Blazing Old Worlds: On Francesca Peacock’s “Pure Wit”
By Thomas ElrodFebruary 5, 2024
Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish by Francesca Peacock
The Duchess’s arrival was highly anticipated. As the author of books on topics including the scientific revolution underway in England and Greater Europe, Cavendish occupied a certain celebrity in elite social and intellectual circles. She and her husband, both staunch Royalists, spent over a decade in exile on the continent during the Civil War, returning to England only with hopes of renewed fortune under Charles II. During her visit to London seven years later, much was made about Cavendish’s unique, self-designed dresses replete with “scarlet trimmed nipples.” Crowds flocked to the street for a glimpse of her. Cavendish’s visit to the Royal Society, where she observed a few experiments but remained, on the whole, quiet and polite, marked the pinnacle of her renown and influence.
It is this combination of magnetism and eccentric intellectualism which Francesca Peacock explores in her debut biography, Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish (2024). The book comes as a welcome corrective to previous characterizations of the Duchess (Cavendish’s literary uniqueness and generally odd nature have not exactly helped her reputation over the years). For, where Virginia Woolf famously dismissed her as “cracked-brained and bird-witted,” Peacock offers a rigorous and insightful survey of Cavendish’s life and times, thoroughly detailing the sociocultural contexts in which her works emerged. Of these works, there are many: in addition to her scientific books, Cavendish published collections of plays, poems, biographies, and works of philosophy. Best known is her proto-novel The Blazing World, a strange and almost uncategorizable text of imaginative fantasy.
Peacock is not the only one to take recent interest in the Duchess. Last year, Jonathan Healey titled his expansive new history of 17th-century England The Blazing World, suggesting just how central Cavendish’s work is for understanding that turbulent era. And Punctum Books is currently planning a 20-volume scholarly edition of her complete works—additional evidence that the Duchess was exceptional in many ways. Yet Peacock appears unique in the strength of her assertion that Cavendish was a woman of her time; that only once the larger milieu of 17th-century English society is brought into focus does it become possible to fully appreciate Cavendish and her extraordinary work.
Born under the name Margaret Lucas in 1623, Cavendish was the youngest child of a large and prosperous Royalist Essex family. She was encouraged in her intellectual pursuits from a young age, though she was, at her core, an autodidact. Growing up, Margaret displayed little interest in “society”—an attitude changed only by the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. As Oxford became the seat of the Royalist government, Margaret headed there, fulfilling her duties as a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Separated from her family in a new and strange environment, court life proved hard for a teenage Cavendish. Yet Peacock details the ways in which she stuck it out, eventually following the Queen into exile in Paris. There, Margaret met her future husband William Cavendish, then the Marquess of Newcastle. Thirty years her senior, exiled after disgrace on the battlefield, and recently widowed with four children from his first marriage, the Marquess no doubt found his position quite precarious.
In this way, William’s marriage to Margaret was at least partially strategic: she could provide him with more children. At the same time, Peacock uses the writings of both William and Margaret to make their genuine love for each other clear. Margaret never did have her own children, a fact that didn’t alter William’s affections for her; instead, he grew increasingly enthusiastic about and provided financial backing for her intellectual development. When it came time to publish her first book of poems, William paid to have it printed in London.
The couple returned to England after Charles II’s restoration in 1660. According to Peacock, William’s favorite home was ransacked during the Civil War and proved unlivable upon their return. What’s more, he never received the Royal thanks for his wartime loyalty he thought he deserved. Eventually, however, he was given the title of Duke, and he and Margaret spent most of the final decade of their lives in Nottinghamshire as they had on the continent, reading and writing. Margaret died—suddenly, at the relatively young age of 50—in 1673, and William followed a few years later. Today, the two are buried in Westminster Abbey.
Compared to most women of her day, Margaret Cavendish’s life is well documented. Even so, there are significant gaps in her biography. We do not know how she responded when her family home was seized by Parliamentarians during the Civil War, for instance, and some of the more lurid episodes of her marriage can only be speculated upon. (Both Peacock and William himself suspect that Margaret may have had an affair with William’s brother, but this remains mostly conjecture.) Similarly, we do not have a complete picture of how exactly Margaret Cavendish went about publishing most of her books. Peacock fills in these particular details with contextualizing surveys of the London publishing scene. The book thereby deftly balances the story of Cavendish’s life with the excavation of a larger social history, incorporating an impressive amount of scholarship yet remaining engaging and clear throughout.
To that end, Peacock situates Cavendish among her female contemporaries, including the playwright and poet Aphra Behn and Puritan reformer Anne Hutchinson. She places Cavendish front and center during the surge of print and intellectual creativity whipped up by the maelstrom of the English Civil War. Peacock is careful, though, to highlight the sheer and unconventional extent to which Cavendish did things her own way. She published under her own name (an uncommon practice for women, especially those of Cavendish’s stature, at the time) and avoided genres typically associated with women in the 17th century—religious and devotional writing, for instance. Much of her output was scientifically oriented, and in works such as Philosophical and Physical Opinions and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, she tackled some of the most pressing and widely discussed scientific topics of her era, including the nature of matter, the theory of atoms, and the utility of experimentation as a means to scientific discovery.
Make no mistake: Cavendish often fell on the wrong side of these debates, and few of her conclusions hold up to modern scientific scrutiny. Yet Peacock takes even the Duchess’s more outlandish writings seriously, engaging with their merits rather than dismissing them as the fancies of an undereducated early modern woman. Cavendish’s ideas about the natural world mirrored her own politics, which favored a monarch-like, divinely endowed authority; and the idea that nature was not random or haphazard but directed instead by some divine overseer led her to ultimately reject atomism as a theory of matter.
Generous though she is on ideological fronts, Peacock is bracingly honest about the weaker craftsmanship of Cavendish’s earlier writing. She is particularly critical of her plays, which were written during the Puritan government’s closure of theaters in the Interregnum. Cavendish thereby likely had no expectation of their being performed, and Peacock notes that they are quite long, with plots “more akin to a cacophonous episodic TV series” and “subplots and simultaneous narrative arcs which seem to have nothing to do with each other.” Cavendish’s writing improved after the war, and she released updated editions of older work. To trace the variance between these is to follow her evolution as a writer in real time.
Peacock elegantly draws out Cavendish’s motivations for writing, which she frames around a desire for fame beyond death as well as a substitute for the children Cavendish never had. The book is careful not to mischaracterize Cavendish’s childless, creative lifestyle as intentionally progressive; Cavendish was staunchly Royalist and antidemocratic. But Peacock does not shy away from calling her a feminist, one whose “feminism is surprisingly broad in its reach” and cuts across socioeconomic and political lines. In her writings, Cavendish imagines female solidarity as a balm and a riposte to the wars of men—she envisions what Peacock characterizes as a “utopian feminist sisterhood” that can exist precisely because it is also “a statement of the exclusion of women from political life.”
It became easier for Cavendish to publish following the Restoration. This was partly due to the slow but steady reclamation of her husband’s lands and fortunes; it was also the outcome of Cavendish’s own rising reputation and literary success. Beginning in exile, during which she and William hosted dinners with the likes of Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, Cavendish developed a network of readers and correspondents both on the continent and, later, in England. Even with the support of respected men of letters like Walter Carleton, Cavendish remained the target of widespread gossip and criticism. Undeterred, she capitalized on her own contentious aura, creating worlds of debate and placing herself at the center. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her best and most well-remembered work, originally titled The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World, published in 1666 as an appendix to a volume of her scientific writing.
The Blazing World is a strange reverie of a book—or, according to Peacock, a “hybrid mixture of fiction and philosophy [that was] extremely novel.” Full of scientific and philosophical dialogues, the text is hard to pigeonhole. In some ways, it appears to anticipate Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), with an invented society as a mirror to and contrast of the writer’s own. It shares much of the allegorical exploration of the soul embedded in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). And, like John Milton’s Paradise Lost—the first edition of which was published only a year after The Blazing World—it stages an incisive political reckoning, interrogating authority, disobedience, and conflict. Cavendish includes elements of science fiction, a remarkably frank homoerotic relationship between two women, and what today we might term “autofictional” defenses of her life and marriage.
The book follows an unnamed young woman who is kidnapped and transported to a different world, a “Blazing World,” where she quickly becomes Empress. This world is perfectly ordered, free from strife or warfare, and full of societies of animal people who oversee various scientific and mathematical fields. The Empress’s inquiries into these debates provide opportunity for Cavendish both to outline some of her key scientific theories and to level parodic jabs at the experimentalists of the Royal Society. In one scene, for example, a fed-up Empress commands that the bear-men break their telescopes. Terrified of losing their livelihood, the bear-men ask that they not be broken—because, they said, “we take more delight in artificial delusions, than in natural truths.”
These sorts of jokes would not have endeared Cavendish to the Royal Society during her visit a year later. Still, they give the book its signature edge. In the second half, the Empress requests the soul of the Duchess of Newcastle (that is, Cavendish herself) to visit her and help her write down her thoughts. The two become fast friends, and Cavendish takes the Empress to her own world (England), showing off the majesty of Charles II and his court. Later, the Empress returns to the Blazing World, which is under threat of invasion. There, many creatures assist in destroying her enemy’s navies and bringing back peace and order; the narrative ends with a vision of the Empress and her Emperor, accompanied by music, dancing across their domains. Cavendish thus created an extraordinary, albeit odd world—one in which she led debates, ended wars, enjoyed quasi-romantic relationships with women, and fashioned an orderly political system.
Like The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish’s broader oeuvre is filled with digressions, references, and allusions to science, theology, and current events. Her inimitable style and literary concerns give her few parallels, and she was seen as a strange and disagreeable personality by many who knew her. Yet, as Peacock powerfully argues, one can—and should—approach Cavendish with confidence that her work, difficult as it may be, is meaningful on its own terms. Of course, context helps modern readers decipher those terms, and Peacock’s new biography situates the nuances and idiosyncrasies of Cavendish’s writing with wit and aplomb. It is now easier than ever to read Cavendish and appreciate what her self-made worlds—blazing and otherwise—have to offer.
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