Seventeenth Century England, commonly remembered for the political and cultural turmoil of the English Civil War and the later rejection of Puritan work ethic and morality during the Restoration, was a tumultuous time for women, especially for women who pursued a life of the mind. One such woman was Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a polymath who wrote extensively in the developing sciences and the humanities.
Born Margaret Lucas in 1603 to an aristocratic family, she received an education that, while unusual for the girls of her time, was by no means extensive by modern standards. She commented later that she and her siblings, who enjoyed lively debates and a comfortable family life, largely ignored their shared tutors, who were regarded as much as status symbols as educators.
After time as a maid-in-waiting at the royal court, where she earned a reputation for being unintelligent because her shyness kept her from witty repartee, Margaret married. Her Cambridge-educated husband was William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Valuing her for her good sense, discretion, and intelligence, William was a poet and scholar himself. Their mutually supportive marriage and his encouragement of Margaret’s intellectual pursuits contrast refreshingly with other, less savory accounts of women’s lives and the state of aristocratic marriage during the same period.
Margaret’s first publication, a few years after her marriage, was that of a memoir. The second was of a collection of poetry and essays, Poems and Fancies. A few essays in this volume show the beginnings of her engagement with the major thinkers of her time, many of whom were members of the Royal Society of London. However, her forays into natural philosophy and the sciences are less significant in this volume than Cavendish’s declarations that she writes with a desire for fame, and that she prefers writing to more traditionally feminine pastimes like working with textiles. To aspire to fame was to transgress all ideals of feminine propriety and discretion. Aspiring to fame for intellectual achievements, generally regarded as the preserve of men, would have been doubly shocking to her contemporaries.
Margaret’s next two works are of particular interest to scholars of science, philosophy, and science fiction. They establish her as an icon in all those disciplines, and a pioneering protofeminist. Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy is a more coherent, outwardly-focused work than her memoir or Poems and Fancies. In dialogue with such luminaries as Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, she establishes herself as a serious thinker. Her studies of human consciousness and the material world are informed by some of the most complicated theories of her day, and she engages with them sensitively and intelligently. Both in her argument and how it is presented, Margaret supports an egalitarian position. She argues that women have as much potential for knowledge and learning as men and should be given the means and time to pursue it. To make her work accessible to those who have not received a university education (which was rare at the time), she keeps her terms deliberately simple.
In The Blazing World, a utopian novel written shortly after Observations, Margaret approached her knowledge of the natural world, enthusiastic philosophical inquiry, and passion for animals’ rights creatively. In one of the first early forerunners of science fiction, she creates a parallel world in which animals speak and a female protagonist of integrity and intellectual curiosity. The tradition of the parallel fantasy world Margaret explores in this novel continues in many of the popular science fiction and fantasy novels enjoyed by readers today. Her novel, rarely read now, can be regarded as a precursor to beloved works including The Phantom Tollbooth, Through the Looking-Glass, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
Many of her works are available in print or without charge online. Even for those who choose not to explore her writings, her example is an inspiring one. As a scientist, philosopher, and author, Margaret Cavendish reconciled scholarly rigor with personal ambition and popular accessibility. In an era in which female ambition and scholarly achievement are still regarded with suspicion by many in the general public and interdisciplinary studies encounter obstacles in the academic world, her life and work can serve as an inspiring example to STEM students writers, and any who aspire to intellectual and creative exploration.