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The First (?) Lady of Science Fiction

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

When researching about early science fiction, I came across the name of one of one of the earliest writers to be attributed to the genre and it peaked my interest. Because this writer was a woman. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. While I knew that she was far from the only female writer during that time, the more I learned about this woman the more I was intrigued. In a world where the worth of a woman was measured by how well she could marry, Margaret Cavendish sought to not only seek fame in a man’s profession but also wrote about ideas and topics far beyond the traditional education of a female in those days. In fact, she was one of the most prolific female writers of the 17th century (2). The more I learned about this remarkable woman, the more I realized that while we were born hundreds of years apart, she dealt with many of the same things that I am dealing with now. It was oddly exciting to connect to this writer from so long ago.

Her Early life

Margaret Cavendish was born Margaret Lucas in 1623 to an aristocratic family in Colchester, Essex. (1) She was the youngest of eight children born to Elizabeth Leighton and Sir Thomas Lucas. (2) While her family was rich, they did not hold a title, as Margaret’s father preferred to earn a title rather than buy it. (2) 

The independent spirit of her parent’s might have been a contributing factor as to why Margaret was such a free and innovative personality. They educated her beyond what was normal for females at the time, including many subjects that were reserved for men. (2,3) She had access to libraries and enjoyed intellectual conversations. This emphasis on education seems to have had an effect on their other children as well. Margaret’s brother John Lucas would become a founding member of London’s Royal Society,(3) to which Margaret would later become the first female member. (5) 

Margaret also had a fine role model of how to be a self-sufficient woman in her mother. When Sir Lucas was killed in the English Civil War, her mother took over the household including the finances. (4) This confidence allowed her to start creating works as young as twelve. (2.3)Perhaps this modeling of a strong woman in a man’s role allowed young Margaret to dream about taking her own place as a writer, a decidedly male profession at the time. Whatever the truth, Margaret learned how to dance to her own beat.

Independence and Anxiety

 One of the things that drew me to the story of Margaret Cavendish was the dual personalities she wielded throughout your life. On the one hand, she was supremely confident in herself. Not only did she hope to reach the same heights as the popular male writers of the time, she insisted in making her own clothing and being unlike any others. (2) Even as others labeled her eccentric and even nicknamed her “Mad Madge”, she wrote about such sensitive subjects as sex and gender, controversial philosophies and even gave arguments against marriage. (4) Later in her life, she took a large hand in the family finances, much as her mother had. (4) 

Cover to Grounds of Natural Philosophy with herself posing as the figure.

Yet even as brash and confident she appeared, she also suffered from bouts of anxiety and craving approval from her peers. When her mother sent her to court at a young age, she was described as “bashful and painfully shy”. (4) Many of her works are filled with apologies: apologies for how she dressed, for her poor writing skills, and trying to placate critices so that they would like her. (1,2) She even titled a work An Apology for Writing so Much upon this Book. (1) 

Much of her life seems to have been a conflict between these two sides. She sought to be an individualist, rising above her station, vain enough to want to be the center of attention and gain notoriety that did not come to women at that time. Like her decision to publish under her own name, unlike so many other female writers who chose or felt forced to publish under male names in order to have their works seriously considered (1), such as Alice B. Sheldon the experimental psychologist who wrote under the name James Tripletree, Jr. (6) Margaret even wrote her own autobiography at the age of 33, entitled True Relations. Yet even within her own autobiography she is a wash with indecision, awkward shame, and wanting to show that she is indeed a virtuous and compelling woman who is abiding by the social norms of the day. Then, even as she tries to placate  her critics and show herself as an abiding woman, she calls out the unfairness of the social norms that they are trying to place upon her. (2)

I really connected with her on this point. For most if not all of my life, I’ve struggled between the wants and wills of my inner self, the things I ‘knew’ about myself even as most people in my life told me I didn’t know anything and the social norms and restrictions that were places upon me. Add into this mix my chronic anxiety and depression, and you have a recipe for a tumultuous mind. I once heard someone describe it as “Having anxiety means you care way too much about everything. Having depression is caring way too little about anything. And having both is like hell.” I would attest to this. Perhaps that’s why I connected with fantasy books so much as a child, especially those with a female knight or a woman who talked to dragons or a magician. Because that was what my inner spirit was. A warrior. A fighter. A brave, intelligent amazing woman.

Yet, when I would go outside that world, I always felt wrong. My father was always yelling at me for this or that. I was teased and bullied at school. Even at church I didn’t fit in because all I ever heard was sermons about how my growing and changing body was evil, how I led men to sin, how I was the problem. Not to mention just the general world telling me I wasn’t smart enough, good enough, pretty enough, etc. And let’s not even get into how I was made to feel about my mental health issues (I’ll give a hint: broken). Now, whether this was the message people meant to give me, it didn’t matter. It was the message I got. And the solution I came up with was this: deny who you are and just be whatever anyone else wants you to be.

Only. . . that doesn’t work. Oh, it may appear to work. But you can only fight yourself for so long. You can’t go through life hating or despising a part of yourself and still be happy. You can’t deny your nature. I tried for a very long time. I went to college (spectacular failure). I got the ‘good job’ (was great for a while then turned incredibly toxic). I got the house (one word: disaster). And so on. I did all the things I thought I was supposed to do. And then in my 30’s it all collapsed. Because I was so tired of fighting. But I didn’t even know what I was fighting about anymore. Because I had no idea who this person was staring at me in the mirror.

So, I stopped fighting. I started letting the warrior spirit win, no matter what other people thought. I also started taking acceptance for the choices I had made because of ignoring myself, the bad decisions, and forgave myself. I also learned to forgive people who had never asked my forgiveness. I shed the masks, the baggage I had been carrying for other people. And I walked forward as me.  

I went back to school and finished my degree in Technical Communications. I split ties from toxic people and let others know that I was done being trifled with. And I did the most amazing thing: I wrote a book from beginning to end. 

I have been writing since I was a kid. But I would never finish. I would build the story in my mind, write a few chapters, then always abandon it for some other project. I used to say I had too many good ideas. But in reality, when I dig really down deep, I have to admit I never finished it because I didn’t think I could. Because I kept convincing myself that it wasn’t worth the time and effort, because no one would want to read it anyway. 

But much like Margaret Cavendish, who obviously wanted her works to be read by others because she wanted fame and acclaim yet still proclaims she ‘wrote this for herself’ (2), I wrote Planetary Feedlot for me. I wrote the story I wanted to write. I created the cover I wanted to create. This was my story. And I’ve had my critics, from the cover isn’t professional enough to it’s not following some social norm formula for science fiction books. But it doesn’t matter. Because I wrote it for me. I wrote it for the warrior spirit that I tried to drown so long ago because I got lost. 

And if other people like it, it’s just icing on the cake. 

Science Fiction (and other things)

Another amazing point of Margaret Cavendish’s writing career is the sheer number of genres that she played in. It sometimes seems in modern times that a writer gets pigeonholed into writing in one genre, sometimes becoming so well-known that if they want to experiment and try something else they have to pick up a pen name for fear that if its not good their fans will turn against them. Yet Margaret played in all sorts of genres: poems, letters, love stories, science fiction, philosophy, autobiography, plays and more. (1,2) 

Plaque commemorating the life and varied career of Margaret Cavendish.

While I am still young to publishing, I am already enjoying exploring different avenues and types of writing. Planetary Feedlot was my debut novel, but it was also the first in a series. I also have a few stand-alone novels already planned. Then I started this blog. I am having a blast writing it, because it is bringing in another of my loves, researching. Not to mention I’m learning about things and people I’ve never even heard of before, such as Margaret Cavendish. I also am writing a book of short horror/science-fiction stories. And changing between the different formats, with their different voices/tones/goals/audience is a great brain exercise. It invigorates my energy. And it gives me outlets. Stuck on the story? Switch to researching the blog. Blog not going great? Try for another chapter. Have an idea that isn’t quite a book? Hey, short story. 

Not only is it fun learning and trying about the different types, I’m learning that each type has it’s own voice, and sometimes one voice works better for transmitting my idea than another. While I haven’t wandered into a lot of Margaret’s works yet, I wonder if she found the same thing. That a play communicated an idea stronger than a poem, or a poem allowed her to illiterate something better than a letter. 

One thing I did get from the research I did was that she had a lively and active mind, especially when it came to philosophy and science. In one of her first published works Poems and Fancies (1653), she talked about ideas about atomic theory. And of course, the work that many believe is the first science-fiction book The Description of a New Blazing World (first published in Philosophical Letters in 1664, then published as its own work in 1668) (4) where she talks about a young woman who finds a portal in the Arctic that takes her to another dimension where the animal-people rule. (1,5) 

Cover of The Blazing World

I’ve recently started listening to The Blazing World on audiobook, and reading one of her plays Love Letters. It is a little hard to get around the wording and English of the time (lots of odd phrasing, words and pronunciations to my modern American ear). But as I’m adjusting to it, I have to say I’m engrossed by her writing. While I am obviously no expert in literature, I know how I think and feel as I read it. To me, she writes to take you somewhere. And even though her writing can seem just mere entertainment (Love Letters so far is about men and women of the court trying to arrange relationships for each other), I find myself asking questions as I read, and I feel as if they are questions Margaret wanted me to ask. Questions about sex and gender. Questions on the ideals and philosophies of society and science. Questions on why we really do things, or why we believe what we do. 

This resonates with me because that’s how I like to think of my writing. Using stories to ask questions. I want my works to not only entertain, but to make people think. To ask questions. Because that’s how I go through the world. I love asking questions, even the tough ones. Probably one of the reasons I love learning psychology, and about serial killers. What makes us think and act the way we do? What makes one person a CEO, another a professor, another a serial killer? What makes up societal norms? How do they get created? How do they get changed? And so on. 

There is so much more to the life and career of Margaret Cavendish. I’ve only just touched the surface. But I can’t help but feel a connection as a writer to her. The anxiety over whether my work will receive attention and be ‘good enough’ versus my independent spirit and wanting to write my works my way. Wanting to conform to social norms to have an attractive ‘brand’ versus wanting to be true to myself as weird and non-conforming as they may be. Wandering into realms that go against the social norms of the day. Dealing with critics that are negative about your works simply because either you or them don’t follow some set of unspoken rules. Or with people that dismiss your work because of some preconceived notion (i.e. ‘self-published works are trash’) before they even read it. 

Through learning about her these past few weeks, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit more about myself as a writer. I’m really looking forward to spending a year reading not only her works but learning and reading about other famous early female writers. And I hope you’ll enjoy coming along for the ride. 


All photos provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  1. “Margaret Cavendish” British Library, retrieved from bl.uk/people/margaret-cavendish
  2. Botonaki, Effi (1998) “Marching on the Catwalk and Marketing the Self: Margaret Cavendish’s Autobiography, A/B Autobiography Studies, 13:2, 159-181 DOI: 10.108OT08989575, 1998, 10815127
  3. “Margaret Cavendish” History of Women Philosophers and Scientist retrieved from historyofwomenphilosophers.com/cavendish-margaret-1623-1673/
  4. Fitzmaurice, James (23 Sept 04) “Cavendish, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography retrieved from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-4940
  5. Simon, Edward (18 Nov 2016) “The Science Fiction that Came before Science” The Atlantic, retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-science-fiction-that-came-before-science/508067/
  6. Wagnar, W. Warren (1989) “H.G. Wells and the Scientific Revolution” VQR Volume 65 Issue 3 retrieved from https://www.vqronline.org/essay/hg-wells-and-scientific-imagination

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