An Extraordinary Duchess
by Pola Oloixarac for Radar
It is May 1667 and Robert Boyle, seconded by men in black coats and rococo wigs, is about to dissolve a lamb in sulfuric acid. Fascinated, Lady Cavendish observes the array of new technology, which includes vacuum pumps, magnets and telescopes. Boyle expounds his theory of color; Hooke demonstrates the uses of his microscope. Clad in a gown whose 20-foot train is carried by six ladies in waiting, the Duchess sweeps through the London Royal Society where, decades later, Newton would postulate the laws of gravity: she is the first woman allowed within its hallowed precincts. In the street, a multitude throngs to see her pass; and some confuse her with a gentleman, for she also wears a wide-brimmed musketeer-style hat and a riding jacket.
At the time Lady Cavendish was the most versatile author of the English Baroque period. Fourteen years prior she had published her Atomic Poems, fantasies based on the theory of atoms and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, preceded by letters in defense of women poets (“If it is desirable for us to weave, why not write poetry, which is weaving with the mind?”). Three months later she published Philosophical Fancies, in which she proposed an alternative to the mechanical theory of nature; and in 1655, a book on physics and metaphysics, accompanied by a letter exhorting Cambridge and Oxford luminaries to read her.
Doubts were cast on the feminine provenance of her books; speculations were made that their true author must be her husband, Lord Cavendish. Anxious to be read and discussed by the eminences of her time, the Duchess conjectures that perhaps they are slow to assimilate her ideas; while she waits, she publishes a history of her own life, a few plays and a book of landscapes. As her dreamed-of interlocutors persist in ignoring her, she recurs to a matchless subterfuge: in 1663 she publishes the Philosophical Letters, in which she exchanges ideas with a fictitious woman, debating her own theories and critiquing Hobbes’ mechanicism as well as the philosophies of Van Helmont and Descartes.
The first sci-fi novel appeared in 1666, as the Black Plague raged through London. Titled The Blazing World, it relates the existence of other universes reachable through the North Pole, in which the female narrator voyages among civilizations and decides to invade England with a blitzkrieg of bird-men, submarine attacks by fish-men and diamond catapults hurling fiery stones. On the frontispiece, the Duchess poses for her public…in a toga. In the epilogue she benevolently exhorts willing readers to become her subjects.
At the time, only three women were recognized as intellectuals: Ana Maria von Schurman, author of a volume on the education of women; the Princess of Bohemia, who corresponded with Descartes; and Anne Conway, whose book was published anonymously and posthumously. Not so the Duchess, dubbed Mad Marge by her contemporaries. Though she had met Gassendi and Descartes, Lady Cavendish was not fluent in foreign languages and only corresponded, in English, with Glanvill and Huygens, minor deities. As philosophical patrons, the Cavendishes regularly hosted their protégés at the castle, where Hobbes was a habitué. The Duchess presided over these scholarly gatherings in silence, then would retire to her rooms to rant against what she heard. Her true life, she wrote, was treasured in her books; in her play The Convent of Pleasure (1668) she describes a community of free, happy women without men (with notes on a lesbian love affair); in The Blazing World, she explains that she has created “a kingdom for myself,” providing her with higher glories and acuter pleasures “than Alexander or Caesar ever felt upon conquering the terrestrial orb.” more mad marge