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  • "Wedded to Strange Singularities":Margaret Cavendish's Natural Philosophy on Marriage
  • Jennifer Birkett

In 1667, the natural philosopher, John Evelyn, penned a description of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, in his diary. The Duchess, he wrote, had an "extravagant humor & dresse, which was very singular."1 One year earlier, Margaret Cavendish had written herself into the narrative of her science-fictional romance, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World,2 as the Duchess of Newcastle, a woman whose soul comes to the blazing world to write for the Empress and ends up becoming her dear friend.3 Like Evelyn, the Empress remarks on the Duchess' delight "in being singular both in accoutrements, behaviour and discourse" (149). In response, the Duchess admits that while her appearance "was extravagant, and beyond what was usual and ordinary," the reason was because "I endeavour…to be as singular as I can" (149). Notably, both Evelyn and the Empress's observations connect Margaret Cavendish's "extravagant" fashion with her "very singular" personality.4

In his book The Singularity of Literature, Derek Attridge suggests that singularity was occasionally used as a pejorative during the seventeenth century, equating to self-aggrandizement and a stubborn refusal to follow the status quo.5 This sentiment rings clear in The Blazing World when the Empress cautions the Duchess that "the world would say your singularities are vanities" and counsels her about virtue (150). In an earlier work, The World's Olio (1655), Cavendish had curtly suggested that only "the fantastical fool is wedded to strange singularities."6 And yet, we presume from the Duchess's unabashed endeavor for singularity some years later, that Margaret Cavendish would have been pleased to be called singular. [End Page 61]

But what precisely did Margaret Cavendish mean when she wrote about singularity, and how has modern criticism shaped our understanding of this singular woman's bold endeavors? In reading The Blazing World through the lens of Cavendish's natural philosophy and alongside her personal biography (which seeps into the fictional prose through the characters of the Empress and Emperor as well as the Duchess and Duke),7 this article argues that singularity, for Cavendish, was not merely a glorification of extravagant singleness but one which thrived amidst unity and connection.

On the whole, criticism regarding Margaret Cavendish's singularity has remained primarily focused on The Blazing World, but the phrases singular, single, and singularity also abound in Cavendish's poems, letters, dramas, and scientific observations. In other words, The Blazing World is just one part of a larger corpus in which Cavendish repeatedly reflects on the philosophical concept of singularity through meditations on natural philosophy and her own biography.8 Looking collectively at the Duchess of Newcastle's writings, we find that she uses singular/singularity most often as extravagance and peculiarity,9 inducing fame,10 or being the intention of one's focus.11 The term single, on the other hand, most often refers to one part of a larger unit, or unmarried status.12 Occasionally, however, she uses single, singular, and singularity interchangeably, all meaning particular and unaffiliating with another.13 In The Blazing World, for example, she uses single to mean "particular," as she does for singular in Philosophical Letters (1664), and for singularities in Wits Cabal (1662).14 This overlapping of meaning continues in her drama Love's Adventures (1662), where Lord Singularity is both singular in his renown, but also singular in his desire to remain separate from his wife.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a similarly fluid spectrum of definitions for the terms singular and singularity. One definition refers to singular as a quantity, a solitary representation of one; another looks to singularity as unity of purpose and heart.15 The terms are also associated with fame, implying that to be singular is to be "separate through pre-eminence, extraordinary."16 But notably, for both singular and singularity, the Oxford English Dictionary's primary definition refers to them as "related to singleness and unity."17

Traditionally, early criticism regarding Margaret Cavendish's endeavors for singularity tended toward the camp of singleness rather than the camp of unity or interconnectedness. Many feminist critics, including Brigitte...

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