‘The Blazing World’ by Margaret Cavendish: The first science fiction novel written by a woman

The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, self-published by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in 1666 “is the first science-fiction novel to have been written and published by a woman,” writes Sara H. Mendelson in her introduction to the 2016 Broadview edition.

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, 1666. Folger Shakespeare Library. Photo by Ben Lauer.

Who was Margaret Cavendish?

Anna Battigelli, the author of Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind and professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, wrote the following about Cavendish for a 2012 Folger exhibition, Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700:

Cavendish’s life was shaped by the trauma of the English civil wars. She was a maid of honor to the unpopular Queen Henrietta Maria, with whom she fled into exile. In exile, she married England’s most eligible bachelor, William Cavendish, later Duke of Newcastle, with whom she lived in Paris and Antwerp for sixteen years before returning to London in 1660. With no children and all the resources of her husband’s literary and scientific salon, Cavendish threw herself into the emerging discipline of science, even as she produced fourteen volumes of plays, poems, biographies, scientific treatises, romances, and satire. Hers was a mind on fire — so much so that she would wake her scribe in the middle of the night to take dictation. Her compulsive writing compensated for her pathological shyness. In her books she engaged and challenged her age’s leading thinkers. She satirized the Royal Society, the court, and social conventions. She forwarded copies of her lavish folio volumes to universities and members of the aristocracy. Remarkably, she arranged for an invitation to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, the only woman of her era allowed entrance into this circle of men.

A student of science

Cavendish was an avid student of the scientific ideas of the day during a time that saw the founding of England’s Royal Society and its French equivalent. She published the fictional Blazing World alongside her non-fiction work Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy; both works critiqued the experimentalism espoused by Robert Hooke, the Royal Society’s first curator of experiments and discoverer of the law of elasticity, now known as Hooke’s law.

“In Blazing World Cavendish defines her role as author in opposition to the image of the experimentalist gazing into his microscope; instead of peering through a glass in order to serve as a Hooke-like scribe through whom an observed fraction of the external world appears reproduced and magnified on paper, Cavendish looks inward, freely exercising her subjective use of perspective over the worlds within her head,” writes Battigelli in Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind (104).

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy and The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, 1666. Folger Shakespeare Library. Photo by Ben Lauer.

What happens in The Blazing World?

“Partly inspired by her studies of experimental philosophy, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World was a work of varied and surprising imagination, combining elements of fantasy, science fiction, romance, utopian political theory, and philosophical and theological debate—the longest piece of fiction Margaret wrote,” says Katie Whitaker in her 2002 biography Mad Madge (282).

The main character, a young lady, is kidnapped by an amorous foreign merchant and taken to sea. The merchant’s plan goes awry, however, when a storm forces his boat toward the North Pole and into “the Icy Sea.” While the merchant and the other men aboard the boat all freeze to death, the woman survives because of “the light of her Beauty, the heat of her Youth, and Protection of the Gods”.

The boat then leaves our world and enters the “Blazing World” – so named “for the extraordinary brightness of its comet-like stars,” Whitaker writes (282).

“At last, the Boat still passing on, was forced into another World; for it is impossible to round this Worlds 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…”

Read more from the novel on Project Gutenberg.


⇒ Related: Listen to a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode about Shakespeare in science fiction

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