I didn’t quite know what to expect when I began reading Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World; and now that I have read it I still am not exactly sure what has happened. It involves different worlds from our own – some pre-existing, some created – different types of creatures exist in these worlds and their ruler does what she can to make it a utopian society, and then Cavendish herself shows up at one point and…yeah, it all gets to be a bit much for me. So hopefully, I can make some sense of it here.
This story is part satire, part romance, part adventure, part autobiography, part science fiction, and complete utopian fiction.
My extremely brief version is as follows: A woman is kidnapped by a man who is completely enchanted by her and the ship sails towards the North Pole where the entire crew dies from the cold except for her. Through the North Pole the ship enters a different world of talking animal-like people, who are also so enchanted by the woman’s beauty that they take her to their emperor and he makes her his empress. The new Empress then has all of the animals separated into groups and has them each research different aspects of their world and report back to her. She also asks them various questions about their religion, politics, and how they keep their world peaceful. At some, I’m not sure where, spirits come into play (of the dead and of the living of different worlds) that the Empress is able to communicate with, one of which is Margaret Cavendish. Both the Empress and Cavendish each decide that the power each currently holds in their respective worlds isn’t enough, so they attempt to create their own worlds to govern. From what I could tell, this project is eventually abandoned and Cavendish expresses her desire for other countries of her world to submit to the country she is from (which appears to be England). The Empress agrees to use her world’s resources to help invade the other areas so that they submit to England. The invasion is successful, the Empress and Cavendish eventually part ways, and the story ends in what I assume to be a “happily ever after” type ending. Weird, wild stuff.
Since this is utopian fiction, the central theme appears to be one of maintaining peaceful control of one’s country/realm/world/whatever. In the beginning, the Empress is very interested in how the world she had been brought to is governed and how things are decided and how the people practice their religion, all while maintaining peace and avoiding a revolt. The Empress herself employs different methods of maintaining peace while still holding onto her control. The balance between having subjects that obey you out of fear and subjects that obey out of love is brought up at several points, and the Empress often employed the first to get the people’s initial obedience, and then she would move into the latter.
The focus then seems to shift from peaceful control to simply more control under one ruler. Both the Empress and the Duchess (Cavendish) take on attempting to make their own worlds to control; worlds that they can first create to their liking and then rule as they please. The story ends with a battle to help England, although it is not called England in the story, subdue surrounding countries under the English monarchy. The Empress agrees to come to the world of the Duchess and help her country achieve this goal. Many times throughout the battle, the Duchess will first attempt to get other countries to submit without and destruction of property or loss of lives, and if that fails, she would then move on to destroying small pieces of land, before moving onto bigger areas and cities. In the end, the Empress, Duchess, and all of England comes out victorious, and the Empress returns to her world.
Throughout the story, there is very little action compared to the conversations that take place between characters. Most of these conversations involve the Empress in some way, and it isn’t the usual kind of dialogue that we would be used to in a typical piece of fiction. These are conversations (and quite involved ones) about government, religion, science, philosophy, etc. There is lots of debating not only between the Empress and whoever she is talking to, but also some debate between different groups within her world. And because of the arguments that ensue between the different groups, the Empress will threaten to take away their means of research (telescopes and such) and destroy them so that they never have reason to argue and fight again. Overall, the Empress is concerned with maintaining both peace and control.
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was an aristocrat, writer, and scientist. She wrote poetry, philosophy, prose romances, essays, and plays. She published her writing under her own name in a time when most women writers were publishing anonymously. She addresses multiple topics ranging from gender, manners, and power; to science and philosophy; to animals and animal protection. The Blazing World is also thought to be one of the first examples of science fiction. Some critics suggest that she was full of herself, possibly because of her assertion in her epilogue to The Blazing World that she was the Empress to the philosophical world. Yeah, I guess that is pretty ballsy of her…
Now I will commence psyching myself out for William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. For me, it is on the same scale as Moby Dick even though it isn’t as long and is much more enjoyable. But it is dense, and half the time you have no clue what is going on.