Book Review: The Blazing World and Other Writings by Margaret Cavendish

Title: The Blazing World and Other Writings the-blazing-world
Margaret Cavendish
Genre: Classics / Science Fiction 
1994 (1666)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 272
Started: 2nd May 2017
Completed: 5th May 2017
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Flamboyant, theatrical and ambitious, Margaret Cavendish was one of the seventeenth century’s most striking figures: a woman who ventured into the male spheres of politics, science, philosophy and literature. The Blazing World is a highly original work: part Utopian fiction, part feminist text, it tells of a lady shipwrecked on the Blazing World where she is made Empress and uses her power to ensure that it is free of war, religious division and unfair sexual discrimination. This volume also includes The Contract, a romance in which love and law work harmoniously together, and Assaulted and Pursued Chastity, which explores the power and freedom a woman can achieve in the disguise of a man

the blazing world titleBorn in 1623 Margaret Cavendish was the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne who, for a short time, lived in the court of Louis XIV. Cavendish was a philosopher, playwright, poet, and scientist as well as being an English aristocrat. She was the first woman to attend a meeting at Royal Society of London in 1667. Margaret Cavendish was an extraordinary woman and an extraordinary writer.

This collection contains three works of prose fiction by Cavendish and they all look at gender roles as well as many other themes including education, war, science, and law. I’m going to consider each story separately and then the collection as a whole because I think each story deserves attention rather than just the title story.

The Contract (1656)

The Contract is 40 pages long in this edition and it deals with love, duty, and the law. A very young girl in the care of her uncle is married to an older man her at the request of his father who is about to die. She continues to live with her uncle as her ‘husband’, a Duke, goes away and marries another woman unlawfully. When the young girl in the story grows into a beautiful lady her uncle makes her attend court where she catches the attention of a Viceroy and the young Duke that she was married to as a child.

The writing is complex and since the work is prose there are no chapters, although there are paragraphs and indented sections which denote long speeches, and there is a lot of ‘said she’ and ‘said he’ to indicate speech rather than the punctuation that we recognise today. I loved the plot because it was complicated and it showcases a highly-educated young woman who knows her own mind. Yes, she is beautiful but she knows that her intelligence and wit will last much longer than her youth and beauty.

Assaulted and Pursued Chastity (1656)

The second story in this collection is longer than the first at 71 pages long in the Penguin Classics edition. Once again this story is prose so there are no chapters which can be rather confusing in this story as Cavendish changes scenes very quickly and without even breaking into a new paragraph. However, the writing is descriptive and captivating. The plot is full of war, intrigue and power while questioning gender roles and even sexuality as a young woman poses as a man in order to travel the world and escape the man who loves her. She finds herself leading an army for a Queen who is in love with her and fully embracing the freedom that being a man gives her. This story is incredible but some aspects did make me pause as a 21st century reader, like casual mentions of cannibalism in Africa etc. It’s to be expected from this era of writing and I accept it as a product of it’s time.

The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World (1666)

This story is perhaps Cavendish’s most well known piece of prose and it’s 102 pages long in the edition that I own. It depicts a peaceful Utopian world where the Empress is knowledgeable in science and philosophy and challenges accepted gender roles. It’s a piece of protofeminist fiction and it is considered a forerunner of science fiction although it also contains romance, autobiography, and adventure.

I love the ‘note to the reader’ at the beginning of the story and the ‘epilogue to the reader’ at the end because they give an insight into Cavendish herself, who is attempting to ‘repair [her] noble lord and husband’s losses’ as well as become the ‘Authoress of a whole world’, and to the type of person she is writing for.

The main plot is very simple. A woman is the lone survivor of a shipwreck and she enters a new world, the Blazing World, via the north pole. Here she encounters talking animals, giants, and mermen whom are knowledgeable in different areas of science, law, and philosophy. She becomes their Empress and endeavours to know everything about the world that she now rules which means that the story is heavy on description and explanation. This seems a bit dense and difficult to read at times but it’s just the first part of the story. The Empress has a friend, the Duchess of Newcastle (Margaret), who desires to be the Empress of her own world. They’re able to invade the Empress’ original world and the Duchess and the Empress become Platonic lovers who share souls. It’s a fantastic, satirical tale and I really enjoyed it even if the first third was extremely descriptive.

Overall, this is a very coherent collection that explores the roles that women play in society and how they can gain freedom through education (and the occasional bout of cross-dressing). Cavendish’s protofeminist work gives an insight into her society and her own mind as she represented women a independent even in stories centred around romance.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and I’d love to read more of Cavendish’s work in the future. The language is difficult but it’s from the 17th century so it’s to be expected. Plus, I’m a Renaissance/Early Modern scholar so it’s perfect for me.

You can read The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World at Project Gutenberg for free.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Blazing World and Other Writings by Margaret Cavendish

  1. What I love about Cavendish is how much she playes with literary convension. It’s proto-sci fi, fantasy, utopia without really being fully any of these genres, or at least not for the full length of the book.


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