My recent trip to Bolsover Castle, rekindled my interest in a famous author, about whom much has been written. My original intention for this month was to write just about her life, but then I found myself immersed in her fiction and plays, and decided to focus on one work in particular as well.
Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle was one of most prolific women writers of the seventeenth century. Unusually for her time, she published under her own name, and began writing for publication while exiled in France with the Royal Court, following her marriage to the much older Earl (later the Duke) of Newcastle. This may be explained by her having nothing better to do as an aristocrat with no family, and no great household to oversee. However, she also had had no formal education, which makes the fact that her work has endured so long all the more remarkable.
Margaret continued to write following the Restoration, in between campaigning for the return of her husband’s forfeited property (his estates were returned, but not the estimated £940,000 that had either been seized by Parliament or spent on furthering the Royalist cause). Samuel Pepys was one of many commentators of the time to describe her as mad, possibly because she combined masculine and feminine dress, represented herself as figuratively hermaphrodite, and made rare but highly theatrical public appearances.
Having discovered this much, I was keen to read as close as possible to the original sources, and so made another trip to Chawton House Library.
My main text for the morning was The Blazing World and Other Writings, introduced and edited by Kate Lilley, in its original 1992 Pickering and Chatto edition. It must be said that for someone who doesn’t have any higher education qualifications to be studying English Literature, an entire day in a beautiful library doing just that is utter luxury.
The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World (to give it its full title) is almost certainly the first published science fiction written by a woman. Its first edition was printed in 1666, and it was reprinted in 1668 as a companion piece to the non-fiction Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy. The Blazing World imagines the existence of any number of worlds like ours in form, but unlike ours in terms of natural history and culture, all interlinked via their north poles.
A Lady from one of these other worlds is kidnapped, but her assailants’ boat is blown offcourse so that all but she perish in icy conditions. She is transported to another world again (the Blazing World) and rescued by a group of bear-men. As she travels in the Blazing World (sometimes in boats with special engines at the front and rear to better withstand storms, and that can be joined together in a honeycomb so none of the fleet gets lost) she meets fox-men, bird-men, satyrs, grass-green men and so on. Eventually she marries their Emperor and comes to rule over the whole world as Empress. So far, so fantastical…
The book goes on to describe how the Empress studies the natural history of her world with microscopes, telescopes, etc (some of her discoveries reflect what was believed in the 17th Century such as the idea that maggots develop from cheese!) and eventually decides that she wants to speak to the spirits and produce her own Cabbala. For this she needs a scribe, and the spirits bring her none other than the disembodied soul of the Duchess of Newcastle. The two rapidly become intimate friends’ and then ‘platonic lovers’ and have many adventures together, including taking a warfleet to free the Empress’s original home country from foreign invaders (winning partly because they have submarines as well as ships).
Following all that excitement, and after taking the Empress to see England: Bolsover Castle, where they spend time watching the Duke as he ride his horses and practices his swordsmanship, and communicate with him as disembodied souls; and then the theatres and Royal Courts in London, the Duchess starts to desire a world of her own to rule. The spirits advise her that she would be much better creating an ‘immaterial world’ within herself, which she does and is greatly delighted by.
The two eventually part, with the promise to visit each other regularly, but not before the Duchess makes another attempt to have her husband’s property returned to him — in fiction, just as in real life, she is unsuccessful.
I hope I’ve managed to convey some of the excitement I felt reading this short novel. There were aspects of science that we may scorn with modern eyes, but the breadth of knowledge displayed by this priviledged but ultimately uneducated woman was breathtaking (I could go on for hours about her worldbuilding too). Later in the day, I read ‘The Contract’, one of her short stories and the first of two in which she bases the plot on her own marriage as a young woman to a much older widower. I also got to read from a first folio edition of Plays, Never Before Printed, but that’s a story for another day.
The Blazing World is available on the internet here. I’d love to know what other people make of it.