Authors: Margaret Cavendish
THE BLAZING WORLD AND OTHER WRITINGS
MARGARET LUCAS CAVENDISH
, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–73), was the youngest and minimally educated child of a wealthy Essex family. In 1643, the year after the outbreak of the English Civil War, she became a Maid of Honour to Queen Henrietta Maria, travelling with her into Parisian exile in 1644. There, in 1645, she married the widowed William Cavendish, Marquis (later Duke) of Newcastle (1593–1676), who had been commander of Charles I’s forces in the north, and a well-known patron of arts and letters. The Newcastles lived lavishly on credit in Antwerp from 1648 until the Restoration allowed their return to England in 1660. Between 1653 and 1668 Margaret Cavendish published a dozen substantial books including poetry, moral tales, speculative fiction, romance, scientific treatises, natural philosophy, familiar letters, closet drama, orations, an autobiographical memoir and a biography of her husband. The sheer quantity and variety of Cavendish’s published writing was unprecedented amongst earlier English women. These publications, and her cultivation of personal singularity, made her an infamous figure both in her own lifetime and since, subverting patriarchal codes of femininity while championing the legitimacy of monarchy. She appears in theatrical cameos in the writings of contemporaries like Pepys and Dorothy Osborne, and in subsequent accounts of maverick women by such writers as Charles Lamb and Virginia Woolf. Through her generically experimental and diverse writings, Margaret Cavendish emerges as an ironically self-designated spectacle, and as the self-proclaimed producer of hybrid creations and inimitable discourses, which are finally beginning to receive the attention that her life has rarely lacked.
(BA Hons., Sydney; Ph.D., London) began work on early modern women’s writing as Julia Mann Junior Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College, Oxford (1986–9). Her articles on seventeenth-century women’s writing appear in
Women, Texts and Histories 1575–1760
(1992). She is now a Lecturer in English at the University of Sydney. Her poetry is represented in
The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry
The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.
The Blazing World
and Other Writings
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Pickering and Chatto 1992
Published in Penguin Classics 1994
Reprinted with a new Chronology and Further Reading 2004
Introduction and notes copyright © Kate Lilley, 1992, 2004
All rights reserved
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
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I would like to thank staff at Fisher Library, University of Sydney, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the Australian Research Council; my editors, Janet Todd and Melanie McGrath; and for various kinds of assistance and support, Tim Armstrong, Rosalind Ballaster, Judith Barbour, Deirdre Coleman, Bruce Gardiner, Margaret Harris, Dorothy Hewett, Jeri Johnson, Merv Lilley, Bill Maidment, Tony Miller, David Nor-brook, Simon Petch, Susan Wiseman. Melissa Hardie’s help has been unstinting and invaluable.
The range of Margaret Cavendish’s literary and scientific ambition, as well as her overt and frequently asserted desire for fame, has long made her an exemplary instance of woman as spectacle. The historical figure she cuts has aroused praise and blame, incredulity and pathos. As Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘her poems, her plays, her philosophies, her orations, her discourses – all these folios and quartos in which, she protested, her real life was shrined – moulder in the gloom of public libraries, or are decanted into tiny thimbles which hold six drops of their profusion’.
Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas) was born in Essex in 1623, to a rich family, the youngest of eight children. Her father died when she was two, and it was her mother who provided an early and continuing example of female independence and administrative competence. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, the Lucas family moved to the Royalist stronghold of Oxford, where Margaret became a Maid of Honour to Queen Henrietta Maria. In 1644, she travelled as one of the Queen’s party into Parisian exile, where she met and married William Cavendish, the widowed Marquis of Newcastle. Thirty years Margaret’s senior, Newcastle had been commander of Charles I’s forces in the north, and was well known as a patron of arts and letters, and as a famous horseman. Though her marriage to Newcastle was socially and intellectually advantageous, it also committed Margaret to a life closely governed by the political fortunes of the Royalists.
After the execution of Charles I and the declaration of the Commonwealth in 1649, Newcastle was formally banished and his estates confiscated. He and Margaret lived in exile in
Antwerp until the Restoration allowed them to return home, except for a crucial period in which Margaret returned to England, accompanied by her brother in law, Charles Cavendish, to petition for financial compensation for the loss of her husband’s estate. The petition failed but it was during this interregnum in Margaret’s married life, between late 1651 and early 1653, that she began to write and publish: a practice which she pursued energetically, copiously and diversely for the rest of her life. The sheer quantity and variety of Cavendish’s published work was extremely marked amongst women writers of the seventeenth century, and unprecedented amongst earlier English women writers.
Cavendish launched her career as a writer by publishing two volumes in quick succession in 1653,
Poems, and Fancies
(in prose and verse). They were issued emphatically under her own name, like all the books that she subsequently published. If it was rare for a woman to seek publication, it was still more unusual for a woman to provide an unambiguous authorial signature. Margaret Cavendish’s writing career may have been inaugurated by her separation from her husband and return to England, but it was consolidated in range and quantity in exile, where she wrote another four books with her husband’s active encouragement and financial support.
In 1655 Cavendish issued another pair of reflections on political, philosophical, scientific and aesthetic topics, written in Antwerp.
The World’s Olio
(1655) is an engaging prose miscellany which includes ‘The Inventory of Judgement’s Commonwealth’. This condensed Utopian blueprint looked forward to Cavendish’s later experiments in this mode, ‘The Animal Parliament’ and
The Blazing World. Philosophical and Physical Opinions
(1655, reissued ‘much altered’ in 1668 as
Grounds of Natural Philosophy)
continued her attempt to insert herself into a masculine public sphere, particularly through the discourse of the new science.
, published in 1656, Cavendish again assembles a collection of short prose pieces and poetry, but it also signals her concerted expansion into other prose genres (or
kinds). It is Cavendish’s most ambitious and copious generic experiment, including moral fables, romance novella (‘Assaulted and Pursued Chastity’), fictionalized treatise (‘The She Anchoret’), and the autobiographical memoir, ‘A True Relation’.
At the same time she gave notice of her intention to publish a collection of closet drama also written in Antwerp, but its publication was delayed until 1662 after the manuscript was lost at sea.
By the time the Newcastles returned to England at the Restoration, Cavendish’s reputation and infamy as a woman and as a writer was well established. No longer in the political vanguard, the Newcastles retired almost immediately to their least damaged estate, Welbeck in Nottinghamshire. It was there that Margaret wrote another seven books of orations, letters, scientific speculation, Utopian fiction, biography, poetry and closet drama, as well as overseeing a number of reissues and revised editions, before her sudden death in December, 1673, at the age of fifty.
Margaret Cavendish was devoted to personal excess, and the number of substantial, elaborately produced books she wrote and published under her own name and at considerable expense, in a career spanning twenty years, constituted her most radical and deliberate infringement of contemporary proprieties. But Cavendish’s writing is not only copious and unusually secular, it is also overtly polemical and formally experimental. Her writings, collectively and individually, demonstrate an abiding fascination with kinds as such, and particularly with impure and unexpected hybrids. An interrogation of systems of knowledge and modes of description, as well as the fluid relations between gender and genre, informs all of Cavendish’s writing, and marks it as generically self-conscious and ambitious.
Like most students of genre, her imagination is not primarily focused on normative or pure kinds. It is most engaged by that which troubles or resists categorization, thereby engendering reflection on the nature and function of categorization itself. Both Cavendish herself, and her writings, have similarly challenged categorization. That the spectacle of Cavendish as a
writing woman has disturbed commentators is clear. Her writings have suffered a similar resistance, leading generations of commentators to suggest that paraphrase is as much as, or more than, her work requires.
This collection contributes to the overdue project of making Cavendish’s writing available and accessible to the modern reader, so that the contents of her books, and not the there fact of their existence, may begin to receive the attention that her life has (relatively speaking) rarely lacked. It includes three notable experiments in short fiction. The first two, ‘The Contract’ and ‘Assaulted and Pursued Chastity’, are romance narratives taken from
(1656); neither has been reissued since the seventeenth century. The third is her Utopian fantasy,
The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World.
Thought to be the only text of its kind by a seventeenth-century woman,
it was first published as the fictional companion piece to Cavendish’s lengthy scientific treatise,
Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy
(1666). In the context of recent critical interest in Utopian writing and the history of women’s writing,
The Blazing World
has begun to attract the attention it deserves.
Perhaps we are at least one instance of that future audience which Margaret Cavendish so fervently desired, for certainly her work is compelling in terms of the current remapping of literary histories, and the relations of gender and literary genres.
pathos, and some would say justice, in the historical diminution of so extravagant a textual self-witnessing, but the works represented here demonstrate Cavendish’s real interest as a writer of prose fiction, particularly in terms of her experiments with allegory and romance, utopia and the imaginary voyage. Cavendish self-consciously produced herself as a fantastic and singular woman, and that labour of self-representation successfully dominated seventeenth century and later accounts of both her life and writing. Pepys’s often-quoted remark, ‘The whole story of this Lady is a romance, and all she doth is romantic’
, was a shrewd reading of a woman who represented herself as figuratively hermaphrodite.
Her idiosyncratic dress combined masculine and feminine elements in a parodic
masquerade of gender, while her rare and highly theatrical public appearances never failed to draw an audience.
But her singularity has also, and perhaps more commonly, been interpreted as monstrous, and her texts similarly characterized as deformed in various ways: chaotic, old-fashioned, uneven, contradictory and insane.
Virginia Woolf, in
A Room of One’s Own
, figures Margaret Cavendish as ‘a vision of loneliness and riot … as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death’.
It is a fanciful but hardly innocent conceit, representing Cavendish as producing disproportionate and monstrously masculine texts. Amongst contemporary women, Dorothy Osborne remarked, on the publication of Cavendish’s first book, ‘there are many soberer people in Bedlam; I’ll swear her friends are much to blame to let her go abroad’.
Osborne’s confusion of Cavendish’s book and her person, whether witting or unwitting, is characteristic of the atextual way in which Cavendish’s work – and indeed life – has tended to be read: as a vehicle for or byproduct of personality, and a receptacle for ideas.
At first Cavendish’s extremely unfeminine works were thought to be not her own work. The ‘Epistle’ which introduces Cavendish’s autobiographical memoir refutes the gossip ‘that my writings are none of my own’ (p. 363) in a complex way. She uses it as the ground of a more sophisticated questioning of the continuity between text and self, as well as the relations between thinking, writing and speaking, ‘for I have not spoke so much as I have writ, nor writ so much as I have thought’ (p. 367). The closing paragraph of the ‘Epistle’ is characteristic of Cavendish’s ironic self-defence, and of her rhetorical dexterity:
But if they will not believe my books are my own, let them search the author or authoress: but I am very confident that they will do like Drake, who went so far about, until he came to the place he first set out at. But for the sake of after-ages, which I hope will be more just to me than the present, I will write the true relation of my birth, breeding, and to this part of my life,
not regarding carping tongues, or malicious censurers, for I despise them.
As she maintains, the life cannot bear witness to the truth of authorship. Instead she supplies the text of her life in lieu of any incontrovertible proof, and as a further instance of the endlessly asymmetrical but productive relations of experience and writing. Cavendish’s numerous prefaces and addresses to the reader constitute a fragmentary but copious poetics, probably the most extensive theorization we have available to us of an individual seventeenth century woman’s relation to the resources of writing and publication, and the gendered construction of knowledge, in a secular context.
Cavendish used the interdicted practices of writing and publishing to challenge the negative consequences for women of patriarchal codes of femininity, delighting in the subversive potential of generic and intellectual hybridization. In her polemical prefaces Cavendish trenchantly defends her own right to publish, and to participate in current debates, but she also insists on the rational and sensitive capacities of all women, and the educational handicap under which they labour. The egalitarian potential of her sexual critique is, however, seriously curtailed by an equally powerful commitment to the prerogatives of absolute monarchy and hierarchical privilege so thoroughly undermined in the 1640s and ‘50s. In part this allegiance might be traced to the fact that Cavendish’s marriage to the Marquis, later Duke of Newcastle, was extremely socially advantageous. As Mendelson argues, ‘Margaret displayed the exaggerated respect of an
for a title’ (Mendelson, 22). But Newcastle was also in exile, and Margaret was courted by him when she herself was in the service of the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria.
Cavendish adopted an entirely defensive position with respect to radical political theory, but her political conservatism does not vitiate the power of her sexual critique, and need not surprise us any more than the familiar alliance of ‘radical’ politics and ‘conservative’ sexual politics. Catherine Gallagher
has argued that it is a commitment to absolutism which contradictorily enabled Margaret Cavendish’s critique of women’s effective exclusion from political subjecthood and citizenship. I would suggest that Cavendish’s simultaneous insistence on the (unrecognized) justice of her social privilege, shaped by her experiences in the years of political exile, and her call for the development of women’s (unrecognized) potential, stems from her extraordinarily ambivalent position with respect to the discourses of power. She was the socially inferior wife of a defeated and later displaced Royalist leader; the minimally educated maid-in-waiting of a deposed queen; the youngest of a large family, financially straitened and physically decimated in the course of the Civil Wars. For nearly twenty years Cavendish lived as a purely English-speaking resident of France and the Netherlands, the opulence of her married life sustained by her husband’s perpetual, and remarkably successful, negotiations with creditors. Though she dined with Descartes, and infamously visited the all-male enclave of the Royal Society in London,
she could not appropriate for herself the (masculine) position of dilettante in its honorific sense. In terms of politics, gender and discourse, Cavendish could never achieve the full membership she craved, though she tried to turn her maverick status to her own advantage.
This ambivalence is crucial to Cavendish’s most explicitly autobiographical writings, ‘A True Relation’ and her biography of the Duke of Newcastle. In these texts she offers idealized representations of her family, her husband and her marriage in the context of a tragic narrative of the suffering imposed on them (and her) by political events. She offers a catalogue of losses which not even the Restoration could restore. In her writings, Margaret Cavendish campaigned for the restoration of what had been taken from her and hers, as Royalists, and for the supply of what, as a woman, had never been available to her. These variously enabling and disabling factors pivoted around Cavendish’s mutually supportive marriage – a partnership which she continually figured as the generative Utopian space of her own productivity – but her writing raises the question of the
relation of women to restoration in general, and the Restoration in particular.