There has been much hype surrounding Danielle Dutton’s novel Margaret the First, a fictionalization of the life of Margaret of Cavendish, an eccentric and precocious protofeminist, courtier, author and generally accomplished woman. The novel reads part bildungsroman, part autobiography, part tone poem. Organized into short chapters, each of which serves a singular purpose in describing Cavendish’s circumstances and inquisitiveness, the novel is a carefully-controlled psychological portrait of Cavendish as she grows from young girl into outspoken marchioness.
The first surprise—the first thing that hit me—upon encountering Margaret the First was the length of the book. For the immensity of Margaret of Cavendish’s personality, I was expecting a book at least twice as long. From this initial reaction I was greeted by the novel’s first sentence (after the prologue):
Leaving London; the busy road before us morphs to gorse and broom, sheep in grass, cottagers spinning and weaving, till Colchester looms at last, its Norman castle high above the crumbling Roman wall, and houses scattered down to the River Colne, the port of the Hythe, the town a full mile from side to side.
It’s a doozie, dense and beautiful; there’s lilting repetition, internal and end rhyme, much localizing flavor. The presence of Cavendish herself is immediately felt, and I imagined that, though the book itself seemed at the outset disproportionately small, the prose would be disproportionately rich.
These flourishes, however, are deployed sparingly, and for the most part the novel’s prose is taut and efficient. The narrative bounds along accordingly, following Margaret from England to France, then to Belgium as civil war rages in England, and finally back to England once more, where Margaret wrote The Blazing World, perhaps her most important work.
Dutton builds on the existing knowledge of Margaret of Cavendish—the sources listed at the back are secondary—and seamlessly incorporates many of Margaret’s own words from her correspondence and writings. This, combined with the varying distance of the first person POV, makes the story feel historically transcendent, as though it is happening both at once and also from a distance of great retrospect. Dutton’s novel succeeds in adding a layer of psychological depth to the historic Margaret, allowing us into an ancient mind and a foreign body, to imagine what she was feeling and thinking while she produced her words and works, all that remain of Margaret today.
Margaret of Cavendish was ahead of her time, and she suffered for it; the drama of an author’s struggles with publication, critical reception, and acceptance in a world run by men remains quite relevant today.