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Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish

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

Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish was born in 1624 in Colchester, England. She was the youngest of eight children of Thomas Lucas, a wealthy landowner, and his wife. Thomas Lucas died in 1625. When the English Civil War (1642–48) broke out in 1642, rebel forces overthrew the monarchy of King Charles I (1600–1669; ruled 1625–49). The Lucas family then moved to the royalist, or pro-monarchy, town of Oxford south of London, where Margaret was appointed maid of honor at the court of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609–1669). Two years later Margaret accompanied the queen into exile (forced absence from one's country) in Paris, France. Around 1645, while in Paris, Margaret married William Cavendish (1592–1676), duke of Newcastle, a royalist military hero who was thirty years older than she.

King Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and the Commonwealth government was established in England. Newcastle was officially banished from the country and his property was seized. He and Margaret went to Antwerp, Belgium, where they lived in exile. In 1651 Margaret returned to England with her brother-in-law, Charles Cavendish, to seek repayment for William's estate. The request was denied. Remaining in England for nearly two years, Margaret wrote her first works, Poems, and Fancies and Philosophical Fancies, which were both issued in 1653. After returning to Antwerp in 1653 she wrote four more books, thus beginning a productive, twenty-year career. The Newcastles went back to England in 1660, when King Charles II (1630–1685; ruled 1660–85) took the throne at the beginning of the Restoration (reinstatement of the monarchy). They settled at William's estate, Welbeck in Nottinghamshire, where Margaret continued to write until her death in 1673.

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.htm, April 10, 2002.

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