This week, a brief foray into the past with The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish. A prolific writer (and Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), Ms. Cavendish often wrote works of Natural Philosophy – what we might think of as Science. The Blazing World is a work of science fiction, telling the tale of a woman who sailed to the pole of our world and passed to another world, where various strange creatures dwell.
The book is a cross between lessons in science of the day (1666), philosophical argument, and conjectured fancy of what another world might resemble. There are creatures who are described as Ape-men, Owl-men, Worm-men, and the like; creatures somewhat human in appearance but having different color and/or texture of skin; various true animals, some like those of Earth and some completely new; and Immaterial Spirits, wise ethereal creatures who dwell in the air and can be called upon for advice.
The lady who has traveled to the Blazing World wins the heart of the ruler and becomes Empress, so she sets her subjects the task of learning about the world, and relating to her their observations and discoveries. Some of the observations are quite familiar – seeing small creatures beneath a magnifying scope, observing that color vision is caused by the refraction and reflection of light – others are more dated: frost is caused by a precise mingling of saline and acidic waters; when cheese gets rotten enough it turns into maggots. (Incidentally, that’s why maggots have no blood – neither does cheese. In case you were wondering.)
The language in the book can be challenging – a single paragraph might last for more than a page and contain only one sentence. Also, having been written in 1666, the modes of speech and spelling can be daunting if you aren’t familiar with the non-modernized writings of Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the like.
Not the least bit perturbed to be a woman in a boy’s club, Cavendish wrote several well-received (though much debated) works of Natural Philosophy. Her prose, poetry, and plays dealt with gender norms, the sciences, manners, equality, and education. In her Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, she makes a distinction between wit and learning: wit is inherent to a person, and women often have as much of it as men. Wit is the capacity for learning, and so anyone, given opportunity and desire, can educate themselves on any subject they find interesting. It’s simply that men have been given more opportunity.
It’s an interesting, if slow, read. Feedbooks has you covered if you would like to take your own FREE voyage to The Blazing World.
You might also listen to it – Sarah Terry has recorded it over on Librivox.
If you care to learn more about Ms. Margaret’s philosophical style, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a thorough biography and annotated bibliography.
If you really like her, there is, of course, a Margaret Cavendish Society (hosted on Facebook).
If you enjoy a bit of arcane English, but in small bites, I highly recommend Chaucer Doth Tweet. Often covering lyrics from popular songs, “Chaucer” takes new things and makes them Olde again.
While we haven’t covered much from this era on the blog before, we’ve certainly covered science fiction and world-building. If you’re into alternate realities, check out one of these posts:
Dileas covered some strange goings-on in “The Tunnel Under the World”
Havilah shared the mysterious circumstances surrounding “Before Egypt”
And I took a look at conjecture with A Hundred Years Hence: Expectations of an Optimist