Margaret the First

By Danielle Dutton


March 2016

Reviewed by Sarah Hogan


It's a banner year for early modern literature; last April the world over was honoring the 400th death day of William Shakespeare, while this year, conferences across the UK and US are devoted to the 500th anniversary of Thomas More's genre-defining Utopia. Danielle Dutton's fantastic new historical novel, Margaret the First, reminds us that 2016 also marks the 350th year of another canonical utopian text, Margaret Cavendish's The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World.

In the preface to her Restoration-era imaginary travelogue, Cavendish turns the conventional, anticipated topos of authorial humility on its head, instead declaring her grandiose ambition in writing:

[T]hough I cannot be as Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavor to be Margaret the First; and although I have no power, time or occasion to conquer the world as Alexander and Caesar did; yet rather than not be Mistress of one, since Fortune and the Fates would give none, I have made a World of my own . . .

Margaret the First narrates the story of this would-be monarch and creatoress—albeit of an invented world—and her incomplete transformation from shy provincial aristocrat to one of the defiant "Judith Shakespeares" of seventeenth-century England. Although "only" a Duchess, Margaret's life was in fact one of many firsts: she was the first English woman to publish books of Natural Philosophy, she was a veritable pioneer in what would later be known as science fiction writing, and in the spring of 1667, she was—as Dutton's novel depicts—the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society.

Dutton's portrait assumes the fanciful license Cavendish herself adopted and defended, in a lyrical, interior rendering of one of the most fascinating characters in British literary history. Cavendish herself had a habit of describing all Nature as made of "moving parts" both "Rational and Sensitive," self-knowing and self-unknown; Dutton's heroine's verdant, inquiring mind includes both moving parts. Yet the authoress' seemingly autonomous inner and other worlds also collide with the great events of the seventeenth century, the English Civil War and the development of New Science, history here reimagined from the vantage point of a royalist woman writer, uniquely involved in and excluded from its making.

The choice of subject is a natural fit for Dutton, who is the co-founder and editor of Dorothy, a "publishing project" for experimental fiction primarily by women, as well as the author of the collection, Attempts at a Life (2007) and the novel, S P R A W L (2011). In interviews, Dutton traces the novel's inspiration to Virginia Woolf's memorable (if not entirely kind) discussion of Cavendish in A Room of One's Own, as a "vision of loneliness and riot . . . as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death." But if Dutton's fiction narrates Cavendish's against-all-odds path to publishing, and the world that threatens to thwart her, this Margaret is hardly Woolf's example of the nonsense and folly that results from stymied brilliance. Dutton's Margaret, in her quest for singularity, and in her marginalization from masculine learning, self-fashions a persona large enough to defend nonsense as brilliance, fiction as reason.

Contemporary readers of Cavendish will know that all of her work—no matter genre—is a strange mixture of absurdity and vision, but so too, as Dutton reminds us, was early modern medicine. Nor was Cavendish the only natural philosopher to invent imaginary worlds: John Wilkins wrote of lunar colonies, Thomas Hobbes penned a famous myth about the state of nature, even the Royal Society was first imagined as a utopian fiction by Francis Bacon in The New Atlantis, the story of a lost island ruled by autocratic scientists. Indeed, in Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe, Mary Baine Campbell argues that texts like The Blazing World reveal how the histories of imaginative literature and science had a "mutually determining emergence."

Perhaps most impressive is that Dutton's prose, while characteristically controlled and compact, still captures the fecundity of Cavendish's own imagination. The authoress' flights of fancy here spring from the soil, a version of Cavendish that grounds her protean imagination in her observational desire to understand the hidden worlds of nature and matter, language flexing to order the disorder. Time passes seasonally, forever freezing and melting; this is the seventeenth century observed through an untrained but astute animist's eye.

Throughout the novel, Dutton also skillfully recontextualizes Cavendish's own language, often bringing subtext into focus. In a memorable passage, she repurposes Cavendish's more general defense of women's intellect—"Some Ground, though it be Barren by Nature, yet, being well muck'd and well manur'd, may bear plentifull Crops, and sprout forth divers sorts of Flowers"—now less a call for good husbandry and instead a transformational self-declaration: Dutton's Margaret pens the line just as she gives up hope of having children and decides instead to labor in writing. Women writers of the era, like Anne Bradstreet, often portrayed their poetry as unwanted offspring, yet Dutton turns the barrenness of Cavendish's marriage into her own textual afterlife. It's an informed, insightful choice. When brazenly dedicating her Ground of Natural Philosophy to "all of the universities in Europe," Cavendish would refer to her book as "this beloved child of my brain." And in Cavendish's nineteen plays, none of her wedded heroines are mothers.

Dutton's experimental play with perspective also elegantly reflects Cavendish's own. The novel begins with first-person, short diaristic entries, which gradually stretch and shift to the third-person as Margaret invents herself anew by becoming a writer. Authorial selves similarly multiply and refract in The Blazing World; Cavendish is not content merely to frame herself as a heroic, shipwrecked empress, but halfway into her romance, she introduces a fictional Duchess of Newcastle, who befriends and acts as scribe to her other persona. Formally, Dutton re-renders Cavendish's plurality of selves in such a way that marks her textual self-reinvention coterminous with the public's farcical "Mad Madge," an image inflamed by Samuel Pepys' description of her as "a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman."  While the author courts fame, she unhappily becomes the fodder for Restoration print. Dutton's Cavendish, however, is far more than public spectacle, aligning closer to the Duchess's own expressed belief that "the Minds of Men are too obscure to be Known, and too Various and Inconstant to Fix a Belief in them, and since we cannot Know our Selves, how should we know Others?"

To be clear, Dutton's portrait is not overly generous. Cavendish is fittingly self-absorbed, positively vainglorious, and her view of the events of the English Civil War focused almost exclusively on her own, if very traumatic, losses of family and lands. She plays many—maybe most—of the parts in her own, lived closet drama. The invisible lives of matter, plants, and animals—whether Descartes' abused poodle or Robert Hooke's dissected flea—matter more to her than other people's complex interiorities. She is no lover of society and she has few friends, save her beloved husband William, while her fictional selves offer the only comfort of what other proto-feminist writers called the "community of good women." The expansiveness of Cavendish's imaginative, scientific thought is partly traced to the narrowness of her narcissism, depicted as the consequence of her chosen and classed isolation from others, as well as a sensible reaction to a society that shuns and silences unconventional women.

Still, Dutton shows this isolation as a source of productive discontent; by the end of the novel, Margaret is desperate for public approval—from female readers and especially the elite minds of Gresham College—a profound irony given that she professed to write for her own pleasure. A world of her own, where others are merely invited in to be her subjects or witness to her virtue, turns out to be a lonely world to inhabit.

Margaret the First, then, presents us with another Margaret Cavendish, more compelling because less caricatured than Pepys' or Woolf's or even the Duchess' own heroic self-fictions. Without diminishing her extraordinary accomplishments or taming her wild mind, Dutton's novel invites readers to imagine Cavendish's other possible selves, what she might have been had she lived in more utopian times.