Those within Margaret Cavendish’s social circle described her as “eccentric.” Women of her time most likely regarded the duchess’s boisterous and flirtatious personality as unbecoming of a woman with her age and status. She wrote about science and philosophy of the mid 1600s, which were strictly for male intellectuals at the time, and led her to being nicknamed “Mad Madge.”
However, today she is a celebrated literary author. The work she is perhaps most famous for is “The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World,” shortened to “The Blazing-World,” in 1666. This work is viewed often through a feminist lens, focusing on the main character’s rule over a collection of races of animal people. Scholars and analyses of “The Blazing-World” identify how Cavendish emphasizes that women were capable of being in positions of power as well. This is a perfectly valid reading of her work, but I think that the first half of Part I needs more attention paid to it. Cavendish establishes long, borderline rambling sections ripe with scientific and philosophical discussions between the animal people and the Empress. The implications of these discussions, I feel, are a far more interesting subject to study.
The main character, simply called the Empress, is thrust into a parallel world to ours, filled with animal people, and having never seen a human before they make her their Empress. The Empress, in her first acts as their sovereign leader, makes several intellectual changes to the lives of the animal people: she erects schools, establishes societies, encourages the races of animals to focus on subjects they excel at, and encourage arts and sciences. The Empress doesn’t make these changes rashly; instead, she meets with various priests and leaders of the animals and asks them to describe their current religious and political climates and then builds upon those existing structures.
The Empress is naturally curious about everything the animal people do, which is an important aspect to the nature of the Empress herself, and by extension Margaret Cavendish’s strange and inquisitive mind. Cavendish was a curious soul and by no means an unintelligent woman. She was a pioneer of the science fiction genre, well before some of the most famous early science fiction examples, such as H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” in 1895 and even Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” in 1726. Her unique cosmology that the Blazing-World takes place in denotes both an active imagination and scientific understanding. However, with the state of science and philosophy being a male-dominated field in the 1600s, they viewed Cavendish as less intelligent purely because of her sex, and her frustration with such a barrier to be included spilled over into her writing, where she had no one to tell her that women had no place in the sciences.
The Empress also ensures that each species of animal has a way to contribute to the scientific and philosophical discussion, by asking each race to focus on something specific:
“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, &c.”
Cavendish does something clever here, by making animals in the real world have parallels to the animal people in the Blazing-World. The birds, who fly closer to the sun, moon, and stars than any human can, are the astronomers. The foxes, a common symbol of deceit and craftiness, are asked to be the politicians. The parrots and magpies, birds known for their intelligence and mimicking of human speech, are asked to be orators and logicians. There are some comparisons that I cannot understand, such as bears being experimental philosophers, but the Empress takes into consideration what each animal is best at, and gives them a job within that field.
Cavendish attempts to make the point that many different types of people have unique strengths and weaknesses, and by joining together they can create a better understanding of the world around them. She knows that she can contribute to the scientific climate of her time, or even just participate in some way, but she isn’t allowed to. She focuses on this unfairness in an almost passive-aggressive way. All of these animals have their own contributions, so why are women unable to have advanced discussions?
The Empress also calls each group of animals forward to present their findings on various scientific ventures that she sets each of the out on. She asks them to explore what the sun is, what the moon is, how are lightning and thunder created, where the wind and snow come from, how clouds were formed, how many stars were in the sky, what they could observe through telescopes and microscopes, and more. Each of these subjects takes up a few pages on its own, and with each new discovery, the Empress is just as eager to insert her own thoughts as the next group of animals, with new ideas about each subject to share:
“Then the Empress asked them the reason, Why the Sun and Moon did often appear in different postures or shapes, as sometimes magnified, sometimes diminished . . . To which some of the Bird-men answered, That it proceeded from the various degrees of heat and cold . . . But others did with more probability affirm, that it was nothing else but the various patterns of the Air; for like as Painters do not copy out one and the same original just alike at all times . . . This answer the Empress liked much better then the former . . . .”
Cavendish surely would have been frustrated with the anti-woman rule that science and philosophy informally adopted, pushing out nearly half of the population with incorrect and baseless ideas that women were simply less intelligent. The Empress has the ability to interject, make assertions, ask questions, impose thoughts, and participate in higher discussions. In this instance, the Empress even decides which answer she prefers from the Bird-men, and decides that it is definitive law of nature purely because she preferred one explanation to another.
Cavendish also implies through this that women are not taken seriously without holding some kind of public, political position, almost bordering on god-like. The Empress is completely in control of the animal people, and is viewed as an alien by the commoners, which is why she is asked to be the Empress. Even women within the Blazing-World are not treated as equals, which the Empress works to change.
The prejudice against women in the 1600s inhibited Margaret Cavendish’s intense curiosity and love for science and philosophy. Through “The Blazing-World,” she teaches her readers that everyone has something to contribute, and by opening your minds to new views and types of people, you expand the established base of knowledge beyond just a select group. It reaches new discoveries when people bring new strengths and understanding to the scientific and philosophical communities. Margaret Cavendish’s “The Blazing-World” sought to highlight this backwards method of exclusivity, both through the actions of the Empress throughout the narrative to expand the reaches of science and philosophy, but also through the inventiveness and high levels of knowledge that Cavendish exemplifies throughout her work.