Saturday, June 9, 2012

Margaret Cavendish (or why I don't write about characters who have babies, bake bread and die in obscurity, although that's what most of us have done since the dawn of humanity, including me, though I haven't died in obscurity yet, but give me time)

Sometimes, writing about a perfectly average historical figure works. You know, those girls who have no prospects and no powerful ambition to create them. Young women who, when attacked, cringe and hope for the best instead of picking up a sword. People who are accurate representations of 99 percent of their era. But it's pretty rare that those people make compelling characters. (One of the best, a truly outstanding novel, is The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse. You absolutely must read it. Johanna is probably the truest to her time of any character I've ever read.) Most of the time, though, we want to read about the exceptions.

Two of the three Elizabeths of Ladies in Waiting are definitely exceptions, and they are inspired by (though not actually based on) two real 17th century women.

Zabby (does anyone like her name?!?) is the daughter of a Barbados plantation owner of middling aristocratic rank and great wealth. Raised more or less in isolation – at least, isolated from Europeans – she has studied alongside her scientific-minded father all of her life. As a teenager, she returns to England to study with her godmother, the real-life scientist, writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-Upon Tyne – and the inspiration for Zabby's character.

Though their personalities are dissimilar (Cavendish, though bold in her opinions, probably had what today we'd call social anxiety disorder; she could talk to one person at a time, but became bashful and speechless in larger groups) both share a love of exploring the natural world. And because they have both wealth and leisure, they can indulge themselves. It was not unusual for an aristocrat to dabble, and a rich titled woman might well tend her home and babies and write poetry or plays or conduct scientific experiments, though generally for her own amusement rather than publication or profit.

Margaret Cavendish studied what was known as natural philosophy – a 17th century catch-all for physical, chemical and biological sciences. She argued with members of the Royal Society of London. She was an outspoken anti-vivisectionist. She was a prolific writer, producing volumes of autobiography, poetry, plays, science and philosophy. Today she is best remembered as the author of what is usually considered the first science fiction novel, The Blazing World.

Samuel Pepys called her “mad, conceited and ridiculous.” Which was just the sort of comment learned, opinionated, iconoclastic women could expect, through much of history.

Next: playwright Aphra Behn, the inspiration for Eliza.


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