Yes, a Woman Wrote the First Science-Fiction Novel: But It’s Not Mary Shelley! Enter Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World
History can be cruel — or at best, random — in deciding what lives or dies in the balance of art. True, when a work lasts for multiple centuries it always has something going for it, even when the language and allusions require a short novel of footnotes. In time, however, the genius shines through and on further acquaintance a work that initially baffled becomes a treasured companion. The key word here is acquaintance: almost every work of art requires time and understanding to foster a relationship. Even works that delight on first glimpse — say, Monet’s Water Lilies — grow in complexity over months and years of patient ‘reading.’
So what does this suggest about the works we never get to know? We take it on good authority that an out-of-print novel clearly deserved to be forgotten. It lacked memorability, or universality, or some other “ity” to make it timeless. Occasionally, people unearth forgotten works only to shake their heads and remark, “it has its merits, but clearly history was justified in its neglect.” But can a single glance, however well-meaning, truly replace the value of a lifetime of reading and study?
Case in point, the largely forgotten (though often footnoted) 17th century author, Margaret Cavendish. Cavendish is one of the true originals of literature: she wrote and published her numerous works thanks to the support of her husband; she conversed with the leading scientists of her age and attempted to tuck the latest discoveries into her poetic romances; and most importantly, she imagined a utopian kingdom ruled by a single woman who judged her subjects solely in the light of reason. Numerous works flowed from her pen — many of the mocked by the critics of her age — including the experimental The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666). How fitting that this work appeared in the year of the Great Fire of London, as it probably the most audacious work to be published by a woman in English until…maybe ever? Or at least until Virginia Woolf started writing her own genre (and gender) breaking works such as Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway.
The story is simple, and hardly the point of the work: a young woman is kidnapped by sailors and borne off to their own land. En route, a terrible storm (shades of The Tempest) takes hold of the vessel and hurls it toward the North Pole, where the sailors promptly freeze to death. The young lady is spared, thanks to beneficial spirits, and continues to sail through a portal that binds our world to the so-called “blazing world,” or a parallel dimension. Here, she discovers a world of bear-men, bird-men, fly-men, and even worm-men, who rescue her and bring her before their Emperor, who immediately falls in love with her (particularly once she assures him she is not a goddess, but a simple mortal, like the rest of them — well, like him, anyway). He marries her and appoints her Empress of the Blazing World, and the plot, such as it is, ends there — about 5 pages into the 100-page book.
Now it gets interesting. Clearly, Cavendish only used the plot as a fragile framework to write about what truly interested her — which was everything else in creation. The Empress spends the rest of the book quizzing the various creatures of her husband’s kingdom about science, philosophy, God, the devil, war, religion, and souls. This in itself is rather audacious, since seventeenth-century women were excluded from scientific and religious societies, as if they couldn’t understand the mysterious truths of nature. And they were right: they couldn’t understand because they were never taught — the very books locked away in private libraries or at universities which also barred their entrance. So the Empress takes this opportunity to see what women have been missing for all this time. Some of what she learns fascinates her; this was, after all, the age of Newton, Sprat, and Hooke, who were finding brave new worlds both large and small.
Imagine going from a world where the greatest achievement is playing a scale or performing a curtsey to learning, courtesy of the worm-men, that “there is no beginning in nature, no not of particulars, by reason nature is eternal and infinite, and her particulars are subject to infinite changes and transmutations by virtue of their own corporeal figurative self motions; so that there’s nothing new in nature, nor properly a beginning of anything.” The shock of opening the confined, infinitely segregated world of a woman to this vast cosmic scale would have made her question everything: what else wasn’t she being told? And why shouldn’t she have a room of her own, with her own books and scientific equipment, the same as her father, brothers, or husband?
Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what the Empress does: she wants to know only the what but the why: for what purpose do they look into the stars or study the legs of a flea? To her astonishment, the various bear and worm-men often can’t tell her why they decided to perform them or who stands most to benefit — except themselves. Indeed, the academies are more often the birthplace of eternal feuds and heated exchanges between rival factions, little of which trickles down to the ignorant masses who could benefit from their miraculous discoveries. As the ultimate outsider — a stranger from another world, and a woman — she can ask the very questions they can no longer see, such as, “whether their microscopes could hinder [fleas’] biting, or at least show some means how to avoid them?” The response of the scientists is simple and satiric: “such arts were mechanical and below that noble study of microscopical observations.”
The Empress quickly tires of their refusal to think of the practical application of science and demands that they destroy their telescopes. If science doesn’t benefit man and exalt his nature (rather than dragging it down into endless squabbles) better not to have it at all! The scientists beg for clemency, claiming,
“we take more delight in artificial delusions, than in natural truths. Besides, we shall want employment for our senses, and subjects for arguments; for were there nothing but truth, and no falsehood, there should be no occasion to dispute, and by this means we should want the aim and pleasure of our endeavours in confuting and contradicting each other; neither would one man be thought wise than another.”
This passage sounds suspiciously autobiographical: perhaps Cavendish sat in stunned silence as she witnessed men (thanks to her husband’s influence) heatedly argue about this or that irrelevant point, largely to hear themselves talk. In Cavendish’s utopia, science would be accessible and useful to all, or it would be damned.
Not content to govern science, the Empress also has high standards for any kind of art in her kingdom. In a statement that would sound modern even today, with our distrust of elitist establishments, she claims,
“art does not make reason, but reason makes art; and therefore as much as reason is above art, so much is a natural rational discourse to be preferred before an artificial: for at is, for the most part, irregular, and disorders men’s understandings more than it rectifies them, and leads them into a labyrinth whence they’ll never get out, and makes them dull and unfit for useful employments.”
This is an interesting charge, since many would accuse Cavendish of leading her readers “into a labyrinth whence they’ll never get out.” Yet she would defend the “irregular” nature of her book as being an accurate reflection of art (or the imagination) itself. A well-ordered, perfectly manicured world is an illusion as is any utopia (which literally means “no place”). As a woman coming to literature without tradition, she can question everything she sees. Indeed, there is no “anxiety of influence” for her, since there are no poetic utopian romances written by and for women (nor, indeed, much prose fiction that strives to be more than an entertaining romance). She is looking upon the world for the first time, and for this reason, is content to take nothing at face value.
In due time, the Empress decides to write her own “Cabbala,” or secret formula to divine the mysteries of science, religion, and philosophy. She converses with spirits who suggest she contact the souls of the famous writers of old to be her scribes. Naturally, she lights on Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle, only to be warned that they “are so wedded to their own opinions, that they would never have the patience to be scribes.” When she goes down a level — say, to Galileo, Hobbes, or Descartes — she is similarly informed that they are “so self-conceited, that they would scorn to be scribes to a woman.”
And so down she goes, through the great names of history, only to discover a posthumous boy’s club: no women allowed. Luckily, the spirits have one other name in reserve, though far less famous than the rest: “there’s a lady, the Duchess of Newcastle, which although she is not one of the most learned, eloquent, witty and ingenious, yet is she a plain and rational writer.” The Duchess of Newcastle, none other than Margaret Cavendish herself!
The book becomes deliciously “meta” at this point, since Margaret is transparently airing all her own grievances about her society which she previously veiled in science fiction metaphors. Even her complaints about being a maligned female author sneak into the narrative, as in this passage: “she asked her whether she would write? Yes, answered the Duchess’s soul, but not so intelligbly that any reader whatsoever may understand it, unless he be taught to know my characters; for my letters are rather like characters, than well-formed letters.” While she is ostensibly talking about her handwriting, it seems to suggest that as a writer she doesn’t write for everyone, but chiefly to please herself (and for the select few who can tolerate her ‘scrawl’). Likewise, the Duchess convinces the Empress not to write a Cabbala giving her supreme political or philosophical power, but “rather to make a poetical or romantical Cabbala, wherein you can use metaphors, allegories, similitudes, etc., and interpret them as you please.” In other words, write something like this book — hint, hink, wink, wink.
As an author, Cavendish necessarily looked to the writers who came before her; not coincidentally, the very men who would reject the Empress’s own literary pursuits. So why not invent her own genre and give birth to her own artistic legacy? The Blazing World was indeed Cavendish’s own “poetical/romantical Cabbala,” as it intended to marry three genres into one glorious hodgepodge: utopian fiction, travel writing, and fictional romances. While the first two were primarily related with the world of science and fact, the third was the province of mere entertainment, usually for women who had the free time to read, and were expected to entertain themselves with fantastic drivel. So why not give them the pretense of romance and poetry, while at the same time teaching them something for a change? Women would learn — and could learn — Cavendish argued, if only given the chance. The book is her eccentric, yet highly original primer, which condenses the latest science and philosophy into a highly readable, yet endlessly bizarre compendium.
Perhaps even more of interest to the modern reader is her highly advanced views on relationships and sexuality. While obviously she couldn’t say as much as she might have liked (she was a married woman, after all) she does suggest that conventional ways of thinking about marriage, and love, might no longer be necessary in a utopian environment. Cavendish flaunted social mores in her own life, if not through her marriage, than through her person — often sporting male clothing and writing books which most people assumed were written by a man (from her male style, too learned for a mere woman!).
We see the same unorthodox views when she discusses the “platonic love” between the Empress and Margaret, which is clearly more than a mere sisterly friendship: “truly their meeting did product such an intimate friendship between them, that they became platonic lovers, although they were both females.” What she hints at here is the ideal (as in Plato’s ideal forms) of love itself, which is not bound by human flesh or lust, but the spirit itself. The two women, being the products of a single mind, can share in Shakespeare’s “meeting of true minds” and love in a way that no husband or wife ever could (in this society, at least, where the two were virtual strangers).
Yet Cavendish doesn’t leave men out of the party entirely. Later in the book, Margaret takes the Empress down to England to survey the ills of her society; they soon take a detour to visit Margaret’s husband, as she laments their long separation. Their souls then enter into his body — the better to truly know him — and before Margaret can object, “these two souls became enamoured of each other; which the Duchess’s soul perceiving, grew jealous at first, but then considering that no adultery could be committed amongst platonic lovers, and that Platonism was divine…cast forth her mind that Idea of Jealousy.”
They can now indulge in a Platonic ménge à trois, three minds in one body, reveling in the kind of sensual knowledge forbidden to most wives. Clearly, Cavendish had a very loving relationship with her husband, as it was based as much in the mind as in the body; for this reason, she would gladly let others partake in his ‘mind,’ since love and reason are infinite. Later writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft would decry the whoredom of marriage, where women were married off before they could be an intellectual match to their husbands. Cavendish, acutely aware of this, wanted men and women to marry Platonically, with multiple partners, so that each sex would be emancipated in the other. As she jokes, “had there been but some such souls more, the Duke would have been like the Grand Signior in his seraglio, only it would have been a platonic seraglio.” Only in Cavendish’s utopia, the roles could switch so that even a woman could play at being the “Grand Signoir” and celebrate an entire harem of platonic worshippers.
While anyone expecting a modern treatise on feminism or a mind-altering work of science fiction will be disappointed, if taken on its own terms (and in its own context), The Blazing World is a delightful, audacious, and often quite hilarious look at the possibilities of a science-fiction utopia. That Cavendish created it with very little precedent, and knowing that few would bother to read it, is even more extraordinary. In a perfect world, Cavendish would be celebrated beside the authors she most inspired, whether or not they read her work: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Indeed, I almost wonder if Le Guin was inspired to write The Left Hand of Darkness after a passing acquaintance with Cavendish’s “blazing world.” If so, though she may have improved upon the original, she still owes it an enormous debt. I look forward to visiting this world again over the years, and continuing to make sense of its paradoxical and platonic wonders.