In 1666 Margaret Cavendish wrote a science fiction work titled The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World, although it is better known by later readers as The Blazing World. It describes its female protagonist entering a wonderful world of talking animals and becoming its empress. In 2014, Siri Hustvedt, an American author of Norwegian origin, published a fictional piece with the same title, in which she refers to Cavendish as “that seventeenth-century monstrosity: a female intellectual … who staged herself as mask or masque.” According to Harriet Burden, the protagonist of Hustvedt's novel, Cavendish is a daring woman who set out to challenge patriarchal society. Likewise, Burden intends to challenge twenty-first century American patriarchy.
Hustvedt had already delighted the world with her extraordinary literary prowess in works of fiction such as The Blindfold, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, What I Loved, The Sorrows of an American, etc. before writing The Blazing World. A general tendency of her works is to describe intimately the inner world of her characters and The Blazing World is not different in this respect. However, both thematically and stylistically, it offers a new experience for readers in many ways. In this new book, Hustvedt takes Oscar Wilde's comment- “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” as a hypothetical statement for her protagonist's experiments and sets out to present a unique work.
Harriet Burden, Harry to her friends, carries out experiments with three male foils to disclose her secrets to the world. Burden, an American artist, fails to capture the imagination of art critics and spectators since she is judged exclusively by them on the basis of her sex, looks and wealth. Everywhere she is referred to as the wife of a rich art dealer husband. Embittered, she takes the challenge offered by a stereotyping world, and sets out to prove that the reception of her artworks is biased since cultural misogyny is prevalent in essentially male-dominated art world. Burden wants to show how a viewers' understanding of a work of art is influenced by his or her unconscious ideas about race, gender, celebrity status, etc.
Burden uses three male artists as her foils. While her art is widely celebrated through them, she herself remains hidden. She puts on her masks as tools of her vengeance. The connection with Cavendish is via a “house-woman,” an artwork Burden wants to create, and that she would call The Blazing World. Ultimately this world is presented as a pyre for a woman as she has to go through a blazing experience in it.
What a wonderfully articulated work of fiction this book is! Its narrative style is strikingly different from the ones we come across in typical novels. Siri Hustvedt presents her narrative as a research project she has undertaken on Burden's life. She thus creates a non-fictional atmosphere and begins the book with an editor's introduction, where she claims the work to be based on her research findings. Hustvedt goes on to narrate Burden's life through written statements and monologues of different persons related to Burden. Hustvedt also presents episodically Burden's notebook entries. These research elements unveil aspects of Burden's life and characteristics. At the same time readers notice the art critics' indifference to Burden's work and the way female artists all over America have been traditionally neglected. For instance, “although the number of women artists has exploded, it is no secret that New York galleries show women far less often than men.”
Indeed, the novel claims that the world has a general tendency to overlook all works of art. It even awaits a young artist's suicide, comments Burden in her notebook. However, the world is even more indifferent to women artists. Only a few get due recognition; most of them are treated as sexual objects; sometimes the appraisal of a women's work comes too late for her, that is to say, after she has died.
The feminist perspective of the book is apparent everywhere in its allusions to some pioneering feminists. Burden calls her mission 'Vindication of the Rights of Harriet Burden' in an obvious allusion to Mary Wolstonecraft's work. Similarly, Simon de Beauvoir is unmistakably invoked in the caricature of Burden, who hovers between motherhood and her artistic life. Burden's grudges regarding her father and husband are clear when she writes: “I hate you, father. I hate you, Felix. I hate you both for not seeing that truth, for not recognizing that I am the clever hero.” The influence of her mother on her personality also reminds one of feminist ideas about the development of the feminine self. Her masculine physique becomes an impediment to the feminine self, but it becomes a mark of identification in her later life. While everyone notices her appearance, nobody recognizes or appreciates her extraordinary knowledge of literature and art, which actually makes her unique but lonely in her profession. Her foes do not understand the language of her art, but her artwork survives the criticism of art critics and viewers (even if some of them are females). Burden terms this the “masculine enchantment effect” for it impacts on both male and female viewers. The immasculation of women is evidenced in the process. The cancer- affected Burden's last words to her granddaughter are, “Fight for yourself. Don't let anybody push you around.” Burden's death scene witnesses her final negation of the world, as she dies uttering 'No' thrice.
Readers not only get the pleasure of reading delightful fiction though this book but are also edified through it because of interesting information of all kinds in it. The innumerable footnotes in Burden's notebooks introduce us to a large number of artists, authors, philosophers, psychologists, etc. One also encounters ample quotations from various literary works that enrich the reader's mind, although it must be said that occasionally the writing becomes cumbersome because of the excessive use of long footnotes.
In an interview with The Guardian Hustvedt once said that she despised Donald Trump most. She declared that Americans have “an ignorant, vicious, vulgar, narcissistic, racist, woman-hating, xenophobic buffoon” as their president. She combats misogyny in The Blazing World with the same aggressive intent!
Sabiha Huq is Professor of English at Khulna University.