Reviewing through the Time Machine: Remembering Margaret Cavendish

[This post was republished in the Hugo nominated, British Fantasy Award-winning Speculative Fiction 2012.]

Earlier today something came across my tumblr that perpetuated a common myth. Which is to say that ‘Mary Shelley invented science fiction’. Now, if you want to say that ‘Mary Shelley was the mother of science fiction’… OK, there’s probably a case for that. I don’t want to diss Mary Shelley and her achievement, but it’s important not to let Frankenstein eclipse an earlier work by a woman who was at least as revolutionary: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish.

Artwork used as part of the British Library’s ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it’ exhibition, quote from the The Blazing World; although painting was originally from a Rondo Veneziano album cover.

Written in 1666, and republished in 1668 alongside her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (AKA ‘science’ before there was such a term),The Blazing World was inspired by a visit to the Royal Society (Cavendish was the very first woman to do so). She looked down a microscope and it blew her mind to the possibilities of different forms of life.

The Blazing World is about a woman who journeys to a parallel world before we had a vocabulary for talking about parallel worlds, and before we had even imagined space travel. This ‘twin’ of the Earth was connected at the North Pole. Cavendish’s heroine’s ship is caught in a storm, driven off course, and washed up on this new world. There she encounters strange and wonderful people (before anyone envisioned aliens – although non-human sentient creatures were common in mythology and theology, these are the first I’m aware of whose different physiology is premised on their living in a different physical world). These people elect this strange woman to be their Empress and present to her many scientific marvels (including a submarine). Cavendish uses this set up to satirise her own society and explore a world where a woman was allowed power far beyond what Cavendish herself could hope to attain (even as a duchess with an unusually permissive husband and rare education).

This looks like a pretty clear case of science fiction to me. It not only has the science fiction tropes of soft SF (aliens, parallel worlds, advanced technology), I’d make a case for it being hard SF. The story seems fantastic to the modern eye, and the idea of another world just stuck on top of the Earth just seems bizarre. It’s likely that although Cavendish was permitted to enter the Royal Society and had an understanding of science beyond most people of the time (and certainly most women), she was still merely peeking into a world that she was largely barred from due to her gender. Yet she came away from her experience having gained a new perspective on the world based on scientific evidence and extrapolated a non-actual but plausible (based on the evidence available to her) premise upon which to base a work of fiction designed to transport readers to another world and use that world to make them reflect on this one. Definitions vary, but that sounds like science fiction to me.

Hence: Margaret Cavendish wrote the first work of science fiction, not Mary Shelley*.

The reason I think it is important to remember Margaret Cavendish’s ground-breaking work for the piece of genuinely original, genre-creating art that it is, is that there are reasons we remember Shelley, rather than Cavendish. It wasn’t easy to be a female writer when Shelley wrote, but it was next to impossible when Cavendish did. Writing was principally the preserve of wealthy and educated men. As Virginia Woolf so cleverly observed, it’s very difficult to write if you have no money of your own and no space and time to devote to writing (AKA A Room of One’s Own and £500 a year). You either had to be exceptionally wealthy and well-educated (in which case it would have been scandalous for you to engage in such an activity as a woman) or have a rich patron (which would have been exceptionally rare for a woman to obtain – the only one I can think of is Aemilia Lanyer, who had a female patron). Margaret Cavendish was the former: she was the Duchess of Newcastle, and she was generally judged to be mad. Samuel Peypes called her ‘mad, conceited and ridiculous’, according to Wikipedia (they don’t provide a direct reference for this, but the article does cite an extensive list of academic sources at the end). And I recall a lecture in which it was described how theatre-goers would go to the theatre to watch Margaret Cavendish at the theatre, for she was known for bizarre fashions, including going out in public topless.

Whether she was mad or not is unclear. Anyone reporting on her at the time is likely to have viewed her through the customs of the time. She must have been a real force of personality to achieve all she did, as well as having a very open-minded husband, and it’s clear that in certain ways she was pretty eccentric. But I think it’d take a real force-of-nature-style eccentricity for a woman to be published in the way she was at the time.

On the other hand, I’ve read some of her plays, and they’re pretty bad, it must be said. The Blazing World itself is intellectually exciting, but artistically a bit of a slog. In her defence, it was early long-form prose fiction, so she’d have had little by way of reference points to guide her style, and the idea is as blazing as the title suggests. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s equal to most equivalent works of the time.

Margaret Cavendish was a woman writing with few peers who was ridiculed for writing at all. That is why we have forgotten her. She would never have had the size of audience that was available to Shelley due to the advances in printing, and her writing was hardly likely to have been championed for inclusion in a gentleman’s literary education. She was seen as a curiosity at best. Virginia Woolf speculated of what life would have been like for a sister of Shakespeare, equal to him in talent and determination, but bereft of the opportunities he would have had simply by being male. She imagines an imaginative woman torn apart by passion and despair, shunned by society for rejecting the norms that confine her, ultimately killing herself. I can’t help but feel, reading this fictional account, that there goes Margaret Cavendish, but for her fortune and sympathetic husband. If she was mad (although I suspect she was not), we should not be surprised; and if she was forgotten, we should not be surprised, either. If they couldn’t silence her in life, they were unlikely to remember her in death.

So, I feel it’s important to say: ‘Yes, Mary Shelley was awesome and we should celebrate her epoch defining achievement; but also, no, she did not invent science fiction. Margaret Cavendish did, and more people should know that.’

*Obviously this comes with the caveat ‘that I am aware of’, but I suspect it’s fair. It’s really difficult to distinguish science from philosophy prior to the 17th Century, when Cavendish was writing. The Royal Society for improving Natural Knowledge was founded in 1660. Early modern thinking about natural philosophy is usually dated to have been sparked by Galileo’s work published in his controversial The Assayer (1623), which challenged the idea that the Church was the ultimate source of knowledge**, and birthed a movement towards observational investigation as an approach to finding things out about the world that became what we now call science. I suppose some might want to argue for Utopia, but I don’t see any science fiction elements in it, myself. It’s more of an extended ‘counterfactual’ as we would say in philosophy – or fantastic hypothetical used to explore a philosophical idea. It’s really a discussion of a possibility suggested by political philosophy rather than an extrapolation from empirical observation to non-actual, but physically possible, worlds, peoples, societies, and technologies (which is the definition I would lean towards if we’re discussing works that predate the term ‘science’).

** Wooyay – footnotes within footnotes, very 17th Century. Anyway: it should be noted that observational empirical philosophy of a sort can be dated back to Aristotle. The trouble is, Aristotle’s philosophy and observations became so dominant as to become stagnant dogma, assimilated into Church doctrine and taught in the Schools***.

*** Caveat on a caveat on a caveat: all of this is very euro-centric. I can only apologise for that. My knowledge of Margaret Cavendish comes from my studies for my BA, which even though it was supposed to be ‘English and Related Literatures’, was mostly English or American literature. My knowledge of the development of science and early modern philosophy come from teaching and studying early modern philosophy, but I must confess that English philosophy is still dominated by the analytic tradition, with a side bar on ‘Continental’ (i.e. continental Europe) philosophy, and with the European cannon of philosophy that leads up to the analytic/continental ‘split’. I’ve never been taught any world philosophy and have barely dabbled in it on my own time. I know even less on the relationship between science and philosophy in non-euro-centric cultures. Any comments on the origins of science fiction should thus be seen as comments on a largely european and american tradition.

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