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“To Be Men’s Tyrants”: Margaret Cavendish

by Erin K. Wagner

On a busy day in 1667, Samuel Pepys (the famous diarist of seventeenth-century England) catches a glimpse of the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, as she passes in her coach. He recalls what he has heard of her: “for all the town-talk is now-a-days of her extravagancies [sic], with her velvetcap, her hair about her ears; many black patches, because of pimples about her mouth; naked-necked, without any thing about it, and a black just-au-corps.”

Nowadays, the talk of Cavendish is that she is one of the very first science-fiction writers, and female to boot. (See the inevitable Buzzfeed list here.)

In Pepys’s account, Cavendish is wearing the just-au-corps, a masculine coat, and in other accounts she is noted to wear a vest and affect the masculine bow over the curtsy. We can attribute these sartorial choices to a number of factors: a mother who navigated the male-dominated world of property and inheritance, her own concern to secure her husband’s fortune, her interests in science and philosophy, and her preoccupation with the role of women in society (see the bio linked above for more details). And for all these reasons, Cavendish was also a prolific writer, penning prose, poetry, and plays. We know her best today for her utopia, The Description of a New World, called the Blazing-World (see, for example, how the text pops up in the 2018 novel by Jeannette Ng).

Utopia, as a genre, generally seeks to right the wrongs of the author’s world in a fantastical setting. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, the philosophical conversations and implications of said utopia often overwhelm the narrative detail. Cavendish’s Blazing World is no different, but that does not mean there aren’t fascinating visual details as well. And, more importantly, the utopia is one that centralizes power in women’s control.

The narrative of The Description of a New World is as follows. A merchant falls in love with an unnamed lady and takes her by force. In traveling by boat, however, he passes into another world. The merchant and his men shortly die from the extreme weathers they encounter, and the lady is introduced to the emperor of this new world. Besotted, he makes her his empress (and even tries to worship her—to which she objects). In her role as empress, the lady seeks to answer a huge array of scientific, philosophical, and rhetorical questions about how the world functions. The inhabitants of the world, called upon to answer these questions, are a diverse array of men: Bear-men, Worm-men, Fish-men, Bird-men, Fly-men, Ant-men, Geese-men, etc. Eventually, the empress finds herself in need of a scribe and asks incorporeal spirits to fetch Margaret Cavendish (wink wink, nudge nudge), “a plain and rational Writer,” from her own world to that of the empress’s. The narrative ends with the empress’s successful military defense of her home country.

In her quest for knowledge, we see that the empress is a woman of Cavendish’s time—for good and bad. She asserts the supremacy of the monarchical form of government. (Cavendish was a loyalist to Charles I and went into exile with his queen after the English Civil War. When the royal line was restored, Cavendish was clearly eager to assert its rectitude, and she often mourned her husband’s damaged fortunes due to the war.) She also engages in anti-Semitism via exoticization of members of the Jewish faith and their cabbala (linked to the word cabal, generally a misperception of Jewish interpretative approaches to scripture as magical or fantastical), which the empress wishes to replicate.

However, in the course of her studies, the empress uncovers that women are not allowed to participate in religious services (for fear they will be a distraction). And this she successfully changes, making her own “Congregation of Women,” who have “quick wits, subtile [sic] conceptions, clear understandings, and solid judgments.” In dealing with the empress, the character Cavendish finds herself inspired. She asks to be an empress of her own world and, after being informed that there is no world currently suffering from a power vacuum, she makes (writes) a “World of her own Invention.” The narrative move is a nod to the author Cavendish’s own preoccupations, and, in her epilogue she makes this clear: “By this Poetical Description, you may perceive, that my ambition is not onely [sic] to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World.”

This attitude is one of a piece with the rest of Cavendish’s life and work. Despite the disparagement of Pepys upon finally meeting her in person (“her dress so antick [sic], and her deportment so ordinary, that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say any thing that was worth hearing”), Cavendish was welcomed in learned institutions like the Royal Society and was conversant with the scientific and rhetorical community. She wrote poems on atoms (“Small Atomes of themselves a World may make”) and speculated about “ships that could swim under water.” And her concern with the mobility of women in these scientific and educated spaces was not a passing one. In her collection of Orations, a handbook of speeches for various occasions, she pits different female perspectives against each other in dueling poems. One calls for women to “Unite in / Prudent Counsels, to make our Selves as Free, / Happy, and Famous as Men.” Another agrees, labeling men tyrants. A third objects, describing men as women’s admirers and lovers. And yet another argues that this admiration can be turned to women’s advantage: “also we are their Saints, / whom they Adore and Worship, and what can / we Desire more, than to be Men’s Tyrants, / Destinies, and Goddesses?”

The latter perspective does not sound unlike that of the empress, whose husband tries to worship her, and who uses her influence to obtain religious and military control in her world. For Cavendish, then, the science-fiction genre is first and foremost a tool to promote a marginalized and diverse perspective (however imperfect). So, if we are to name her a mother of the genre, we must also acknowledge the diversity of the field and the place of women in it at its very conception.

A bit about the columnist:

Erin K. Wagner is an assistant professor in the SUNY system. She lives in the Catskills, inspired by Rip Van Winkle's game of nine-pins. Her short speculative fiction has appeared in a number of publications, and her novella is forthcoming with Aqueduct Press. Visit author page