As I discussed in my video about working on ‘Rediscover the Classics’ with Jellybooks, I have the exciting task of curating groups of classic books. My new selection has just been launched and it’s classic utopian novels! I’ve created original covers for all six of the books. You can see these covers, read more about them and join in here:

https://jbks.co/Utopia-reading-list

After registering for a free Jellybooks account you can select two free books from my selections to download and enjoy on your e-reader.

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I’ve always had a fascination with utopian literature and read a lot of it during my teenage years – as well as the darker side of the coin: dystopian fiction! It’s tantalizing to imagine how we’d build a society from the ground up and that’s just what a number of authors have done through the ages. In doing so, writers inadvertently or intentionally reflect both their own values and the values of their time period. In many cases utopian fiction seems a way of criticising the etiquette, morals or laws of the age they were written in. For instance, Thomas More points out corruption in the Catholic church that was occurring in the 16th century; Charlotte Perkins Gilman cites the injustice of women’s dependence on men being the primary breadwinners; and, in satirising popular travellers’ tales of the early 1700s, Jonathan Swift ironically wrote one of the most beloved and imaginative episodic journeys of all time! Throughout Margaret Cavendish and Samuel Butler’s novels there is also an interesting engagement with emerging technologies and scientific advancements of the 17th and 19th centuries respectively. As well as being engaging and imaginative stories, the six books I’ve selected for this Utopian Classics reading group also offer fascinating insights into history and the way people from the past dreamily gazed into imagined futures.

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It felt important to offer something of a balance (in gender at least) in choosing these utopian tales. The canon of classic literature is often top heavy with male voices and it’s exciting how there has been a recent resurrection of nearly forgotten female writers from the past such as Margaret Cavendish whose life was fictionally reimagined in Danielle Dutton’s fantastic novel “Margaret the First”. Many people will know Charlotte Perkins Gilman from her feminist classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” but not as many will have read her all-female utopian novel “Herland”. All of these novels also often hint at unconscious biases or dodgy ideas which many people will probably find appalling today. Slavery was an integral part of Thomas More’s utopia and Mary E. Bradley Lane vision of an all-female utopia was intentionally racist as it is composed exclusively of Aryan women. Rather than erase or gloss over these uncomfortable aspects of the fiction, I think it’s interesting to consider them in their historical context and just how much society’s ideals have changed since the time periods they were written in.

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Ever since I read Danielle Dutton’s novel “Margaret the First” which fictionalizes the life of Margaret Cavendish and Siri Hustvedt’s extraordinary novel about a misunderstood female artist “The Blazing World”, I’ve had a fascination with this pioneering writer of the 17th century and wanted to read her books. Earlier this year I attended a feminist book club meeting about Dutton’s novel and that reignited my interest in Cavendish. In the lead up to the announcement of this year’s longlist announcement for The Women’s Prize for Fiction, it seemed like a great time to explore this intrepid figure’s writing. “The Blazing World” was first published in 1666 and is often considered a forerunner to both science fiction and the utopian novel genres. It’s a totally bonkers story of a woman who is stolen away to the North Pole only to find herself in a strange bejewelled kingdom of which she becomes the supreme Empress. Here she consults with many different animal/insect people about philosophical, religious and scientific ideas. The second half of the book pulls off a meta-fictional trick where Cavendish (as the Duchess of Newcastle) enters the story herself to become the Empress’ scribe and close companion. It was impossible for me to read this novel without thinking of Dutton’s text which gives an impression of the real struggles Cavendish faced in her life as well as her eccentric personality.

I found the first half of the novel quite difficult to follow although I was entranced by the bizarre concepts and “chopt Logick” that it contained. The Empress is ruthlessly methodical in quizzing her anthropomorphic subjects who are the leaders in their field of study. It’s like she’s investigating the current trends in thought to either approve or reject them. Cavendish was privy to the debates and meetings of some of the most prominent minds of her era so it feels like in her novel she’s mulling over many new concepts and trying to connect disparate ideas. In her wilfulness the Empress demands that telescopes be destroyed because she calls them “false informers” and dissolves her society of Lice-men who are Geometricians because she finds “neither Truth nor Justice in their Profession.” It felt to me like her ruthless decision-making and domineering mentality were Cavendish’s reaction to being made to feel relatively voiceless amongst the egotistical learned men of her time. This could be a simplistic interpretation of her creative reaction and I don’t mean to undermine the seriousness of the ideas Cavendish works with in her novel.

Cavendish explores many fascinating concepts throughout the text concerning the natural world both at the macro level of astrology and the micro level where she seems to be striving to articulate a concept of subatomic physics. In one section she states “both by my own Contemplation, and the Observations which I have made by my rational & sensitive perception upon Nature, and her works, I find, that Nature is but one Infinite Self-moving Body, which by the vertue of its self-motion, is divided into Infinite parts, which parts being restless, undergo perpetual changes and transmutations by their infinite compositions and divisions.” It feels like she’s speaking here about the behaviour of matter and energy and gravitational forces. 

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As the ultimate leader, the Empress also contemplates how people should be ruled. I found it interesting how she rejects the idea of ruling through tyranny because she recognises its short-term effectiveness: “for Fear, though it makes people obey, yet does it not last so long, nor is it so sure a means to keep them to their duties, as Love.” Not only does she absorb and sift through scientific and political ideas, but also references many different religions and sacred texts to play off from before the Empress decides to write her own religious text or Cabbala. The Empress hilariously wants to summons the spirits of some of the greatest minds in philosophy and science such as Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, Galileo or Hobbes, but it’s decided that they would be too “self-conceited” to agree to be her scribe. So instead she summons Cavendish herself. Neither are content to simply reside within this fantastical world so they create worlds within this world to travel to and the Empress appoints a “Spirit to be Vice-Roy of her body in the absence of her soul.”

In the novel there’s a frequent insistence upon the formation of one’s own imaginative world as a means of escape in a way that makes me feel Cavendish must have felt either bored or suffocated by the actual life she was trapped within. It felt as if the Empress’ freedom and vast riches played off from the fact Cavendish’s much older husband experienced varying amounts of financial and political trouble throughout their marriage. Dutton’s novel also suggests how Cavendish had such a restless spirit, boundless level of creativity and a monumental ego that she often felt discontent with the limitations of her reality. She also craved fame and sought it out by dressing outlandishly and self-publishing many books. Cavendish’s taste for fashion and cultivating a distinct image are reflected in the novel as well when the Empress daringly seeks to make a flashy garment made from “star-stone”. I think it’s safe to assume that if Cavendish were alive today she’d be a habitual social media user and would take countless selfies. Everything about her unique and multi-faceted personality suggests that she was someone who struggled with the many limitations of her time. 

“The Blazing World” is such an intriguing oddity that I found it a totally absorbing and bewildering read. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson