“A Merchant travelling into a foreign Country, fell extremely in Love with a young Lady…” writes Margaret Cavendish in the opening sentence of The Blazing-World. Though this sounds like the introduction to a typical love story, the book quickly proves itself to be something entirely different. Cavendish details the Lady’s kidnapping, shipwreck, and rescue by strange creatures, half animal half human, in a foreign land named the Blazing World. As one of the pioneers in the genre of science fiction, Cavendish gives remarkable descriptions of the new world and of its inhabitants through the Lady, who soon becomes the world’s Empress, and her unrelenting curiosity. This is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, though written in the seventeenth century during the Scientific Revolution, as a woman, it is surprising both that Cavendish made the decision to delve deeply into scientific thought, and that she was educated enough to do so. The second reason is what sets The Blazing-World apart as a feminist utopia; not only does she include long passages filled with questions about how the world works, she also uses a female protagonist to do so.
After being granted unlimited power to rule as she pleases through marriage to the Emperor, made possible by Cavendish’s creation of a world unlimited by gender stereotypes, the Empress calls together each species on the Blazing-World and divides them into the societies for which they are most suited. Through her discourse with each species, the Empress explores philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, politics, mathematics, and religion, among other things. Though some of the explanations Cavendish writes are long winded and at times dry, they show the great effort to make the world realistic; the world she has created may be fantasy, but Cavendish uses it as an outlet to explore topics relevant to her world and culture at the time in a way she would not have been able otherwise.
After a discussion regarding religion, the Empress comes into contact with beings she calls ‘immaterial spirits,’ and though the plot slows at this point, it begins to pick up pace when Cavendish introduces herself as a character in the novel; the Duchess of Newcastle’s soul visits the Empress in the Blazing-World and engages in a discussion of building worlds in fictional literature, transforming the work once again into something vaguely autobiographical. Upon hearing that her home world is being disrupted by war, the Empress uses her wits and logic to devise a plan, travel to her world, install an absolute monarchy, and bring peace before returning to the Blazing-World. Through this plot point, Cavendish explores the ideal government while indicating the capability for female leadership and success.
I read The Blazing-World as a requirement for an English class, and in the context of feminist and utopian prose, it is my opinion that this novel is a must read. While it uses somewhat archaic language and is at times dense, Cavendish offers quite a bit to ponder in her work. I echo my own sentiments as well as those of several other reviewers who would draw parallels between this work and the later feminist science fiction writer Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein. One thing to keep in mind when reading The Blazing-World is Cavendish’s tendency to reference scientific discoveries, theory, and philosophical arguments specific to the time period. During my reading, I found that though I did not understand every reference Cavendish made, a brief understanding of her background and the Scientific Revolution was enough to guide me through the book. Cavendish’s striking realism serves to further her point regarding the power of literature as empowerment for women, and renders The Blazing-World an interesting and important read for those seeking to understand the time period (particularly for women) or the origins of science fiction.
My advice? Read the book. Don’t be discouraged by the long paragraphs filled with difficult jargon; when read slowly and thoughtfully, they offer quite a bit of material to ponder. The Blazing-World has many facets; it can be read as a feminist utopia, a work of science fiction, a romance, an adventure, and an inquiry into science and philosophy, all of which make it a unique and worthwhile read.