Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Margaret Cavendish and The Blazing World

This is a linocut portrait of Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623 – 1673), 17th-century English aristocrat, philosopher, poet, scientist, fiction-writer, and playwright shown with her imaginary world from her strange science fiction novel 'The Blazing World' which she appended to her scientific treatise 'Observations upon Experimental Philosophy'. Cavendish is an odd addition to my collection of portraits of scientists, as a self-taught, die-hard royalist aristocrat, and firm anti-empiricist, but her publications on gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy cannot be ignored. She wrote six books on Natural Philosophy and was the first woman admitted to a meeting of the Royal Society, and as such was a part of the contemporary world of science. Plus, this delightfully eccentric woman combined her natural philosophy with science fiction, and wrote herself into the story. The lino block portrait is handprinted on Japanese kozo (or mulberry paper) 11" x 14" with some collaged washi papers.

Margaret Cavendish and the Blazing World linocut 11" x 14", 2018, by Ele Willoughby
Margaret was born the youngest of eight children of Thomas Lucas, a wealthy aristocrat and royalist who died when she was two. She spent a lot of time with her siblings and had no real education, though she had access to scholarly libraries and she began writing at a young age, at a time when this was considered quite unusual for a woman. She also learned from her brother John, a philosopher and natural philosopher and founding member of the Royal Society. Margaret was unusual in many ways and full of contradictions. She was bashful yet flirtatious, accused of using speech full of 'oaths and obscenity' yet concerned about decorum and propriety, fame-seeking and ambitious,  society phenomenon considered to bold for a woman, proto-feminist yet an "arch-conservative" monarchist. In 1641, the royalist Lucas family were attacked by the Puritan neighbours and fled to Oxford where King Charles I held his court. Left without a dowry, she convinced her mother and Elizabeth Leighton Lucas to let her become one of Queen's Ladies-in-Waiting (to Queen Henrietta Maria the Catholic wife of the soon to be executed King Charles I, known at the time as 'Queen Mary')  in 1643 and then accompanied her upon her exile to France in 1644 (during the First English Civil War). This was a move she regretted. She was too shy to speak much and was mistaken for a fool, but she preferred this to risking being found wanton or rude. She suffered from what she called melancholia. She wanted to quit but her mother convinced her this would be disgraceful and to stay for two years, until such time as she married William Cavendish, then Marquis of Newcastle, later named Duke. A widower 30 years her senior, William Cavendish seems to have been a remarkably good match for her, and both of them wrote about their love for and pride in the other. William reportedly liked her bashfulness and became her writing tutor, supported her writing, paid for her work to be published and defended her when contemporaries doubted her authorship. He was her great supporter and defender, a patron of the arts and brother to noted scholar Charles Cavendish. Margaret was unable to conceive a child (though William had two sons from his first marriage). Without children or an estate, Margaret filled her time writing. Margaret's most successful publication was her biography of her husband, The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe.

As a 'royalist delinquent' (a Royalist who fought against Parliament during the English Civil War) her husband's estate was sequestered by parliament and was to be sold. She tried returning to England with her brother-in-law to benefit from the sale, but was denied and returned to France after a year and a half to be with her husband. In 1660, with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, Margaret and William were able to return to England and ultimately settled in Welbeck, where Margaret worked on publishing her writing and increasing her knowledge and skills.

Margaret Cavendish by Pieter Louis van Schuppen, c. 1655-1658. Frontispiece to
Grounds of Natural Philosophy, London 1668.
At a time when women published anonymously, if at all, Cavendish published over a dozen works in her own name. She choose to reinvent herself through fashion, seeking to be and look unique arguing that clothes oppressed women. She wrote a memoir to ensure later generations would have a true account of her lineage and life and in her bid to achieve everlasting fame. She wrote about natural philosophy, atoms, nature personified, macro and microcosms, other worlds, death, battle, hunting, love, honour, employing poetry, prose, epistles and plays. She was one of the earliest advocates for animals and opponents of animal testing. Her writing was defensive, excusing her errors as due to her youth and ignorance, imploring detractors to keep silence, and nonetheless asking that if her writing was successful that she benefit and gain fame for it. Between her being a female author, woman engaged with science, her eccentricities and theatrical dress-sense, she was nicknamed "Mad Marge" by contemporaries, but along with her detractors, she had her supporters and she was taken seriously enough to be the first woman invited to attend meeting of the Royal Society.

In 1666 she wrote Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. Philosophically, she rejected Aristotle and favoured the Stoics. She argued against Cartesian dualism. She had no education in science or natural philosophy, though her brother was a founder of the Royal Society, her interest was supported by her husband and brother-in-law, and she socialized with her husband's tutor Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, she rejected the idea of incorporeal souls. She thought minds are material and matter could think. Unlike Hobbes, she envisioned a vitalistic nor mechanistic world. While in France they gathered an intellectual circle (known as the Cavendish or Newcastle circle) which included English philosopher Thomas Hobbes,  Henry More, and natural philosopher Kenelm Digby and Walter Charleton, and French philosophers and mathematician RenĂ© Descartes, Pierre Gassendi  and Marin Mersenne. This circle in turn was in communication with fellow intellectuals throughout Europe. She herself corresponded with physicist Christiaan Huygens, philosopher  and Joseph Glanvill and botanist John Evelyn. She chose to engage with and write about the science and scientists of her time to the best of her abilities. She argued strongly for the use of clear and plain English when writing about science and complained that natural philosophy contained difficult words and unfamiliar expressions. She chose to avoid such writing in her desire to communicate clearly and broadly. Appended to this work was one of the earliest science fiction novels, a sort of imaginative complement to the science: The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, better known as The Blazing World, a fantasy, utopian satire.

The story tells of a young woman from the Kingdom of Esfi, who is kinapped by pirates and then escapes to another world via a portal at the North Pole. This other world is called the Blazing World and is inhabited by animal-people (bird-men, fish-men, fox-men, bear-men, ape-men, ant-men, fly-men, worm-men, louse-me and more) obsessed with telescopes and microscopes, a means by which Cavendish satirizes the Royal Society and the work of Robert Hooke (who had recently published his Micrographia). The lady becomes the Empress by marriage there. As Empress she grows frustrated with their use of telescopes since they seem to only be a cause of arguments and first bans them but relents and orders them to keep them in their schools, rather than introduce any "disturbances in State, or Government." She is likewise underwhelmed by their microscopic observations and considers these technological tools "false informers". The Empress seeks a scribe to read her write her own religious texts. She rejects famous philosophers Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, Galileo or Hobbes, who would be too “self-conceited”  to agree and develops a telepathic relationship mediated by spirits with none other than... Margaret Cavendish! The Duchess and Empress become platonic lovers and travel to each other's worlds. Like later science fiction, the Blazing World includes some imagined technology and science which can appear far-sighted in hindsight, like the air-powered engines, flying machines, elaborate submarines (which could remotely measure ocean depth) or the concept of an infinite universe. But, it also contains common contemporary misconceptions like the idea that insects are spontaneously generated or that alchemy might work. The work also features without judgment homosexuality, androgyny and polyamory. My print shows the Empress (the only personnage in the Blazing World allowed to wear gold) surrounded by the fish, ape, birds, bears, worm, and fly-men scholars, complete with telescope, microscope and a louse-man in a submarine.

She challenged the idea of man's dominion over nature and argued that animals possessed intelligence. She employed the sceptical tools of science to attack natural philosophy and question its methods as well as argue for recognition of women's intellectual capacity. She attacked the empirical methods of Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle and once referred to such experimentalists as “Boys that play with watry Bubbles.” She attacked Descartes' flawed vortex theory. She attacked male-dominated science in general. She conceived that shape plays a role in the reaction of atoms - an idea more familiar to modern-day scientists than her contemporaries (though her version of atomic theory also combined some medieval ideas about the elements). She made publications on the contemporary concepts of atomic theory, magnetism and heat. She also combined speculation and fantasy with some of her confused ideas about natural philosophy, but her output was no more muddled than that of male contemporaries considered scientific prodigies. Unlike her contemporaries, her ideas about atoms had no requirement for God or theology to explain the world, and in fact her ideas of infinite populated words both without and within (for instance on a lady's earring) were a bit dangerous in her time. Though I am an experimentalist and fan of Hooke and her think her radical scepticism is misplaced, I believe that questioning the limits of empirical methods and knowledge is of the utmost importance.

Amongst some less charitable things, Virginia Wolf wrote of Cavendish, "One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and lovable personality as it meanders and twinkles through page after page. There is something noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted, about her. Her simplicity is so open; her intelligence so active; her sympathy with fairies and animals so true and tender. She has the freakishness of an elf, the irresponsibility of some non-human creature, its heartlessness, and its charm."

More recently, Margaret Cavendish has been studied as an early feminist, though her pleas for the need for education of women and defense of their abilities is combined with a great deal of criticism of other women. As she inserted herself into The Blazing World, she's also delightfully being called the original Mary Sue.

Margaret Cavendish died suddenly on 15 December 1673 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Before his death, two years later, her devoted husband gathered all the poems he had written in her honour and letters to celebrate her and published them as Letters and Poems in Honour of the Incomparable Princess, Margaret, Dutchess of Newcastle. In her own words, in the introduction of The Blazing World, she wrote, "That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time, nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Caesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own."

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, wikipedia, accessed July 3, 2018
The Blazing World, wikipedia, accessed July 3, 2018
Lisa T. Sarasohn, 'A Science Turned Upside Down: Feminism and the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 289-307
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press, DOI: 10.2307/3817365, Stable URL:
Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish, The Poetry Foundation, accessed July 3, 2018
Roberts, Jennifer Sherman. "Everyone, We Need to Talk About 17th-Century Badass Writer Margaret Cavendish". The Mary Sue. Retrieved July 4, 2018.
Cavendish (1623-1673), Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-Upon-Type, Project Vox, accessed July 4, 2018. 
Christine Corbett Moran, A Description of A New World, Called the Blazing-World, Margaret Cavendish, Medium, accessed July 4, 2018
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World, London: Printed by A. Maxwell, 1668.
Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World (1666), skullinthestars blog post for January 2, 2011, accessed July 4, 2018
Eric Karl Anderson, The Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish, thelonesomereader blog post for March 9, 2018, accessed July 4, 2018