Women of Speculative Fiction: Margaret Cavendish

Here’s a rather obscure one. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was a female writer from the 17th century who, in opposition to the usual practice of her time, published her works under her own name. She was a poet, philosopher, essayist and playwright. And she wrote “prose romances” – early versions of the adventure novel – including a work that could be one of the first examples of science fiction. Why don’t we try to bring her a little out of obscurity?

Much of what we know of Margaret comes from her own memoir, A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life. She characterized herself as very bashful, preferring to put her thoughts into writing – which was also a somewhat more acceptable outlet than being a verbally outspoken woman. Though her family and later her husband were aristocrats of relatively modest means (partly thanks to the turmoil resulting from their political positions) she was granted the time and leisure for developing her philosophical thoughts and writing skills that women of lower classes would not have been afforded. She also had a dislike for many of the tasks that women of her station were expected to busy themselves with – for example, she described poetry as “mental spinning,” and explained that she was better at writing and therefore preferred it over spinning. For its time, that was a significant critique of gender roles.

So how about that work of science fiction? It’s called The Blazing World, and it falls firmly into the sub-category of utopian fiction. The world mentioned in the title is an entirely separate place from our world, accessed by the North Pole. A women enters this world, becomes Empress over a society of talking animals, and then plans an invasion to defeat the enemies of her homeland. Pretty wild. It was actually published as a companion to her non-fiction work Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, as a sort of illustrative piece to bolster her intellectual discourse. Margaret herself is included as a character in the story, making it autobiographical as well. It kind of has a little bit of everything. Of course back then, genres weren’t the strictly-defined categories that publishers and booksellers use now. And those with the leisure to write tended to write in just about every category, from “natural philosophy” (science) to poetry to plays.

Still, Margaret defied many a convention of her time, and it’s always nice to point out how women have been a part of speculative fiction from its earliest days. However you look at it, she was a pioneer. And since I was rather charmed to read that, among her other ambitions, she had an unapologetic desire for fame, I’ve done my small part to make her just a little more famous.