Inspirations: The Duchess of Newcastle transported England to The Blazing World

  • Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, published The Blazing World in 1666.
  • It told the story of a lady transported to a strange world where she was made empress.
  • Margaret was a theoretician who used the novel to satirise the experimentalists of the Royal Society.
  • The empress may be the first Mary Sue, and The Blazing World is sometimes described as the first science fiction novel


Portrait of Margaret Cavendish on the cover of her ‘Poems and Fancies’, 1653 (Amelagar [Wikimedia Commons])

1660 was the year England decided the Enlightenment had gone too far. A decade-long experiment in republic ended with Charles Stuart brought back from to the triple crown of England, Scotland and Ireland, last occupied by his executed father. With him came an entourage of followers who had loyally lost the English Civil War by his side.

A natural philosopher in exile

Among them was the courtier, poet, playwright and natural philosopher, Margaret Cavendish. Born Margaret Lucas, she had been a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta, wife of the defeated King Charles II, and had fled with her to France. The court of a queen who wasn’t queen of anything offered her more freedom than she might have had if it had remained in England, and Margaret made use of it. Living in France and later Holland, she cultivated friendships with the natural philosophers Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes and Constantijn Huygens, and was soon engaged in the correspondence of ideas that crossed Europe at the time.

These was not at all an approved pastime for a lady, let alone a maid of honour, but these were not normal times. She caught the eye of William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle, who had distinguished himself by commanding the Royalist forces in the North of England to a resounding defeat and losing most of his wealth in the process. Cavendish was attracted by Margaret’s intelligence as much as her looks, and to have been very conscious of his own limitations as a suitor. They shared their wedding day with Princess Marie of France, prompting Cavendish to write to Margaret:

The Princess Mary married King of Poland,

And you, my dear, have married Prince of No-land

Although Cavendish was thirty years older than Margaret, they enjoyed a very happy marriage in which he took pride in her accomplishments. We can assume it became substantially happier when they returned to England and were elevated from Marquis and Marchioness to Duke and Duchess of Newcastle by the newly crowned King Charles II.


William Cavendish as a young man in 1610 (Thomas Gun [Wikimedia Commons])

Better still, Cavendish’s lands were returned to him. Far from being prince and princess of No-land, the Cavendishes were now among the wealthiest people in England.

Entering The Blazing World

Charles II may have been derided as the Merrie Monarch for his inability to keep his breeches on, but he was a keen patron of natural philosophy, as science was known at the time. He formed the Royal Society for Improvement of Natural Knowledge, now simply the Royal Society, whose experiments provided the fodder for several of Margaret’s six works on natural philosophy. The most important was Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, published in 1666. Alongside Observations, she published a satire titled The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, a tale of a beauteous lady who finds herself spirited away to the North Pole of her world in an inept kidnap. Incompetent to the last, her abductors freeze to death while she falls through a portal into the eponymous Blazing World.

The text is only the length of a modern-day novella, but I find Restoration-era grammar hard work. Where possible, I prefer to let a good narrator demystify the archaic sentence construction:

The Blazing World is what we would now call Swiftian satire, although Margaret wrote it a year before Jonathan Swift was actually born. Like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Margaret populated her Blazing World with thinly veiled caricatures of individuals and groups. The narrative structure is, if anything, even thinner than in Gulliver’s Travels and most of the text is taken up with a description of the various enterprises of the lady.

From abductee to empress

The lady is found, cold and forlorn, by a boatload of bear-men, who carry her off to the city they share with the fox-men. Struck by her beauty, they tend to her every need and introduce her to the emperor of the entire Blazing World. The emperor is so taken with her that she has to stop him from trying to worship her as a goddess. Overjoyed to find she is mortal, the emperor promptly marries her, gives her sovereign power over his entire world and politely withdraws. After that, he only shows his face in the narrative to approve her decisions and reaffirm his love for her.

Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, had written the first Mary Sue.


Title page of The Blazing World (Scribblingwoman [Wikimedia Commons])

Peace in Restoration-era England depended on an uneasy truce between the Royalist Tories and the Parliamentarian Whigs, stoked by a distrust of a Catholic queen and a king who had become distressingly French in his habits during his exile. Margaret nailed her colours firmly to the Tory mast when she populated the Blazing World with citizens happiest under an absolute monarch. The place of each citizen in the world is defined by form:

Some were Bear-men, some Worm-men, some Fish- or Mear-men, otherwise called Syrens; some Bird-men, some Fly-men, some Ant-men, some Geese-men, some Spider-men, some Lice-men, some Fox-men, some Ape-men, some Jack daw-men, some Magpie-men, some Parrot-men, some Satyrs, some Gyants, and many more, which I cannot all remember; and of these several sorts of men, each followed such a profession as was most proper for the nature of their Species

The empress quickly shows that she’s not just a pretty face when she engages her astronomers, the bird-men, to explain such things as the sun, the stars, the moon, elemental fire and thunder and lightning actually are. The bird-men peer though their telescopes and describe what they see but their explanations do not satisfy the empress. The empress calls in her experimental philosophers, the bear-men, to provide explanation. The satire ratchets up a gear as the bear-men fall to dispute in the manner which the Royal Society was known for.

These Telescopes caused more differences and divisions amongst them, then ever they had before; for some said, they perceived that the Sun stood still, and the Earth did move about it; others were of opinion, that they both did move; and others said again, that the Earth stood still, and Sun did move; some counted more Stars then others; some discovered new Stars never seen before; some fell into a great dispute with others concerning the bigness of the Stars.

And so on.

The empress concludes that the telescopes are ‘false informers’. If the bear-men cannot agree on what they see through them, they cannot be certain that what they see is real.


Welbeck Abbey, seat of the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle, where Margaret and William Cavendish lived after their return to England (Chris [Wikimedia Commons])

She orders them to smash all their telescopes to put an end to their arguments. The horrified bear-men prostrate themselves and beg her to reconsider, saying that they would have nothing to argue about without the telescopes and besides, ‘we take more delight in Artificial delusions, then in Natural truths’.

The Royal Society had been firmly put in its place.

Experimentalists vs theoreticians in the Restoration

The tension between experimentalists and theoreticians in science has never gone away, but it was far more marked in Margaret’s time than it is now. In a podcast for BBC Radio 4’s Science Stories, broadcaster Naomi Alderman explored that tension and Margaret’s place in it.

A key feature of the Enlightenment was the move away from searching for knowledge in venerable texts, mainly the Bible and Aristotle, and toward learning from experiment. Galileo pioneered the experimental approach and very quickly got himself into trouble when his results contradicted the results of the former approach. His renouncement of his finding that the earth moved around the sun rather than vice versa did nothing to stem the enthusiasm for experiment, particularly in the Protestant nations of England, Scotland and Holland where performing experiments not only provided interesting results but also cocked a snook at the pope’s denial of inconvenient results.


Margaret Cavendish would have walked through this gateway to get to Gresham College, where the Royal Society was meeting (Matt Brown [CC / Flickr])

Alderman focuses on Margaret’s visit to the Royal Society the year after The Blazing World and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy were published. While Margaret had corresponded with many of the Royal Society’s members and discussed their experiments in their writings, she had never actually met them before.

If luminaries such as Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke were miffed at being caricatured as squabbling bird-men, they weren’t about to show it to a visitor who arrived in her own carriage, surrounded by footmen and draped in white ermine. They demonstrated their experimental techniques, though it is not recorded whether she regarded them as brilliant or as mad as the empress’s bear-men.

Nullius in verba

There was a clash of viewpoints in the room, between men who had adopted the motto Nullius in verba (accept nothing on authority) and demanded rigorous experimental proof, and a woman who, in the words of historian Emma Wilkins, ‘believes in the importance of great leaps of insight and understanding’. Samuel Pepys, who saw the whole thing, was disappointed that she expressed no opinion at the time though as Wilkins points out, she was hardly likely to be overtly critical of a demonstration put on for her benefit.

While Alderman presents Margaret as a theoretician in opposition to the experimentalists of the Royal Society, Wilkins had previously written that her ‘relationship with the early Royal Society was more nuanced than previously thought’. Margaret had no objection to experiments and had ‘dirtied several white petticoats’ in Huygens’s laboratories, although such behaviour was more becoming to an exiled Marchioness in Holland than the Duchess who visited the Royal Society.

It’s unfortunate that Alderman focuses more on the novelty of a woman being involved in


Robert Boyle probably demonstrated this air pump to Margaret Cavendish at the Royal Society (Astrochemist [Wikimedia Commons])

natural philosophy at all than on Margaret’s contributions, though the late Lisa Jardine described her work on the mystery of ‘Prince Rupert’s Drops’ that she carried out with Huygens. Jardine does not show us a woman with a fundamental objection to the experimental method.

Experimentalists vs theoreticians today

Alderman went on the interview theoretical physicist Malcolm Fairbairn, who further expanded on the dichotomy between experimentalists and theoreticians:

I think experiments have to be done but there always have to be a few people around who interpret those experiments.

Here I must declare an interest: when I was a scientist, I was very firmly in the experimentalist camp and one thing guaranteed to drive us wild was people who couldn’t find the laboratory telling us we didn’t know how to interpret our own experiments. Fairbairn’s view that ‘experimentalists have got a very strange attitude toward theorists…they sort of think theorists are kind of crazy people and they don’t really believe a word we say ‘, may be influenced by the reaction he’s likely to get to statements like that. I certainly recognise Fairbairn’s statement that:

Even if a theorist came along and told them there’s no point in doing that experiment…I think they’d just go ahead and do it anyway…probably that’s a very sensible thing to do.

I concur with the last part of that statement, and have said more than once that no experiment ever works properly until an expert tells you it won’t.

Mad Madge and the bird-men

Fairbairn’s statement shows that even in today’s world of professionalised science, experimentalists are still the bird-men to the Blazing World’s ‘magpie- Parrot- and Jackdaw-men, which were her Orators and Logicians’. The dichotomy was far more pronounced in the early days of the experimental method, and may explain why the Royal Society nicknamed her ‘Mad Madge’ while she was befeathering them in literature.

Further, the empress’s command to the bear-men to smash their telescopes demonstrates a key failing that some theoreticians still suffer from: when an observation doesn’t fit the current theory, they dismiss the observation rather than question the theory.

In fact, the empress shows repeatedly that she has no patience with dispute or dissent. When she hears of war in her native world, she announces her support for one man and enlists the full might of the emperor’s forces to establish him as the absolute monarch of his world.

Duchess trumps Prince

There is no portal between our own world and the Blazing World so she is unable to perform a similar service for Charles II, but she visits it in spirit form and enlists none other than the Duchess of Newcastle as her guide. Having put herself into the story, Margaret makes herself a fast friend of the empress and has the empress hold forth at some length about how the Duchess of Newcastle is a great lady:

You are a Princess of the fourth or fifth Degree, for a Duke or Duchess is the highest title or honour


A modern experimentalist (Army Medicine [CC / Flickr])

that a subject can arrive to, as being the next to a King’s Title; and as for the name of a Prince of Princess, it belongs to all that are adopted to the Crown; so that those that can add a Crown to their Arms, are Princes, and therefore a Duke is a Title above a Prince; for example, the Duke of Savoy,

the Duke of Florence, the Duke of Lorrain, as also King’s Brothers, are not called by the name of Princes, but Dukes, this being the higher Title.

The Royal Society was reminded who they were dealing with.

Such reverence for aristocracy combined with the empress’s autocratic manner suggest that Margaret had more authoritarian views than were compatible with the principle of nullius in verba.

One who did not dispute her intellectual approach was her husband, William Cavendish. He prefaced The Blazing World with one of the many sonnets he wrote to her:

Our Elder World, with all their Skill and Arts,

Could but divide the World into three Parts:

Columbus, then for Navigation fam’d,

Found a new World, America ’tis nam’d;

Now this new World was found, it was not made,

Onely discovered, lying in Time’s shade.


Then what are You, having no Chaos found

To make a World, or any such least ground?

But your Creating Fancy, thought it fit

To make your World of Nothing, but pure Wit.

Your Blazing-World, beyond the Stars mounts higher,

Enlightens all with a Cœlestial Fier.

All of which begs the question of whether we should retrospectively award The Blazing World the title of the first scientific novel. If you have any thoughts, please share them in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
2 comments on “Inspirations: The Duchess of Newcastle transported England to The Blazing World
  1. Very interesting.
    Sci fi in the 1600s, I’d never have thought there was any thay early.
    Btw what is a ‘Mary Sue’? I heard it somewhere else today as well.

  2. DJ Cockburn says:

    A Mary Sue is a protagonist who is a bit too perfect. Like the empress, they are absurdly attractive, never wrong and all the other characters constantly gush over them. In spite of the name, it’s not gender specific. Male characters can be Mary Sues too.

    I would be interested to know if there’s anything that can be counted as SF before The Blazing World. I don’t think Utopia quite fits as it’s a political thought experiment than anything else.

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