Before Frankenstein – The First Science-Fiction?

Before Mary Shelley's stormy night, there was an eccentrically dressed Duchess and The Blazing World.

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You’d think we’d all be used to hearing the “girls don’t like sci-fi” rubbish by now but alas, it keeps on coming, from readers and authors alike. We have ways of dealing with this painfully sexist fallacy, ranging from “shut your face” to general laughter.

The most common defence I’ve seen for such misogynistic exclusion of women from one of the most popular genres of fiction is the mention of one Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The daughter of pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin. The wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the major poets of the romantic era. Storytelling companion of Lord Byron and the author of one of the world’s most famous and influential works, “Frankenstein”, a feat she accomplished while still a teenager. It’s tough to find a work that has had the kind of impact on our pop culture and modern psyche as “Frankenstein”. Anyone who’s watched any film or read any book with a focus on characters playing God or the debate as to what makes one a human can trace those ideas back to Shelley. She’s single-handedly helped win many an argument against the sneering jackals who continue to proclaim that icky girls have ruined horror and sci-fi with their ideas and emotions.

However, and I don’t do this to in any way dismiss the amazing work of Shelley, the argument itself that pushes Shelley as the creator of science-fiction isn’t entirely accurate. Almost two centuries earlier, in 1666, another woman was creating the genre, combining it with elements of utopia, social commentary, satire, philosophy and even a touch of autobiography. The author was a somewhat eccentric duchess described by Samuel Pepys as being “mad”, a poet, philosopher and patron of the sciences who argued that woman could be educated to be on equal standing with men. You probably haven’t heard of her. honestly, I hadn’t heard of her until very recently.

Meet Margaret Cavendish and “The Blazing World”.

Image from University of Pennsylvania.

Published in 1668 alongside a collection of the Duchess’s work on “experimental philosophy”, the story centres on a beautiful unnamed woman who catches the eye of a travelling merchant. Instantly smitten with her, the merchant decides to “steal her away” from her home on the shore and take her back to his homeland across the sea. While journeying, their ship is caught in a storm and pushed towards the North Pole, where the unnamed woman is separated from her captors and drifts into another world via the Arctic.

The world she enters is a kind of parallel Earth, written before we even had a world for such things, with several suns in the sky, populated with strange human-animal type hybrid creatures:

The rest of the Inhabitants of that World, were men of several different sorts, shapes, figures, dispositions, and humors, as I have already made mention, heretofore; some were Bear-men, some Worm-men, some Fish- or Mear-men, otherwise called Syrens; some Bird-men, some Fly-men, some Ant-men, some Geese-men, some Spider-men, some Lice-men, some Fox-men, some Ape-men, some Jack daw-men, some Magpie-men, some Parrot-men, some Satyrs, some Gyants, and many more, which I cannot all remember.”

Lice-men. Yes, really. Bet that one’s new to you.

The creatures of this world declare the stranger to their land to be their new Empress, adorning her with pearls and diamonds and bestowing upon her the scientific marvels of their world, including what we would now call a submarine (experimental submarines were being tested in the Thames during Cavendish’s lifetime – powered by oars – but wouldn’t become what we now think of as a submarine for quite some time.)  Using her great intellect, the now Empress assigns each of the creatures a specific occupation pertaining to their inherent skills; “the Bird-men her Astronomers, the Fly- Worm- and Fish-men her Natural Philosophers, the Ape-men her Chymists, the Satyrs her Galenick Physicians” and so on.

Image from the British Library.

Much of what follows is a philosophical tract on questions of what makes up the elements of the world, as well as some satirical points on the rule of law and the idea of women in power. Later on, the Duchess herself appears as a character, summoned by the Empress, where she is portrayed as a guide and mentor on the topics of science, philosophy and the representation of knowledge.

It’s hard to look at that relatively concise description and not think of it as science-fiction. It’s got a bit of everything; utopian parallel worlds, alien creatures, and explicit discussion of science. That doesn’t even cover the author’s sheer audacity of writing herself and her own clear experiences into the narrative, the evident feminist slant of the heroine’s journey, the satire and political metaphor of a society that excluded women from the full pursuit of knowledge, and even a pretty decent argument as to why raising an army from the dead to fight in your war is a pretty bad idea. Yep.

“yet it is not possible to get so many dead and undissolved Bodies in one Nation; and for transporting them out of other Nations, it would be a thing of great difficulty and improbability: But put the case, said she, all these difficulties could be overcome; yet there is one obstruction or hindrance which can no ways be avoided: For although those dead and undissolved Bodies did all die in one minute of time; yet before they could Rendezvouze, and be put into a posture of War, to make a great and formidable Army, they would stink and dissolve; and when they came to a fight, they would moulder into dust and ashes, and so leave the purer Immaterial Spirits naked;”

Sounds legit to me.

So why haven’t you heard of Cavendish? Why don’t we elevate her to the heights of Shelley? Where’s the delightfully sinister and camp 1930s Universal Monster Movie about Lice-Men?

While it was tough for a woman to carve out a career as a writer in Shelley’s time, it was even harder for Cavendish. They certainly did exist and were almost exclusively wealthy women who did not need the income from their work to support their lifestyle (Aphra Behn is my personal favourite from the 17th century roster of female writers). Even a woman like Cavendish, with a title and some social standing that allowed her to do things like attend the Royal Society of London (something Pepys also wrote about in his diary), had trouble establishing herself as a serious intellectual.

Cavendish also had a reputation for being somewhat eccentric. Pepys mentions her several times in his diary and seems equal parts intrigued and repelled by her. The Duchess also enjoyed expressing herself through her fashion choices, which causes quite a fuss for some, especially Pepys:

April 26, 1667: Met my Lady Newcastle going with her coaches an footmen all in velvet; herself (whom I never saw before), as I have heard her often described (for all the town talk is now-a-days of her extravagancies), with her velvet-cap, her hair about her ears; many black patches, because of pimples about her mouth; naked-necked, without any thing about it, and a black just-au-corps. She seemed to me a very comely woman; but I hope to see more of her on May-day. (Source.)

Women like Cavendish certainly made their presence known in society, but her work wasn’t exactly well received by her contemporaries. Indeed, many outright loathed it, and her habit for shameless self-publicity was not looked upon kindly (something many women can relate to even today, unfortunately).

The fact that she’s a woman is probably one of the reasons she’s not a household name. Between her contemporary critical reaction and history’s habit of removing women from the narrative altogether, it seemed inevitable that she’d fall between the cracks. Virginia Woolf’s argument of Shakespeare’s Sister comes to mind – the idea that a woman of the Bard’s time could never achieve that level of fame and acclaim due to the constraints put upon them by society. Not even a well-educated and highly privileged Duchess could catch a break, especially one who dared to dress garishly and put her own name on the cover of her work. Being written about by Pepys and the like as a mad-woman probably didn’t help either. Another common tract of male dominated history – write off all the ladies as being hysterical in order to play down their achievements.

“The Blazing World” isn’t a brilliant piece of prose. It’s rambling, void of pacing and strangely totalitarian in places (Cavendish preaches the freedom of education for women yet the Empress dictates each of the creatures’ occupations depending on the skills associated with their species). However, it’s also completely fascinating, a highly ambitious work across multiple genres that’s unabashedly equal parts philosophical and personal. It’s free to read here and is definitely worth your time. So the next time you go up against another troglodyte pushing the anti-women fallacy in regards to sci-fi, when you mention Shelley, don’t forget to include Cavendish. She does deserve it.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Another great mind lost to history all because she was the wrong gender. I’m definately going to check out this work. Thanks for giving it attention.

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