Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World is just terrible. For me, anyway. It is an important book in feminist history and natural philosophy and, I would argue, the development of science fiction. Except for experts in those worlds, though, I’m just not sure who would love this. In an energetic piece with unremarkable prose and characters with the psychological depth of houseplants, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, fills a volume and a pretty terrifying utopia with long, boring discussions and asinine debates that commit neither to Platonic discovery nor satirical unveiling nor utopic promise. There were times reading this book, particularly in the descriptions of the first part, the dialogues of the second part, and the part where there is a complex lawsuit between Fortune and some other Moral Deities, when I considered leaving a life of letters and becoming a clerk.
And yet, considering it was written in the early and suggestive year of 1666, it is a remarkable bit of speculative world-building. It has the sophistication of early science fiction, and I don’t doubt the scholars who suggest that Cavendish is a forerunner in the field. Finding the “first” science fiction book is as helpful as asking who made the first sourdough starter, but Cavendish shows a brilliance of unusual invention that I found quite compelling. Indeed, the first few pages of the book are pretty neat, including a sonnet by her husband that really could have prefaced a great work of speculative art. Perhaps I didn’t get this book because I’m not a noble lady, the original audience of the volume. The front matter is worth sharing, including the poem on the illustration facing the title page, the sonnet to Margaret Cavendish, a note to readers, and some of the introduction; whether you decide to read on is up to you (but another dozen or so pages can’t hurt!).
Here on this Figure Cast a Glance.
But so as if it were by Chance,
Your eyes not fixt, they must not Stay,
Since this like Shadowes to the Day
It only represent’s; for Still,
Her Beauty’s found beyond the Skill
Of the best Paynter, to Imbrace
These lovely Lines within her face.
View her Soul’s Picture, Judgment, witt,
Then read those Lines which Shee hath writt,
By Phancy’s Pencill drawne alone
Which Peces but Shee, can justly owne.
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.
To all Noble and Worthy Ladies.
This present Description of a New World, was made as an Appendix to my Observations upon Experimental Philosophy; and, having some Sympathy and Coherence with each other, were joyned together as Two several Worlds, at their Two Poles. But, by reason most Ladies take no delight in Philosophical Arguments, I separated some from the mentioned Observations, and caused them to go out by themselves, that I might express my Respects, in presenting to Them such Fancies as my Contemplations did afford. The First Part is Romancical; the Second, Philosophical; and the Third is meerly Fancy; or (as I may call it) Fantastical. And if (Noble Ladies) you should chance to take pleasure in reading these Fancies, I shall account my self a Happy Creatoress: If not, I must be content to live a Melancholly Life in my own World; which I cannot call a Poor World, if Poverty be only want of Gold, and Jewels: for, there is more Gold in it, than all the Chymists ever made; or, (as I verily believe) will ever be able to make. As for the Rocks of Diamonds, I wish, with all my Soul, they might be shared amongst my Noble Female Friends; upon which condition, I would willingly quit my Part: And of the Gold, I should desire only so much as might suffice to repair my Noble Lord and Husband’s Losses: for, I am not Covetous, but as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which is the cause, That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own. And thus, believing, or, at least, hoping, that no Creature can, or will, Envy me for this World of mine, I remain,
Noble Ladies, Your Humble Servant, M. Newcastle.
A Merchant travelling into a foreign Country, fell extreamly in Love with a young Lady; but being a stranger in that Nation, and beneath her, both in Birth and Wealth, he could have but little hopes of obtaining his desire; however his Love growing more and more vehement upon him, even to the slighting of all difficulties, he resolved at last to Steal her away; which he had the better opportunity to do, because her Father’s house was not far from the Sea, and she often using to gather shells upon the shore accompanied not with above two to three of her servants it encouraged him the more to execute his design.
Thus coming one time with a little leight Vessel, not unlike a Packet-boat, mann’d with some few Sea-men, and well victualled, for fear of some accidents, which might perhaps retard their journey, to the place where she used to repair; he forced her away: But when he fancied himself the happiest man of the World, he proved to be the most unfortunate; for Heaven frowning at his Theft, raised such a Tempest, as they knew not what to do, or whither to steer their course; so that the Vessel, both by its own leightness, and the violent motion of the Wind, was carried as swift as an Arrow out of a Bow, towards the North-pole, and in a short time reached the Icy Sea, where the wind forced it amongst huge pieces of Ice; but being little, and leight, it did by the assistance and favour of the gods to this virtuous Lady, so turn and wind through those precipices, as if it had been guided by some experienced Pilot, and skilful Mariner:
But alas! Those few men which were in it, not knowing whither they went, nor what was to be done in so strange an Adventure, and not being provided for so cold a Voyage, were all frozen to death; the young Lady onely, by the light of her Beauty, the heat of her Youth, and Protection of the Gods, remaining alive: Neither was it a wonder that the men did freeze to death; for they were not onely driven to the very end or point of the Pole of that World, but even to another Pole of another World, which joined close to it; so that the cold having a double strength at the conjunction of those two Poles, was insupportable: 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: and lest you should scruple at it, and think, if it were thus, those that live at the Poles would either see two Suns at one time, or else they would never want the Sun’s light for six months together, as it is commonly believed: You must know, that 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 Sun of the other World, they being too far off to be discerned by our optick perception, except we use very good Telescopes; by which, skilful Astronomers have often observed two or three Suns at once. But to return to the wandering Boat, and the distresed Lady; she seeing all the Men dead, found small comfort in life; their Bodies which were preserved all that while from putrefaction and stench, by the extremity of cold, began now to thaw, and corrupt; whereupon she having not strength enough to fling them over-board, was forced to remove out of her small Cabine, upon the deck, to avoid the nauseous smell; and finding the Boat swim between two plains of Ice, as a stream that runs betwixt two shores, at last perceived land, but covered all with Snow: from which came, walking upon the Ice, strange Creatures, in shape like Bears, only they went upright as men; those Creatures coming near the Boat, catched hold of it with their Paws, that served them instead of hands; some two or three of them entred first; and when they came out, the rest went in one after another; at last having viewed and observed all that was in the Boat, they spake to each other in a language which the Lady did not understand; and having carried her out of the Boat, sunk it, together with the dead men.
The Lady now finding her self in so strange a place, and amongst such wonderful kind of Creatures….