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Margaret Cavendish "The Blazing World"

Margaret Cavendish, The Description of A New World, Called the Blazing World by the thrice noble, illustrious, and excellent princesse, the Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish.

Illustrations by Rebekka Dunlap. Introduction by Brooke Bolander. An illuminated edition from beehive books. 2020.

The Munich Shakespeare Library holds an extensive collection of women’s writing from the English Renaissance. With the rise of feminist criticism in Early Modern studies, these texts have increasingly been recognized as objects deserving academic study. The works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673), “one of the most vibrant and creative Englishwomen of the seventeenth century” as Emma L. E. Rees notes in her 2003 monograph Margaret Cavendish. Gender, Genre, Exile, have been paid particularly close attention and reached almost canonical status in recent years.

During her own lifetime, Margaret Cavendish was widely dismissed as eccentric. The fact that she published her texts under her own name seemed highly suspicious to her contemporaries, as did her interest in “male” domains such as the emerging natural sciences. At the same time, her notoriety allowed her the freedom to “publish ideas and opinions under the mantle of obscurity and frivolity”, as Rees observes.

The rediscovery of Cavendish’s works in the 20th century began with two essays by Virginia Woolf: “The Duchess of Newcastle” (1923) and “A Room of One’s Own” (1929). Critical interest was intermittent until the early 2000s, when Cavendish, alongside writers like Mary Sidney Herbert or Elizabeth Cary, entered the critical mainstream. In recent years, there have been a number of creative responses to Cavendish’s life and writing, such as Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World (2014), Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (2016) or the first performance of Cavendish’s play The Unnatural Tragedy in the White Bear Theatre in London (2018).


illustration by Rebekka Dunlap; credits: Maëlle Doliveux, Beehive Books 2020

In 1666, Cavendish wrote a text which is perhaps among the most interesting of her works. Not only is it a compelling utopia, it is also one of the earliest pieces of science fiction written by a woman: The Description of a New World, called the Blazing World. The plot is anything but boring: A merchant falls in love with a young woman and kidnaps her. They leave the shores of the young woman’s country and arrive at the North Pole. While the merchant freezes to death, the young woman survives and finds a way to enter another universe. In this parallel universe the young woman encounters anthropomorphic animals who live in a harmonious society. With its fantastical and allegorical setting this parallel world, the Blazing World, resembles Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and reminds the modern reader of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

In the next part of the story, the young woman not only becomes Empress of the Blazing World, but also encounters a fictional version of Cavendish herself - a character called the ‘Duchess of Newcastle’. The latter helps the Empress write a mystical book, and the two women become fast friends. The story ends with the Duchess’s return to her own world. In an “Epilogue to the Reader” the author comments on the fiction of herself in her own story and ironically invites her readers to be her ‘subjects’. In case they don’t like this idea, she suggests, they might create fantastical worlds of their own:

“… if any should like the World I have made, and be willing to be my Subjects, they may imagine themselves as such, and they are such, I mean in their Minds, Fancies or Imaginations; but if they cannot endure to be Subjects, they may create Worlds of their own, and Govern themselves as they please.”


illustration by Rebekka Dunlap; credits: Maëlle Doliveux, Beehive Books 2020

The Munich Shakespeare Library holds a large format edition of Cavendish’s The Blazing World with highly original, colourful illustrations by Rebekka Dunlap. Beehive Books, the publisher, is a small press founded by artist and designer Maëlle Doliveux and writer and editor Josh O’Neill. Doliveux and O’Neill see themselves as “lovers of the weird and unique” and mainly publish comics and graphic art. Rebekka Dunlap is a freelance illustrator who has worked for The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post. For the Blazing World Dunlap has used floating forms and figures, which underline Cavendish’s fluid style and the text’s web of genres, ideas, and motifs. Her usage of strong colours and sharp contrasts is reminiscent of cartoons, Anime and Manga. Dunlap describes her figures as bending and distorting, “filling the frame or floating into oblivion so as to allow traditional space to fall away completely”. Given her interest in topics like mental health, techno dystopias, and the geographies of gender, Dunlap is perfectly suited to visualizing Cavendish for the 21st century.