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ELH 69.3 (2002) 649-672



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Royalist, Romancist, Racialist:
Rank, Gender, and Race in the Science and Fiction of Margaret Cavendish

Sujata Iyengar


When Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, published Observations on Experimental Philosophy in 1666, she became the first British woman to write and publish scientific work. 1 Perhaps eager to demonstrate her knowledge of the newest scientific theories, Cavendish added a new section to the second edition of Observations in 1668, a section that responded, as Rosemary Kegl remarks, to current debates about racial origin, and in particular to the question of whether white and black men were descended from the same human ancestor—Adam. 2 In the 1668 text, Cavendish argues that black men are not descended from Adam: "Blackmoors [are] a kind or race of men different from the White . . . For, if there were no differences in their productions, then would not onely all men be exactly like, but all Beasts also; that is, there would be no difference between a Horse and a Cow, a Cow and a Lyon, a Snake and an Oyster." 3 The differences between white and black men are as pronounced as those between "a Horse and a Cow, and Cow and a Lyon." This statement appears to collapse two different senses of the word "race": species difference (like that between a "Horse and a Cow") and color difference. Equating species and color difference, Cavendish concludes that the "Blackmoors" are as different from "White" people as cows are from lions. But, as Kegl brilliantly observes, Cavendish's romantic utopia, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, which was bound and published together with Observations, carefully distinguishes between race, meaning species difference, and race, meaning variants of skin-tone:

the ordinary sort of men [in the Blazing World] . . . were of several complexions: not white, black, tawny, olive or ash-coloured; but some appeared of an azure, some of a deep purple, some of a grass-green, some of a scarlet, some of an orange-colour, etc. . . . The rest of the inhabitants of that world, were men of several different sorts, shapes, figures, disposition, and humours . . . some were [End Page 649] bear-men, some worm-men, some fish- or mear-men [mer-men], . . . some bird-men, some fly-men, some ant-men, some geese-men, some spider-men, some lice-men, some fox-men, some ape-men, some jackdaw-men, some magpie-men, some parrot-men, some satyrs, some giants, and many more, which I cannot all remember. 4

The subjects of the Blazing World comprise people who are racially diverse in two different senses: they have skins of varying colors, and they belong to diverse species. Cavendish's romance thus "draws a distinction between difference based on species or complexion, understood as 'humours,' on the one hand, and difference based on complexion, understood as 'colour,' on the other." 5 Kegl suggests that this apparent inconsistency on the subject of racial difference between Observations and Blazing World reflects seventeenth-century confusion about the meanings of both race and color, citing Samuel Pepys's appreciative description of Cavendish's "black" Italian waiting-woman, Ferrabosco, and of a little "black boy" who ran up and down the chamber when Cavendish visited the Royal Society. Pepys's editors gloss "black" as "brunette," but Samuel Mintz imagines the child to have been an "exotic graft in an English garden"; we have no way of knowing whether he was the black-haired son of a lady-in-waiting, or an African page. 6

This cultural confusion about the meaning of skin-tone and its relationship to racial or species difference might contribute to Cavendish's fantastic Blazing World of colors, as Kegl proposes, but I would argue that Cavendish's riot of color is not a response to late seventeenth-century confusion about color as much as a romantic reply to the emerging pseudo-scientific discourse that did connect color with race. Pepys mused, "The whole story of this Lady is a romance, and all she doth is romantic"; Cavendish develops...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 649-672
Launched on MUSE
2002-09-01
Open Access
No
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