20 March 2016
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
Margaret the First dramatizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, the shy, gifted, and wildly unconventional 17th-century Duchess. The eccentric Margaret wrote and published volumes of poems, philosophy, feminist plays, and utopian science fiction at a time when “being a writer” was not an option open to women. As one of the Queen’s attendants and the daughter of prominent Royalists, she was exiled to France when King Charles I was overthrown. As the English Civil War raged on, Margaret met and married William Cavendish, who encouraged her writing and her desire for a career. After the War, her work earned her both fame and infamy in England: at the dawn of daily newspapers, she was “Mad Madge,” an original tabloid celebrity. Yet Margaret was also the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London—a mainstay of the Scientific Revolution—and the last for another two hundred years.
Margaret the First is very much a contemporary novel set in the past, rather than “historical fiction.” Written with lucid precision and sharp cuts through narrative time, it is a gorgeous and wholly new narrative approach to imagining the life of a historical woman.
Back when I thought I was going to back and pick up a PhD in literature (as one does), I took a graduate-level course in Restoration literature. Included in the reading list was this very curious piece of writing, The Blazing World. It was written by one Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, and is considered to be the one of the first science fiction genre novels. So when Liberty mentioned there was this new historical novel based on Margaret's life you can bet I was all over that in a hot second.
Margaret the First is a gorgeous historical novel, so very lush for such a slim book (also that beautiful cover). I really loved how Dutton managed to combine her own prose and imagining of Margaret's inner life with that of Margaret's own writing - and Margaret started writing and publishing because her husband was broke (penniless Royalists were not uncommon at the time, but Margaret was a bestselling writer who miraculously kept them afloat). There's a great deal of attention paid to the fact that Margaret cannot do the one thing expected of her - settle down and be a baby-making factory - and all the really ghastly treatments that she and her husband William go through to boost their fertility (which probably made everything worse). All that sort of distills into the visions Margaret has that find their way into her writing. What would she have created had she been given the education men received?
Go order this beautiful book - out from Catapult Press.
Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.