Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Worlds within Worlds: Community, Companionship and Autonomy in Margaret Cavendish's the Blazing World

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Worlds within Worlds: Community, Companionship and Autonomy in Margaret Cavendish's the Blazing World

Article excerpt

Margaret Cavendish's The Description of a New World, called the Blazing World (1666) has often been read as a work that both draws on the utopian genre and complicates it.1 While it makes direct reference to earlier utopian models, it does not follow their course, something that is made explicit from the outset. Unlike the mariners of Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), who willingly undertake their perilous voyages into unknown provinces and are located within the camaraderie of a crew, Cavendish's protagonist is a 'young Lady', exiled from her own community when she is abducted by a foreign merchant, who 'steal[s] her away' to sea (p. 125).2 But as a result of divine vengeance, a storm blows the vessel offcourse to the North Pole and the merchant and his crew all freeze to death, while the 'virtuous Lady survives' (p. 125). Bacon's shipwrecked mariners weather a tempest to find themselves, like More's, within a remote domain of this world. However, in Cavendish's narrative not only are the lady and crew 'driven to the very end or point of the Pole' of their own world, 'but even to another Pole of another world, which joined close to it', whereby the boat carrying the lady is 'forced into' the new world, the Blazing World, to which hers is adjoined (p. 126). There she is shown 'all civility and kindness imaginable' by the anthropomorphic creatures who inhabit this 'strange ... place' (p. 127) and, having been 'conceived' by its Emperor 'to be some goddess', he 'made her his wife' (p. 132). But stranger still and in unprecedented opposition to conventional seventeenth-century wifely duties, the Emperor also 'gave her an absolute power to rule and govern all that world as she pleased' (p. 132). Where More's and Bacon's visitors are placed in the role of admiring observers of the communities they enter, whose operations they record as a means of beneficial instruction to the 'weal-public', Cavendish's protagonist is allowed not only to become an agent of action, having been a puppet of fate, but also a sovereign self.3 Moreover, far from offering an ideal society, or 'the best ... mould of a commonwealth',4 simply waiting to be discovered, Cavendish's text takes an interrogative approach to the new world its protagonist encounters. It provides a playful commentary on the social makeup of the Blazing World, testing out the various types of community - political, scientific, religious - it comprises and revealing how they are questioned, altered and disrupted by the interventions of its new inhabitant.5

In addition, the trope of interconnected worlds underscoring The Blazing World bears a tangential relationship to a seventeenth-century discourse of a particular type of community - that of ideal friendship. This essay will suggest that the transformative qualities of this trope lie at the heart of The Blazing World's utopian vision. But, like the other forms of community the text portrays, the concept of ideal friendship does not go unquestioned and shows the text's acute awareness of its potential pitfalls, especially when located within a feminine form. Indeed, Cavendish uses the utopian mode in order to probe the ethos and values of its abstract ideals. As in the paradise of Milton's epic, discussed in this collection by Rosamund Paice, The Blazing World shows how human relations in practice unsettle theoretical models.

I. Contiguous Worlds

The image of two self-contained worlds conjoined is central to early modern accounts of friendship and their classical antecedents, providing a figure for the concept of 'one soul in bodies twain' or 'Two friends, one soul', as Aristotle, citing Euripides, puts it.6 John Donne provides a particularly striking version of this concept, describing friendship's accord as 'two temperate regions girded in' in his verse letter 'To Sir Henry Wotton';7 while for Cavendish's close contemporary, Katherine Philips, ideal friends 'are, and yet they are not, two', comprising 'Two bodyes and one minde'. …

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