Margaret Cavendish eText - Primary Source

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A frontispiece with an engraving of Margaret Cavendish. She produced a more substantial body of work than any other mid-seventeenth-century woman. Reproduced by permission of Mary Evans Picture Library.A frontispiece with an engraving of Margaret Cavendish. She produced a more substantial body of work than any other mid-seventeenth-century woman. Published by Gale Cengage Mary Evans Picture Library
The English author and intellectual Margaret Cavendish wrote in the greatest variety of genres of any person of the late Renaissance period. Her book The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World is considered the first science fiction novel. ©BThe English author and intellectual Margaret Cavendish wrote in the greatest variety of genres of any person of the late Renaissance period. Her book The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World is considered the first science fiction novel. Published by Gale Cengage Bettmann/Corbis

Excerpt from The Description of the New World
Called the Blazing World (1666)

Reprinted in The Description of the New World
Called the Blazing World and Other Writings

Edited by Kate Lilley
Published in 1999

The English author and intellectual Margaret Cavendish (1623–1674), first duchess of Newcastle, wrote in the greatest variety of genres of any person of the late Renaissance period. The Renaissance was a cultural revolution that began in Italy in the mid-1300s. It was initiated by scholars called humanists who promoted the human-centered values of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanist ideals were soon influencing the arts, literature, philosophy, science, religion, and politics in Italy. During the early fifteenth century, innovations of the Italian Renaissance began spreading into the rest of Europe and reached a peak in the sixteenth century. Her works consisted of scientific philosophy, two volumes of plays, poetry, fantasies, essays, letters, a biography of her husband, and an autobiography. Not only did she take the daring step of becoming a published author—English women rarely wrote for a public audience at the time—but she also signed her own name to her books.

Cavendish is isolated but seeks fame

Cavendish was a complex figure. While she was a staunch loyalist (supporter of the monarchy), she had few ties with the Anglican Church (the official religion of England). Moreover, she often published essays and letters that criticized England's monarchy and rigid social class system. She wrote radical commentaries on women's social, political, intellectual, and legal standing. Despite her feminist ideals, Cavendish often painted women as weak, emotional creatures dependent upon the goodness and support of men. While others thought she was privileged, she frequently portrayed herself a social outcast. She felt she had been isolated from the intellectual mainstream of universities and scholarly activity because she was a woman. She found fulfillment when writing in the solitude of her study, but also sought public recognition. Cavendish associated with intellectuals and remained informed

about the latest cultural developments. For instance, she dined with the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) and she visited the all-male Royal Society, the prestigious scientific organization in London. Nevertheless, critics would not overlook her lack of formal training, since she knew no foreign languages and had no classical or scholarly education. Cavendish met with constant ridicule because she wrote so many works on so many different subjects. Although she had a prolific career, Cavendish is best known today for The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World (1666).

Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from The Description of the New World Called the Blazing World:

  1. Blazing World tells the story of a young lady who is abducted by a foreign merchant and taken by ship into another world, the Blazing World. After the merchant and the ships's crew freeze to death during the passage into the new world, they thaw out and spread corruption. The young lady is then transformed into an empress. Ruling over the Blazing World as a warrior queen, she puts down rebellions and commands armies of bird-men, worm-men, bear-men, and other warriors in a series of fantastic adventures.
  2. In this excerpt the Empress sends the bird-men and worm-men to burn the towns of princes who did not meet her demands. She commands them to use water, which she has made flammable, to destroy the towns. Her armies' efforts are aided first by a great tide (rising of the sea) and a torrential rain that flood the towns. After several weeks the Empress achieves victory and declares herself the ruler of the Blazing World. She stages a spectacular ceremony and entertainment at sea. The Empress then delivers a triumphant speech to the conquered princes, vowing to assist the monarch of her native land, King of ESFI, in a war against his enemies.

What happened next…

Cavendish continued to write and prepare her books for publication until her sudden death in 1673, at age fifty. She produced a more substantial body of work than any other mid-seventeenth-century woman. Her writings received a mixed reception—more negative than positive. While she may have been only a minor literary figure in the late 1600s, during the twentieth century her works gained serious attention from literary scholars, historians of science, women's historians, and those who study women philosophers. More recently scholars have studied Cavendish as a writer of fantasy, autobiography, and biography.

Did you know…

  1. Blazing World is often called one of the first science fiction novels. Many twentieth-century scholars also regard the book as a daring exploration of women's power.
  2. Cavendish was nicknamed "Mad Madge" because people thought she was mentally unstable. She was ridiculed for her self-promotion, her willingness to debate famous male thinkers, and her strong feminist views. She also attracted negative attention by dressing unconventionally, often wearing a combination of women's and men's clothing.

For More Information

Books

Cavendish, Margaret. The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World and Other Writings. Edited by Kate Lilley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994.

Web Sites

Norton Topics Online: Van Schuppen, Engraving [portrait] of Margaret Cavendish. [Online] Available http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/NTO/18thC/worlds/imcavendish.h... , April 10, 2002.