A biography of the remarkable—and in her time scandalous—seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, who pioneered the science fiction novel.

"My ambition is not only to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole world."—Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish, then Lucas, was born in 1623 to an aristocratic family. In 1644, as England descended into civil war, she joined the court of the formidable Queen Henrietta Maria at Oxford. With the rest of the court she went into self-imposed exile in France. Her family's wealth and lands were forfeited by Parliament. It was in France that she met her partner, William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a marriage that made her the Duchess of Newcastle and would remain at the heart of both her life and career.

Margaret was a passionate writer. She wrote extensively on gender, science, philosophy, and published under her own name at a time when women simply did not do so. Her greatest work was The Blazing World, published in 1666, a utopian proto-novel that is thought to be one of the earliest works of science fiction that brought together Margaret's talents in poetry, philosophy, and science.

Yet hers is a legacy that has long divided opinion, and history has largely forgotten her, an undeserved fate for a brilliant, courageous proto-feminist. In Pure Wit, Francesca Peacock remedies this omission and shines a spotlight on the fascinating, pioneering, yet often complex and controversial life, of the multi-faceted Margaret Cavendish.

About the author(s)

Francesca Peacock is an author and arts journalist from London. She writes about books, art, and culture for The Telegraph, The Times, The Spectator, and Prospect, amongst other publications. Pure Wit is her first book.


"Peacock offers a rigorous and insightful survey of Cavendish’s life and times, thoroughly detailing the sociocultural contexts in which her works emerged. Pure Wit situates the nuances and idiosyncrasies of Cavendish’s writing with wit and aplomb. It is now easier than ever to read Cavendish and appreciate what her self-made worlds—blazing and otherwise—have to offer."

Los Angeles Review of Books

"Peacock is at her best explaining Cavendish’s literary achievements. This extraordinary and contradictory woman—shy, reclusive, and a compulsive exhibitionist, dashing into print at every opportunity as a bulwark against mortality, has a far greater claim on our attention than Virginia Woolf believed. Three and a half centuries after her death at the age of fifty, the world is finally ready to stop being afraid of Margaret Cavendish.”


Ruth Scurr, The Wall Street Journal

"As a portrait of the thrilling, rackety milieu of the seventeenth-century literary world, Francesca Peacock’s Pure Wit is truly delightful."


The Spectator World

"To read Francesca Peacock’s diligent and measured biography of Cavendish, Pure Wit, is to become aware of how little one can confidently claim to know about her."

The New Yorker