The Blazing World
By Gabriel Blanchard
The English Baroque period knew few minds as baroque as that of Margaret Cavendish.
Margaret Lucas Cavendish was the first Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (a name and title which, taken together, surely form one of the most desperately British monikers in history). She cuts a slightly hapless figure on our Author Bank—not so much in her life, though it had its share of misfortunes, but in her legacy. Her public conduct was considered extremely strange, from her habits of dress to her gestures, and she received the unkind nickname “Mad Madge” in some quarters. Moreover, it was not socially acceptable for women to write, and certainly not to publish under their own names, which she did. Controversial and often derided in her own day, her works for the most part faded into obscurity within a few decades after her death, and her “stock” did not rise again until the later twentieth century. Nor, even after this rise, is she now a household name; an eccentric in the seventeenth century, she remains eccentric now, little known and discussed less. But there is much more to her than oddity for its own sake.
She was born in 1634. Her family were well-off, albeit not members of the nobility, and their sympathies lay with the Cavaliers in the English Civil War of 1642-1651. (Margaret herself became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, and went with her into exile in France after the king was executed). While they were not formally schooled, Margaret and her sisters were happily allowed by their family to go about reading and learning, despite the fact that women’s education met with widespread social disapproval at the time, and their writing still more so. (Though this prejudice did not prevail in all parts of Europe, it persisted in England for many generations: as late as the early twentieth century, the foundation of women’s colleges at Oxford occasioned public controversy.) She married William Cavendish in 1645, and the pair returned to England after the Stuart Restoration.
The collective mind of seventeenth century Europe bubbled like a cauldron; the scholastic consensus of the Medieval period had collapsed, thanks chiefly to the Protestant Reformers and the astronomical observations of men such as Tycho Brahe and Galileo. The Duke and Duchess of Newcastle patronized a number of artists and philosophers, including Ben Jonson, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and John Dryden. Margaret herself took a keen interest in philosophy, literature, and science, and wrote on all three subjects. She was the first woman invited to join the Royal Society, over the objections of some of its members (including the illustrious chemist Robert Boyle).
One of her favored theories, which would seem to us like part of her eccentricity but was in truth fairly common in the seventeenth century, was the notion that everything—not only human beings, but all matter—was alive, a belief known as vitalism. Neo-Platonic philosophy was enjoying a revival, and its many hierarchical gradations of being encouraged such views; in an odd contrast with modern habits of thought, Platonism often went together with a certain kind of materialism at the time, the notion being not that spirits did not exist, but that they and matter had to be “of the same stuff” in some way. The Baroque cosmos teemed with life, from the fundamentals of matter up to the angelic powers that were then widely regarded as having bodies of their own (hence Milton‘s depiction of the war between Satan and Michael as literally using weapons and armor). It was partially on this basis that Cavendish became one of the first people known to recognize and oppose cruelty to animals.
She also wrote poetry and plays, as well as an autobiography. Perhaps her most famous play is The Convent of Pleasure, which depicts a wealthy heiress founding a convent in which women may live in peaceful seclusion from men; a prince disguises himself as a woman and pursues the heiress nonetheless. There follow conversational debates and reflections on marriage and its worth (or lack thereof) to women: the heiress and her companions point out how women are socially confined by marriage and lose their financial independence, how vulnerable they are to violence from their husbands, and how childbirth endangers them. In the end, the prince and the heiress are united, but the convent is maintained for those women who still want it. Cavendish’s own happy marriage makes it rather striking that she should thus not only present “both sides” of the argument, but go out of her way to validate both in the conclusion.
But more than her plays or poems or her scientific and philosophical experiments, the duchess is remembered for what, according to some, is the earliest example of science fiction: The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World. Its main character, a young woman, is kidnapped and brought to a utopian realm (the titular “Blazing World”) accessible only via the North Pole—not, surprisingly, in order to enslave her or something of that kind, but in order to make her that realm’s empress. She reigns over a society of talking animals and becomes educated in philosophy and the sciences. Ultimately, the empress, clad in glorious jewels, achieves not only regal power and academic learning but military triumph against invaders. The work suggests definite sympathy on Cavendish’s part with the beliefs of Thomas Hobbes: he too was a proponent of the baroque version of “materialism,” and her arguments for monarchy as the only realistic means for securing peace align with his; but where his dour outlook is off-putting to many readers, the outlandish and imaginative Cavendish may put us more in mind of Hobbes’s twentieth-century namesake.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor-at-large. He resides in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might like our broader series profiling the great names of our Author Bank; these names range from Josephus and St. Bede, to Desiderius Erasmus and Francis Bacon, down to Soren Kierkegaard and George Eliot. Be sure to tune in to our podcast Anchored too, to hear conversations on questions of education, policy, and culture.
Published on 17th October, 2022. Page image of the crown jewels of England.