Book Review

The Blazing World and Other Writings by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

boring but important?

Written on the 14th of May

Not for a very long while have I read something such a chore to get through.

The Blazing World is a 1666 piece of science-fiction slash fantasy about a new world, reached through a secret passage found at the North Pole. That other world is like ours in shape, but unlike ours in government and inhabitants.

People there are half human, half animal (I imagine like Bojack Horseman) and there is only one nation, one religion, one emperor across the planet. It is also a lot easier to speak with spirits and souls from other different worlds, as these non-corporeal souls are able to travel far more easily than physical bodies.

In this, the eponymous Blazing World – so named because there are shining precious metals and minerals EVERYWHERE and also because the sky continually shines with a brightness due to numerous blazing stars – a young woman arrives from a world that is near-identical to (but not quite the same as) ours. In her world, she is kidnapped by a band of pirates who want to force her into marriage, but the sea itself tries to save her and drives the pirate ship to the north pole and when it is there the ship is pushed into the narrow passage to the Blazing World and this passage is so cold that the men on the boat all freeze to death and die but the young woman’s beauty and purity are so hot she is safe, and when the ship drifts away from the cold pole in the Blazing World and the dead bodies begin to thaw and stink, she ventures outside and meets some inhabitants of the Blazing World’s islands.

Beautiful in her own world, though of the same species as her fellows, in this world – the Blazing World – the young woman is exceptional, and marries the Emperor of the whole entire world. She then tries to understand absolutely everything about the Blazing World and then about her own world and other worlds, and the spirits advise her that to do so it is best to commune with a writer’s soul, so she chooses the soul of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and the Empress and the Duchess become best friends, even though there seems to be no physical passage between their worlds, so the Empress is unable to help Margaret and her husband, the Duke of Newcastle, deal with the many debts he has as a result of being booted out of all his properties because he was on the Royalist side in the recent English Civil War.

There are then some war scenes and everyone ends happily, and the fictionalised Cavendish’s soul (only her soul travels to the Blazing World, not her body) returns home to her husband and her prolific writing career while the Empress stays in the Blazing World to enjoy long life, power and pleasure. It’s a happy ending.

It’s also shit.

///

Margaret Cavendish was the glamorous second wife of a much older man, and the two were exiled together in Paris while Oliver Cromwell was completely bollocksing-up the creation of a non-monarchist English state.1 Hanging out in Paris with luminaries of the day such as Thomas Hobbes and Renee Descartes, Cavendish was a trail-blazing writer of both self-consciously serious and self-consciously silly texts.

The Blazing World was one of her “silly” texts, and originally published in a double bill with a serious work of philosophy, which is NOT in this Penguin Classics edition. This seems like a bizarre choice, as any writing would be hard pressed to be more boring than the texts included here, and the context of the original publication might allow the reader a better understanding of Cavendish’s themes and meanings.

Of the two other pieces that editor Kate Lilley has included here (alongside their own impressively dull2 introduction), one functions as an early precursor to The Blazing World (i.e. a novella-length adventure text that incorporates some fantasy tropes) while the other is a more straightforward “love and romance in a courtly setting” kinda thing. They’re all kinda fun, I guess, I mean, they’re not terrible, but they’re all very “this happens and then this happens and then this happens” and even with the postmodern metatextual fictionality of The Blazing World itself, the whole thing feels like a much more (uh oh this is a bad word) primitive mode of storytelling.

The snobbish, deadly dull, introduction seems to imply any failings in the text are a result of Cavendish’s lack of education, but I think that’s ridiculous. Cavendish is writing 17th century prose fantasies as well as anyone else was writing 17th century prose fantasies: it’s just that NO ONE was doing this kinda writing in a manner that was truly, indefinitely, successful.

Of course, though, the development of narrative and literary forms is the result of practice and patience and people innovating, and Cavendish was certainly doing this. She is inarguably playing with forms and styles in a manner that was fresh and exciting: she was a female intellectual able to hold her own in patriarchal institutions of her day, and the legacy of The Blazing World is huge: can you name another fantasy novel from the 17th century? No, I bet you can’t.

I haven’t read Gulliver’s Travels, but I know that it wouldn’t exist if The Blazing World hadn’t been written before. This text is important, it is right that it is famous and though, yes, it’s not actually a great read to the type of modern reader that I am, it’s interesting as a piece of literary history. As a bridge text, an early, powerful, prose work, its significance cannot be understated.

As this lockdown looks set to continue for a long while yet, I’ll try and read more of the oldest, unread (or partially read) books I have. But first, something definitely fuuuuun.


1. I am, because I’m not creepy, a republican (small r – very important) and believe that the existence of a non-elected head of state is disgraceful, atavistic and a personal embarrassment. The reason why the UK – which executed a monarch in 1649 (over a hundred years before the French did (in 1793) and well over 250 before the Russians (1918)) – still has a monarchy is because of Cromwell’s pisspoor handling of the country, imo. The fact that the first non-monarch head of state the UK ever had was a physically ugly puritan (who banned basically everything fun) meant that creating positive PR for the restoration of Charles II was as easy as Charles II himself, and no one has ever tried to do it again since. The UK did revolution early and badly. We killed the monarch but we still have them now, and likely will for a long time yet. Fucking disgraceful. That republicanism isn’t a major political issue shows how backwards, self-hating and ignorant the UK populace truly is. Every time the Queen does one of her anti-vox-pops from a gilded mansion there should be fucking riots. But there aren’t. I hate England. All I miss is Pret A Manger. And parties.

2. like, honestly, impressively dull. The inconsistency of readability in the introductions to Penguin Classics is perhaps the least meaningful thing I get most frequently angry about.

1 comment on “The Blazing World and Other Writings by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

  1. Pingback: the mirror and the light by hilary mantel – Triumph Of The Now

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