17th Century Ladies: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle


Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, image taken from Wikipedia

This is the second 17th century lady I referred to in a previous post. In this case I would not encourage people to read her as I would encourage everybody to look at the paintings of Gentileschi. The writings of Cavendish can be rather dense and/or wearisome; but despite that, she blew my mind away.

For the longest time I had thought that the first unusual, quasi surreal writer was Lewis Carroll, with his staggering Alice in Wonderland; but our Lady’s imagination is something stunning. In the “The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World” (or “Blazing World”, for short) she describes the ordeal of a “young Lady” (we never know her name) that ends up in another world, after being abducted by a guy that falls in love with her. He and his crooks take her away on their boat, but the “Gods”, upset by this outrage, raise a wind that pushes the vessel to the North Pole. All the men end up freezing to death, being this young Lady the sole survivor (I guess we can already begin to see the feminist side of Cavendish right here). Once in the North Pole:

“…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”

So, in this multiverse of hers:

“each of these Worlds having its own Sun to enlighten it, they move each one in their peculiar circles; which motion is so just and exact, that neither can hinder or obstruct the other; for they do not exceed their Tropicks, and although they should meet, yet we in this world cannot so well perceive them, by reason of the brightness of our Sun, which being nearer to us, obstructs the splendor of the Suns of the other Worlds, they being too far off to be discerned by our optic perception, except we use very good Telescopes, by which skillful Astronomers have often observed two or three Suns at once”

The whole description of this world (the Blazing World) appears to be written by Timothy Leary while “turning on”. After a short travel around this place, the young Lady meets and marries the Emperor of the Blazing World. Trying to be a good Empress (interestingly, Cavendish had a rather bad experience as Maid of Honor to the Queen Henrietta Maria) she starts to learn, from all sorts of anthropomorphic animals, how this new world works. What ensues here is pretty much a philosophical dissertation on nature, religion, science, etc. One of my favorite parts here deals with the Bear men, who provide a nice insight into some of the problems science faces when being too fascinated with the latest technique or tool instead of following pure old logic and reason. The Bear – men use telescopes to study the movement of the planets, the stars, etc, but, instead of providing them with a better comprehension of their natural world:

“these Telescopes caused more differences and divisions amongst them, then ever they had before”

They are so obsessed with these telescopes they don’t care too much for logic anymore. The Empress is a bit distressed about this:

“for, said she,now I do plainly perceive, that your Glasses are false Informers, and instead of discovering the Truth, delude your senses; Wherefore I Command you to break them, and let the Bird−men trust only to their natural eyes,and examine Celestial objects by the motious of their own sense and reason”

The reply of the Bear men is beautiful, and also not far from what has sometimes happened in Science:

”The Bear−men being exceedingly troubled at her Majesties displeasure concerning their Telescopes, kneel’d down, and in the humblest manner petitioned that they might not be broken; for, said they, we take more delight in Artificial delusions, then in natural truths”

Another of my favorite moments in the book is when she inquires the Spirits on the well being of the friends she has left in her own world. Then, in a Philip K. Dick twist of events, the Empress tells the Spirits to go and bring Cavendish to their presence:

“I pray send me the Duchess of Newcastle’s Soul; which the Spirit did; and after she came to wait on the Emperess, at her first arrival the Emperess imbraced and saluted her with a spiritual kiss”

It is also fascinating when the Duchess asks if she can be Empress of a World, too, but the Spirits advice against it. As the Duchess insists on this, we can hear an echo of Achilles, when he decides to live a short life and be famous (Cavendish herself had no issues confessing she wanted to be famous) rather than lead a long normal life:

“Why, said the Emperess, it is not impossible to conquer a World. No,answered the Spirits, but, for the most part, Conquerers seldom enjoy their conquest, for they being more feared then loved, most commonly come to an untimely end. If you will but direct me, said the Duchess to the Spirits, which World is easiest to be conquered, her Majesty will assist me with means, and I will trust to Fate and Fortune; for I had rather die in the adventure of noble achievements, then live in obscure and sluggish security; since by the one, I may live in a glorious Fame, and by the other I am buried in oblivion”


Even when the Duchess was extremely shy and regarded as being mad by some people, I still cannot imagine her interacting with her 17th-century contemporaries. I can picture a clichéd tea party with her peers, lets say her posh noblewomen friends, and telling them the plot for instance of the Blazing World. I can almost imagine her saying something like

“It is a novel about this young Lady that gets kidnapped, but ends up at the North Pole, where she is rescued by Bear-men, who, with the aid of Fox men, Geese – men and satyrs, help her cross a River. They do this with boats that look like a fox trap, or like birds nests. Then she gets to the Blazing World, a place where they have boats made of leather or gold, according to the status of their owners. These are moved by engines that provide the vessels with enough wind as to propel them; alas, they can even use this wind against their enemies. The cities in the Blazing World on the other hand are built in the Roman style, and are made of Gold or marble. The young Lady then marries the Emperor and learns about Natural Philosophy and Religion from all these very strange creatures. Oh, and I am a character too, as some Spirits drag my soul into that World so I can talk to the Empress” I would have loved to see other people’s faces when they were aware of what she was writing.

What else can I say? You rock Milady, you are even cooler than Kim Gordon singing “Kool thing” (shown below; live at Sweden, and rocking like nobody at 50), and that is saying a lot!

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