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Paper Bodies
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson (eds.)
Broadview Press, 332 pages

Paper Bodies
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), the last of eight children of a wealthy gentry family, grew up in Colchester, Essex. As her parents were fervent royalists, to avoid persecution during the early part of the English Civil War, the family moved to Oxford where Charles I held court. There Margaret persuaded her mother to allow her to become a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria. When the Queen fled to Paris in 1644, Margaret went along, but her painfully shy disposition made her homesick and lonely. In 1645 she met and married William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle, a royalist general who had been declared a traitor by the parliament and had had his estates confiscated. Margaret, thirty years his junior, lived fifteen years with him in exile on the continent. Upon the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the couple returned to England, where William was created Duke of Newcastle.

Unable to conceive a child with William, Margaret had plenty of time to devote herself to writing stories and poetry and studying science. Her interest in the new science of the time was encouraged through her close friendship with William's brother Sir Charles Cavendish, a mathematician and scientist. In May 1667, she was invited (as a potential patron) to attend a meeting of the Royal Society of London, though as a woman she was barred from joining the Society. While Margaret Cavendish wrote extensively on gender roles, and early modern science (probably the first woman to do so), she is best remembered for her remarkable science fiction novel The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666). Margaret Cavendish died in December 1673 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Margaret Cavendish Society
Margaret Cavendish Bio & Info #1
Margaret Cavendish Bio & Info #2
Bibliography of Margaret Cavendish
Paper Bodies, publisher's page
Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy and Utopia

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Paper Bodies collects a number of literary works of the 17th century British author Margaret Cavendish, some autobiographical, some exploring gender issues, and some discussing science as it was in her time. This critical edition with its extensive introduction by editors Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson, along with contemporaneous works and commentary is primarily designed as a text for literary studies. While a few other editions of Cavendish's works have appeared in the last 10 years (NYU Press, Penguin Classics), the present edition has done a good job of selecting and introducing a number of texts by Cavendish, and placing them in the context of the social mores and science of her time. While her literary contributions as an early feminist, scientist and science commentator were substantial and are well represented here, it is the inclusion of her 1666 science fiction novel The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World that makes this book relevant to SF Site readers and which I will focus my review on.

You may think to yourself that calling The Blazing World science fiction may be somewhat of a misnomer and that it rather should be termed a satirical "voyage imaginaire" (imaginary voyage) -- a common literary form of the time -- e.g. Cyrano de Bergerac's contemporaneous Les états et empires de la lune (1657) or Jonathan Swift's later Gulliver's Travels (1726). However, while it does share certain elements of these works such as satire and alternate world setting, The Blazing World might aptly be termed hard science fiction. The Blazing World is a novel which serves as a platform to disseminate Margaret Cavendish's opinions on 17th century science.

The Blazing World, tells the story of an unnamed young noblewoman who is kidnapped and whose captors' ship drifts into the Arctic Ocean. She survives in a lifeboat which drifts onto another world sitting atop ours like two beads in a necklace and in which she is immediately enthroned as Empress. There she meets a host of animal-like men to which she assigns different tasks:

The rest of the Inhabitants of that World, were men of several different sorts, shapes, figures, dispositions, and humours, as I have already made mention, heretofore; 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 the most proper for the nature of their Species, which the Empress encouraged them in, especially those that had applied themselves to the study of several Arts and Sciences; for they were as ingenious and witty in the invention of profitable and useful Arts, as we are in our world, nay, more; and to that end she erected Schools, and founded several Societies. The Bear-men were to be her Experimental Philosophers, the Bird-men her Astronomers, the Fly- Worm- and Fish-men her Natural Philosophers, the Ape-men her Chymists, the Satyrs her Galenick Physicians, the Fox-men her Politicians, the Spider- and Lice-men her Mathematicians, the Jackdaw- Magpie- and Parrot-men her Orators and Logicians, the Gyants her Architects, etc.
She then discusses with each of them on a number of scientific subjects, including such things as atomic theory, spontaneous generation, generating gold from base metals, the causes of disease, and the nature of what is revealed by microscopes, amongst many others. Summoning the soul of the Duchess of Newcastle (Margaret) as her scribe, the Empress goes on in the second part of the novel to receive a message from Immaterial Spirits which tells that her home country is under siege by its enemies. She returns to act as peacemaker.

I deliberately present the above quote from the original text of the 1668 edition to point out some characteristics of the text of the current edition which make it far more accessible to the modern reader than the unevenly dark grainy microfilm version I had to read some 20 years ago. The editors of the current edition have maintained the original punctuation, spelling and capitalization, which while it makes for sentences that may go on for pages and presents a few archaic spellings like "onely" for "only" still presents a text that is remarkably easy to understand.

For anyone with the least bit of interest in the history of modern science The Blazing World is an absolutely fascinating novel. Regardless of the small difficulty one might have in reading this nearly 340 year old text, it is as entertaining and unusual today as it was then. The many other writings of Margaret Cavendish in Paper Bodies show that if possessed of a very high opinion of herself, she was a remarkable woman who was well ahead of her time in many facets of her thinking and writing.

Contents (alphabetically)

Margaret Cavendish
"The Convent of Pleasure" from Plays Never Before Published (1668)
complete play
The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World
complete novel
Poems and Fancies (1635)
various selections
Orations of Divers Sorts (1662)
"Female Orations"
A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding and Life (1656)
CCXI Sociable Letters (1664)
some selected letters
The Worlds Olio (1655)
"Preface to the Reader"
William Cavendish (ed.)
Letters and Poems in Honour of...Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle
some selected letters in honour of Margaret Newcastle
Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson (eds.)
A. Birth, Breeding, and Self-fashioning
B. Gender and Serious Play
C. Women and the New Science
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle: A Brief Chronology
Works Cited and Select Bibliography
Other Texts
Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (1627)
Aphra Behn, preface to her translation (1688) of Bernard le Bovier Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686)
Mary Evelyn, letter to Ralph Bohun (c. 1667)

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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