Margaret Cavendish, Duchess, nee Lucas (1625-1674)

Scion of a numerous family and, after the death of his elder brother, inheritor of the Cavendish estates, William grew up in privileged circumstances and early became acquainted with upper class advantages and obligations.  He was more sportsman than scholar, but was possessed of ready wit and intelligence.  He attained mastery of horsemanship at a young age, and became a recognized authority on “manege” as evidenced in his work on dressage, first published in France.  He apparently disliked town-life and preferred country living with its agricultural attractions:  hunting, farming, animal husbandry and the like.

When he was fifteen, he went to Venice with Sir Henry Wooton, Ambassador to Italy at the time, and was thereby introduced to the world of politics and high society.  Upon his return several years later he had an off and on acquaintance with the court of James I and was knighted and entitled Viscount Mansfield, and Baron of Bolsover.  He was also appointed tutor of a sort to Charles I when the latter was young, an association that determined to some extent the course of his future life and accounted for his loyalty to and admiration of the English King.  Upon the death of James, William garnered more titles:  Lord Warden of Sherwood Forest, Lieutenant of Nottingham and Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire.  Also Earl of Newcastle and member of the Privy Council.

There was a Scottish rebellion in 1639 that gradually grew into the Civil War,  and William became embroiled in the military and political affairs of Yorkshire and the other northern counties as a result.  For the next few years, he rose to be the principal Royal exponent in the area, providing most of the military resources, army, ammunition, guns, fodder, and rations, out of his own pocket.  In addition, King Charles having abandoned London at the time, he gifted the Royal court to the extent of ten thousand pounds to offset the expenses of moving the royal family out of danger.

For the subsequent couple of years, William was kept busy playing general, quartermaster, and banker to most of the royalist factions in the northern counties.  He won battles at Tadcaster, raised a siege of York, chased rebel forces hither and yon, and spent most of his money keeping the Roundheads in check.  But at the engagement at Marston Moor, faced with a diverse force of over 22,000 men, and dealing with the desertion of a portion of his own host, (although he and a few loyal comrades performed heroically), he was defeated, and made to realize that the cause in which he had sunk all his resources was lost, so he made arrangements for leaving England with his family and retainers.

William and Margaret met at the court of Charles I in Paris, became enchanted with each other, and got married.  He was sixty and she was 22, but it purportedly was a very happy arrangement, as both had similar interests.  They both wrote plays and poetry, and had interests in philosophy and science, and were united in their support of the English crown.  After a short time in France, they moved to Antwerp, where, except for brief interludes traveling back to England and other european countries, they lived until the restoration of Charles II.  Most of the time they lived in a house previously owned by Rubens, located in a fashionable section of the city.

Money was a big problem for them.  They tried to maintain their lifestyle, but were forced to eliminate some of the household help.  And William was forced to sell a few of his horses, to his great dismay.  He borrowed lavishly and surprisingly (and this might indicate something of his personality) he had not a lot of difficulty in obtaining funds from almost everyone he resorted to, including professional money-lenders and friends.  They received news from the wars occasionally, and discovered that much of William’s property and estates had been confiscated and sold, or had been pillaged and razed.  When they finally did return home, the cheapest transportation they could find was a rotten old frigate, aged and worm-eaten, and fit mainly for firewood, if that.  And en route the ship was caught in a storm for six days and nights, to the terror of the passengers and the torment of the captain and crew.  Home at last, at Castle Bolsover, they organized and combined their resources.  Through careful and thoughtful management, they gradually re-assumed their preferred status as Lord and Lady, harboring their monies and restoring their properties to some semblance of their previous magnificence.  When they finished re-establishing themselves, and finally realized their total losses over the war years, they found that they had lost over 930 thousand pounds worth of property and money.

William resumed his habitual routines, seeing to his horses, supervising his investments and agricultural interests, and re-connecting with his relations and neighbors.  Over the years, he’d developed his regimen to suit his status and philosophical demeanor.  He was clean, generous, witty and horse-crazy;  he loved music, poetry, and had a fondness for all the arts;  he ate one meal a day, and preferred to reward his servants and employees rather than chastise them.  Here are some of William’s apothegms, as recorded by Margaret (paraphrased in part):

-newspapers overheat common brains

-it’s important to have lots of holidays

-there’s no treasure so great as a clear conscience

-Democracies are governed by secret power, kingdoms by one will

-government and religion don’t mix

-(when banished from England):  “as he was subject to no king, so he was king of no subjects”

-wisdom lasts but a day, foolishness goes on forever

-to be wise is to be honest

And to be equitable, a few of Margaret’s:

-factions combine sooner than the well-intentioned can agree

-a clear conscience is better than wealth

-empty bladders make the most noise

-wise men meddle as little with the affairs of the world as ever they can

This was book was a porthole into another universe, but one which has a definite relation to our own.  It made clear the similarities between people living 500 years ago and those living today.  Margaret had a peculiar temperament:  she was evidently quite brilliant and facile, but was unfortunate in having had little formal education.  Women were not encouraged at that time to develop themselves, a great tragedy and one which robbed the world of half its intelligence and wisdom.  She had access to other resources, however:  Thomas Hobbes was a familiar friend, and she was the first lady ever to be invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, presently the oldest scientific association in the world.

Margaret wrote a science fiction book:  “The Blazing World”, about a different planet with a female queen; she also wrote five additional books and two volumes of plays, but is most well known for her letters, which she collected and entitled “Sociable Letters”.  My impression is that she would have been a delightful person to be around, witty and scatterbrained perhaps, but also replete with brilliant repartee and odd, thought-provoking ideas.  It would have been a lot of fun to go to one of her and her husband’s get-togethers, just to hear the conversation…  i liked this book and look forward to becoming better acquainted with her in the future…




James Cowan (1942-2018)

The sixteenth century:  Fra Mauro has been instructed by the pope to create a map of the known world.  He resides in small, upper story room located in a monastery on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, near Venice.  He has access to the Mechitar library and its extensive collection of charts and scrolls, and he receives frequent visitations from world travelers, merchants and adventurers.

Initially his conception is of a flat plat showing bays, coastlines, cities, islands, all the details of geographical import, but over time, as he converses with said travelers and obtains journals and diaries of priests, merchants and explorers, he begins to see a different sort of projection.  The visions of his visitors include their personal perceptions, which vary with the opinions, attitudes, and interests of each.  So that he is soon understanding the world in a much more cosmopolitan and three-dimensional way.

He finds out about the Turkish Cordiform Projection, a heart-shaped map with equalized distances between any two planetary points, possibly derived from a similar creation by Stabius about 1500 A.D.. His investigations include the publications of certain philosophers:  Simon of Taibutheh in the 7th century claimed that all knowledge was the product of sensory input modified by the adjudication of the soul;  Mauro studied the works of the Illuminati which charted the paths of the soul in connection with mental processes;   and he began to see that perceptions are modified by emotional states, so that no two people ever see exactly the same reality.

Mauro’s researches began to filter into his dream life.  He envisioned a prototypical map of all maps, the ultimate source of all grace and knowledge that magically came into being under his hand, controlled by an unknown spiritual influence.  As he continued his analyses he came to imagine his final creation as a “conjunction of thought in space”, a sort of multi-dimensional ideation without boundaries, infinite in scope and containing all data.

Tales of Malak Taus, the god of devil worshipers in an obscure corner of Arabia came to him through a far-trekking Greek merchant;  the Garamontes, worshippers of two gods, Horus and Tanith, representations of spirit and nature, who became extinct courtesy of the Romans;  the lost dreams of dervishes and poets concerning the chain of sensibility connecting the real and the imagined, culminating in the “pool of tolerance”;  Fra Campeggio’s stories of the Borneo head-hunters who spoke bird languages to each other and had no notion of independent thought (they collected heads for the information contained inside them);  the maps of the latter were tatooed on their bodies; and perhaps the strangest of all insights was from a Chinese scroll by Ssu-ma from the imperial court, marking out the precepts of the Tao, instructing in metaphor and through the use of alchemy how to fly.

“The world is not real save in the way each of us impresses upon it his own sensibility”…  “No continent or people have turned out to exist except in relation to themselves”…  “Reality only exists in the eye of the beholder”…  “No absolute value can exist save that which lies outside of this world”…   “A hidden pleroma of intelligence is at work that refuses to reveal its methods”

Finally, Mauro understands that the world he is attempting to create is himself;  and the quill in his hand falls away as he feels himself drifting beyond the tasks of feeling and doing, entering with the cessation of thought into “The Kingdom of No-Knowledge”.

Cowan is most known for his work with Australian aborigines.  He helped them a lot culturally and financially.  He travelled widely in his life, studying and interacting with indigenous peoples and writing about thirty books describing their world-views and cultures.

I liked this book because of its far-ranging philosophical focii and its versions of stranger’s tales.  The quality of writing was excellent and Cowan himself was an exceptional researcher and master of the more outre disciplines and beliefs of some of the more “uncivilized” corners of the human species.


Dornford Yates (1885-1960)

The Pleydell family went to Paris for a holiday in the 1930’s and were having a fun time, when one evening a friend that they had met in one of the clubs dosed their champagne with sleeping powder and stole all their jewelry and a string of pearls with a long, honored history.  The pearls belonged to Jill, the Duchess of Padua, Jonah Mansell’s sister, and a cousin of Bertram Pleydell, known familiarly as “Berry”.  The friend’s name was Casca de Palk, and was suspected even though he pretended to be unconscious like the others.  After lamenting for a while, they all decided to pursue the thief:  Casca had run off to southern France, near Pau.  Consulting some of their sources in the Surete, Berry discovered that the jewels would probably be offered to a fence, the most likely being one that lived in Chicago.  They investigated and found out that a man named Wokely, a known agent of the Chicago dealer,  would be arriving in Tours from America in the next few days.  Traveling to that city, it was discovered that Wokely would be meeting Palk in a certain hotel room almost immediately.  Realizing that the building next to the hotel was empty, Berry and Boy (his brother-in-law) broke into it one night, climbed to the roof, and saw Casca talking to Wokely, presumably about selling the valuables.  In the process, they both got soaked from a passing rainstorm, and accidentally slid down into a gutter filled with mud and tar.  Covered with goo, they returned to meet the others.  A certain amount of derision ensued; after some more inquiries, the crooks are traced to a small town near Pau in the northern Pyrenees.

They drive down in two vehicles, a Rolls and a Lowlander (Rover, maybe?) and have fun chasing their enemies through western France, and being chased themselves.  At lunch one day, in a rural cafe, they are accosted by a giggling, maniacal male figure who attached themselves to the group and wouldn’t be dislodged until Boy and Berry take him for a ride across 100 kilometers of wasteland into a forest and leave him there, using trickery and deception to leave him stranded.  Later they find out that this person was named “Auntie Emily”, a notorious hired gun who liked to shoot people.

After finding a hotel near the border, they encounter Casca again, and engage in a road race, chasing him and his colleagues up and down a rolling highway, through fields of grain and cow pastures.  In a hilarious episode, Berry manages to follow Casca and Wokely away from the car, after a flat tire, into a patch of woods, where he sees Casca drop a small leather bag into a hollow tree.  Berry creeps into a ditch and crawls through a slimy muddy bog, while being tormented by black flies and hornets, in order to get close enough to overhear the conversation between the two.  But he’s still too far away to pick up any information.  After they leave, he investigates the hollow stump in which the bag was dropped and discovered that the pearls are in it.  After retrieving them he returns to the ditch. Delicately throwing his coat over the hornet nest he found there, he carries it back to the stump and drops it in.  From a distance the Pleydells observe Casca, covered with stings and mud, running madly over the grassy fields, waving his arms and yelling obscenities.

After more episodes resembling the above, the Pleydells and Auntie Emily and his cohorts have a final rendezvous at the Spanish border.  Casca has made arrangements to sell the rest of the jewelry to Wokely and his companions, the exchange to take place on a local mountain top.  Berry and Boy get there first and find out about another road leading to the trysting spot and they make plans to foil the bad hats.  They dress up as old ladies and drive up the road just ahead of the felons’ car.  But they want to stay well ahead of them, as they have a surprise planned.  The previous day, they had found a large pine tree overhanging the road, and had partly cut it through so it could be shoved down onto the road in a few seconds.  So they wanted to stay ahead a certain distance so their car could pass under the tree before it was used to block the road.  So, just before the two vehicles get to the ambush spot, Berry, driving, starts screaming and waving his arms and allows the car to reverse direction, shooting backwards and forcing the following auto into a ditch.    Then he re-engages the transmission and drives back up the hill, past the tree, which is felled across the road thus trapping Auntie Emily and company.  All goes as planned:  they arrive at the top, discard their attire and have a shoot-out with the belated criminals, gain possession of the remaining jewels, and escape via the Rolls which has been parked on the alternate road they discovered earlier.

I’ve read a few of Yates books and like them a lot.  He has an approachable writing style and a vivid imagination.  His descriptions drag the reader into action and he has a gift for brilliant evocation.   Describing the Pyrenees:  “a screen of unimaginable beauty, of dreamy spires and shadowy battlements, of peeping domes and keeps and galleried belvederes, rising and falling in disarray and exquisite as to make architecture seem an art not so much lost as never yet acquired.”

The Pleydells are the chief characters in Yates’ short stories and in two novels.  Most of  the action in these occurs in France.  He has an additional sequence of novels that has to do with another set of friends who have adventures in the Balkan regions.  If one’s taste leads to car chases in old open touring cars, gunfire, mysterious caverns and tunnels, remote Bavarian villages, thwarting villains and rescuing maidens, these books should prove quite satisfactory.

I should mention Berry’s extraordinary and brilliant repartee:  his ability to express himself in superbly brainy and picturesque language, that he humorously and ironically uses to complain about the various mishaps that occur to him is amazingly funny, and better than any of that sort of thing that i’ve ever read.


Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

Ijon Tichy (Jonathon Peace, in Czech) has just gotten back from the Calf constellation when he is tagged for another expedition to the moon.  Earth’s most experienced astronaut, he is enlisted to solve a lunar mystery.

To wit:  the cold war on Earth had reached a point at which conflicts were conducted but not resolved, solely through and by giant assemblages of computers.  Computer tanks, soldiers, rockets, bombs, all were invented and deployed by the various political cyber-antagonists inhabiting the planet.  But reason of a sort assumed sway after a long period, and somehow the combatants agreed to move all the war machinery to the moon.  And for a long time, astronomers and concerned statesmen observed the moon battles apprehensively, fearing that earth might once more be drawn into the fierce lunar fireworks.  But time passed, and the uproar on the moon subsided, and eventually disappeared, causing the leaders of the various earth factions some alarm, due to not being able to see what was actually transpiring up there.  So it was decided to send someone to investigate.

Robots, called “remotes” had been invented:  duplications of humans that could be operated by a person through radio technology were used to explore hostile environments and hazardous situations.  A series of missions had been sent to the moon to search out clues as to what was occurring on the silent planetoid, but no results had been obtained for one reason or another.  So when Tichy returned from the aforesaid constellation, the space authorities were eager to enlist his services for another try.

When Ijon arrived on the moon, he sent his remote down from the orbiting spaceship to check out the situation in several different locales, but he couldn’t find a sign of any activity;  only minute particles of logic bits and electronic minutia were discovered.  So Tichy decided to look into the matter himself.  He donned a spacesuit and descended to the surface to poke around.  Leaning over a sort of cyber-boulder, something struck him on the head and he woke up back in the ship.  Fumbling about in the entry port, he noted that his suit was covered with some sort of dust.

Back on Earth, scientists examining Tichy realized that somehow his brain had been split into two parts, that the corpus callosum had been severed, so that the right half of his brain no longer knew what the left was doing or thinking.  Since the left side has to do with present imagining and manipulation of the world outside of the brain, it was dominant.  But the right side had past memories, even though it had no control over speech or the right side of the body.  Since the memories of the right brain were not available to the left side, Tichy was not able to tell what had happened. After a long period of struggle, involving consultations with psychologists and neurologists, Ijon was incarcerated in a sort of asylum, and his left brain learned to communicate with the right side through Morse Code.

Some time later, talking to various inmates during a black-out, Tichy found out that the cyber-structure of the Earth, all the computers, electronic devices, including data storage centers, communication networks, traffic lights, telephone systems, and camera installations had ceased to operate.  It was as if the whole of modern society had been physically transported back into the early nineteenth century.  The catastrophe brought the electronic substructure of the world to a screeching halt:  bank accounts were wiped out, the legal system ceased to function, government stopped governing, no more hospitals or social services or cars or…

It took awhile before what had happened was understood.  One of the remotes used by Tichy and others while on the moon had been made of miniature bits of powder, actually small biocircuits, that operated on command to form whatever sort of spacesuit the astronauts wanted.  When Ijon was on the moon, this was the kind of suit that he had worn.   Apparently the latent bits and pieces of logic circuitry and tiny digital elements accumulating on the lunar surface as a result of the continual wars, had been evolving into a sort of primordial soup that was possessed of a kind of consciousness, and this cloud of fragments had coalesced with Tichy’s powder suit and created a viral soup with basic self-awareness.  So when this powdery substance arrived back on Earth, it was freed into the atmosphere, and proceeded to spread out and disrupt all the electronic circuitry on the planet.  Its influence expanded at a logarithmic rate and in no time civilization as it was known had vanished.  Thereby creating eternal peace on earth.

This was book was a lot more complicated than i’ve described it above.  The narration was disjointed and temporally discontinuous.  But i liked it anyway, because Lem has such a creative and fantastic imagination;  his body of work is pretty original in the science fiction universe, and is replete with startling and novel ideas.  There are about ten books featuring Tichy as heroic space pilot, and i’d recommend any of them to anyone interested in the:  well, i won’t say bizarre, but definitely outre, creations inhabiting Lem’s cosmos.  His output was large but only a small fraction of his books are available in English.  I think “Mortal Engines” is his most accessible work.  I wish i spoke Polish.  If any publisher reads this, i hope they take the hint…