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First Mary Sue? First SciFi?

My book report on the 1666 story The Blazing World

The year is 1666. The geocentric world view is still competitive with heliocentrism. Isaac Newton only has a BA and is studying at home, having left Cambridge to avoid the plague and is not going back for at least a year. Phlogiston theory, hasn’t even been formalized, much less refuted. Francesco Redi is two years away from publishing his work showing maggots do not, in fact, spontaneously form in decaying meat. And the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princesse, The Duchess of Newcastle publishes a book that has been called the first example of science fiction and the first occurrence of the Mary Sue trope. Its full title is The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World and while I don’t exactly recommend reading it, you should know about it.

The Duchess of Newcastle, also known as Margaret Cavendish and Margaret Newcastle, was not new to writing. She’d already had several books published in varied genre, and this latest one wasn’t even entirely stand-alone. It was “made as an Appendix to my Observations upon Experimental Philosophy” as she writes in her introductory note “To all Noble and Worthy Ladies“.

I definitely don’t recommend reading the main book. I barely got through the index and only skimmed some of the content. The index starts:

The First Part.
I. Of Matter
II. Of Motion
III. Of the Degrees of Matter
IV. Of Vacuum

and goes on for a total of 13 parts with 201 labeled sections, and then a four part appendix with another 40 labeled sections. A lot of the sections are only a paragraph long, but still, I recommend you just marvel at the scope by reading the whole index, like I did, and stop at that.

Just in case you can’t be bothered even doing that, here are the last five sections of part 13:

VII. Why heavy Bodies descend more forcibly than leight Bodies ascend
VIII. Of several sorts of Densities and Rarities, Gravities, and Levities
IX. Of Vegetables
X. Of the production of Vegetables
XI. Of replanting Vegetables

The Blazing World is a lot more accessible. As the author writes in the aforementioned note “by reason most Ladies take no delight in Philosophical Arguments, I separated some from the mentioned Observations, and caused them to go out by themselves, that I might express my Respects, in presenting to Them such Fancies as my Contemplations did afford.” Or in other words, I know you ladies aren’t as into philosophy as me, so I put some of my ideas into a fanciful story.

The story begins with a young woman being kidnapped by a crew of sailors hired by a foreign merchant who has the hots for her. They never get to deliver her to the merchant though, because Heaven frowning at his Theft, raised such a Tempest, as they knew not what to do, or whither to steer their course. They blow all the way to the North Pole, where all the sailors freeze to death and only the lady survives to go with the boat through a passage to a completely different world, linked to the first one North Pole to North Pole.

This new world is quite marvelous, full of gold and jewels and talking animal-men of all kinds, and an Emperor who so well likes this new arrival he marries her and gives her full Imperial powers. You’ll have to read the book for the details. Our protagonist, from now on called only the Empress, uses this power to divide all the various animal-men into scientific research groups according to race.

The Bear-men were to be her Experimental Philosophers, the Bird-men her Astronomers, the Fly- Worm- and Fish-men her Natural Philosophers, the Ape-men her Chymists, the Satyrs her Galenick Physicians, the Fox-men her Politicians …

The Empress then goes on to inquire, for page after page, about the current state of knowledge on everything beneath the Sun of this world, and also about the Sun of this world, often being presented with more than one prevalent hypothesis and expressing her preference of one over the other. If the author was trying to make this more accessible for those less interested in philosophy I think she failed. Or maybe it would have been easier to understand for a 17th century British aristocrat.

This for instance is understandable though amusingly wrong (for our world):

according to their observation, Snow was made by a commixture of Water, and some certain extract of the Element of Fire that is under the Moon; a small portion of which extract, being mixed with Water, and beaten by Air or Wind, made a white Froth called Snow

Whereas this requires several readings, at least for me:

They answered, That seeds did no ways disguise or conceal, but rather divulge themselves in the multiplication of their off-spring; onely they did hide and conceal themselves from their sensitive perceptions so, that their figurative and productive motions were not perceptible by Animal Creatures.

There are parts that are more incomprehensible, but they’re part of a larger whole of confusion, so you’ll just have to read the whole thing if you are curious.

At some point in this the Imperial logicians (the Jackdaw- Magpie- and Parrot-men) are chewed out for being awful, and the mathematicians (Spider- and Lice-men) incomprehensible but delightful, and the author’s experience with those fields, as someone without a long formal education, shines through quite clearly, but if you thought at this point she was satisfied having the Empress be her stand-in in this tale, you are about to be proven wrong.

The Empress next decides she wants to write her own Cabbala. I’m not entirely sure what the author means by that word, as she refers not only to a Jewish Cabbala, but a potential Philosophical Cabbala, Moral Cabbala or Political Cabbala. But she definitely wants the spirits (there’s too much about the nature of spirits to cover here) to help her, and they eventually suggest enlisting the soul of the Duchess of Newcastle, who then talks the Empress out of the whole Cabbala idea and becomes a firm, if incorporeal, friend. For the rest of the book she is generally referred to as The Duchess.

So who was this author who wrote herself into the story as The Duchess? Margaret Lucas came from money and prominence and desired fame as much as prosperity. She became a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and went with her in exile when the Queen fled the English Civil War for her native France. There she met and married widower William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle, 30 years her senior, but forever a staunch supporter of her writing.

In 1660 the Monarchy was restored, but her husband had funded his own troops in the previous war and even with most of his estates returned to him, he still carried a lot of debt. Still, in 1665 he was made a Duke and Margaret progressed from Marchioness to Duchess. At one point in The Blazing World, she laments, through the character of herself:

my dear Lord and Husband, said she, has lost by it half his Woods, besides many Houses, Land, and movable Goods; so that all the loss out of his particular Estate, did amount to above Half a Million of Pounds

Margaret’s not shy about admitting her ambition either. After her characters learn from the spirits there are an infinity of other worlds, they ask if the Duchess couldn’t be made Empress of one of those. And when the spirits say that conquest rarely ends happily for the conqueror the Duchess states that:

… I had rather die in the adventure of noble atchievements, then live in obscure and sluggish security; since the by one, I may live in a glorious Fame; and by the other I am buried in oblivion.

The spirits manage to convince them that conquest is actually an undesirable pursuit and things get very meta when they instead recommend creating a world in the mind:

Why should you desire to be Empress of a Material World, and be troubled with the cares that attend Government? when as by creating a World within your self, you may enjoy all both in whole and in parts, without controle or opposition; and may make what World you please, and alter it when you please, and enjoy as much pleasure and delight as a World can afford you?

According to Wikipedia Margaret was known by the epithet “Mad Mage” for her eccentricities. She desired to be unique and detested following fashions, whether they were about personal style or about what a proper play should be. This comes through in a conversation where the Empress tries to convince the Duchess to write a play:

The Duchess answered, That she had as little skill to form a Play after the Mode, as she had to paint or make a Scene for shew. But you have made Plays, replied the Empress: Yes, answered the Duchess, I intended them for Plays; but the Wits of these present times condemned them as uncapable of being represented or acted, because they were not made up according to the Rules of Art; though I dare say, That the Descriptions are as good as any they have writ.

The terms of Mode, Wit and Art come up again and again. Mode being fashion, which Margaret Cavendish disliked following, preferring uniquely bad to fashionably great, by her own words. Wit being intelligence, which she obviously had a great deal of. And Art being all that is taught, which she knew she lacked a lot of, but argues should matter less.

It’s hard to tell, from a vantage point 350 some years into the future, whether she was like the self-taught, armchair crackpots who try to refute Einstein, or a diamond in the rough. She was definitely quite productive and active, and endlessly inquisitive, and opinions were divided even even among her contemporaries.

Her works drifted into obscurity after her death, but Virginia Woolf included her in The Common Reader in 1925, writing:

though her philosophies are futile, and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the Duchess is leavened by a vein of authentic fire. One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and lovable personality as it meanders and twinkles through page after page. There is something noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted, about her.

For academics in the present day she’s become a fascinating subject. She was a woman writer in an age where that was quite unheard of. She was an an ardent philosopher and visitor to the Royal Society, liked by some of its members, disliked by others, nearly 300 years before that Society inducted its first female. And she was very open, making it that much more likely the impression one gets from reading her works reflect what she was really like.

As for whether the Empress or Duchess should be categorized as Mary Sues… it depends a lot on your definition, Mary Sue not being a well defined term. The Empress certainly is a wish fulfillment character as well as a direct mouth piece for the author, and the Duchess is as straight a self-insert as it is possible to make. But when modern critics advise writers to avoid Mary Sues they’re applying a Rule of the Art and I’m certain Margaret Cavendish would have been unperturbed by any criticism of that nature.

Is it science fiction? I think refusing to acknowledge that it is at a minimum proto-scifi would be foolish. The whole intent of the work is to communicate scientific ideas, and in parts of it at least, the story is reliant on science and technology not our own. It bears little resemblance to a modern novel, but few works from that century do.

My little trip into the world of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle is now over, but maybe yours is not? If so, here’s my suggestion for a next step: the absolutely bonkers play The Convent of Pleasure. No, it’s not porn! But it does have a character called Monsieur Take-pleasure who has a man servant called Dick! Have a look, if only because I’ve browsed it and it’s easily available.

And as a bonus for those who’ve read all the way to the end, here’s a last excerpt from The Blazing World from when the Empress, and the Duchess, both as disembodied spirits, visit the Duchess’ husband:

[…] the Duchess’s Soul […] left her Æreal Vehicle, and entred into her Lord. The Empress’s Soul perceiving this, did the like: And then the Duke had three Souls in one Body; and had there been some such Souls more, the Duke would have been like the Grand-Signior in his Seraglio, onely it would have been a Platonick Seraglio. But the Duke’s Soul being wise, honest, witty, complaisant and noble, afforded such delight and pleasure to the Empress’s Soul by his conversation, that these two souls became enamoured of each other; which the Duchess’s soul perceiving, grew jealous at first, but then considering that no Adultery could be committed amongst Platonick Lovers, and that Platonism, was Divine, as being derived from Divine Plato, cast forth of her mind that Idea of Jealousie.


Bjørnar used to be a CompSci-major high school teacher in Norway, but has now followed his American wife's career to Boston, Cincinnati and finally Chapel Hill. When not writing for Skepchick he gives his actual-scientist wife programming advice, works as a tutor, updates rusty programming skills and tries to decide what to be when he grows up.

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  1. Coolness factor >9000! I am sure she would have been brilliant company.
    Question: was Cavendish any relation to the later famous scientist Henry Cavendish?

    1. Let’s see if we can get this right. William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, was the nephew of William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire. And the Earl was Henry Cavendish’ great-grandfather.

      Or in genealogy parlance, they were 1C2R, first cousins, twice removed. Or, back to normal language, an alternative description is that William, 1st Duke, was a first cousin of Henry’s grandfather.

      It’s fun when most of the male Cavendishes in either line are either named William or Charles …

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