Tales of the Unexpected: The Blazing World

Book cover: The Blazing World - Margaret CavendishThe Blazing World is a 17th century portal fantasy that reflects on natural philosophy with unexpected feminist and polyamorous leanings. Time to meet Frankenstein‘s convention-defying grandma.

You know how I usually say ‘sure, read it in the context of its time, whatever’? When it comes to The Blazing World you sort of have to, because it’s so steeped in its time – and in Cavendish’s experiences – that if you don’t you’ll likely need a stiff drink (or possibly something stronger) to help you digest the world-building and philosophy.

So, the context: as a Royalist’s daughter, Margaret was made lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Marie (wife of Charles I) and spent time with the Queen at the court of Louis XIV before marrying William Cavendish, later the Duke of Newcastle. She seems to have been quite a character: bashful in public (she preferred to be considered foolish than be disliked as rude), she comes across as a forceful character in her writing – a keen reader and thinker as unlikely to bow to prevailing opinion in matters of philosophy as of fashion (she apparently hated to follow the crowd). She wrote prolifically on questions of natural philosophy (an overwhelmingly male preserve in the 17th century), although she seems to have been sensitive to criticism, preferring her work disappear without a trace rather than attract a bad review.

So, um, on that note…

The Blazing World is now regarded as proto-SF, but Cavendish probably considered it a work of philosophy. By modern SF standards – sorry Margaret – it’s terrible. But it’s also fascinating. It makes me want to share that stiff drink with the Duchess of Newcastle and just let her talk at me. Because – rather unexpectedly – her protagonist is female, an abductee who ends up Empress of a parallel world, conquers another and falls deeply in love with a woman. But that’s okay, because they both have amazingly cool husbands, so they make a good foursome.

To be fair, I suspect Margaret might not have positioned it quite like this, but hey: my review, my astonished subjective take. Still, don’t go rushing in expecting Becky Chambers or Ellen Kushner.

Let’s start with the narrative style: Margaret laughs at you for wanting brevity or punctuation (it was the 17th century. Full stops were probably taxed). She also wants to talk to you before she gets started – not so much breaking the fourth wall as ripping the side of the house off – because she’s very keen you don’t get too critical of her world-building choices (hardly surprising; you can drive a tractor through it).

The world-building is naive, to say the least, but it’s marvellously imaginative; full of wind machines and jigsaw ships, submarines and necromancy. It is populated with races who are part man, part creature – bear men, fox men, geese men, insect men – with artificially vibrant skin (because science, thank you). Cavendish was very deterministic – the animal nature of each man dictates his social role and capabilities – and it’s tempting to read this as metaphor, but frankly it could equally be an extended joke; her sense of humour is evident in some of her choices. Women, on the other hand, go unmentioned for an awfully long time; she may have been unconventional, but she couldn’t quite imagine gender equality.

Or other forms of equality, in fact. We’re told – no showing here, she’s keen you don’t miss her points – that the Blazing World is a perfect utopia, peace and joy from one horizon to the next. I have my doubts. I don’t agree that monarchy is the most stable and perfect form of government (oh hey, Margaret was a Royalist and a French courtier, right); but even if it were, it seems odd that her Emperor would promptly delegate his power to a newly-arrived foreign lady to dictate how his world is run – especially as she promptly starts running social experiments.

I had other questions, too. Why does the beloved emperor need a guard? Why are gold and gems reserved for imperial usage when there’s an infinite supply? (I’ll allow they may have value purely for being pretty – and oh right, she lived with Louis XIV – but why ban the rest of the population from sharing the bling?). Why is it okay to castrate the Emperor’s possible rivals? My only conclusion is that utopia isn’t for everyone, apparently: it’s about the greater good.

As for the characters, there aren’t any. Our heroine never actually gets a name, she’s just the Best Person In The World (both of them) – and before you start yelling author insert, you’re wrong – because her heroine’s lover is… the Duchess of Newcastle. Yep, The Blazing World is, amongst other things, a personal puff piece and a defence of Cavendish as a writer.

But, said he, there’s a lady, the Duchess of Newcastle, which although she is not one of the most learned, eloquent, witty and ingenious, yet is she a plain and rational writer, for the principle of her writings, is sense and reason

Thankfully, Margaret wasn’t shy of making herself the butt of her wry sense of humour:

Said the Empress, you were recommended to me by an honest and ingenious spirit. Surely, answered the Duchess, the spirit is ignorant of my handwriting

Sure, take a moment – because her next pot shot is at 17th century mansplaining: a man won’t do as the Empress’s assistant because he’ll have too many opinions and won’t be able to keep them to himself.

For all it’s easy to be critical – and without being equipped to try and engage with The Blazing World in its philosophical or literary context (hey, I’ve not read much 17th century literature, and what I know about Hobbesian philosophy could go on a postage stamp), I’ve developed a certain fondness for this extravagant, untamed work. I may not agree with all of Margaret’s ideas (hell, I was even bored at times; she goes on a bit), but I’m still astounded and delighted that she got to publish them. 

The Blazing World tackles ideas of government and religion; the nature of love and of the soul; it even digresses on matters of imagination and creativity. At times, it’s as dry as a shopping list; at others, it’s a fast-moving epic of world conquest. At one point it becomes a morality play in which a a court case judged by Truth must determine whether Fortune has mistreated the Duke of Cavendish, or merely exercised appropriate vengeance as he belittled her in favour of Honesty and Prudence. It’s wild.

Ultimately, this is no great work of fiction by any 21st century standard. But it’s a remarkable feat of imagination and defiance for a woman writing in the 17th century, and worth a look for the curiosity value alone.

I read The Blazing World as a part of Dancing with Fantasy and SF 2019.