You Should Read This: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle and author of The Blazing World

If you want to explore the deepest roots of fantasy and science fiction, here’s a text that’s been obscured by time: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, which is one of the first portal stories, in which a protagonist ends up in a world much unlike their own, as well as a Utopian novel. Written in 1666, it features a heroine who enters another realm, the Blazing World of the title, through an entrance located at the North Pole. There, she ends up becoming empress of a harmonious and progressive as well as wealthy kingdom.

Her kingdom is populated by races of talking animals: fox-people, bear-people, bird-people, etc. Eventually she decides to invade her former world, marshaling her forces and marching back to her homeland, using technology from the Blazing World in its defense.

Cavendish, who was the Duchess of Newcastle, evens writes herself into the text:

Hereupon a Councel was called, and the business debated; but there were so many cross and different Opinions, that they could not suddenly resolve what answer to send the Empress; at which she grew angry, insomuch that she resolved to return into her Blazing- World, without giving any assistance to her Countrymen: but the Duchess of Newcastle intreated her Majesty to abate her passion; for, said she, Great Councels are most commonly slow, because many men have many several Opinions: besides, every Councellor striving to be the wisest, makes long speeches, and raise many doubts, which cause retardments. If I had long-speeched Councellors, replied the Empress, I would hang them, by reason they give more Words, then Advice. The Duchess answered, That her Majesty should not be angry, but consider the differences of that and her Blazing-World; for, said she, they are not both alike; but there are grosser and duller understandings in this, than in the Blazing-World.

I found the book through Dale Spender’s excellent Mothers of the Novel, and one reason to read Cavendish is so she doesn’t get lost. So many of the writers Spender touches upon have been obscured, while their male peers remain, and give students the impression that only men were writing. Cavendish was a notable and prolific author of her time as well as an English aristocrat who spent time at the French court. Her life is well worth investigation, full of trials and tribulations as well as triumphs.

Other speculative fiction writers have referenced this book: Alan Moore in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and China Mieville in Un Lun Dun. You can find the book online in its entirety here.


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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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