Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Margaret Lucas Cavendish

Episode Summary

Margaret Lucas Cavandish (1623-1673) was a a poet, philosopher, writer and Sci-Fi trailblazer.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

This month we’re highlighting Beautiful Minds -- intellectual powerhouses who changed the course of history. Many such women were criticized in their lifetimes and beyond for stepping out of what was deemed the appropriate women’s sphere. We obviously disagree with that premise.   

Today we’re talking about a poet, philosopher, writer and Sci-Fi trailblazer who -- unlike many contemporaries -- published using her own name. We’re talking about the one and only Margaret Lucas Cavendish. 

Margaret Lucas was born around 1623 in Colchester, England. She was the youngest of eight children. Her family was part of the aristocracy and Margaret was educated at home. In addition to her studies, Margaret was an avid reader, even of subjects that were typically reserved for men.  

Margaret’s family was royalist and in 1642, Margaret was sent to live with her sister in Oxford, then the location of the King Charles I’s court. Margaret became one of Queen Henrietta Maria’s maids. It was a time of Revolution in England and in 1644, Henrietta Maria sought exile in France. Margaret went too. 

In Paris, Margaret met William Cavendish and the two married in 1645. He was at least 30 years her senior. She credited him with having great influence on her work. 

After Paris, Margaret and William moved to Rotterdam and Antwerp before returning to England as Charles II took the throne. 

Throughout that period, Margaret wrote prolifically. Her first book, “Poems and Fancies”, was published in 1653. It included poems and prose covering a variety of topics including science. Margaret’s written demeanor was somewhat shy. She wrote about her hope that the reader would look kindly on her work. One poem, titled “An Apology for Writing So Much Upon This Book” reads: 

Condemn me not for making such a coil

About my book: alas, it is my child.

Just like a bird when her young are in nest

Goes in and out, and hops, and takes no rest,

But when their young are fledged, their heads out peep, 

Lord what a chirping does the old one keep!

So I—for fear my strengthless child should fall

Against a door or stool—aloud I call,

“Bid have a care of such a dangerous place!”

Thus write I much to hinder all disgrace.  

Margaret wrote six books on natural philosophy, a field that was dominated by men at the time. Her preferred school of thought shifted from atomism to vitalism to panpsychism, the notion that everything in nature has a soul. 

 Margaret wrote at a feverish pace. In the preface to her 1666 book, “Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy,” she wrote that she expected readers to call her pace of writing a disease. She counted herself in good company as sufferer of that illness alongside Aristotle, Cicero and Homer. 

After publication of that book, Margaret was invited to attend meetings at the Royal Society of London, which was a club of the greatest (male) minds of her day. She was the first woman to receive such an invitation. There she rubbed elbows with famed philosophers including Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, and Robert Boyle. 

Margaret also dove into the realm of science fiction. Her book, “The Blazing World” is considered one of the earliest examples of the genre. “The Blazing World” is a romance set in a utopian world accessed via the North Pole. The protagonist is a young woman who happens upon the new land after a shipwreck. She becomes Empress and rules over human-esque animals. The book is particularly notable not only because it’s the first science fiction novel, but also because its primary subject matter is women.

Over the course of her life, Margaret published over a dozen original works including multiple plays. She was known as a real character for her eccentric fashion sense and exuberant manner and was later nicknamed “Mad Madge.” 

Margaret died on December 15, 1673. She was around 50 years old.  

Margaret likely published more than any other woman in 17th century English society. Many of her books are still in print today.

As always, we’re taking a break for the weekend so tune in on Monday for the story of another Beautiful Mind. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you on Monday!