The Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish

She was the first woman in England to publish her writing. Even more important, she was the first woman in England to publish her own writing under her own name. Margaret, “Mad Madge”, (1623?-1678) was a celebrity of her day. And for good reason: which other woman was publishing her own works? Which other woman was writing in the fields of philosophy, science, poetry, drama, and science fiction? If you want to know more about Cavendish, take a look at Danielle Dutton’s historical fiction novel Margaret the First.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, is one of the earliest examples of female written science fiction. In her piece “The Description of a New World: Called the Blazing-World” (1668) she imagines that passing through the North Pole leads you out of our realm and into the Blazing World.

Cavendish_Observations_Blazing_World_1668_London_TP_CHFThe plot: A beautiful and virtuous lady is kidnapped. But as the kidnapper and his men sail toward the North Pole with the lady in tow they die from the cold. Only the lady survives and finds herself in the Blazing World.

The world: The Blazing World is peopled with are creatures who are half polar bear, half fox, and half bird. There are purple people and magenta people and blue and green people. Cavendish sprinkles her writing with fantastical science to match both the fantasy of her world as well as the experimentation with science of her own time: “whether [the people’s coloring was] made by the bare reflection of light, without the assistance of small particles; or by the help of well-ranged and order’d Atoms; or by a continual agitation of little Globules; or by some pressing and re-acting motion, I am not able to determine.”

Cavendish’s world is a peaceful utopia, ruled by an Emperor, who our virtuous and beautiful lady marries. As Empress, she then inquires into the workings of the Blazing World. What makes up the air, she asks the bird men? What are sun motes? As a ruler, she pioneers scientific discovery.

Yet, for all Cavendish’s imaginings, she is not a perfect feminist figure we can idolize (and she shouldn’t be–no one is a perfect feminist figure). She crafts some of the first published science fiction and deserves credit for such novelty and bravado. Yet she is still a woman of her time: the lady protagonist is both virtuous and beautiful (how could she be anything else?). The virtuous lady marries the powerful aristocratic man. Furthermore, Cavendish’s utopia is not actually grounded in diversity. The peoples of the Blazing World might look different but they are united under one language, one religion and one government. There are no varying opinions on these topics. Cavendish’s utopia values homogeneous unity rather than true plurality.

When we examine the work of early feminists, we must also remember that they were real people and can never be perfect. What we must do is value their work and their insight for what they gave us moving forwards. Cavendish gave us female-driven science fiction in the 17th Century. She gave us a woman pioneering science and asking questions to determine her own answers. She gave us hope that women could write and publish and be imaginative creators.