A look at the 17th centenary SF writer, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, based on a 2017 talk given to the Critical Mass SF discussion group.
Virigina Wolfe in 1929 wrote of Margaret Cavendish:
What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death. (Woolfe, 1989. pp 61-62)
It is a delightful albeit painful description, yet it encompasses a common perception of the Duchess of Newcastle. Philosopher, poet, playwright, scientist, fashion designer and author, the first woman to publish under her own name as well as the first to attend a meeting of the Royal Society of London, Cavendish blazed a trail in the mid 1600’s, including being one of the first writers of proto-science fiction. Yet she has tended to be regarded with scorn rather than respect – at least until comparatively recently, when philosophers, historians and others have started reexamining her work and depicting a different vision than the “Mad Marge” of the past.
I would like to take this opportunity to explore one of the first writers of SF through a lens encompassing her utopian novel The Blazing World and some of her philosophical writing, while providing some broader context regarding how her upbringing and the philosophical debates of the time influenced her work. We will look at her background and upbringing, her forays into the publishing world, cover the broad themes of The Blazing World, and examine how one of the core aspects of the novel is reflected in her philosophical work.
Margaret Cavendish was born in approximately 1623 to Thomas and Elizabeth Lucas. Her parents were minor nobility – wealthy, but untitled. Her father was considerably older than Elizabeth, having married her after he returned from exile in the very early 1600’s, (and after the birth of their first child), about twenty years before Margaret was born. Thus Thomas was getting on a bit by the time Margaret appeared and subsequently passed away when she was two, leaving Margaret to be raised by her mother. However, before he passed away, Thomas had sired seven other children with Elizabeth, including Sir John and Sir Charles Lucas. Sir John became one of the original fellows of the Royal Society of London, and as such is likely to have been a source of inspiration to Margaret, while Sir Charles became noted as a commander in the English Civil War – ultimately being executed after going against his parole and battling at the seizure of Colchester in 1648.
Her upbringing was cloistered but happy – she was very close to her brothers and sisters, and Elizabeth indulged her children – spending their money liberally on fancies, as she believed that encouraging her children to enjoy luxuries would drive them to appreciate the need for money when they were older. However, her mother insisted that she have no contact with the servants, and her family’s stance as royalists surrounded by Parliamentarians prevented them from engaging with people outside of their family. As a result, she would later describe herself as “very bashful”, (others have gone further, using the phrase “pathologically shy”), as she had little experience interacting with people beyond her siblings and tutors.
Margaret was tutored privately by an elderly governess, but her education wasn’t unusual for a lady of the era – singing, music, reading and writing – and she wasn’t especially taken by study, and nor was she particularly good. That said, she did spend a lot of time reading, as she had access to private libraries, and as a resource she had her brother John. In particular she loved to design her own clothes (which she continued with after her marriage, creating controversy for her eccentric fashion sense), and to write, authoring what she later called her “baby books”.
In the early 1640s, her family traveled to Oxford after issues with their Parliamentarian neighbours came to a head. There they joined King Charles I and his court on the eve of the English Civil War, and Margaret was engaged in 1643 as a Maid of Honor for Queen Henrietta Maria. Although seemingly exciting for a Royalist, this led to problems when, (after the defeat at Marston Moor in 1644), the Queen went into exile in France. In accompanying the Queen, Margaret experienced complete separation from her family for the first time, and this was quite the traumatic experience – at one point she tried to leave the Queen’s service, only to be convinced to stay by Elizabeth Cavendish who offered a significant allowance if she remained, well above what she would normally receive while working for the Queen.
While in Paris she had the good fortune to meet William Cavendish, the Marquis of Newcastle, (who would later be named Duke), and the two wed in 1646. The wedding was a small and private affair, mostly because the Queen did not approve – Margaret was both considerably younger and of considerably lower station than William. That said, the marriage was a fortunate occurrence for Margaret, as she had no dowry, and, unusually for the time, had made a “love match”, loving William “not for title, wealth or power, but for merit, justice, gratitude, duty, and fidelity” (Wikipedia Contributors 2018).
William, with help from his brother Charles, greatly encouraged Margaret in her literary and scientific endeavours, and it was under his encouragement that she returned to writing in the early 1650s. William introduced her to the Cavendish or Newcastle Circle, consisting of William and Charles, along with luminaries such as Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes. She wasn’t always able to engage closely with the men of the circle, but they were a great influence on her writings. Descartes, for example, was unable to converse directly with Margaret, as she wrote “I never spake to monsieur DeCartes in my life, nor ever understood what he said, for he spake no English, and I understand no other language, and those times I saw him, which was twice at dinner with my Lord at Paris, he did appear to me a man of the fewest words I ever heard” (Cavendish, 1655). (She did, however, contact Descartes through letters written by her husband). Her interest in the sciences led to her request to attend the Royal College of London, and in 1667 she became the first woman to attend one of their meetings, although it took approximately another two centuries until the achievement was repeated.
In 1651, with finances in a poor state, Charles and Margaret returned to England to see if that could be given some of the funds from the sale of the Duke’s estate. They were unsuccessful. However, unbeknownst to her husband, Margaret used the opportunity to write and publish “Poems and Fancies”. The work caused a sensation at the time, and while it has been said that the work did find some (private) encouragement, overall the public response was negative, with criticism of her “spelling, grammar and writing style”. She responded to this criticism in later works, writing that it was “against nature for a woman to spell right”, and that while she was unable to understand grammar, the “little she knew was enough to make her renounce it”. In particular, Margaret received criticism for writing for publication – that she wrote was acceptable, but that she was seeking publication was not. Nevertheless, it was her goal to be famous, and the path to achieving that goal was through writing. As she was to later write, “Though my ambition’s great, my designs are harmless… and I had rather venture an indiscretion, than lose the hopes of a fame.”
Margaret’s books covered the full range available – she wrote fiction, natural philosophy, plays, poetry, and anything else that took her fancy. Importantly, she tended to use all of her works, in all of their forms, to express her philosophical and scientific ideas. The work that most interests us here – The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World – was in itself a companion piece to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. Published in 1666, it is seen as one of the early utopian proto-SF novels.
The Blazing World
In the book our protagonist, a young and attractive woman, is kidnapped by a poor sailor looking for a wife. He takes her to sea intending to forcibly marry her, when a tempest blows up, pushing the boat north. Very far north, because over time they travel to the Arctic. The crew, along with the sailor who kidnapped her, die as a result of the extreme cold, but our protagonist is saved “by the light of her Beauty, the heat of her Youth, and Protection of the Gods”. The boat, our young lady, and the bodies of the crew continue north, until finally, when they reach the North Pole, they can travel north no more.
According to the novel, when a vessel reaches the North Pole she theorised that it can travel no further. Instead, it must pass into another world:
“… for they were not only driven to the very end of point of the Pole of that world, but even to another Pole of another world, which joined close to it; so that the cold having a double strength at the conjunction of those two Poles, was unsupportable; at least, the boat still passing on, was forced into another world, for it is impossible to round this world’s globe from Pole to Pole, so as we do from East to West; because the Poles of the other world, joining to the Poles of this, do not allow any further passage to surround the world that way; but if any one arrives to either of these Poles, he is either forced to return, or to enter into another world…” (Cavendish 1668a)
In the case of this story, the new world is the Blazing World, so named because of the blazing light emanating from the world’s sun.
(This journey to another world, alone and effectively in exile, is a theme explored in other works of fiction by Cavendish, and it is generally thought that this reflects her own experience of being banished with the Queen to France).
The new world seems to have been warmer than the old, and the rising temperature caused the bodies of the dead crew to thaw. This forced her out of the cabin onto the deck. At this point she would have died, but was saved by a sleuth of polar bears. Or rather, two legged versions of polar bears who come across her boat. They have a look around, determine a course of action, sink the boat, and carry the lady back to their underground village. There they treat her well, but it is clear that the climate does not agree with her constitution, so they send her off to the fox-men. On arrival it is decided to send her onwards to the Emperor, and thus she must meet with the geese-men and the satyrs, before passing into the care of the green-men. They take her across the sea to the Emperor.
After a long journey, involving boats made of leather and boats made of gold, she made her way to the capital and the seat of the empire. The capital is built in the Roman style, which, as is highlighted, is viewed by Cavendish as much more attractive than the current architectural style in England and France, which is apparently more suited to birds than men. There she was presented to the Emperor, who decided that she must be a goddess. As our protagonist was of a more humble sort, she insisted that she was naught but a mere mortal. Accordingly, the Emperor declared his love and they were wed.
Politically, the world reflects the views of Hobbes, who provided a strong influence on her philosophy. Cavendish shares with Hobbes the view that people are primarily motivated by self interest, and that civil society exists to create an environment where we can pursue this self interest. For Hobbes if there was no society:
“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes 1651)
Cavendish reflects this in other works, writing that:
“If [there is] no safety [there is] no propriety, either of goods, wives, children nor lives, and if there be no propriety there will be no husbandry and the lands will lie unmanured; also there will be neither trade nor traffic, all which will cause famine, war, and ruin, and such a confusion as the kingdom will be like a chaos.” (Cavendish 1662)
As with Hobbes, Cavendish (as mentioned, a royalist) believes that the most stable form of government is one with a single sovereign who possesses absolute power. This is reflected in her utopia, in which the Emperor is the only Emperor of the world, there is but a single language which all species speak, and there is complete peace. When the protagonist is crowned as the new Empress, she asks why there is but a single ruler, and is told:
“as it was natural for one body to have but one Head, so it was also natural for a Poilitick body to have but one Governor” (Cavendish 1668a)
Indeed, as the new Empress, the protagonist strives to learn much from the species of the world about science, philosophy, politics and religion, and we get page, after page, (after page), of the experts answering questions as diverse as “why is the sun hot”, “why is coal black”, and “what is the cause of thunder and lightning”. While the novel can be read on its own, it is clearly a companion piece to her philosophical and scientific works, and is probably best seen in that context,
Eventually, after much philosophical exploration, the Empress is encouraged to employ a scribe – a spirit from either a dead or living person who would be able to assist her in her work. The scribe she gets is the Duchess of Newcastle, aka Margaret Cavendish herself, now featuring in her own novel, who spends time describing her interests in natural philosophy.
Finally, in the second part if the novel, the Empress is informed by Immaterial Spirits that her home country is under siege, so she returns, using submarines towed by the fish-men and stones dropped by the bird-men, to stop the invasion and free the land. I’m curious as to whether or not we can argue that the introduction of a character, clearly based on the author, who everyone falls in love with and who subsequently saves the world, can be seen as an early example of a Mary Sue – I’m inclined to argue yes.
One of the central tenets of Cavendish’s Blazing World is that the “beasts” are intelligent and caring. This comes across as a response to the work of Rene Descartes, and is reflected in other philosophical and poetical works by Cavendish. Descartes, responding in part to the appearance of automatons in France, had written of “cartesian dualism” – the view that the mind is an immaterial or non-physical entity that it interacts in some way with our material bodies. This creates a problem, though – how can an immaterial entity interact with the physical world? In Descartes’ solution to the mind-body problem, he proposes that the mind interacts with the body through the pineal gland, but there are alternative approaches, including epiphenomenalism (a glorious word which effectively means that the mind is created by the physical body, but does not influence the material world), Malebranche ‘s occasionalism (in which God intervenes to cause the body to move), and Liebniz’s parallelism (the mind exists in parallel to the body, but is neither influenced by nor influences its actions, as they just happen to have been created by God to exist in harmony). However, an alternative approach is that of materialism – a view expressed by one of Cavendish’s greatest influences, Thomas Hobbes. It side steps the problem by denying that the mind is immaterial – if we assume that the mind is material, there is no mind-body problem. It was to this view that Cavendish ascribed.
Cavendish argues that immaterial souls could not travel and be in motion with physical bodies. Therefore, as our mind does travel with our body, it cannot be immaterial. She accompanies this approach with an interesting theory about motion. At the time it was generally believed that objects move because the are given the property of “motion” by another object. When object P collides with object Q, P transfers the property of movement to Q, leading to the expected response. But Cavendish saw a problem with this. If “motion” is immaterial, how can it cause a physical object to move? Yet if “motion” is physical, then why is there no observable material change in object P when it transfers this physical entity to Q? Surely P would lose something each time it causes movement. Perhaps it would reduce in size if motion was transferred, and Q would increase – yet we see no such change. Similarly, Cavendish argues that:
“I cannot think it probable, that any of the animate or self-moving matter in the hand, quits the hand, and enters into the bowl; nor that the animate matter, which is in the bowl, leaves the bowl and enters into the hand … if it did, the hand would in a short time become weak and useless, by losing so much substance” (Cavendish 1664)
Cavendish’s solution was what we now call panpsychism. All things contain the ability to move, but they choose when to do so. When P collides with Q, it is not that motion is transferred to Q, but that Q decides to move in relation to P. As an example, in Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters, or Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy, she describes how a shape emerges from a body lying in the snow. Rather than the body moving the snow, “the snow … patterns out the figure of the body .. it patterns or copies it out in its own substance, just as the sensitive motions in the eye do pattern out the figure of an object” (p104). Or, to put it another way, the snow chooses to move out of the way of the body, leaving a pattern behind (Detlefsen 2007, p167).
While we might find this counter intuitive, and it is certainly not in keeping with modern physics, it does seem consistent with the observations of the time. How can we tell the difference between P causing Q to move, and Q choosing to move out of the way of P? Both might lead to the same result. However, my interest here is not to argue for Cavendish’s view (which – even given the ongoing support for panpsychism – might be difficult), but to explore how this relates to the characters in The Blazing World. To do this we need to return to Descartes. Importantly for Descartes, the mind was essential for reason and intelligence, and thus, as animals possessed no minds, they were in effect automations themselves. But Cavendish believes that all things possess minds, and this clearly extends to animals.Thus she was quite willing to believe that they are also intelligent:
Wherefore though other Creatures have not the speech, nor Mathematical rules and demonstrations, with other Arts and Sciences, as Men; yet may their perceptions and observations be as wise as Men’s, and they may have as much intelligence and commerce betwixt each other, after their own manner and way, as men have after theirs: To which I leave them, and Man to his conceited prerogative and excellence, resting. (Cavendish 1664)
Thus we see the intelligent animals in The Blazing World not as an interesting plot device or a means of simply creating an alien culture, but as an extension of core aspects of her philosophy. Animals, according to Cavendish, should be treated with respect, and thus she was a 17th century proponent of animal ethics. She opposed such acts as animal testing and hunting for sport. Her poem The Hunting of the Hare concludes with the powerful words:
Yet Man doth think himselfe so gentle, mild,
When he of Creatures is most cruell wild.
And is so Proud, thinks onely he shall live,
That God a God-like Nature did him give.
And that all Creatures for his sake alone,
Was made for him, to Tyrannize upon.
Cavendish’s love of outlandish fashion that she designed herself, her pursuit of science and philosophy, and her daring in publishing her works, endeared her to some of the 17th century community, but had very different responses from much of society. That said, she was much admired by her husband, who provided her with considerable support. I find it fascinating that the epitaph William wrote for their shared tomb made no mention of his own accomplishments, instead focusing on those of his wife:
Here lyes the loyall Duke of Newcastle and his Dutches his second wife by whome he had noe issue. Her name was Margarett Lucas yongest sister to the Lord Lucas of Colchester a noble familie for all the brothers were Valiant and all the Sisters virtuous. The Dutches was a wise wittie & learned Lady, which her many Bookes do well testifie; she was a most Virtuous & a Louieng & carefull wife & was with her Lord all the time of his banishment & miseries & when he came home never parted from him in his solitary retirements.
In spite of the high regard in which she was held by William, there is little evidence that she had any measurable long term impact on the views of her contemporaries. With that said, “little” is not the same as “none”, and it is argued that she had a positive impact on the works of individuals such as Nehemiah Grew (Begley 2017), while the example she set has been seen as a potential influence on Charles II’s decision to hire the first woman architect (O’Connell).
In reading more recent commentaries on her work, it is not uncommon for the criticism to be patronising. For example, Virginia Woolf, in an essay about Cavendish, captures the ambivalence of Cavendish’s readers: “though her philosophies are futile, and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the Duchess is leavened by a vein of authentic fire”. However, there is a different note in much of the more recent commentary, as she has been gaining respect not as simple and uneducated writer who could have been more, but as an intelligent thinker who has not been given the credit she warranted. Much of her work may be poorly written and does not hold up to modern expectations, but within her writings are interesting and often exciting concepts. Had she been born 100 years earlier, in the time of Thomas Moore, she may have had an opportunity to flourish (Clare 2012), and if she was born later she would have had a greater opportunity to pursue an education – an issue that was in here mind, as she was aware of the problems caused by her lack of education, writing that a woman’s wit could be the equal of that of a man, but that a man was given more of an opportunity to learn (Cavendish 1668b).
As it is, I find that the vibrancy of her writing is something to grasp and admire. Cavendish loved to think and to write, and this emerges in all of her works. Wolfe’s description of “a vein of authentic fire” summarises this beautifully. Yet it should not be missed that she had some wonderful insights into nature, and some views – such as her stance on animal ethics and materialism – continue to have place today. I disagree with Woolfe. Cavendish is not a cucumber that strangled the roses, but an lone interesting and brightly coloured wildflower that appeared unexpectedly in a field. I’m not inclined to recommend The Blazing World except as a historical artifact, but I certainly recommend learning more about her and her work.
“Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I Margaret Cavendish endeavour to be Margaret the First; and although I have neither power, time nor occasion to conquer the world as Alexander and Caesar did; yet rather then not to be Mistress of one, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made a World of my own” (Cavendish 1668a. p2)
Begley, Justin. (2017). “‘The minde is matter moved’: Nehemiah Grew on Margaret Cavendish”, Intellectual History Review, 27:4, pp 493-514.
Cavendish, Margaret. (1655) The philosphical and physical opinions written by Her Excellency the Lady Marchionesse of Newcastle, London.
Cavendish, Margaret. (1664) Philosophical letters, or, Modest reflections upon some opinions in natural philosophy: maintained by several famous and learned authors of this age, expressed by way of letters / by the thrice noble, illustrious, and excellent princess the Lady Marchioness of Newcastle, London.
Cavendish, Margaret. (1668a) The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World, London.
Cavendish, Margaret. (1668b) Observations on Experimental Philosophy. London
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O’Connell, Tyne. “Mayfair’s Queen Of Eccentrics, Scientists & Writers – The Magnificently Mad Madge”, Mayfair Eccentrics. Retrieved 8 February 2018. http://www.mayfaireccentrics.com/eccentrics/lady-margaret-cavendish-the-duchess-of-newcastle/
Schiebinger, Londa. (1991) “Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle” in Waithe, Mary Ellen (ed) A History of Women Philosophers, Volume 3. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp 1-20
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Woolfe, Virginia. (1989) A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.