Margaret Cavendish was born Margaret Lucas in 1623 to an aristocratic, royalist family in Colchester, Essex. She was privately, albeit relatively basically, educated in childhood, but appears to have read widely on a range of topics more usually reserved for male scholars. She became a remarkably prolific writer in a variety of genres, and was unusual for publishing under her own name when most women authors only wrote anonymously.
As a young woman Cavendish travelled with Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, into exile in France. In 1645 she married William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who was more than 30 years her senior. Although denying he had secretly authored her works, as some detractors insisted, Cavendish openly acknowledged her husband as an important influence on her work.
Cavendish’s first book, Poems and Fancies, was published in 1653; it was a collection of poems, epistles and prose pieces which explores her philosophical, scientific and aesthetic ideas. Many of the texts comment self-consciously on the author’s shyness about presenting her work to the public, her desire to be read with forgiving, favourable eyes and her almost motherly care for the book she is sending out into the world (see, for example, ‘An Apology for Writing So Much upon This Book’).
Writings on philosophy
Cavendish was a serious natural philosopher, at a time when women were not formally educated in such topics, and she published her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy in 1666. Across her philosophical works Cavendish moves from atomism – the theory that there are ‘Many Worlds in This World’, as the title of one of her poems has it (‘millions of those atoms may be in / The head of one small, little, single pin’) – through vitalism, the conviction that there is a fundamental difference between animate and inanimate beings, to panpsychism, the belief that everything in nature has a soul. Soon after publication of the Observations, Cavendish became the first woman to be invited to attend meetings at the Royal Society.
Science fiction and The Blazing World
Alongside the Observations, Cavendish published probably her most famous work, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. This is essentially a work of science fiction set in another world that can be reached by way of the North Pole, where a young woman is shipwrecked and becomes Empress over the Blazing World’s inhabitants, who are mostly anthropomorphised animals. The novel is fantastical, satirical and utopian – and importantly it is woman-centric.
Cavendish’s autobiography and other writings
Cavendish published her autobiography, A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding, and Life, in 1656 at the age of only 33. Her other works include Orations (1662), Sociable Letters (1664), which is a collection of letters on contemporary subjects written by Cavendish in the guise of various characters and Philosophical Letters (1664). She also wrote a large number of plays, which were collected in two volumes (1662 and 1668) though never performed during her lifetime.
Critical opinion has gone back and forth in the years since Cavendish’s life as to whether she was really to be taken seriously as a writer and philosopher, was merely an eccentric, or something in between.
Further information about the life of Margaret Cavendish can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.