And yet, I knew nothing of Margaret Cavendish when I picked up this book. Nor did I have any expectations regarding Dutton’s writing style or really the genre of the book itself.
The novel is a merging of literary and historical fiction that unravels the tale of 17th-century Duchess, Margaret Cavendish. She was a feminist before the word possessed any meaning. She was the first (and only, I believe) woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London. She dressed with ostentation that outshone anyone else of the time — 8 foot trains, topless ballgowns, small patches on her face shaped like moons and stars. She was whimsical and thoughtful and learned, despite never attending a university. She published eccentric novels and plays — works of philosophy, penning the first science fiction / fantasy novel written by a woman and a score of feminist plays. She wrote in a time when women did not have careers.
Dutton provides us with a portrait of Margaret’s rise — from shy child to bold . Of course, Margaret is both insulated and constrained by her rank. She forms connections that would elude any layperson, yet she must abide by the strict customs of her class — lest gossip destroy her. And it almost does, several times.
Dutton also illuminates the Duke and Duchess’ flaws. They are real people who fought and disagreed, but who also never halted in their support of one another — even with Margaret couldn’t get pregnant, even when her husband is exiled during Cromwell’s Puritan regime. Their devotion and kindness to each other seems to transcend their time period — it was an unconventional, much like everything Margaret did.
Dutton’s novel, though short, was an all-engrossing read. The language is vivid and poetic. The pacing, perfection. Her short, staccato paragraphs left me more satisfied than any long-winded description. There is none of the tedium sometimes associated with historical fiction, but a sense of place is still sufficiently maintained throughout.
The beginning of the book provides us with insight into how Margaret views herself — “Queen of the Tree-People.” Then, a shift occurs, she becomes an object of speculation, a celebrity of sorts, and we begin to observe how she is viewed from the outside.
She climbs the wooden staircase, takes her place in the box. And like ripples in a summer pond, lines of faces slowly turn—from the gallery, the pit—she watches the ripple spread.
The Duchess of Newcastle becomes a tabloid celebrity, when such a thing was still being invented, and it seems to have been invented entirely for her.
The question that gnawed at me from beginning to end was Margaret’s pseudo-obsession with fame. I suppose I never really considered fame as an important construct in 17-century England, but of course it was. So, was she a modern woman, a feminist fighting to champion her sex — or was she simply attempting to garner a reputation that would outlive her?
Margaret the First is intimate and glorious and tantalizing and I want to read and re-read it several times over. I also think I may have to embark on further investigation of Margaret Cavendish.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Recommended For: anyone who has struggled with finding their place in the world, lovers of poetic prose and literary fiction