Wednesday Geek Woman: Margaret Cavendish

2010 December 15

Wednesday Geek Woman submissions are open for one more day after this post appears. Submissions will open again in early January.

This is a guest post by Heliconia. Heliconia is a Canadian graduate student in evolutionary biology, an unabashed nerd, and a disliker of labels.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was a 17th-Century British writer and natural philosopher. When the mere act of writing under one’s own name was considered unseemly for a woman, she published plays, essays, and poems aplenty that critiqued the philosophies of Aristotle, Hobbes, and Descartes. Her prose work “The portrait of a new world, called the Blazing World” is one of the earliest examples of what might be called science fiction.

She objected to the lack of education for women at the time and the consequent assumption that they could be neither authors nor philosophers. In fact, she used writing as a means of escaping the limitations placed on women’s role in society. Of inventing “The Blazing World”, she said, “[T]hough I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; 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.”

Wikipedia: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Nightsky permalink
    December 15, 2010

    It’s true! I’m reading “The Blazing World” and it’s startling what modern ideas are there, under the 17th-century trappings. The heroine is a total Black Hole Sue / Purity Sue, but she’s never meant to be more than an audience surrogate–and she is a heroine: brave enough to enter and then explore another world when the guys who’ve kidnapped her inconveniently up and die on her. The Blazing World itself is interesting, IMHO, because, while it’s an alternate world, it’s not really a magical one, as are the alternate worlds in Celtic mythology. Cavendish takes great care to explain that there’s no magic involved in crossing over into the other world: the worlds are linked at our North Pole (shades of Pullman’s _The Golden Compass_?), and the only reason no one had discovered it before the heroine was that no one had ventured that far north.

    The Blazing World is populated with various tribes of anthropomorphic talking animals, people who look just like humans except with green skin, vast shining cities made entirely of diamond, and other fairly standard-sounding fantastic trappings. I was reminded of Gulliver’s Travels. But Cavendish also includes technological advances: very early on, she describes something that sounds remarkably like a ramjet engine. There are also boats crafted with unknown technology and in un-boat-like shapes. Neither Cavendish nor her heroine pretend to understand how these marvels are done, or why, but both matter-of-factly accept that technology will progress, and that however strange the end results appear to our eyes, they are the result of advances in knowledge and craftsmanship. Magical-seeming, but ultimately comprehensible.

    I’m in the middle of a long and somewhat tedious stretch where the heroine summons all her advisers and peppers them with questions. Further details as events warrant.

    Also interestingly, Cavendish’s preface implies that science fiction was at that time the exclusive province of women. Sort of puts an interesting spin on all those “women discover science fiction fandom” articles.

    • Jen permalink
      December 16, 2010

      I did my final module at Oxford on her! She rocked. Probably my favourite historical geek woman EVER.

      Also she basically invented zombie armies, in The Blazing World….

  2. Emily permalink
    December 15, 2010

    Thank you for writing this! I’ve never heard of Cavendish and am excited to read “The Blazing World”. Although a very different genre it brought to mind Christine de Pizan’s “City of Women” a medieval text about the importance of educating women, which has a fictional city in which women are championed and contains female embodiments of things like “Reason” who act as guides.

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