Romancing Multiplicity: Female Subjectivity and the Body Divisible in Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World
Geraldine Wagner
College of the Holy Cross

Wagner, Geraldine. "Romancing Multiplicity: Female Subjectivity and the Body Divisible in Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 1.1-59 <URL:

  1. In a prefatory poem to Sociable Letters, [1] a fictive correspondence between two friends, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, describes her authorship as the exploration of a self-reflexive multiplicity:

    This Lady only to her self she Writes
    And all her Letters to her self Indites;
    For in her self so many Creatures be,
    Like many Commonwealths, yet all Agree. (SL, 10)

    This comment suggests that Margaret [2] considered textuality a means to subjectivity: one in which there is (ironically, given her monarchist politics) no sovereign head, but many multi-bodied, competing loci of potential agency. In such early works as Sociable Letters and A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding and Life, [3] this multiplicity is inscribed as a marginal, but ever-lurking tension between a prescribed, subjected female body and a female subjectivity that emerges through the body. In The Blazing World, [4] however, this tension is finally brought to the fore, confronted, explored and ultimately resolved by her two protagonists and their author who are by turns distinct from and merged with each other.

  2. Although Blazing World is not the first text in which Margaret splits herself into two physically and intellectually separate personae (this happens to a lesser degree in Sociable Letters, where the correspondents remain unnamed and rather indistinguishable from each other in their attitudes, beliefs, and temperament), here the divisions are most tangible and remarked: the Duchess of Newcastle represents the more conformative social construction of female selfhood, while the Empress of the Blazing World figures a transgressive selfhood born of authorship and the imaginative life of the mind. As their friendship develops, these seemingly solid distinctions will eventually prove permeable, but the emphasized physicality of the separateness of these personae makes visible and tangible the insinuated dichotomy that informs earlier texts. Moreover, it enables such dialogic and corporeal exchanges between these selves, as ultimately reconcile them and their author into a multiple entity closely resembling the commonwealth Margaret speaks of in her prefatory matter to Sociable Letters.

  3. While it is true that the issue of subjectivity in Margaret's work has been addressed in a number of essays, [5] the body as a site for its production has been largely ignored. In her highly influential essay, "Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of the Female Subject in Seventeenth Century England," [6] Catherine Gallagher provided an early reading of Margaret as embracing the absolutism of Charles II in the form of a personalized sovereignty that allows her to escape her subjection as a female in seventeenth century English society through a series of infinitely regressing worlds/selves in which she is always both sovereign and subject. Some years later, in "Trembling Texts: Margaret Cavendish and the Dialectic of Authorship," [7] Sandra Sherman qualified Gallagher's thesis by stressing the double valenced nature of Margaret's selfhood, which balanced "paradigms of disengagement" with a sense of "historical agency" centring on an "authorial rather than a royalist model of empowerment" (185). These Royalist and authorial paradigms continue to define the parameters within which Cavendish's subjectivity is examined. Although both provide convincing approaches to understanding Margaret's self-reinvention, they neglect not only corporeality as the locus of subjectivity, but also the paradigm of romance through which the body is figured. For, despite Margaret's repeated disparagement of romance (in the preface to Natures Pictures, she contends: "I never read a Romancy Book throughout in all my life"), she well knew and often employed the form and its themes - appropriating and drastically altering them in the process of creating unconventional heroines.

  4. My focus on Margaret's changing perception of the body via romance as an enabling structure of relations situates Blazing World as a challenge to masculinist rhetorics that attempted to closely proscribe female behaviour by essentializing the female corpus as inferior matter: [8] these include theological, [9] philosophical [10] and medical discourses that constructed woman as suited by their bodies only to subjection and domestic/reproductive purposes. For Biblical Scripture and Aristotelian theories of the female body not only influenced Renaissance thought on such subjects as marriage and female rule, but also contributed to medical concepts of the body, including Galen's humoral theory and its consideration of sex and gender difference.

  5. In her study of The Body Embarrassed, Gail Kern Paster claims that "despite the challenges to Galenism posed in the sixteenth century by Paracelsus and his followers, the dominant physiological paradigm [in Early Modern Europe] was the classical theory of the four humors upon which ancient biology and hence the practice of medicine were based for centuries" (92). She contends that men and women "described their sensations and bodily events and often experienced physical and psychic benefit in humoral terms. More subtly, they [also] experienced such basic social interpellations as their engenderment in humoral terms, . . ." (17). According to Galenic belief, female genitals were inversions of the male genitalia; woman's cool, as opposed to man's warm, nature kept her genitalia from descending and appearing - though Galen argued that this could happen if a woman became sufficiently aroused by sexual frustration. Although Galen perpetuated the assumption of female bodily inferiority, his theory opened up a space for gender ambiguity that proto-feminist discourse would explore. A similar space for resistance was unintentionally carved out by Galenic humoral theory, which constructed women's bodies as "leaky" vessels. The humoral female body is particularly threatening, because woman is inscribed as producing and releasing fluids to excess (Paster, 25). Moreover, this uncontainable "liquid expressiveness" is linked in Galenic discourse to "excessive verbal fluency. Paster argues that "in both formations, the issue is woman's bodily self-control, . . . as a function of gender" (25). [11]

  6. Although humoral interpretation of the female body describes it as problematic to the woman herself, it is through an awareness of the female corpus as exceeding social and political controls that writers like Cavendish begin to reevaluate female corporeality as a means of resistance to male power. I argue that through the interplay of biography and romance the dual protagonists in Blazing World and their author demonstrate an awareness of the female body as textual and, thus, a major site of resistance to, and transgression of, patriarchal and androcentric ideologies. I equate this awareness with the emergence of a corporeal subjectivity.

  7. Blazing World was first published as an addendum to Observations on Experimental Philosophy, a collection of philosophical essays with which it is often surprisingly at odds, especially in its concept of corporeality. [12] Written at Welbeck (one of her husband's country estates), after Margaret's hopes for her husband's advancement through Charles II's restoration had already been disappointed, [13] this text explores alternative, internal avenues to self fulfillment, that lead to a reconceptualizing of the female corpus. Given its highly circuitous, multi-level journey to a re-nascence of the self as its own Other, it is not surprising that Blazing World resists adequate summary description.

  8. It is a testament not to the text's incoherence but to its breadth and complexity that, like its author, it cannot be reduced to singleness. Consider first how it is at once a utopian experiment, a romance adventure, an unconventional autography, [14] and a philosophical/scientific exposition. Structurally and thematically all of these elements are intermingled; and although there is one textual division (between parts One and Two) which signals a narrative shift, the work's many other important transitions go unmarked, so that the text, like the self in inscribes, is both one and many. Similarly, its preface, with its playfully deceptive introduction, confounds the reader's expectations of oneness by making claims about philosophy and fancy that the narrative belies and subverts. [15]

  9. Blazing World is presented as the Duchess's true account of her travels to another-worldly realm called Blazing World, where she encounters and befriends her other self in the person of its Empress. I argue that this is a journey to subjectivity via a proto-individualist, yet uniquely multiplicitous, model of autonomous self-generation. A metaphor borrowed from one of Margaret's earliest poems, "The Motions of the Mind," graphically illustrates this journey to selfhood. In this poem, Margaret uses the notion of nesting boxes to describe infinity as a series of internally regressive worlds within worlds. Similarly, Blazing World (and the multiple self it instantiates), increasingly retreats into the self's society and away from outside, relational influences. Discussing the text in these terms can, I think, be helpful in grasping its design and the self to which it gives birth.

  10. Blazing World's "outer box" contains the controlling fiction that Margaret wrote this narrative from her (spirit-traveling) experience of having lived the story we read (in which she appears as Empress, Duchess and Goddess.) [16] This fiction has a circularity to it, since Blazing World ends with the Duchess telling tales of the Blazing World from within a narrative that is already one such tale. The next "box" is a kind of double box filled by the narrative sequence (such as it is). Its first compartment has three subdivisions: the abduction into Blazing World of the noble lady who becomes its Empress; her philosophical convocation with the creature men; and her wish to write a Cabala, which occasions her meeting with the Duchess. All of these actions take place within the "realm" of utopian aspirations where the fantasy self is still exploring exterior (though imaginary) avenues to selfhood.

  11. The Empress's meeting with the Duchess changes all of this. The second compartment is filled with this self/self relation explored through their many adventures together, which include a mutual attempt at authoring utopias, a visit together in spirit and body to the Duchess's world, and a military expedition (in Part Two) to the Empress's world. This military expedition is itself a sub-box, since it is here that a crucial change takes place. During this expedition the fusion of the Empress and Duchess's bodies and souls enables the "birth" of a further self: a theatrical identity perceived by their enemies to be a true goddess. Having conquered this world they at last part, returning to their respective worlds transformed by their experiences into mirror images of each other. This tentative end leads us back to the start in an endless loop of tales within tales within worlds within worlds. Subsequent nestings depend on one's own interpretative methods.

  12. In my reading, that further series of interpretative boxes contains a conflict between the aims and limits of romance and utopia in Early Modern English literature. Like Shakespeare's romances, Blazing World is a fantastical and somewhat mystic series of adventures. Though it has as its quest motif the realization of the self, it refigures the heroic quest in much more personal and psychologically profound terms than Mediaeval quest romances, or those of Sidney and Spenser; for, despite their wide-ranging use of symbolism, these do not delve so deeply into the subjective perspective that Shakespeare's and Cavendish's texts inhabit. In Blazing World Margaret seeks to create a perfect society through which she can escape the horrors of her material past, but she also strives to engender herself as a subject. Undoubtedly, Margaret was also acquainted with Thomas More's Utopia: both texts employ a construction of the self as double that is enabled by a playfully complex authorial stance, and both are torn between establishing an egalitarian society and valuing individual subjectivity; These competing aims draw Margaret simultaneously toward romance and utopia. This is problematic because these genres pull her in incompatible directions: utopia excludes the transgression necessary to female subjectivity, while romance enables female subjectivity at the cost of tranquillity and social stability, requiring as it does counter-hegemonic thought.

  13. Ultimately, Blazing World more closely resembles The Tempest in spirit than it does Utopia, since it creates and comfortably inhabits a fantastic realm where the supernatural is linked to self-realization. Hence, Margaret starts with the romantic trope of abduction, attempts a utopian experiment that fails, and returns to romance as heroic quest and romantic (self) love. This narrative movement shows Margaret finally rejecting a utopian framework for romance as the genre most suited to figuring female subjectivity. To understand Blazing World in this way is to challenge a popular critical position espoused most fully by Rachel Trubowitz, "The Reenchantment of Utopia and the Female Monarchical Self," and Lee Cullen Khanna, "The Subject of Utopia," both of whom argue that Margaret appropriates and refigures utopian fantasy in representing a feminist politics and female selfhood.

  14. Trubowitz argues that Blazing World is "a revision of the utopian social paradigm driven by the competing demands of the Duchess's radical feminism and social conservatism" (229). This revision is, according to her, a reenchantment of "the demystified locus of utopia . . . [, which Margaret accomplishes by] giving its rationalized physical and psychic topography magical, mythological, and transcendent qualities" (230). In my estimation, such reenchantment is a deconstruction of utopia into romance. Khanna argues "by constructing varied subject positions for women, her fiction releases the utopian genre from conventional binary oppositions in the depiction of the desire for the good life . . .. [because] the transformation of subject positions changes utopian constructs" (15). I believe, on the contrary, that these varied subject positions repeatedly defer and subvert her utopian project, while revealing how romance conventions, plots and forms enable a discourse of difference. [17] To define Blazing World as a feminist utopia because it "presents varying positions of female power: ruler, scholar, religious leader, cabalist and barrister" (Khanna, 25), is to neglect the fact that it is only when she is defying the laws and order of Blazing World that Margaret ever fully embodies any of these titles. Blazing World makes all of the above subject positions possible but only if and when she is willing to subvert the traditional utopian paradigm of a well-ordered, peaceful society that the realm of Blazing World represents. One might argue that this is a tension between a traditional and a new vision of utopia, but that new vision is dominated by romantic adventures, and limited in scope to the liberation of Margaret Cavendish's multiple selves. [18]

  15. The narrative begins with one such romantic adventure that enables the emergence of Margaret's fantasy self: the Empress persona who figures some of the author's most transgressive desires. The future Empress first gains access to the Blazing World by way of the romance trope of abduction, which, in this case, is a fortunate mischance. A merchant, who is smitten with this lady, but despairs of winning her legitimately, steals her from her native dwelling:

    A MERCHANT, traveling into a foreign country, fell extremely in love with a young lady, but being a stranger in that nation and beneath her both in birth and wealth, he could have but little hopes of obtaining his desire. However, his love growing more and more vehement upon him, even to the slighting of all difficulties, he resolved at last to steal her away, . . . (253)

    As the boat in which she is bound nears the North Pole, her captor and his accomplices die of frost. Only the lady (who remains unscathed by the icy temperatures) is spared by providence to enter into the Blazing World. This first romantic adventure registers how the Lady's, and her author's, creative self-fulfillments are contingent upon the symbolic death of that masculinist, economic and exploitative concept of women's identity to which the merchant subscribes. Consider that he falls "extremely in love" with her knowing only that she is noble and beautiful. Only by escape from a world where she is merely a transferable object can the lady (and her author) explore her multiplicity and become self-defining.

  16. Despite references that suggest the lady was guided and protected on her journey by the heavens, providence, and the gods there is a certain amount of agentic power intimated by the "light of her beauty" and "heat of her youth," both of which help her to survive the extremity of cold. This journey of the future Empress is in many ways analogous to the textual venturing her author makes when she embarks on the writing of Blazing World. Perhaps she too is somewhat forced to abscond from the realms of male-dominated discourses (despite the fact that she very well holds her own there) in order to discover literary regions that are more receptive to such transgressive impulses as the inscription of her selves-hood requires.

  17. Indeed, the issue of female subjectivity is at the core of this beginning passage. For, like the moon by which it is later figured, female subjectivity is its own luminary body respecting no center but its own. In describing the moon's self sufficiency the Blazing World's bird-men remark:

    Although she looked dim in the presence of the sun, yet had she her own light and was a shining body of herself, as might be perceived by her vigorous appearance on moonshiney nights. The difference only between her own and the sun's light was that the sun did strike his beams in a direct line, but the moon never respected the centre of their world in a right line, but her centre was always excentrical(264).

    This nontraditional construction of the lunar orb as its own body of light is in keeping with Margaret's figuring of the lady's body as a transcendent vehicle both literally and symbolically. The light and heat that help her withstand arctic chills symbolize her and her author's refusals to be frozen into socially moulded identities. The Lady's realm-transcending body also symbolizes the function of romance in Blazing World which, itself, must escape the confines of many of its more limiting elements in order to successfully represent the self-love affair at the core of this text.

  18. By having her Lady journey to the Blazing World Margaret attempts to liberate her character (and author self) from narrative and social structures of female containment. Unfortunately, this utopian experiment fails because early modern utopian discourse itself does not escape implication in conservative, even oppressive, ideologies. From the moment she sets foot in the Blazing World, she espouses colonialist notions of self and Other that compromise the integrity of the Empress's self-realization in this section, making her stay in this world impossible. [19] Of those critics who read Blazing World as a utopia only Kate Lilley mentions that "her female imperialism requires the subjection and the admiration of men, including the Emperor . . . , and her hybridized male-animal courtiers" (119). But she is not critical of this, nor does she situate Margaret's imperialism within its historical moment as something that would seriously hinder the Empress's self-realization - if her author sought to do no more than represent her own repressed will to power. However, the Empress's eventual relationship with the Duchess, her other, complementary self, and their journies together beyond the Blazing World, attest to the fact that Margaret's goals are larger and more radical than this.

  19. On learning that these subjected inhabitants of Blazing World prefer monarchy because "as it was natural for one body to have but one head, so it was natural for a political body to have but one governor" (a commonwealth being "like a monster of many heads") (262), Cavendish readers are reminded of Sociable Letters, where she described her own selfhood in the commonwealth terms that are here defined as monstrous. Moreover, the author, her Empress and her Duchess comprise a multiple organism ("a monstrosity") that defies this equation of singularity with the natural. [20] We immediately sense that such order as requires "no diversity of opinion" in either religion or politics cannot last, given its author's self-explorative aims. Although such a world may be hypothetically pleasing to Margaret as author, she and her Empress soon discover its limitations: this society's order is instantly destabilized by the Lady's/Empress's entrance. Not only is she, as a woman who comes to power, an exception to the rule in this society dominated by males, but the convocation she initiates and chairs immediately threatens order by introducing the spirit of argumentation and divisiveness. [21] This convocation goes on for almost half the length of the text during which time the narrative is suspended and we see little of the Blazing World. Instead, its focus is on an abstract debate over those principles that govern life in the universe.

  20. Yet though narrative action is suspended, the romantic fantasy is not. Constructing herself as an Empress whose word commands respect and fear from an exclusively male society of intellectuals is, for Margaret, the height of romance. Here it is particularly useful to recognize the Empress as a Prospero-like figure, and to consider the influence of Shakespearean romance on Blazing World as an exploration of imaginative realms. The Empress, like Prospero, is shipwrecked by her own will to a world apart, where she converses with spirits and creatures from her own creating fancy. She too cannot remain forever in this other world, but must take from her journey what she needs to grow in self-knowledge. Thus this convocation may be seen as similar to those scenes in The Tempest where Prospero is both searching for, and a source of, knowledge and power. [22]

  21. As the Empress knows, a ruler only occupies and enjoys a very small part of her world. That she chooses to place herself at the center of a forum resembling The Royal Society speaks not only to her need for intellectual debate, but also to romance as an enabling fiction. It allows Margaret to install one of her selves as the foremost authority in a group of otherwise male scientists whom she creates as her intellectual inferiors. Her ex-centric strategy is to put the dissenting Empress not at the margins but at the centre of a discussion that would have, in life, excluded her. It is here that the desires of Empress and author most closely coincide. Not surprisingly, however, the Empress' desire to rule, and the author's desire to give literary birth to a world safe from rebellion are both compromised by her equally strong desire to forge a subjectivity through intellectual dissent.

  22. Although this convocation falls short of the revelatory power of her subsequent adventures with the Duchess, the broad spectrum of her multiple selfhood is clearly previewed through the "prism" of this convocation. It is here that we first glimpse how subjectivity emerges from a mutually constitutive body and mind, both of which defy the normative conscriptions of coherence, singularity and fixity. Through her representation of the scientists' odd corporeal shapes, and in her Empress's discussions concerning the nature of matter, the plague, the elixir of youth and monstrosities, Margaret establishes the body (in its paradoxical multiplicitous unity and morphological capabilities) as the site of agentic selfhood. In fact, it is only after she has established linguistic space for the body as transformative (the plague), self-regenerative (elixir) and fundamentally deviant (monstrosity) that she can create the self/self relation that will more literally embody her own identity crisis - and its resolution.

  23. When Margaret reduces her Empress's male intellectual subjects to the status of creature-men, she implicitly demonstrates the mutuality between body and mind. Their animal forms physically manifest the intellectual characteristics peculiar to each scientific discipline, often sardonically commenting on how devotion to narrowly focused knowledge diminishes the self's scope and shape. [23] Ironically, these same scientists, whose own rhetorics constructed and constricted the normative seventeenth century female physical form, are themselves given limited bodies to suit their limited imaginations. If the mind and body shape each other, the Empress's human form, with its transformative abilities, must, similarly, proceed from the breadth of her knowledges. One could even argue that the shape of the Empress's selfhood reflects her own liberating organic materialist philosophy.

  24. For in the wide-ranging discussions she has with her creature men, the Empress employs speculative philosophy (designed with "rational and sensitive perception" (281) ) to debunk the new experimental science (to which most of the creature men subscribe), [24] and traditional natural philosophy. Lisa T. Sarasohn argues that "for Margaret the exposition of natural philosophy became a conduit for a reappraisal of the position of women, ... because both the substance of her philosophy and its exposition justified a revolution in the interpretation of the traditional female role" (290). [25] However, where Sarasohn focuses on the feminine characteristics Margaret attributes to Nature as a source of female empowerment, I focus on the bodiliness of her imagery which is non-gender-differentiating in its stress on the paradoxical oneness of infinite variety. Sarasohn says that "Margaret fused revolutionary scientific ideas and an underlying feminist ideology in her conception of a living universe, infused with motion, and ordered by a female spirit" (290). While it is true that Margaret's scientific theories support the emergence of a new image of female selfhood, I would argue that they exceed such revaluing of the feminine. Her description of nature as an infinitely divisible oneness has radical implications for a female subjectivity constituted through the body, because it figures the subject as multiple and infinite in its diversity while nevertheless unified in the body. This conception of the female body as the malleable material that shapes subjectivity is generated by her notion of self-movement: one in which agency is not mere willfulness but a condition of existence:

    nature is but one infinite, self-moving body, which by the virtue of its self-motion is divided into infinite parts, which parts, being restless undergo perpetual change and transmutations by their infinite compositions and divisions. (281)

  25. This restless self-motion eventually brings the convocation to an abrupt end by leading the Empress beyond the bounds of what her council (the immaterial spirits), consider to be "natural desire of knowledge," that is, "what your natural reason can comprehend" (304). The Empress repeatedly demonstrates that her notions of nature and the natural are at odds with dominant definitions, but it is her desire "to make a Cabala like that of the Jews" (304) [26] that brings the discussion to its moment of crisis, as the council responds by "immediately disappear[ing] out of her sight" (304). Into this scene of abandonment steps her alter ego, the Duchess, summoned by the worm-men as a scribe more suitable to the Empress's project than any of the ancient or modern "men of wisdom" for whom she asks. For, the worm-men criticize "Aristotle, Pythagorus, Plato, Epicurus and the like" as "so wedded to their own opinions that they would never have the patience to be scribes" (306). They also accuse Galileo, Gassendus, Descartes, Hilmort, Hobbes, Thomas More and others of being "so self-conceited that they would scorn to be scribes to women" (306).

  26. In this way, Margaret both suggests the impossibility of working within male traditions that are gender biased, and flaunts her own creative and philosophical independence. Taking her cue from the text's opening passage, Lilley sees Blazing World as having "embedded within it a mirror-narrative of fortunate female/female abduction, of which the Duchess of Newcastle is the deserving beneficiary" (122). Wittingly or not, her comment casts the relationship between these selves in the very romantic terms and forms of my argument here. Witness how the first meeting of the Duchess and Empress dramatizes this theory of selves-sufficiency [27] which her self/self romance embodies. Margaret says it "did produce such an intimate friendship between them that they became Platonic lovers although they were both females" (308). The insights fostered by this intense self-encounter are what the Empress has sought all along in natural philosophy. For the truth of her own multiple nature coincides with what she has said earlier of nature itself, calling it "but one infinite, self-moving body" (281). Here, in flesh and spirit, is the correlation between her philosophy and the creation of a mutable bodily subjectivity.

  27. Of course, the self-satisfaction associated with this oneness is at least in part erotic, as Margaret admits when she says "husbands have reason to be jealous of Platonic lovers, for they are very dangerous, as being not only very intimate and close, but subtle and insinuating" (306). Yet the homoerotics of this union signifies most prominently as a marker of the self-love central to the emergence of this new selfhood. The notion of self-love, which in our culture often has the negative connotation of narcissism, would have been a radical one for a seventeenth century woman. In her autobiography, A True Relation, Margaret attempts to show herself first as a devoted daughter and wife despite the fact that these images ultimately are subverted by her identity as author. Here, the love these women have for their husbands is always secondary to their Platonic oneness, which is written as a greater intimacy. Again, this is not to underestimate the homoerotics of their affection, which is full of embraces and "spiritual kisses" (307), but to focus on it as essential to the self's integration.

  28. The eventual integration of these originally dichotomous selves is further dramatized by the constant slippage among these simulacra and their author. Despite initial appearances, they are each equally capable of transgression and conformity. For instance, when the Duchess counsels the Empress to "let that work [i.e. the Cabala] alone, for . . . the best way . . . is to believe with the generality the literal sense of the scripture" (307-8), her words sound like the voice of social conformity. But when the Empress suggests authoring other Cabalas (philosophical, moral, or political ones), the Duchess rejects these too, advising her to leave such speculation to " the learned or those that have nothing else to do" (308). This advice signals a sardonic element in her voice that resonates further when she suggests that "If your Majesty were resolved to make a Cabala, I would advise you rather to make a Poetical or Romancical Cabala, wherein you may use metaphors, allegories, similitudes etc. and interpret them as you please" (308). [28]

  29. The Duchess appears, on one level, to be counseling her friend to limit herself to feminine discourse. However, she is also promoting figurative language and the proliferation of multiple, coexisting meanings. I would argue that by insisting on a romancical cabala as the only worthy project for the Empress, the Duchess surreptitiously revalues romance as the most transgressive, empowering discourse a female author can embrace, while seeming to suggest that the Empress should employ it only because romance is a proper feminine form. Similarly, the Empress begins by voicing radical opinions, but by this dicussion's end her opinions seem conservative in comparison with her friend's. Even if the Empress's ambition is to employ masculinist discursive practices to their own subversion, her project is bound by traditions with which the Duchess would freely break. Their cabala discussion, then, has at least two functions: it demonstrates the reciprocity between these seemingly polarized identities, and it implies that Blazing World (itself the brainchild of the Duchess) is precisely this kind of cabalistic piece wherein wisdom is simultaneously concealed and revealed through romancical linguistic and structural elements.

  30. If a deniability of one's beliefs, political and otherwise, is an aim of such a cabala, it is certainly achieved by having the Empress, the Duchess and Margaret (as narrator) voice a range of conflicting opinions; however, it also achieves an erosion of distinctions between these three selves, undermining conservative notions of female selfhood. This undermining of received categories - especially of selfhood - is achieved not only by this slippage and the romancical form it takes, but also in the "romance" between the Empress and Duchess who despite their differences are so similar that even their ambitions intersect. Just as we learn that the Empress's greatest desire is to be an author like the Duchess (i.e., her ambition is to write a Cabala) we are soon after informed that the Duchess is suffering from a melancholy which she confides "proceeds from an extreme ambition . . . [to] be a great princess: "I would fain be as you are, that is, an empress of a world, and I shall never be at quiet until I be one" (309). Such confidence, Margaret reminds us, is an important factor in their intimacy since "between dear friends there's no concealment, they being like several parts of one united body" (308-9). I suggest that by representing these best friends as desiring to be like each other, Margaret is indicating how they are not wholly discrete entities but two of those many "creatures" who mutually constitute Margaret Cavendish, the author.

  31. Indeed, all of the major "adventures" the Empress and Duchess engage in together emphasize their mutuality and further align them with their author. This is particularly evident later in the text when their two souls enter the Duke's body, and when they embark on a military mission inhabiting one body. We also see how these characters resemble each other and their author when they attempt to realize their respective utopian fantasies. In the conversation that follows the Duchess's confession of her princely ambitions, she and the Empress inquire of the (inter-world travelling) spirits whether it would be possible to conquer one of the "infinite number of worlds" in the cosmos, so that the Duchess might fulfill her desire to rule. The spirits frown upon this ambition as less satisfying than the Duchess imagines: "conquerors seldom enjoy their conquest, for they being more feared than loved, most commonly come to an untimely end" (310), they remark. Instead of conquering a "terrestrial world" they suggest the Duchess should create (and be Empress of) a "celestial world." According to them:

    Every human creature can create an immaterial world fully inhabited by immaterial creatures and populous of immaterial subjects, such as we are, and all this within the compass of the head or skull; nay, not only so, but he may create a world of what fashion and government he will and give the creatures thereof such motions, figures, forms, colours, perceptions etc. as he pleases, and make whirlpools, lights, pressures and reactions etc. as he thinks best. (311)

  32. Their reasons for suggesting authorship rather than conquest resemble Margaret's at the end of her preface, "To The Reader," where she asserts that

    Although I have neither power, time nor occasion to conquer the world as Alexander and Caesar did, yet rather than not to be mistress of one, since fortune and the fates would give me none, I have made a world of my own, for which nobody, I hope, will blame me, since it is in everyone's power to do the like. (253)

    Whereas the Duchess sees conquest not only as a means to power but also as a way to achieve heroic status, the spirits and Margaret see artistic creation (with its emphasis on the imaginative) as a more empowering and heroical action: one that aligns authors with gods, since both have the power and vision to create worlds. In response to the Duchess's conventionally romantic remark that "I had rather die in the adventure of noble achievements than live in obscure and sluggish security, since by the one I may live in a glorious fame and by the other I am buried in oblivion" (310), the spirits assure her that authorship allows for infinite authorial presence and control, and therefore affords delights otherwise unknowable: [29]

    Why should you desire to be Empress of a material world and be troubled with the cares that attend government, whenas by creating a world within yourself you may enjoy all, both in whole and in parts, without control or opposition, and may make what world you please and alter it when you please and enjoy as much pleasure and delight as a world can afford you. (311)

  33. This counsel does not valorize the textual over the material; rather, it collapses the two by suggesting that mental and physical realities are both material and textual. Beyond the corporeal mutability implied here, this scene also promotes a complex notion of relative autonomy wherein the friends help each other author their own worlds. Persuaded by the spirits, the Duchess vows to "reject and despise all the worlds without me, and create a world of my own" (312). The Empress, who rules a material world (although, of course, she and it are the "immaterial" creations of their author), also decides to fashion an immaterial one, so that she might be "mistress of two worlds, one within and the other without me" (312). They each attempt to imagine their own worlds, but the Empress is "so ravished with the perception [of the Duchess's world] that her soul desire[s] to live in [it]" - until the Duchess persuades her to create her own equally ravishing world.

  34. This playing with the boundaries that constitute "within" and 'without" not only dissolves the line between reality and fantasy, but also between self and other. Although the Empress is encouraged to create a world of her own, her authoring emerges within a structure of prior, related authorial acts. For both the world within and the world without the Empress are already encompassed in the mind of Margaret, who is herself a visitor in the Empress's world. Thus, each already exists in the other's mind and text. In her earlier, aforementioned, "Motions of the Mind," Margaret gives poetic voice to this idea that structures Blazing World:

    Just like unto a Nest of Boxes round
    Degrees of sizes within each Boxe are found.
    So in this World, may many Worlds more be,
    Thinner, and lesse, and lesse still by degree;
    Although they are not subject to our Sense,
    A World may be no bigger then [sic] two-pence.
    Nature is curious, and such worke may make,
    That our dull Sence can never finde, but scape. (P/F p.44)

    This potential for infinite regression via worlds within worlds within worlds has its fullest expression here, where the several coexisting realms and mutually constitutive selves symbolize not only the structure of textuality, but also the structure of subjectivity. [30]

  35. Although my reading of Margaret's authorship and the formation of a radical female subjectivity owes much to such contemporary feminist theorists as Diane Elam, Judith Butler and Elizabeth Grosz, I do not presume with them that subjectivity is constituted on belief in such illusions as the coincidence of image and materiality and/or the coherence of body and mind. My own focus on Early Modern women suggests that these theories, in seeking to liberate women from selfhood as a bourgeois capitalist strategy of interpellation, neglect much evidence of Early Modern women manipulating this illusion to their advantage. Margaret is not labouring under delusions of self-coherence nor is she troubled by the idea of self-difference ad infinitum. For her, that space between object and image is the space of self-creation, authorship and theatricality; it is not accessed through utopian paradigms. Romance alone creates that space for an understanding of subjectivity without limits or closure.

  36. Consequently, the Empress and Duchess must turn away from their utopian projects to romance in order to create their worlds within worlds, because they find that utopia does not lend itself to discursivity. The Duchess must ultimately acknowledge the impossibility of sharing the perfections of her imagined world because they "cannot possibly be expressed by words, nor the delight and pleasure [she] took in making this world-of-her-own" (313). [31] This is as much as admitting a fundamental incompatibility between utopian projects and authorial heroism. Kate Lilley too recognizes that "the Duchess's world is finally figured as irreducibly speculative and secret, while the text focuses on the pleasure of its construction" (123); however, she neglects to question the value of a world that resists discourse. I suggest that utopia, as Margaret attempts to inscribe it in Blazing World, repeatedly signals the silencing of female subjectivity, and the end of authorship. Because Margaret cannot imagine alternatives to those (failed) utopian discourses that construct well-ordered but repressive societies, which would exclude both the author and her personas, utopia is perpetually deferred by the next romantic quest. This incompatibility between utopia and the expression of female subjectivity is most directly addressed in the author/narrator's description of the Empress's feelings after having conjured - solely in her own mind - her perfect world:

    [when] she had quite finished and framed all kinds of creations proper and useful for it, strengthened it with good laws and beautified it with arts and sciences having nothing else to do unless she did dissolve her imaginary world or make some alterations in the Blazing World she lived in, which yet she could hardly do, by reason it was so well ordered that it could not be mended . . . . She was desirous to see the world the Duchess came from and observe therein several sovereign governments, laws and customs of several nations. The Duchess used all the means she could to divert her from the journey, telling her that the world she came from was very much disturbed with factions, diversions and wars, but the Empress would not be dissuaded from her design. . . . (314)

  37. This is the very predicament Margaret finds herself in as author as well. She has to come to terms with the fact that utopia contains no space for romantic, heroical action of the sort that she and her personae within the text require for self-fulfillment. This unwillingness to remain in the stasis that perfection requires suggests the Empress's (and her author's) growing awareness that she must turn away from a utopian project as a means to achieving her selves-integration and look instead to romance - not only in its conventional heroic forms, but as a way of defining her authorial practice. For the regressive space that structures female subjectivity in Blazing World is ultimately accessed through this genre. Notice, for instance, that when the Empress is not instigating such debates and alterations as jeopardize the Blazing World's repressive law and order, she is anxious to flee this "paradise" of stability and over-abundance for the dramatic adventures afforded by the religious and political turmoils abounding in the Duchess's world. If Blazing World (itself an attempted utopia) continually becomes "infected" with all those problems, disputes, and imperfections to which utopias are supposed to be immune, it is because Margaret's fantasy of female empowerment and the creation of a subject that is at least double requires a world that is out of control: one where she can display and enjoy her military expertise, political ambitions and philosophical opinions - and have a romance with herself.

  38. With the Empress's decision to journey to seventeenth-century England, an important narrative shift occurs: Blazing World becomes romancical not only in a cabalistic sense, but also in the much more traditional sense of a narrative series of quest-like adventures of virtue at war with vice, and of the search for one's identity. For in wishing to know the Duchess better (through knowledge of her world) the Empress continually discovers more about herself. She leaves her body behind, inhabited by "an honest and ingenious [substitute] spirit" which so resembles her own, "that neither the Emperor nor any of his subjects" (316) knows the difference - which suggests that the Empress is hardly as committed to either her husband or her people as she is to self-knowledge.

  39. The self-knowledge she gains on this visit is an understanding of the Duke's importance to the Duchess's self-image and self-worth. Although the Empress arrives on earth eager to acquaint herself with all of its problems of State, religion and law, these get very little attention. The visit's anticipated worldly adventures are preempted by an allegorical trial where Truth sits in judgment of Fortune's actions toward the Duke (to which he sends his friends "Honesty and Prudence to plead [his] cause") (321). The centrality of the Duke's financial problems to this voyage of self-discovery indicates Margaret's struggle for autonomy and subjectivity within the compelling unity of her marriage. This internal conflict is further illuminated by the fantastic scene of triangular union between the Duke, Duchess and Empress which (not surprisingly) follows the allegorical trial.

  40. When the Empress and Duchess visit Welbeck and encounter the Duke, a ménage à trois of souls ensues: this union defies dominant notions of psychic and physical boundaries, demonstrates the Duke's attraction to Margaret's multiplicity, and signals the negotiations between her selves and Others necessary to her individuality. Although the author is careful to establish a strong intimacy between her selves before exposing them to the Duke's magnetism, his presence nevertheless momentarily threatens to draw each away from her other self. Not only does the Duchess "without any consideration of the Empress [leave] her [own] aerial vehicle and enter into her Lord" (321), but the Empress too loses her self control and readily enters the Duke's body. Margaret comments that "The Duke had three souls in [his] one body, and had there been but some such souls more . . . would have been like the Grand Seigneiur in his seraglio, only it would have been a platonic seraglio" (319). The platonic character of this seraglio is suspect, given the sexual suggestiveness of the following passage which stresses the fact that, to the Duchess's chagrin, the Empress and Duke are smitten with each other:

    the Duke's soul being wise, honest, witty, complaisant and noble, afforded such delight and pleasure to the Empress's soul by his conversation that these two souls became enamoured of each other, which the Duchess's soul perceiving, grew jealous at first. (319)

    I read the Duchess's jealousy as further evidence that the strong homoerotic bond between these women is an essential component in the self's integration. The triangular form of these love relations recalls Eve Sedgwick's study of homoeroticism in Between Men, [32] where the male rivalry is often a more intense passion than either man feels for the female "object" of his desires. Here, where the Duke is the object of mild but noted rivalry, the dynamics are similar, though they signify differently given the gender of the rivals and their unique, symbiotic, self/self relationship. As regards female homosocial desire, Sedgwick says little more than that she sees a continuum between it and female homosexual desire (2) which extends "over the erotic, social, familial, economic, and political realms" (3). I would suggest that such a continuum is apparent in this triangular figuration, which demonstrates how the Duchess's primary relation is always with herself--even when her attentions are on her husband.

  41. Notice how the narrator recounts not the expected, loving reunion of the Duchess and Duke, but an anxiety-provoking attraction between him and the Empress. Despite Margaret's insistence that the "conversation of these three souls . . . [is] so pleasant that it cannot be expressed" (319), it is only the triangular affections/rivalries to which this union gives rise that she recounts. Ultimately, this scene registers how the successful coalescence of Margaret's social and imaginative selves requires controlling the dynamics of her marriage. This portrayal of her partnership with the Duke reveals its complexity and her need to keep it balanced to her advantage, since this relationship is necessary to - even while potentially destructive of - her individuation and selves-integration.

  42. This romantic trope of triangular affections and rivalries so integral to the constitution of an integrated self takes on another, more radical shape soon after, in Part Two; here, the union between the Empress and Duchess engenders a further identity - that of a "goddess" who, for better and worse, fulfills the potential of this radically conceptualized female subjectivity. But first the Empress returns to the Blazing World, where her travel to earth seems to influence her to reinstate the laws of Blazing World as they existed before her rule. Thus Part I ends with the reestablishment of an absolutism that will again make it impossible for her to remain in this world. Consequently, when Part Two commences, the Empress again craves heroic action. She conveniently receives intelligence from the spirits that "that part of the world she came from, which was her native country, was like to be destroyed by numerous enemies that made war against it" (328) unless she can rescue it with those military advantages only available in the Blazing World. With the assistance of the Duchess, the Empress discovers a means of returning to her own (unnamed) world. Although the Duchess remarks on the necessity of "her Majesty," (the Empress) going "in body as well as soul" on this military expedition, while she herself can participate only in spirit, the Empress remedies this disparity by insisting that they share one body: "your soul shall live with my soul in my body, for I shall only desire your counsel" (330).

  43. Margaret's organic materialist description of nature as "one infinite, self-moving body" has its most concretized expression here, where the potential of such oneness is realized when their union gives birth to yet another self: an enigmatic military strategist who presents herself as a goddess through such illusions as walking on water and ascending to the heavens. Part Two examines the power that obtains from knowing that one's body is not given matter, but malleable material that can be transformed by spectacle and rhetoric into variously signifying shapes. Thus it provides a culmination to the relationship between self and other self as embodied in the figure of this "goddess."

  44. Margaret's desire to have the whole world capitulate to her power seems a fantasy born of, and proportionate to, an extreme sense of powerlessness. As a female she was excluded from political citizenship on the basis of gender, and as an exile who survived the civil war she could do nothing to combat the violence and devastation that took its toll on the lives and fortunes of her and her husband's families. Although Margaret could not hinder the disastrous consequences of a tumultuous political crisis, she shows us in Blazing World that it was not for lack of being able to imagine extraordinarily effective means of bringing her King's enemies to submission. Khanna, in particular, also stresses Margaret's "double marginalization, as exile during the Civil War and [as] an ambitious woman in a world of male power," though she contends that this became an epistemic advantage in constructing a utopian [rather than romancical] world" (16).

  45. Part Two is a tour de force because it shows how this emergent female subjectivity is necessarily as terrifying as it is brilliant, emerging as it must from a scene of military prowess that figures the extremes to which one can be led by frustrated ambition and a will to power. [33] The merging of Margaret's dual identities precisely at that moment when the text most forcefully demonstrates the naked will to power and those strategies that effectively gain and maintain it makes some critics uncomfortable. [34] These critics seek to dissociate Margaret from the Empress who evinces an unquenchable desire for conquest, subjection, and servile adoration. However, Margaret explicitly makes such dissociation impossible when she has the Duchess mastermind the expedition, express her ambitions for the Empress, and (for those who require a literal enactment) live inside the very body of the Empress as the counsel of her own bosom.

  46. Indeed, the growing similarities between these two - despite their apparent differences - are repeatedly stressed in Part Two. Just as both the Empress and Duchess were interested in ruling and authorship in Part One, in Part Two both are shown to be capable of military conquest and political rule. The Duchess, an aristocratic lady noted for her literary and intellectual productions, is inscribed here as the power hungry, brilliant military brains behind the Empress's brawn. For instance, it is to satisfy her own ambitions that she encourages the Empress to "have a little patience and rely on my advice, and you shall not fail to save your own native country and in a manner become mistress of all that world you come from" (330). Not only does the Duchess suggest re-entry into the Empress's world via submarine, but she makes possible the destruction of foreign navies through use of a firestone which burns when wet. By giving the Duchess superior strategic powers Margaret demonstrates how neither self is more foundational than the other - thus severely challenging the very notion of a foundational identity. Instead, by merging their strengths and forging a combined new identity the Empress and Duchess (appearing as the goddess) successfully counter military forces that out-number theirs many times over.

  47. Their strategy is to invest their "goddess" persona with power through the manipulation of religious ideology, by putting her at the centre of an illusion of Armageddon. Their goal is to have this religious spectacle subdue their opponents without force (though they are perfectly willing to destroy any and all unsubmissive States within their power if need be): [35]

    she gave order that when it was night, her bird-men should carry in their beaks some of the mentioned firestones with the tops thereof wetted, and the fish-men should carry them likewise and hold them out of the water, for they were cut in the form of torches or candles, and being many thousands, made a terrible show, for it appeared as if all the air and sea had been of a flaming fire, and all that were upon the sea or near it did verily believe the time of judgment or the last day was come, which made them all fall down and pray. (332)

    With this spectacle in place the goddess makes her first entrance:

    The Empress appeared with garments made of the star stone [a magical stone that emits radiant light], and was bourne or supported above the water upon the fish-men's heads and backs, so that she seemed to walk upon the face of the water, and the bird and fish men carried the firestone, lighted both in the air and above the waters. Then leaving behind her torches she appeared only in her garments of light like an angel or some deity. (334)

  48. Although the goddess successfully mystifies her enemies, her function is to expose repeatedly for the reader the workings of mystification. She shows us miracles as illusions with natural explanations, and faith as a convincing fiction. In this way, Margaret creates a text that is as highly heretical for its exposure of power as Machiavelli's Prince. However, its heresy further extends to the author's representation of the female body as capable of manifesting itself in Christ-like form. Witness those scenes where, with the help of her fish and bird men, the "goddess" appears first to walk on water (above) and later to ascend to the heavens:

    The Empress expressed to her own countrymen, . . . that she would give them an entertainment at the darkest time of night. [When the time came she] showed herself in her garments of light. [Then] the bird-men carried her upon their backs into the air, and there she appeared as glorious as the sun. (339)

    By performing actions that rival those of Jesus, the goddess not only upsets Christian gender hierarchies, but also suggests that miracles are religious slight of hand as masterable by a woman as by a man.

  49. By allowing us to peek behind the curtain of the goddess's performance, Margaret is depicting identity as agentic, externally generated and theatrically produced. Here role-playing is not a matter of feigning but of manifesting one's multiplicity. The "goddess" is proof that uniting the Empress and Duchess enabled Margaret to envision subjectivity as proceeding from a corporeal mutability that destabilizes distinctions between self and other. Not only is she irreducible to singleness, but also her identity extends relationally beyond her own body, which at times merges with those of her fish and birdmen. This merging of previously separate bodies - and species - figures Margaret's understanding of the body as an organism whose instability is a positive element of its nature.

  50. The goddess's magnificence also emblematically represents those psychic, sexual and even physical realities that must be acknowledged and explored if Margaret's selves are to be reconciled. Although illumination of the air and waters with stones that burn when wet is perceived by her enemies as an omen of Armageddon, it also suggests her own brilliant intellect which shines a revelatory light in a "sea of darkness." Moreover, this unquenchable, non-self-consuming stone, whose fires are associated with fluids, insinuates a specifically female sexuality. By presenting this sexuality/intellect as a burning illumination with both destructive potential and the capacity to enrapture and inspire, she revalues masculinist views of women's powers and passions. Her self-empowerment is necessarily disturbing, since it can only be achieved through defiance of dominant notions of female inferiority. [37]

  51. That this new female figure emerges in Part Two, which is a journey out of utopia, reveals how the forms and structures of romantic fantasy accommodate a selfhood that can only be constituted through such transgression as is impossible in utopia. Undeniably, the solutions to corporeal limitations that Blazing World offers are of a fantastic nature, but it is this ability to imagine radical refigurings and transgressions of the body that allows Margaret insight into the textuality of bodies per se. The fantastic forms that her romantic understanding of selfhood takes indicate that the self's inscription requires a discourse capable of transgressing the uniform shape to which female bodies were being confined by masculinist rhetorics that essentialized gender. Margaret's enlarged understanding of self, from which the goddess is born, can only be attained through the romance of a split-self encounter (with its emphasis on fantasy and adventure, and its deep psychological resonances) wherein recognition of self-difference is the means to an integration of previously opposed and exclusive identities.

  52. With the goddess's victory over her King's rivals, the Empress and Duchess part company, returning to their respective, no longer very separate worlds, so transformed as to suggest they now permanently contain each other. That the Empress in parting from her alter ego should desire to shower her with riches, while the Duchess should desire the elixir of long life, demonstrates again how much these identities have converged by confronting each other. The Duchess confesses to wanting the kind of immortality that obtains from self reinvention (which is what the elixir signifies); whereas the Empress is now sensitive to the economics of material identity.

  53. Unfortunately for the Duchess, neither the elixir nor any riches can be transported from the Blazing World to hers:

    without a [material] passage it is impossible to carry away any of it for whatsoever is material cannot travel like immaterial beings, such as souls and spirits are . . . ." otherwise the Empress would see to it that the Duchess and her husband "should neither want wealth nor long life. (341)

    But if the Duchess is denied her desires, Margaret, the author, is not. Autography itself does the same work of self-reconceiving and engendering as the elixir signifies, and Blazing World, as a romantic Cabala whose mystery is identity, is certainly also an autography. Ultimately, romantic fiction enables self-reincarnation by allowing Margaret's multiplicity to be represented through communication between, and integration of, her various selves. Moreover, in Blazing World she creates a never-ending story, whose possibilities for infinite regression also imply infinite self-perpetuation.

  54. From our historical perspective, informed by contemporary theories of culture, literature, and subjectivity, it is easy to be critical of Margaret's presumptions regarding authorship and transcendence. After all, the two are continually in conflict in Blazing World. Margaret would author an immortal textual self by transforming corporeal materiality into linguistic material. At the same time, she would inscribe a self that is so multiple and mutable as to subvert, by its very nature, any pretence to stability - much less the transcendence of a single identity. The fact is Margaret never pretends to coherence despite her desire for posthumous fame. And although she does bring together her diverse selves into an integrated whole, such merging is always subject to further transmutations.

  55. The reinvention and textualization of Margaret Cavendish as an Empress, a Duchess, and finally a Goddess, obviously does not change the course of English history so that (for instance) either Charles I or Margaret's family survive the Civil War, nor does it add to her husband's wealth or prosperity, nor even guarantee Margaret any of the Fame she so diligently sought (and is only recently receiving.) It does, however, give expression, and thus renewed life, to a conception of the female subject as able to repeatedly shed her own skins and effect her own reincarnations. In keeping with this promise of endless regeneration the text itself is revealed as having a circular structure whose end takes the reader back to its inception in a loop that is infinite.

  56. When the Duchess returns to her own world, her own body, and the Duke, she takes every opportunity to tell her fascinated friends the tale of her adventures with the Empress, which tale constitutes the narrative of Blazing World. By telling the tale of this world from within her telling the tale of this world, Margaret emphasizes not just the circularity and regressive infinity of this text, but also of the self-generating female subject. Thus, at the close, the distinctions between these worlds, which were weak and permeable to begin with, have been all but erased - with a few important exceptions. Most significant among these is that the difference between music as we know it and that of the Blazing World (which is said to be "so far beyond" the beauty of our instruments) is so great that it "cannot well be expressed" (347). To end by repeating the contention that utopia can only signify as inexpressible difference is once more to mark it as that which must always be deferred, leaving a gap that romance readily fills with uncontainable women.

  57. As a further move toward circularity, Margaret provides an epilogue in which she openly declares what she should have stated in a prologue: she steps forth in her own voice to say that she is figured in both the Empress and Duchess.

    By this poetical description you may perceive that my ambition is not only to be Empress, but authoress of a whole world, and that the worlds I have made, . . .[are] framed and composed of the most pure . . . rational-parts of matter, which are the parts of my mind. (347)

    This prologue masquerading as an epilogue does not provide the expected closure, but instead another opening into the text. Having made this bold declaration, she retreats from its radical implications by claiming that she has "made [her] Blazing World a peaceable world," although she could "make another world as full of factions, diversions and wars as this is of peace and tranquillity" (347). Rather than admit that this other world is not only contained in her text but comes to dominate it, she pretends to authorial ignorance and slyly misreads her own text. This provokes our return to the text "armed" with critical swords that inevitably fail to cut through these playful deceptions. By disavowing the failure of utopia to meet the needs of the female self she instantiates, Margaret hints that the romantic fiction she has actually written is too radical to acknowledge openly. Although there is an element of the ridiculous (of which I suspect Margaret is aware) in disavowing the other worlds of "factions, diversions and wars" which are so obviously inscribed here, to do so constitutes an authorial defence against criticism and censure which works by introducing contradiction into any possible reading.

  58. Margaret herself says in her final paragraph that if her readers "cannot endure to be subjects" of her world they should create their own rather than seek to be "unjust usurpers and to rob me of mine" (348). Just as she would not depose "her friend" the Empress "for the sake of any other," so we are counselled not to oppose her sovereignty. To end with this counsel is to open the text to what has been one of the most persistent and controversial literary debates of the last century: whether the reader/critic must be either subject to, or usurper of the text - or whether it is possible to take up some other, non-subjected, non-conquering position in relation to textuality.

  59. Although Margaret and her characters have trouble escaping this oppressive dialectic of domination and submission (they repeatedly assume the roles of conquerors and rulers), the text shows a way out by constructing the self as multiple. The reader sees repeatedly how the monarch and subject, like the Empress and Duchess, contain each other as well as the possibility - through an understanding of this reciprocity - of some Other that is both, and yet neither, of these in her "selves-sufficiency." By making an understanding of this reciprocity available to her readers, she creates in them the possibility for a non-subjected, non-dominating female selves-hood constituted through resistance and transgression. It is this position I have been attempting to take in reading Blazing World as an infinite negotiation of selfhood.


1. Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters (London, 1664); my references are to the latest edition, edited with an introduction by James Fitzmaurice (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997).

2. In the preface to Blazing World Margaret says that although she cannot be "Henry the Fifth or Charles the Second, yet I endeavor to be Margaret the First," her sovereignty being gained through creation rather than conquest of worlds (252). I have chosen to refer to her as Margaret, because the idea of self-creation through authorship is signified by this renaming in which her surnames are dropped and she is known, like Elizabeth I, simply by her first name.

3. This autobiographical text concludes Nature's Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pen to the Life (London, 1656), a collection of early writings otherwise dominated by romantic tales. A True Relation was also published in 1886 (London), in an edition by C. H. Firth, where it follows her famed biography of her husband: The Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. My references are to the latter edition.

4. Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World, in An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Fiction, ed. Paul Salzman, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991).

5. See Gallagher and Sherman below. See also Rachel Trubowitz, "The Reenchantment of Utopia and the Female Monarchical Self: Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 11:2 (Fall, 1992), 229-46. This essay within Gallagher's imperial paradigm of subjectivity, but argues a positive feminist interpretation of this construction, emphasizing not infinite self-regression, but the autonomous individual, female friendship and connectedness/sharing of power. Although she sees this feminine power as compromised by its subscription to an absolutist ideology, Trubowitz recognizes that this subscription allows Cavendish to imagine an empowered self. Lee Cullen Khanna's essay "The Subject of Utopia: Margaret Cavendish and her Blazing-World," in Utopian Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, eds. Jane Donawerth, Carol Kolmerten and Susan Gubar (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1994), focuses on what she views as Cavendish's appropriation and transformation of utopia into a genre that enables a relational subjectivity: one with various subject positions. She is not interested in finding another paradigm for subjectivity. Instead, she views Cavendish as initiating a discourse of difference into the utopian scheme. Neither of these, however, discusses the body, and where they do allude to romance, they view it as serving utopian purposes.

6. Catherine Gallagher, "Embracing the Absolute: Margaret Cavendish and the Politics of the Female Sibject in 17th Century England," Genders 1 (Spring 1988): 24-39.

7. Sandra Sherman, "Trembling Texts: Margaret Cavendish and the Dialectic of Authorship," English Literary Renaissance 7 (Winter 1994): 184-210.

8. My understanding of these theories and their role in Renaissance / Early Modern culture is indebted most conspicuously to the following: Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York and London: Routledge, 1993); Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers, eds, Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Constance Jordan, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1990), especially her chapters on "The Terms of the Debate," and "Sex and Gender"; Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993), especially the chapter "Leaky Vessels"; Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1990); Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1995); and Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984).

9. Scriptural justification for woman's inferiority as a function of her corporeality originates in Genesis, where Eve is born of Adam's rib, in his image, whereas he is a reflection of God's image. Her disobedience is linked to her betraying tongue and associated with female sexuality, since eating the apple brings consciousness of their nakedness and is punished (in woman's case) by pain in childbirth. As Constance Jordan remarks, "The manner of her creation revealed her ontological inferiority, her punishment after the loss of paradise her political subordination in historical time" (Jordan 22). The stringent Pauline epistles elevate celibacy to a moral zenith and inscribe woman as an unfortunate, but sometimes-necessary, distraction from meditation on God. In these Epistles woman's subordination in marriage and society is first set out in Christian Doctrine, as Paul emphasizes an uncompromising opposition between flesh and spirit in which "woman, who instances man's fleshliness, is ordered to remain in subjection" (Jordan 28). According to him, "God's image is seen less clearly in women, making her spiritual persona "inherently defective" (Jordan 25). Both Augustinian and Aquinas will give further attention to this idea of woman as spiritually defective. But it is Jerome who is most notorious among early church fathers for his misogyny. He goes so far as to claim "In all the bombast of tragedy and the overthrow of houses, cities and kingdoms, it is the wives and concubines who stir up strife" (St Jerome, Letter 123, in Letters and Select Works, vol. 6 of Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christine Church, ed. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff, 2d ser. (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1893), 234. Thus, Woman's desirability is the root of all evil, because the path of moral rectitude leads to the celibate rejection of bodily desire: a rejection of woman, who is associated with flesh at great expense to her spirit.

10. In ancient philosophy, it is Aristotle who classes women as biologically and, thus, fundamentally inferior to men. Rejecting the more favourable and equitable treatment that woman receives in the writings of Plato and Socrates, Aristotle claims that woman is a "mutilated man" since she is created when "the first principle [of soul] does not bear sway and cannot concoct the nourishment through lack of heat nor bring it to its proper form, but is defeated in respect" (Generation of Animals 4.I; 766aI, 1185, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, Bollingen Series LXXI [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984]). When form fails to assert itself over matter woman is born. Not only is she genetically inferior, her role in the reproductive process is a passive one: the male is "the first efficient or moving cause to which belong the definition and the form" of the embryo, while the female contributes only matter (the menses), which does not contain "the principle of soul" (GA. 4.I: 765bI, 1184). In the womb, matter is worked on by form; it has no active role itself in generation. Moreover, woman's sexual difference signifies as weakness, both in terms of physical strength and sexual vulnerability. According to Aristotle, woman's sexual activity always risks through pregnancy) disgrace of self and family. As Jordon notes, "these biological facts underlie arguments for restricting all woman's activities, particularly those that take her into the public arena" (29).

11. Similarly, in "Patriarchal Territories," Peter Stallybrass examines female corporeal openness as a political threat that is contained by the Queen Elizabeth's virgin body iconographically figured as a closed garden ("Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers [Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986], 123-42.) Jonathan Sawday, in The Body Emblazoned (which reads both visual and literary representations of the dissected female body), argues that one of the aims of anatomy was to alleviate male fears of woman's Otherness - especially her sexed difference - by exposing the female corpus to the reductive mastery of the male specular gaze. As such, artistic renderings of the dissected female form often show women posed as live, alluring nudes, unaware that their reproductive organs and genitalia have been opened to view - poses that reveal the erotic component of anatomic knowledge. Sawday's discussion of Estienne's De Dissectione emphasizes the eroticism of this practice, while his analysis of Vesalius's profound impact on this science demonstrates how that erotic impulse is bound up with a desire to dominate and control.

12. Whereas Observations attempts to draw distinctions between fancy and philosophy, valuing reason above imagination, Blazing World deconstructs these terms and their meanings for a female subject.

13. Charles II did not reward Cavendish with "the position of master of the horse, on which he had set his heart" (Jones 134). Instead the post went to General Monck (a former enemy of the King.) William did receive the honorary title of Knight of the Garter in 1661 and (three years later) the Dukedom promised him, but the Cavendishes were by no means fully compensated for their great expenditures and undying loyalties.

14. I use 'autography' to designate an account that represents, and sometimes even constitutes, a self without necessarily detailing or even referring to the extra-textual facts of one's life. In other words, a fictionalized account of the self presented as truth.

15. Historically, Blazing World's reception by critics has been negative. It has unduly been considered incoherent, self indulgent and even indicative of a neurosis. Witness, for instance, Blazing World's reception by critics even as late as 1979: Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought n the Western World (Oxford, Blackwell, 1979) say that it is "so private" as to "border on schizophrenia"[: Blazing World] has much in common with the delusions of Dr. Shreber analyzed by Sigmund Freud ... . Uncounted utopian worlds of this stripe . . . are being conjured up every day, in and out of hospitals, though few of them are ever set in print" (7); a somewhat less scathing, but still condescending, reaction is voiced in an early critique by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Voyages to the Moon (New York: Macmillan, 1948), who cautions the reader that "if you wish to journey to the celestial worlds of Margaret of Newcastle, you must go alone with her in the pages of her ponderous tome. I have made these journeys once, and my head - not too good for heights, in spite of my long training - still spins" (224).

16. In Blazing World Margaret Cavendish explores her own multiplicity by splitting herself between the narrator and three characters. As such, she has four voices. I refer to her authorial, narrator's persona as Margaret; her historical simulacrum within the text is always called the Duchess; her fantasy self is known as the Lady/Empress; and the theatrical self to which the union of Duchess and Empress gives birth is referred to as the Goddess. Although the Duchess is said to have authored the text we are reading, I am keeping her narrator's voice distinct from her character's voice, both for the purposes of clarity and because the narrator sometimes knows more than the Duchess does.

17. She contends that utopian ideals are elastic because "the point at which genre and gender intersect in the representation of utopian desire is in the locus of discursive authority" (15). I would agree that utopia could encompass many, varied, even antithetical visions of "the good life," depending on the subject positions from which it originates. However, in Blazing World Margaret's utopian model is one of civic order, and her many desires that conflict with this model are given voice through romantic discourse - not an alternative utopian vision. Khanna claims that Margaret's "work may be said to initiate an alternative utopian tradition in English": one that differs from traditional utopia in at least six significant ways, including the depiction of utopian desire "as dynamic process as much as an achieved state" (16). But if this new utopian vision is "to be found in new sites" characterized by "plenitude, multiplicity and diversity" (16), how do those sites differ from romance? Where she sees process, I see deferral. Where she sees an alternative vision, I see recourse to romance.

18. Despite the Empress's much-championed establishment of a church for women - of which she is the head - religion in Blazing World is always shown as a means to peaceful coercion and subjection.

19. That she readily learns, even masters, the language, laws and philosophies of this new Blazing World into which she sojourns, is certainly a personal achievement for the Empress, since both in seventeenth century English society and that of the Blazing World women are excluded from public action and considered generally incapable of vigorous intellectual activity. At the same time, her typically colonial, European attitude and behaviour toward the natives repeatedly undermines the illusion (which both Margaret and William Cavendish attempt to promote in their prefatories) that Blazing World is somehow anterior to, and exclusive of, extra-textual influence and experience, constituting a singular discourse unique to the creating fancy of Margaret Cavendish.

20. As noted earlier, she refers in Sociable Letters to her own being as comprising a multitude of Commonwealths: "For in her self so many Creatures be/ Like many Commonwealths yet all Agree." By her own account, her own body defies the logic of that which rules the imaginary Blazing World. Immediately we see that Margaret's natural and political philosophies are at odds (since her natural philosophy supports her Commonwealth claim); this friction is also expressed through the on-going tension between utopia and romance as sites for the inscription of a female subjectivity.

21. Interestingly, Margaret's desire to create a world that could never be plagued by civil wars similar to that which devastated mid-seventeenth century England leads her at first to fashion one in which there would be no room for the existence of Margaret Cavendish, the author of subversive texts that challenged the status quo on many counts. To remedy this she must first create an Empress whose non-subjected position gives her the power to permit (and even promote) such thinking as would eventually subvert the very system through which she attained leadership.

22. See, for instance, Act I, Scene ii; Act V, Scene I.

23. For instance, her experimental philosophers, who are presented as bear-men, "take more delight in artificial truths [viewed through both telescope and microscope] than in natural truths" (269). In seventeenth century England, where bear baiting was a popular spectator sport, bears were considered among the most ferocious but least intelligent of animals. Their presumed pugnaciousness is figured in Blazing World by their intellectually quarrelsome manner.

24. Such an opposition to the new science could be considered reactionary, but if we consider Margaret's position as a woman barred from full engagement with scientific study and debate, her defence of speculative methods looks like an ingenious strategic move on the part of one disenfranchised. Although she is defending the "wisdom" of the Ancients by aligning herself with speculative philosophy, it is fundamentally its reliance on sense and reason (rather than received opinions) that she most applauds. By putting her faith in human capacities rather than technical instrumentation she is attempting to value those resources to which she has access over those from which she is excluded. This organic materialism, which Margaret proposes, makes a mockery of the beginnings of modern science on the basis that knowing the particulars of any one living organism is useless knowledge compared with an holistic comprehension of its function and meaning. For an introduction to the various competing philosophical discourses in seventeenth century Europe see the following, some of which are dated, but still provided good overviews: Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England (New Haven: Yale UP, 1958); Sherry B. Ortner, "Is Female to Male as Nativity is to Culture?" in Women, Culture and Society, eds Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974); E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (New York: Doubleday, 1954); Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature (San Francisco: Harper, 1980), esp. 1-41, 192-3.

25. Lisa T. Sarasohn, "A Science Turned Upside Down, Feminism and the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish," Huntington Library Quarterly 4 (Autumn, 1994): 289-307. This essay situates Margaret's thought within the context of seventeenth century science, and details the personal and political agendas that (intentionally or otherwise) are implied by her views.

26. The Empress's desire to author a text that explains the mysteries of God through a mysticism that itself requires decoding is a serious infringement on male-guarded knowledges and discourses. Not only is she proposing theosophical study, but also the prospect of engaging with it as a scholar and teacher.

27. I am employing the term "selves-sufficiency" in order to convey the sense of an autonomous, but not single, identity.

28. Cavendish herself coins the term "romancical cabala" in Blazing World. She uses the word "romancical" loosely to refer to imaginative, other worldly adventures described through figurative, analogy-laden, literary discourse having multiple layers of meaning, which require deciphering. It also connotes the traditional quest for love and heroic action, although in Blazing World, (itself a "romancical cabala"), that quest is altered to focus almost solely on the self in relation to its other selves. "Cabala," which means "tradition," is the term used to refer to Jewish mysticism. According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy "Cabala is a type of occult theosophical formulation of the doctrines of the Jewish religion particularly those concerned with creation, revelation and redemption"(see p. 1, under "C"). It is said to structure "individual intuitions of divine reality" for the purpose of "supply[ing] a focus in contemplation by which the Cabalist can recover the untarnished brightness of direct mystical awareness" (1). The primary feature of Cabalist tradition with which Cavendish is concerned is its emphasis on symbolic interpretation of scripture, and its encoded system of signification. It is this esoteric aspect of Cabalistic writing to which Cavendish refers when she appropriates the term for other than religious purposes. As I read it, a romancical cabala is one that uses symbolic discourse to arrive at the truths of romance - which are almost always associated with the hero/heroine's identity and destiny.

29. Of course, from a post-modern perspective authorship is no such romantic heroical action as Margaret (and many of her fellow writers) would persuade the reader to believe. But before we claim the tyranny of the author, we should keep in mind that for women the wielding of such authority does not signify as it would for their male contemporaries. For Margaret, authorship and publication of her always-controversial texts was an heroical action, given her society's taboos regarding women and writing.

30. Both Sandra Sherman and Catherine Gallagher discuss this potential in their respective essays. Sherman says of the nesting boxes metaphor (and I would agree), that this "image of imploded, self-generativity, its potential for infinite regress begetting at each stage further self-conscious affirmations, is the curious reality of Margaret Cavendish" (187). This regressive model of subjectivity is very close to the post-modern "Ms. en abysm" of which Diane Elam speaks disparagingly in Feminism and Deconstruction, where the image of viewing oneself in a mirror leads to an infinite space that is troubling for Elam. See her chapter "Questions of Women" in Feminism and Deconstruction (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), especially 27- 31 where she discusses Derrida's notion of the "mise en abyme" as a "ms. en abyme." Gallagher maintains that "by recreating the self as a fantasy Empress inside the world that is, . . . supposedly inside herself, the text begins a process of infinite regression" (31). I argue that by figuring herself as a character who in turn is the creator of her own romantic worlds - in which there will be other creating selves (split, perhaps, into two or more images) - Margaret inscribes a radical perception of the female subject.

31. All we know of the Duchess's world is that "no patterns would do her any good" (313) in the framing of it (neither that of Aristotle, Pythagorus, Epicures, Plato, Descartes nor Hobbes), so that she ultimately "resolved to make . . . [it] of her own invention. . . compos[ing it] of sensitive and rational self-moving matter" (313).

32. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York, Columbia UP, 1985). See especially her first chapter, "Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles" (21-27).

33. This is not to commend the shape of her ambitions. In many ways her following actions are deplorable, but they should at least be considered from a few perspectives. From an historical perspective through which has passed two devastating World Wars, atomic bombs, many genocides, and the capability for nuclear and chemical destruction, the image of the Empress subduing the whole world to her superior powers is horrifying. From a feminist perspective this image is also disturbing, since we are witnessing an instance of the oppressed become oppressor. However, it should be remembered that, as a woman, Margaret was excluded from military and political action, both of which were highly valued in her society: ancient figures such as Alexander and Caesar (both of whom she admired) were idolized for similar actions.

34. See for example, the following: Mary Beth Rose, "Gender, Genre, and History: Seventeenth-Century English Women and the Art of Autobiography," in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Mary Beth Rose, (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986, 245-78). Rose claims that "The Duchess's disjointed narrative makes clear that she cannot bear to formulate a distinctive identity--she simply cannot decide how she 'wishes to have been'" (254). Of course, the point is that she did write the person she was, but many readers are unwilling to accept her multiple and often contradictory selves as part of one larger, though not necessarily consistent, identity; Sara Heller Mendelson, The Mental World of Stuart Women (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987). Mendelson never mentions Blazing World explicitly, but notes that "In Margaret's tales the focus is not on love per se but on a woman's will to power, expressed as the chronicle of her extraordinary ambitions, or as her psychological conquest of a male protagonist" (22). "In her daydreams she associated fantasies of absolute power with visions of irresistible or even lethal feminine beauty" (23). Mendelson's reading is one that completely conflates Margaret's fiction with her life rather than seeing it as a mediation through which is expressed a subjective vision; Kathleen Jones, A Glorious Fame: The Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (London: Bloomsbury,1988). Jones dismisses Blazing World outright: "The story is certainly fantastic, but there is such naiveté in it, such transparent vanity and longing for personal recognition and respect, and such a display of wasted talent and cankered genius, that it is possible to ascribe it to the wanderings of an unbalanced mind. If she had removed the philosophy and kept herself out of the narrative the story would have won acclaim as a brilliant piece of fiction" (168). In other words, if Margaret had removed all that is brilliant from the text, it would have fit a popular fictional mold: one more easily comprehended and consumed.

35. The Empress is not only ruthless in subduing to tributary status "all the neighboring nations who ha[ve] any traffic by sea," she even enslaves those "nations which could live without foreign traffic, and [those] whose trade and traffic [is] merely by land" (337).

36. So threatening is this display that even among her countrymen for whom she blows up "all the several navies of their enemies" there are mixed opinions about the nature of her being: "some said she was an angel, others said she was a sorceress, some believed her a goddess, others said the devil deluded them in the shape of a fine lady" (335). Of course, when she uses all this destructive power to their advantage they "cry out" with one voice that she is "an angel sent from God to deliver them" (335).

37. See, for instance, the many anti-feminist treatises on the "woman question" that sought to deny women all access to learning both on the basis of their supposed inferior abilities and the dangers of their undisciplined intellect. A good place to begin is Constance Jordan's essay "Woman's Rule in Sixteenth Century British Political Thought," Renaissance Quarterly 40.3 (1987): 421-451, as well as her chapter on "Woman and Natural Law," and its sub-chapter "Women's Rule: The Tudor Queens" in her study of Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990). See also Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993), especially the chapter "Leaky Vessels."


Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).