- The Counterfactual Fictions of Margaret Cavendish
Virtual [Lat. virtus, strength, from vir, a man]: (1) A virtual X (where X is a common noun) is something, not an X, which has the efficiency (virtus) of an X.1—Charles Sanders Peirce
Having conducted her friend the Empress through her native land of England, the Duchess of Newcastle in Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World seizes the opportunity to make a daring proposal. She asks the Empress to adjudicate her husband's losses—as he had been the former Cavalier general William Newcastle, whose estates were confiscated following his 1644 defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor and subsequent flight to France—with the goddess of Fortune. After a short demurral, the Empress agrees to make the attempt, and the Duke chimes in that he will "try, and send my two friends, Prudence and Honesty, to plead my cause. Then these two friends went with the Duchess and the Empress into the Blazing World; (for it is to be observed, that they are somewhat like spirits, because they are immaterial, although their actions are corporeal)."2 The trial immediately follows; Truth presides, with Fortune and her counsel, Folly and Rashness, squaring off against the Duchess and her husband's lawyers, Prudence and Honesty. This latter virtue gives an impassioned précis of the Duke's honorable life: "I sent him to travel through the world of actions, and made Observation his governor; and in those travels, he contracted a friendship with Experience; all which, made him fit for Heaven's blessings, and Fortune's favours" (B, 199). While ultimately the case sours, with Fortune storming off and no resolution reached, this rather clunky allegory nevertheless presents a microcosm of Cavendish's poetics, which this essay sets out to chart.
By calling her allegorical figures "immaterial," yet with "corporeal" effects, Cavendish reverses the causal arrow of allegory, which typically begins with a tangible being in the text's world, whose actions [End Page 55] and character point backward to their semantic meaning. The true world for allegory is that of Forms, actualized in the reader's mind in a continuous process of decoding. Here, though, Cavendish resolutely commits to the material "world of actions" as the plane of meaning; the Duke's deeds literalize ideas rather than abstracting and typifying experience. Coming as it does late in the story, and fading quickly, this episode also prevents the reader from subsuming the rest of the tale's figures and actions under the virtues that instantiate them. Rather than draining the body of and bodies in the text of their juice for a moral that we might ourselves then actualize in the real world, we are forced to inhabit, tangibly, the world of the text. The Duke's actions don't lend us a moral; they quite literally are moral. The Blazing World is one of immanent fact, not transcendent value. It thereby resists our appropriation. In so doing, as this essay will stake as its basic claim, The Blazing World takes a different path from much of early modern fiction, in that the changes it makes to the world do not depend on the mediation of the reader's mind. The text itself creates a physical, not a virtual, world, and as such functions as a counterfactual engine, quantifiably adding to rather than qualitatively imagining alternatives to the world as it is.
Critics have long been interested in Cavendish's materialism, especially insofar as it offers a vitalist alternative to both Hobbesian/Cartesian mechanism and the instrument-based experimentalism of the Royal Society, and have often grounded Cavendish's poetics of Fancy as a crucial offshoot of this vitalism.3 As Lisa Sarasohn puts it, "There is … no ontological distinction between real and imaginary being. For Cavendish, every imaginary object is subjectively true when it is generated by the movement of the mind."4 Bracketing the fictional from the true, the mechanist and experimental pictures of natural philosophy effect a schism of disciplines that for Cavendish is untenable.5 Fancy, as a movement of the same "rational" parts of matter that produce reason, is just as viable as an epistemological tool...