction, the scientific debate. How do we discuss science? Not cavendish-blazingthe ethical part or what is possible, but whom gets to decide what is science and where is science accessed and for whom. This is such a huge part of science, but rarely touched upon in literature. Maybe because authors and readers think it’s not accessible enough like ethics is. We can all see if something is wrong or not, but not everyone is familiar with an academic debate. I think this is a problem. Science is such a huge aspect of our lives, we need to think about where it comes from. This book presents Margaret’s take on it. I don’t necessary agree with her, as I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of what she says, but I like that she made me think about it. And she does present it in a very easy, accessible way, if you can get used to the 17th century style of writing with never having a period. If you can make it through Jane Austen you’re fine.

The first part is about this science discussion. Then the empress needs to have a counsel for something. She is given access to a way to connect her spirit with another’s spirit so they can talk. The soul she chooses is Duchess of Newcastle. She has placed herself in the story, twice (because the Empress is also clearly her). Here she presents a more comical aspects including a scene where the Duchess complains about how fortune has not been kind to her poor, noble husband (In real life the Duke did have money problems), and Fortune is put on trial with Honesty and Prudence in defence for the Duke. It’s like taken out of Alice in Wonderland (or to be more precise, Alice in Wonderland is like taken out of The Blazing World).

The Duke answered, That for his part he had always with great industry sought her friendship, but as yet he could never obtain it, for she had always been his Enemy. However, said he, I’ll try and send my two Friends, Prudence and Honesty, to plead my Cause. Then these two Friends went with the Duchess and the Empress into the Blazing-World; (for it is to be observed, that they are somewhat like Spirits, because they are Immaterial, although their actions are corporeal:) and after their arrival there, when the Empress had refreshed her self, and rejoiced with the Emperor, she sent her Fly-men for some of the Spirits, and desired their assistance, to compose the difference between Fortune, and the Duke of Newcastle. But they told her Majesty, That Fortune was so inconstant, that although she would perhaps promise to hear their Cause pleaded, yet it was a thousand to one, whether she would ever have the patience to do it

This scene had me in stitches.

I also read Assaulted and Pursued Chastity, which highlighted both the strong and weak sides of her writing. The story is about a girl whom gets captured and sold to a rich married prince who likes to sleep with (or rape) virgins. The girl manages to run away, but the man now being in love with her follows her. The story is quite interesting with the different places she goes and the different disguise she puts on, like a sailor and a warrior. Margaret highlights how women can do all the things men can do, and can be tcover-jpg-rendition-460-707he heroine of an interesting adventure. But the tone kind of through me for a loop. The book clearly states that the girl is doing the right thing fleeing from this man to protect her chastity (don’t have sex out of wedlock, and since he is married he can’t get into wedlock with her). At the same time the story paints the prince in a favourable light and that the story is a love story. This is the same issue I had with The Decameron where women were raped and then fell in love with their rapist. As a modern reader you can’t really do it both ways. But not focusing on that I think this book was written before the cultural sexual shift. At the time women were still considered nothing but feelings, and therefore not in control over anything including their own sexuality. They would have sex with anything that moves. That she is able to be the one in control, and him following her and willing to break moral codes might be a critic of how women were viewed. Well done, Margaret.

Can you said she, make it no sin to God, no dishonour to my family, no infamy to my sex, no breach in virtue, no wrong to my family, no infamy to my sex, no breach in virtue, no wrong to honesty, no immodesty to myself?

He answered, it was lawful by nature.

By the way, have any of you read The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. It is said to be a retelling of sorts of The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish. I haven’t read it and would like to know what people think and if I should read it.

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