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Discovering Margaret Cavendish

By / December 3, 2016 / no comments

Let’s face it, there aren’t that many science fiction writers who have appeared in novels. H.G. Wells, of course, in a whole variety of books from Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine to David Lodge’s A Man of Parts, and Philip K. Dick in Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas by Michael Bishop. Well, now there’s a new and rather unexpected name to add to that list: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

Most early historians of science fiction tended to dismiss her work as unreadable, though in truth they probably hadn’t read her and were taking their judgements wholesale from Virginia Woolf, who said Cavendish “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly”. Not a very generous view from one trailblazing woman writer about another, but then, it wasn’t until the feminist movement of the 1970s began rediscovering early women writers that serious attention began to be paid to Cavendish. And her novel of 1666, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, is now generally recognised as one of the more significant if idiosyncratic works of early science fiction.

The Blazing World and Other Writings (Penguin Classics)It begins with a lady who has been kidnapped by pirates, but they are shipwrecked and the lady finds herself alone at the North Pole. Here she discovers there is another world joined to ours at the pole, and crosses over to this new world. Here, at first, she encounters a variety of talking animals, but eventually she penetrates underground, where she discovers human society. The Emperor of this new world falls in love with the lady and marries her, and before too long she is effectively ruling the realm (Cavendish’s work is full of strong women who go against the norms of the day to exercise power). Here the story takes an unexpected turn, because the Empress now begins to communicate with the Duchess of Newcastle in our world; Cavendish has thus written herself into her novel as a character, anticipating postmodernism by something like 300 years. And it is the two women together who devise the strategy to defend the Emperor’s realm when it comes under attack.

As full of incident as the novel is, her life was just as exciting, enough to have inspired two biographies: Mad Madge by Katie Whitaker and Margaret Cavendish: A Glorious Fame by Kathleen Jones.

Mad Madge The young Margaret Lucas became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria in Oxford early in the Civil War, and in 1644 she was with the queen on her daring escape to France, chased by a Cromwellian naval ship. In Paris, in exile, she met and married William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle, war hero and playwright. Through William’s brother, Charles Cavendish, a noted scientist of the day, her social circle included Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and other leading scientists and philosophers, she also absorbed the ideas of atomism that were then popular on the continent though they were as yet little known in England. It is highly possible that she wrote the first account of atomism to be published in English.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle: A Glorious FameLiving in relative penury in Holland during the interregnum, she decided to make some money from her writing, even travelling secretly to London in 1650 to oversee the publication of her first book of poems and to make sure she got paid. She was one of the first women to write professionally under her own name. A string of works followed until her early death in 1673, including poems, plays, scientific treatises, and fiction. She was proud of her writing, commissioning frontispieces that showed her in heroic poses, and declaring that if she could not be Henry V or Charles II, she would at least be Margaret I.

After the Restoration (she and William were on the same ship that brought Charles II back to England) she busied herself fighting bureaucracy in an only partially successful attempt to restore the family properties and fortunes that had been confiscated under Cromwell. She continued her interest in science and made repeated attempts to join the Royal Society, though she was equally repeatedly turned down because of her sex. Even so, she was the first woman to be invited to attend a session of the Royal Society, an invitation that would not be repeated for another 200 years. Yet she remained resolutely at odds with the experimental method that the Royal Society, in the person of Robert Hooke, championed, always insisting that thought was more important than observation. The Blazing World, originally published as an addendum to a book of her scientific treatises, was at least in part written as a response to Hooke’s Micrographia.

All of this, writing under her own name, her insistence that her scientific insights were at least as important as any man’s, was contrary to how women, particularly women of high birth, were supposed to behave, and it gained her a reputation for eccentricity. She played up to this in other ways, once turning up to a performance of one of her husband’s plays in a costume she had designed herself based on Cretan illustrations, a costume that left her breasts bare. No wonder Samuel Pepys christened her “Mad Madge”, a reputation that stuck down the ages.

Her lifMargaret the First: A Novele has already played an oblique part in one novel. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt is the story of a female artist in contemporary New York who can only get her work taken seriously when she pretends it was done by a man. Cavendish is a major inspiration for the artist, and her life and writings are frequently cited throughout the novel.

Now, there’s another novel, Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton, and this one is based closely on the autobiography I’ve outlined. Honestly, I can’t think of another science fiction writer whose life is more suitable for turning into a novel.

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