With Margaret the First, Danielle Dutton Offers Readers a Fascinating and Unique Portrait
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The problem with the “contemporary novel set in the past” is that it often encourages us to judge the past according to the standards of the present. This is fine if the novel is nothing but a contemporary one in historical clothing, but if it biographically treats a historical figure whose behavior was, for all her idiosyncrasies, a product of her time, then it runs the risk of unfairly comparing her against modern-day expectations, mores, and conventions. To a certain extent, this is what happens to the Duchess of Newcastle in Danielle Dutton’s second novel, Margaret the First. Painting the life of Margaret Cavendish as she grows from the daughter of prominent Civil-War-era Royalists to the first ever woman in England to write published works, it frames her as a social pioneer of sorts. Yet even though she emerges as a figure who demonstrates that women were much more capable than Stuart England ever gave them credit for, her overall detachment and passivity mean she falls far short of qualifying as a proto-feminist, of being someone who displayed the kind of social engagement and activism we expect from our contemporaneous crusaders for equal rights.
In other words, even though Catapult have described Margaret the First as a “contemporary novel set in the past,” Margaret Cavendish was certainly not a ‘contemporary feminist’ lost in 17th Century Britain. Still, the novel and its acute prose illustrate why the Duchess was such a fascinating and unique figure, seaming lucid realism and surreal fantasy into a portrait of a woman who transcended the stiff conformity of Ye Olde England largely because her dreamy lightness had never inhabited it in the first place.
Dutton brings this out subtly yet affectingly in the early years she reimagines for Margaret. Her father dying when she was only two years old, the majority of her family perishing in quick installments after the outbreak of the English Civil War, she finds herself without a strong male influence during her infancy, and then without a family influence as she settles into adulthood. As Dutton appears to hint, it’s this removal of roots that enables her rootless self and equally rootless thought to develop, to nurture the possibility that the “world was not so easily explained by a tutor’s reason.” Without strong familial presences to shape her life, she begins reading and daydreaming a great deal, plunging into such childhood reveries as that of “an invisible world” housed in “river-foam bubbles,” where the “Bubble-children grew up and bore children of their own.”
In many ways, the novel softly backlights her whimsical character as an escape from the stresses and anxieties of being prematurely bereaved from a parent. For example, when she’s sent at the age of nine to visit her older sister Mary in London, she dispels the exaggerated fear that her mother might die while she’s away by entertaining herself with the pleasant image of “a floating dinner on a barge upon the Thames.” Yet at the same time, her flights of fancy are also an escape from the political situation that’s erupting around her as the novel opens, this situation being the overthrow of the monarchy by a certain Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads. As she’s forced to flee England’s turmoil and sail to Paris, she uses Twelfth Night as a springboard to envision her new situation: “washed ashore in a strange new world and dressed like a man.”
This quote is key, because it underlines the complexity with which the Duchess is invested in Margaret the First. Not only do the strains and traumas of her unsettled existence activate her escapist, blue sky thinking, but they end up providing her with the material and inspiration for a new identity of her own, one that doesn’t simply defer to family and to men. Slightly earlier in the novel, she pictures herself “married to a celebrated general, but that days after the wedding my husband would fall in battle, so that I […] would have no choice but to rally his troops and lead them onto the field.” Here, the pain of her father’s demise returns to her in the figure of a fallen general, yet at the same time it points her towards a nobler, more glorious life, in which she can pursue the independence that’s already been foisted on her by fate.
And she does eventually accede to this nobler existence, coming to marry the then-Marquess of Newcastle (William Cavendish) in 1645 and writing the first of her books in 1653. The latter was called Poems & Fancies, a collection of poetic and prosaic musings on natural philosophy, love, honor, death, and other worlds. As Dutton humorously envisages in a two-page chapter, its publication in London generates a “tidal wave of gossip” among the general English public, partly because it addressed odd themes like “vacuums and war,” partly because Margaret’s odd “spelling did astonish,” and partly because it was just downright odd that “a lady had published at all.” Yet it nonetheless comes to the attention of such luminaries as the Dutch mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens, thereby providing Margaret with enough motivation to dive further into her newfound career.
From here the novel becomes more layered and engrossing, delicately implying that as her public reputation balloons and she publishes more “various and extravagant” tomes like The World’s Olio, Margaret becomes more disconnected from the everyday world around her. Unable to bear children for her “ceaseless, sleepless” husband, who’s occasionally so busy he appears “to her a stranger dressed in her husband’s skin,” she loses many of her links to mundanity and her worldly future within it. She falls “asleep by day, the bed as dark as night,” and when she wakes, Dutton brusquely suggests that “her dreaming filled the chamber.” These abstracted tendencies are partly the fallout from her unstable circumstances, which see her shipped from London to Paris to Antwerp and then to the secluded Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, where “[e]ach hour that passed with no ink from her quill was a quiet affliction, a void.” Even so, she takes very little interest in people when she has the chance to meet them, save for ‘devotees’ like the poet Richard Flecknoe who “knew her work and praised it to her face.”
It’s because of this self-absorption and mild vainglory that the force and resonance of the book is diluted somewhat. Because of her distanced vanity, the reader can’t help but suspect that her writing is not so much something she employs to address the world and change its prejudices for the better, but simply another route she uses to absent herself from it. Even if she was writing “all-female plays for an all-female troupe,” she “never meant them to be staged,” and neither does she really speak to another person about the role of women in English society nor encourage any of the women she encounters to think or act for themselves like she does. It’s because of these failures that sympathy for her is often lost, irrespective of Dutton’s artful ability to invest her character with plenty of intriguing nuance and dimensionality (e.g. the “she felt a certain stirring” line that appears in the account of her plays insinuates that she may have harbored lesbian tendencies).
Of course, it may be rejoindered that Cavendish was alive at a time when even aristocratic women would have been laughed out of the room if they’d argued directly that the sexes should be accorded equal rights. However, given that the book is “very much a contemporary novel,” it’s hard to avoid holding her up to the standards of today and feeling for her (or not) accordingly. In some respects, Dutton may indeed be prodding us toward a recognition of Cavendish’s faults, what with all the references to the Duchesses’s obliviousness and disconnection she inserts throughout the life-spanning text. At one point, the following two sentences are placed above and below each other, emphasizing Margaret’s remoteness from the very life of her country in the most succinct and staccato two paragraphs imaginable:
Cromwell was dead.
I was at my desk.
Later, she attends one of her husband’s plays in a topless dress, without seemingly realizing that the sight of her naked breasts in a theater would have caused a tizzy. But even without such examples of her maladroit ignorance of and indifference to society, her divorce from reality is highlighted by her attitude to science, which as Dutton vibrantly depicts was still fledgling at the time. She completely disdains it, calling “microscopy a brittle art,” despite the suspicion that she’s uncomfortable with it simply because its matter-of-fact coldness and brute reductionism threatens the fantastical world she’s built around her. In fact, it’s via science that Dutton presents the most abiding image of her incapability or unwillingness to translate the alleged progressivism of her writing into actual debate or discourse. She becomes the first women to visit the Royal Society near the very end of the novel, but rather than comment intelligently on what was presented to her or criticize “their artificial delusions,” she “said nothing!”
With this nothing, she ends up identifying herself as someone whose interest resides mainly in her eccentricity, and not in any attempts she could have made to contribute substantially to national conversations. As the novel concludes, she’s neither a progressive nor a feminist, but rather a titled aristocrat who was simply able to take advantage of her privileged status to indulge her taste for colorful literature, without ever seeking to extend this privilege to other members of her sex. However, rather than confirming her as the “Mad Madge” of the (newborn) newspapers, Dutton’s profile constructs her as a fully formed, complicated human being, as a woman whose interests and inclinations stem from a complex personal history. It’s this profile that’s the star of the novel as much as its subject, since it deftly weaves together primary and secondary sources to form a wholly integrated, believable and gripping account of a woman who didn’t belong to the times in which she was born, not least because these times were too volatile for her to ever plant herself in them.
Yes, she may not have effected any radical change during her own life, but this same account does movingly relate that she was buried in Westminster Abbey, where her dedication reads, “This Duchess was a wise, witty and learned lady, which her many books do well testify.” This reveals that she managed to win over at least some admirers before her death, and that Stuart England immortalized her as an example and a role model to the generations of female writers that followed her. Thanks to Margaret the First and Danielle Dutton’s elegance with words, this may continue for many more generations to come.