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Cavendish, Margaret

Entry updated 5 February 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1623/1624-1673) 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]. In its long First Part, the protagonist of the tale – she is never named – is abducted by a suitor in her own world, which is not ours, and conveyed northwards. The ship soon sinks – she alone is saved – just where this world's North Pole adjoins the North Pole of a second world (again not ours), much of it more of less comprising a vast Archipelago extending, as far as this new world is concerned, southwards, and her trek increasingly comes to resemble a traditional Fantastic Voyage. Each individual Island houses one of a range of Colour-Coded people who resemble various species, including Apes as Human tribes and others with whom she can talk [for Colour-Coding here and Instauration below see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; each is a specialist in some form of knowledge, the foolishness of their logic-dicing explanations of the scientific nature of the world forming the bulk of Cavendish's Satirical take on the Royal Society. Her hegira soon ends in the bejewelled capital, Paradise, a Utopian City whose Emperor rules the whole of this world, which is known as the Blazing-World, so called in part because innumerable stars shine brightly here all day. The Emperor falls in love and instantly marries the beautiful abductee, who is known henceforth as the Empress. After spoofish explanations of the world have been hilariously exhausted (see above), the Empress complicatedly establishes an "immaterial" but intimate soul-relationship with the Duchess of Newcastle, ie Cavendish herself, who inhabits our own world (see Recursive SF). At one point, her husband the Duke incorporates the two women into his own soul-body, creating a scenario where "the Duke would have been like the Grand-Signior in his Seraglio, ­onely it would have been a Platonick Seraglio": which nevertheless makes her briefly jealous, though her love for her husband and the Empress is healing.

In the short Second Part, the Empress discovers that in her own world her own native country is being threatened, creates a submarine fleet (see Under the Sea) powered and Weaponized by extracts of the sun known as "firestones" (which may reflect the Great Fire of London in 1666), leads it in battle, re-establishes her home kingdom, returns to Blazing-World. The extremely short Third Part focuses on celebratory masques, during which Cavendish's plays may be at last performed; Plays, Never Before Printed (coll 1668) seems to contain one of them. 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 forthrightness had led Samuel Pepys to give her the nickname "Mad Madge". None of the idiosyncrasies for which she became notorious in a misogynous age 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 published by a woman, Anna Maxwell – but of sf altogether (see Mary Shelley). The contemporary protagonist of the nonfantastic The Blazing World (2014) by Siri Hustvedt (1955-    ) comes close to channelling Cavendish in her complex negotiations with a taxing world. [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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