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Cavendish, Margaret

Entry updated 31 October 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1623-1673) UK playwright, poet and author, much of whose life shared the turbulence of her times, who died as Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne. At a time when books by women were mostly pseudonymous or appeared in pirated editions, she was one of the first British women to write and publish professionally under her own name.

Born Margaret Lucas, the youngest child of Royalist and Catholic landholders, she received no formal education but was a lady-in-waiting to Charles I's Queen, Henrietta Marie, and accompanied the queen on her flight from England in 1644. This was a desperate adventure that involved escaping from Exeter in disguise and being chased across the Channel by a Parliamentarian naval ship. Elements from this adventure, particularly the figure of a fleeing princess, a frightening voyage, and characters cast upon a barren shore, would recur in her fiction. The next sixteen years were spent in exile, first in Paris, where she met and married William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle; through her husband, and through her brother in law, Charles Cavendish, a noted scientist, Margaret joined an intellectual circle that included Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, Pierre Gassendi and John Evelyn, becoming well acquainted with the leading scientific and philosophic ideas of the day, in particular the atomist ideas of Lucretius and Epicurus that were enjoying a vogue in France at this time. Her "Atomic Poems" sequence, first published in Poems, and Fancies (coll 1653), speculates on the nature and interaction of various sorts of atoms, including the remark that "Small Atomes of themselves a World may make" (see Cosmology). Since William Charleton's work would not appear until the following year, 1654, it is likely that these poems marked the first expression of the atomic theory of nature to be published in England. The World's Olio (coll 1655) assembles short essays and aphorisms, some of a speculative nature; at the heart of this and her other works of natural philosophy lay the conviction that imagination played a vital part in scientific understanding, which led in turn to her criticisms of the mechanical and experimental work of Descartes and Robert Hooke. Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life [for full subtitle see Checklist] (coll 1656; rev 1671) has been a focus of contemporary sex and gender studies (see Women SF Writers).

In England after 1660, her time was divided between her fight to recover the Cavendish lands and fortunes, her writing, and her interests in natural philosophy out of which sprang her contentious relationship with the newly-created Royal Society. She interpreted Robert Hooke's Micrographia, or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies (1665) as a manifesto for the Royal Society's empirical approach which described the surface but not what was going on under the surface. In response she wrote an important Proto SF text, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World: Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princesse, the Duchess of Newcastle (1666) [for further details confirming standalone publication see Checklist below]. This novel – which in response to Hooke focuses in part on a Hollow Earth and on what happens below the surface – is in fact set primarily upon a vast Archipelago extending from a North Pole of its own (more or less adjacent to the familiar North Pole) southwards to just north of the Shetland Islands. The tale begins, as so many of her fictions do, with a lady kidnapped by pirates then abandoned on a barren northern shore, which she soon discovers to be what is justly known as the Blazing World, on account of its sunlit brilliance. This world is packed with Colour-Coded peoples and creatures, including Apes as Human tribes and figures identifiable as Alien creatures with whom she can talk [for Colour-Coding here and Instauration below see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. She then enters the bejewelled capitol of the world, the Imperial City or Paradise, where she meets and marries the Emperor.

It is at this point that the new Empress develops a mystical Telepathic connection with the Duchess of Newcastle in our world, who thus writes herself into her own fiction (see Recursive SF). Cavendish gives the Empress a tour of lost and ruined Newcastle lands, then provides advice to help the Empress fight off an attack upon her own country by means of "firestone" (which seems to echo the Great Fire of London in 1666); the Utopia of the Blazing World is thus explicitly linked with restoration: The Blazing World ends in Instauration.

Despite her attacks upon the Royal Society, Cavendish repeatedly endeavoured to join the Society and was repeatedly turned down (at this stage it had no women members), though she was able to visit the Society and witness its experiments in 1667. It is likely that she was a bigger attraction than the experiments, however, for by this time she already had a reputation for eccentricity. At a performance of a play written by her husband, for instance, she had appeared wearing an outfit of her own design based on ancient Cretan costumes which left the breasts bare. Such behaviour had led Samuel Pepys to give her the nickname "Mad Madge". None of the idiosyncrasies for which she became notorious should, however, detract from her significance as one of the founders not only of feminist sf (see Feminism) – it may be of interest to note that Blazing World was printed by a woman, Anna Maxwell – but of sf altogether (see Mary Shelley). [PKi/JC/AR]

Margaret Cavendish, Marchioness and later Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne

born St John's Abbey, Colchester, Essex: 1623

died Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire: 15 December 1673


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