The Origins of Modern Fantasy

The Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish

‘At last the rain came, and upon a sudden all their houses appeared of a flaming Fire; and the more Water there was poured on them, the more did they flame and burn;’

I was doing some research into the history of fantasy literature when I came across a name I hadn’t associated with fiction at all – and certainly not with fantasy.

That name was Margaret Cavendish; I suspect that it isn’t one most people will recognise, not at first. However, not only was Margaret a novelist, playwright and poet but she a scientist and philosopher, and that in an age when women were denied the right to a university education. She may have been the first woman to publish serious scientific and philosophic works in her own name. She was certainly the first woman to be allowed inside the hallowed halls of the Royal Society, where she was permitted to witness experiments by the famous scientist Robert Boyle.

Margaret Cavendish was born Margaret Lucas in England in 1623. In 1643, she became lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I and accompanied the royal pair into exile in France. In 1645, she married William Cavendish, Marquess (later Duke) of Newcastle, a family whose better known members include Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Andrew Cavendish, husband of Deborah Mitford and William Cavendish, second husband of Bess of Hardwick and builder (with her) of Chatsworth House.

The Cavendishes returned to Great Britain at the Restoration and Margaret continued her exploration of scientific and philosophical ideas, publishing no fewer than half a dozen books on her theories. Considered by some of her contemporaries as eccentric at best, she acquired the nickname Mad Madge. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, wrote that her poetry was ‘the most ridiculous thing that ever was wrote’,. Well, no doubt he was entitled to his opinion but we must remember this  was an era when men disparaged most of women’s public achievements. Yet, though many of Margaret’s ideas do not stand scrutiny today, she may have laid the foundations of the concept of a materialistic universe.

In 1666, Cavendish published what we can only term the prototype of the modern alternate universe science fiction story. Entitled The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, the novel describes how a young woman, abducted by her lover, sails to the North Pole and is transported there to another world where she is met by bear-men and becomes that world’s empress.

‘. . . she had never heard of a medicine that could renew old Age, and render it beautiful . . . for she knew that Art, being Natures Changeling, was not able to produce such a powerful effect;’

Rather like Cyrano de Bergerac’s Les États et Empires de la Lune (1657), probably the first ever ‘space opera’, The Blazing World is filled with philosophical and scientific speculation. The language and syntax are dated, not to mention the haphazard spelling, and the novel becomes confusing when Cavendish introduces herself into it as ‘the Duchess’. However, the novel’s relevance to the history of fantasy lies not only in Cavendish’s imaginative creation but in two other curious, and possibly unacknowledged respects.

Enthusiasts of the fantasy genre will surely be familiar with Philip Pullman’s classic His Dark Materials. Not only is one of the chief characters of the novel the talking armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison, but readers of this work will not have forgotten how, at the end of Northern Lights, Lyra makes her way to the other universe via the North Pole!


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