Professor Nandini Das hosts radio programme and podcast on Margaret Cavendish
‘An earring round may well a zodiac be, // Wherein a sun goes round, which we don’t see’ is the opening to Margaret Cavendish’s poem, A World in an Earring. The poem highlights the connection between science and the arts by equating the solar system with the artistry of an earring. This intersection is central to the character of Margaret Cavendish. Poet, philosopher, aristocrat, and scientist, Cavendish’s celebrity in the seventeenth century was not for her achievements, but for her outlandish relation to social norms. However, since the 1980s, Cavendish has been studied by scholars across multiple disciplines, from literature to philosophy and history of science, as a pioneering figure. Professor Nandini Das, Tutorial Fellow in English at Exeter, recently hosted BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme and Arts and Ideas podcast (available to stream now), taking listeners on a tour of Cavendish’s worlds to mark the 400th anniversary of Cavendish’s birth. With her were Cavendish scholars, Emma Wilkins and Anne Thell, physicist Athene Donald, and biographer Francesca Peacock.
Margaret Cavendish was the first woman allowed to step inside the Royal Society in 1667. Set up in 1660, the Royal Society marked the advent of modern science, and its experiments were highly practical. They often focused on astronomy, for example, as a means of improving navigation at sea. However, practicality was combined with a penchant for theatricality. The chiaroscuro of Joseph Wright’s famous painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, demonstrates the drama of Royal Society science. The dark room in the painting is lit up by the experiment in the centre, where a scientist creates a vacuum around a bird, and decides whether to let the air back in and allow the bird to live, or whether to maintain the vacuum and let it die. Designed by Robert Boyle in 1659, the theatrics of this experiment was a regular feature in Royal Society demonstrations. On her visit, Cavendish may have been treated to this display, which the Royal Society hoped would inspire her to make them a donation. Then, as now, the scientific world had to be mindful of the need for funding. However, whilst Cavendish left the visit ‘in all admiration’, she didn’t take the bait. From the very beginning of the podcast, Cavendish’s refusal to conform to expectations is made clear.
Her visit was recorded by the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys. As in Hooke’s theatrical execution of Boyle’s air pump experiment, in Pepys’s career, the arts and science were linked. Pepys funded, through the Royal Society, a lavishly illustrated publication of De Historia Piscium. He also describes his fascination on reading Hooke’s Micrographia, whose illustrations folded out to four times the size of the book itself. The illustrations in each book opened up new worlds for the reading public. For men, art and science were not only allowed to intersect but were indelibly linked. However, this wasn’t the case for women. Pepys’s diary entry describing Cavendish’s visit to the Royal Society focused solely on her fashion sense and looks – he described her as ‘a good comely woman’ – excluding her numerous scientific publications. The renowned physicist and Royal Society Fellow, Professor Athene Donald, was one of the speakers on the programme. She recalls end-of-semester questionnaires in which her students would regularly comment on her attire, rather than the quality of her lectures. The problem of being judged for their fashion rather than their ideas is still prominent for women today.
Cavendish described herself as a setter, rather than a follower, of fashion. Perhaps her dress sense was a method of control in a world disinterested in women’s thoughts and ideas. Of her utopian proto-novel, The Blazing World, Cavendish wrote that ‘rather than not being mistress of a world, since fortune and fates would give me none, I have made one of my own’. The Blazing World is one of the earliest examples of science fiction (coming 150 years before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and describes a woman who travels to a new dimension, where she becomes empress. Here, she asks a plethora of questions relating to science and philosophy. The Royal Society is a looming background presence in the work, which both satirises and engages with the experimentalists of the day. The Blazing World’s companion piece, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, is more overtly scientific. Cavendish critiqued in this text the Royal Society view that microscopy was the best way to illuminate scientific truths. She wrote that it was too prone to variation and inaccuracy due to the shortcomings of the microscopic technique. This was a topic Cavendish knew plenty about – she owned several microscopes herself and used them regularly. However, her critique of male scientists was enough for her to be considered anti-science. Her fiction, which prompted seventeenth century aristocrat Dorothy Temple to write that ‘there are soberer people in Bedlam’, was just another reason to invalidate Cavendish’s valid scientific discourse. However, Cavendish knew that her work could not be taken seriously by her contemporaries. ‘Future readers,’ writes Cavendish, ‘I write for you and future ages’. Through her engagement with both science and art, Cavendish sets herself up as an achingly modern figure.
The artistry of Royal Society experiments and publications opened up new worlds as fantastical as that of Cavendish’s The Blazing World. The images created by Hooke’s microscopy in Micrographia were fantastical in their unfamiliarity and their variability, but this didn’t, and doesn’t, detract from its value. Likewise, Cavendish’s fantastical worlds may not be strictly true, but their value is undeniable. Fittingly for Radio 3’s Free Thinking and the BBC’s Arts and Ideas podcast, Professor Das’s conversation with her guests illuminated the intersection of Cavendish’s science and her art with the same interest and respect afforded to the art of Royal Society men.
Margaret Cavendish is available to stream on the BBC website, Spotify, and other major podcast platforms.