This isn’t your typical historical novel, but its protagonist Margaret Cavendish wasn’t your typical 17th century English aristocrat either. Attendant to Queen Henrietta Maria and married to William Cavendish, First Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, she could have spent her days reclining on a chaise lounge. Instead she engaged with the scientific, literary and philosophical ideas of her day by writing her own essays, plays and unconventional romances. Danielle Dutton has written an inventive fictional portrait of her life by delicately inhabiting this girl who grows up relatively care-free sketching stories and sharing a close relationship to her siblings. But she’s rudely awakened to the hard realities of the world when she experiences the death of family/friends, political conflict and torturous medical treatments that were meant to help her conceive after marrying. Gradually she’s inspired to make her thoughts and feelings known by publishing books which invigorate and challenge society. Showing a radical determination she declares: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone.” In pursuing her writing and ambition to be famous, this woman with a penchant for couture fashion achieved a level of notoriety and lasting influence on disparate groups of people over time – everyone from Virginia Woolf to Siri Hustvedt to animal rights activists.
Dutton tells Margaret’s story using a spare, impressionist style of narrative which recounts parties she attends and large societal shifts around her. While this feels at times confusing as it jolts through the ballrooms of history, it builds a meaningful feeling for Margaret’s developing sensibility and unique view of the world. She feels curiously estranged from her circumstances and seems to half live in a counter-world of her own creation (The Blazing World). Through depictions of her meditative writing process and desire for fame, Dutton shows how she strives to connect with the actual world around her. That she practically demands that everyone pay attention comes across as both brave and arrogant. However, the author clues the reader into the quiet centre of Margaret’s life through her distinct style of writing. So, even as the story rapidly progressed through the years, I felt wholly sympathetic for her struggle to be both seen and heard. This culminates in an emotional scene where Margaret became the first woman to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London.
It’s fascinating how Margaret’s relationship with William Cavendish is depicted. He’s a man who was thirty years her senior and she inhabited an unsteady social/familial position being his second wife. Although he’s renowned as a man of high social standing and wealth, she discovers he secretly struggles with enormous money problems. This obviously creates challenges for them, but he’s amenable to her desires and fancies. William supports her writing but he’s nonetheless susceptible to the misogynistic prejudices of the time. It makes it difficult for Margaret to reconcile her feelings about him so that sometimes “He appeared to her a stranger wearing her husband’s skin.” It could have been easy to depict William as a certain type of villainous character, but I admire how Dutton treats him with the same level of empathy as she does her charismatic heroine.
It’s interesting to think about this book in comparison to Alexander Chee’s recent novel “Queen of the Night” which also depicts a flamboyant society woman from history (the Comtesse de Castiglione). Both meditate on the degree to which cutting-edge fashion and an obsession with self-image present different aspects of these women’s unique personalities. However, where Chee is dramatically expansive and lingers on sumptuous detail, Dutton is intensely concentrated. Overall, “Margaret the First” is a lively creation which crystallizes the lavish interior reality of a historical woman and the challenges she faced to make her ideas known amidst stultifying social conventions. It spoke to me strongly about the tension between our inner and outer world, the challenge of bridging the gap between the two and the slow burning effects of ambition. At one point she ardently contemplates “I have made a world, she thinks, for which nobody should blame me.” This feels to me like an incredibly liberating statement because it radically declares the validity of our individual perspectives and private being apart from other people’s expectations and judgement. “Margaret the First” is an inspiring, joyous novel that pays tribute to the complexities of our interior lives.