The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World

by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
portrait of Margaret Cavendish

The Author

Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas) was a philosopher (including "natural philosophy," or what we would call science), playwright, poet, proto-feminist and fiction writer. Though personally shy, she had the boldness (and the support of her husband) to take on roles and occupations usually reserved for men. She was the first woman ever to be invited to visit (but not to join) the Royal Society. She was unapologetically hungry for fame.

The Book

Cavendish originally published The Blazing-World (for short) as an appendix to her nonfiction Observations upon Experimental Philosophy in 1666. In this, it reminds me of the alternation of argument and vision in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven an Hell over a century later. (Both Blake and Cavendish were considered mad by some of their contemporaries.)

What kind of book is The Blazing-World? Satire. Utopian science fiction. Fantasy. Adventure. Autobiography. Speculative philosophy. Not easily pigeon-holed.

The World(s)

There are three physical worlds involved in the action of the novel, and countless other worlds exist. It turns out the main character, the Lady/the Empress, doesn't come from our world:

No sooner had the Empress said this, but some Immaterial Spirits came to visit her, of whom she inquired, Whether there were but three Worlds in all, to wit, the Blazing World where she was in, the World which she came from, and the World where the Duchess* lived? The Spirits answered, That there were more numerous Worlds then the Stars which appeared in these three mentioned Worlds.

* The Duchess of Newcastle, i.e., Margaret Cavendish.

Most of the novel is set in the Blazing World. Surreal images proliferate, but the world lacks solidity. Realism is not Cavendish's aim in this novel of ideas.

The Characters

I haven't reread the book closely to confirm this, but I believe no character is given a name, whether spirit, human, or anthropomorphic beast. The main character is first referred to as "the Lady" and later "the Empress." The Emperor barely appears in the first part of the novel, showing up briefly to make the Lady his wife and confer upon her supreme executive power, and thereafter appearing only as a sort of satellite of her. The Bird-men astronomers, Fox-men politicians, the Spirits, etc., converse with the Empress as groups, not as individuals. Even the author's self-insert character, the Duchess of Newcastle, is referred to only as "the Duchess." The closest the author comes to naming characters is when abstract concepts Fortune, Folly, Prudence, Rashness, Honesty, etc., debate one another in a passage that's an allegorical encomium to the author's husband.

The Story

No plot synopsis could do justice to The Blazing-World, which mixes genres and tones freely. Much of the book is taken up with conversations, which are generally summarized rather than given verbatim.


(Spoilers ahead.)

Part One (the philosophical)

  1. A merchant kidnaps a lady with whom he has become infatuated, and sets sail with her. Storms carry the boat to polar seas, where everyone on board except the lady freezes to death.
  2. Through some handwavium, the boat travels to another world, joined to her world at the pole.
  3. In this new world, the lady is rescued by bear-people, who decide to take her to their Emperor. They transport her through lands of fox-people, bird-people, satyrs, green-skinned humans, etc., until finally they reach the Emperor's court. Along the way, she learns the language of the Blazing World.
  4. The Emperor marries the lady (making her the Empress) and gives her absolute power.
  5. Philosophical and scientific discussions.
  6. Philosophical and scientific discussions.
  7. Philosophical and scientific discussions.
  8. The Empress converts the inhabitants of the Blazing World to her religion.
  9. The Empress is put into touch with immaterial spirits.
  10. Philosophical and scientific discussions.
  11. Philosophical and scientific discussions.
  12. The Empress wanting a scribe, the spirits introduce to her the soul of our world's Duchess of Newcastle.
    "and truly their meeting did produce such an intimate friendship between them, that they became Platonick Lovers, although they were both Femals."
  13. The Duchess confesses to the Empress her desire to rule a world of her own.
  14. The Empress consults the spirits, who dissuade the women from trying to conquer an existing world. They recommend instead that the Duchess create her own mental world, which she can fashion as she pleases, and rule as she pleases.
  15. The Duchess tries creating worlds after the philosophies of first Thales, then Pythagoras, then Plato, on down to philosophers of her own day, but none is satisfactory. She determines to make a world of her own invention, rather than taking a pattern from another.
  16. The Empress also makes her own world.
  17. The Empress ask the spirits to put her soul in the Duchess's body so that she can visit the Duchess's home world. Meanwhile, a helpful spirit takes residence in the Empress's body.
  18. The Duchess asks the Empress to persuade Fortune, always an enemy of her husband the Duke, to favor him.
  19. A debate takes place, with Honesty and Prudence speaking on the Duke's behalf, and Folly, Rashness, etc., arguing the other side of the case. No decision is reached.
  20. The Empress returns to the Blazing World. Her reforms having caused disturbances in what had been an idyllic kingdom, she reinstates the Blazing World's original laws and religion.

Part Two (the adventurous)

  1. The spirits inform the Empress that back in her home world, her nation, Esfi, is being attacked by a number of other countries
  2. The Emperor and Empress discuss how they might be able to come to Esfi's assistance. One proposal is to ask her spirit friends to animate newly dead bodies in her world, and use them to fight the enemy. They decide this isn't feasible. (Too bad, as otherwise Cavendish might have written the first zombie novel!)
  3. The Empress consults her friend the Duchess.
  4. The Mermen of the Blazing World are sent to find what passage there might be back to the Empress's home world. They report there is only one, and it is small, and sometimes frozen over.
  5. The Duchess asks if the architects of the Blazing World can make ships that travel underwater. After some research, they say they can.
  6. The Duchess and Empress plan an invasion in submarines made of gold, their forces to be armed with a type of stone from the Blazing World that burns when wet.
  7. The invasion takes place, using camouflage and psychological warfare as well as weapons. (The soul of the Duchess is a roommate in the Empress's body during this time, and so accompanies her.)
  8. The Empress sends word to the chief men of her own country, offering her assistance.
  9. The men debate so long, that the Empress is tempted to return to the Blazing World and let them perish, but the Duchess mollifies her.
  10. At night the Empress, clothed in "Star-stone" and supported by Mermen so that she seems to be walking on water, appears to her countrymen and promises to destroy their enemies and make them the most powerful nation in the world.
  11. The next morning the Empress appears again upon the water, clothed in jewels and star-stone, holding a spear made from a single diamond. She directs the Mermen to destroy the enemy fleets with the stones that burn when wet, which is done.
  12. The immediate threat handled, the Empress forces all countries to give tribute to her nation, burning their trading vessels until they capitulate.
  13. Some nations still resisting, the Empress orders the destruction not only of ships but of cities until all surrender, and her nation rules the world.
  14. The Empress appears to the princes of the world, again using artifice to conquer them with awe. She advises them to continue to be subservient to the nation of Esfi, then disappears.
  15. The Empress, the (soul of the) Duchess, and the warriors return to the Blazing World, the Duchess and Empress conversing along the way.
  16. The Emperor shows off the stables he has built (made of precious stones and metals) during their absence.
  17. The Emperor and Empress beg the soul of the Duchess to stay and teach them to make plays; but she misses the Duke, and begs leave to return home.
  18. The Duchess returns home, and tells her husband of her adventures and of the splendors of the Blazing World.
  19. The Duchess describes to some of her acquaintances how the Empress and Emperor of the Blazing World spend their time.
  20. In an epilogue to the reader, Cavendish places her accomplishment in creating the Blazing World above the deeds of Caesar and Alexander the Great. (I think Blake would agree.) She invites the reader to imaginatively inhabit her world, or create a world of their own.

In Conclusion