The Blazing World of Feminism and/or Dictatorship
by Rachel Eckhardt
A foray into a few secondary sources on Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World reveals scholars examining and disagreeing over the text as forward-looking and feminist, or retrograde and affirming of patriarchy even with a feminine voice. One the one hand, we can see the 1666 novel as a feminist revision of the relatively new utopian genre, yet on the other hand, as a move backwards in its support of monarchy, suffocation of disagreement, and evocations of the contemporary racist thinking of its times. Multiple meanings are contained within the Blazing World, not only the contradictions in its internal coherence as a utopia, but in what it accomplishes as a utopian novel.
In 1992, Rachel Trubowitz wrote an article that seems largely a defense of Cavendish. She starts by describing how The Blazing World had long been dismissed in studies of utopian literature. She provides us with a generous reading that characterizes The Blazing World as a feminist revision to the utopian genre. She argues that “Cavendish’s complex engagement with the Utopian paradigm in Blazing World results in a revision of the Utopian genre that is at once culturally subversive and politically nostalgic and, as such, uniquely accommodates her construction of female subjectivity in imperial terms” (Trubowitz 230). Trubowitz seems primarily interested in reclaiming Cavendish from patriarchal efforts to dismiss her as unimportant or just writing up her own delusions, so part of what she accomplishes in her argument is establishing that The Blazing World is important to consider as a utopian vision that opposed its predecessors.
We can make room for an interpretation of The Blazing World as a change of course, if we consider how Bacon was so interested in the secretive pursuit of scientific experiments and learning. Instead of seeking out other cultures and borrowing their science and technology, the Empress gathers her subjects into great discussions of science and what can be verified by thinking and imagination over exploration. These are mental rather than colonial adventures. Trubowitz asserts, “In Blazing World, the ‘Tyrannical Government’ of men is replaced by a magical and mythological mode of female rule” (Trubowitz 231). However, the Empress eventually dissolves these scientific conversations in the interest of unity, as disagreements seem to be intolerable to her. Even as a defender of Cavendish, in the face of this absolutism Trubowitz explains “While Cavendish’s Utopian kingdom recasts the public world of men in female terms, at the same time her paradigm of female dominion closely adheres to the prevailing ethos of male sovereignty” (Trubowitz 237).
If we read The Blazing World as a blow against the utopian genre, maybe it makes sense how the Empress took over the church and converted everyone, and created her own scientific society with the various sorts of animal-humans being assigned to different disciplines. In opposition to Bacon’s secret caves, at least the social discussion of ideas seems much more open, if not the fancy, female-run churches. But there are other ways to interpret the human animal assignments than as romantic and fanciful. Sujata Iyengar makes a clear connection between Cavendish’s species-difference and the racist discourse of the seventeenth century. “Just as species difference in Cavendish’s seventeenth-century world is used to assign “beastly” work to black women and domestic work to white ones, just as gender difference is used to assign domestic work to white women and intellectual work to white men, so species difference among the “ordinary sort of men” in Blazing World alters the kind of scientific work that they can do” (Iyengar 662). Iyengar made this argument ten years after Trubowitz’s article came out, and which makes me curious about the advancement of utopian studies during that time and the diminished need to simply reclaim Cavendish. Iyengar delves much further into the oppressive ideologies underpining the Blazing World. The species differences reflect some profoundly racist ideas that were present in the culture at the time and actively in use to justify slavery.
Another area of ambiguity that leaves room for interpretation and disagreement is the friendship between the Empress and the Duchess. Trubowitz reads the platonic friendship between the Empress and the Duchess very favorably, saying that it radically revises the possibilities of bonds between women. She suggests that as two independent female subjects create their own inward facing kingdoms, they are exercising real power (Trubowitz 239). However, we can turn again to Iyengar to take the subversion out of this platonic friendship, describing how the whole idea of pairing the Empress with the Duchess was to avoid jealousy for the Emperor. Platonic love is not physical and precludes the intimacy that would threaten opposite-sex love (Iyengar 666). If we consider the times, we might lean towards a more generous reading of this ambiguous friendship as either two sides of the same person in dialog, or perhaps even as a blandly chaste from of queer love.
Besides Iyengar’s very different reading of The Blazing World from Trubowitz, we also have Marina Leslie arguing that contrary to what Trubowitz says, the utopian genre has always been fluid and changable and The Blazing World is not necessarily a feminist turn in the genre at all. Leslie describes how Cavendish sought recognition from her contemporaries, and that “utopia has always been a multifarious, synthetic and revisionary genre” (Leslie 7). Through this lens, we can consider Cavendish as attempting to be a part of the utopian genre, to insert a woman’s perspective rather than a feminist one.
Leslie argues that there are three psuedo feminist discourses contained within The Blazing World, and the way these discourses play out do not actually empower women. First is the reversal the puts a woman in charge. Then the idea of presenting everything as a romance, and finally the connection to nature. These are all tropes of what we might call “women’s fiction,” but while each of these elements of the novel could be considered a movement toward feminism, it is more a movement towards a conventional feminine voice expressing oppressive ideals. Leslie notes, “the more Cavendish seeks to inscribe the possibility of an empowered female textuality the more she seems to dissolve female materiality” (Leslie 8). This argument is compelling particularly with respect to the idea of a female ruler. Blazing World, however different from our world, still amounts to a benevolent dictatorship. The dictatorial aspects of her rule particularly stood out to me when especially when the Empress stifles dissent among the scientists, makes herself leader of the church, and converts everyone to Christianity.
In addition to having a woman in charge, Leslie also argues that the romantic conventions of the story are clear in the peril the Empress faces at the beginning of being captured and then surviving through her virtue. It is only then that she is transported into the alternate world, both confirming the storyline of salvation and subverting it by becoming the leader. “Although it may seem both striking and strange that Cavendish’s Utopian fantasy of unbridled female power and autonomy is inaugurated by the abduction and near rape of its heroine, her salvation can be seen to enact simultaneously the fulfillment and the profound revision of generic expectation” (Leslie 13). We can consider this reversal from the romantic convention to the utopian one a strike against both the romantic and utopian genres.
Finally, Leslie looks at the third stereotypically feminine trope of connecting women with nature. The Empress is highly interested in learning about nature, but she believes agreement and contemplation are more important than actual investigation, as shown by her threat to the bear-men to destroy their telescopes. “For Cavendish as for Bacon, knowledge is power, and the manipulation of nature as a way of exploring her secrets is a particularly potent tool for a revision of feminine ‘nature.’ In Blazing World the fruit of the ideal alliance of the female with nature is neither organic nor egalitarian” (Leslie 17). Here we see that Cavendish both affirms the connection of the feminine with nature but then undermines it with the Empress’s cutting short of investigation.
From the various readings of Cavendish it is clear that The Blazing World can represent both a break from previous utopian literature and a work that has its own place in the genre. Cavendish breaks with both the romantic and utopian genres but also participates in both. We have both the romantic friendship and also the care given not to disrupt patriarchal relationships. While making a woman the protagonist and concerning itself more with women than prior utopian writers like Bacon or More, Cavendish still leaves us with a society ruled by a monarch where dissent and difference are not tolerated.
Royalist, Romancist, Racialist: Rank, Gender, and Race in the Science and Fiction of Margaret Cavendish
Author(s): Sujata Iyengar
Source: ELH,Vol. 69, No. 3 (Fall, 2002), pp. 649-672
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30032037
Gender, Genre and the Utopian Body in Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World
Author(s): MARINA LESLIE
Source: Utopian Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1996), pp. 6-24
Published by: Penn State University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20719470
The Reenchantment of Utopia and the Female Monarchical Self: Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World
Author(s): Rachel Trubowitz
Source: Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 229-245
Published by: University of Tulsa
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/464299