"I AM NOT COVETOUS," wrote Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish in her 1666 book The Blazing World, "but as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which is the cause, That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First."
Danielle Dutton takes the title for her new novel from this declaration, indicative as it is of its author's ambition. Cavendish wasn't fucking around: She was the first woman in England to write for publication, which (along with some wacky sartorial choices) ensured that she became the subject of much gossip and controversy in 17th-century England. Some of her offenses—attending the premiere of her husband's play in a topless dress with her nipples painted red, the ur-nude selfie?—were legitimately shocking. Others—writing books! Wearing a dress with a train to meet the queen! Being shy!—were not. But Margaret's greatest offense, and what makes her such a fascinating figure, was what reads on the page as her greatest virtue: her completely undiluted, at times deeply impractical ambition.
That fear of female ambition hasn't gone anywhere (just ask Hillary Clinton), and in this sense, Margaret the First's ruminations on how a woman with ambition is treated are about as contemporary as you can get, even as they appear amid descriptions of horrifying 17th-century medical practices (So. Many. Leeches.), an abundance of curtsies, and the goofy projects—like depriving a bird of oxygen to see what might happen!—that at the time passed for high-brow scientific experimentation. Though Cavendish is perhaps best known for her cameo in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, these surreal signifiers of the period in which she lived put Margaret the First more in line with a different book by Woolf: her funniest, Orlando, the story of a young aristocratic man who becomes a woman, which inhabits a world that seems superficially ordinary, with moments of fantastic strangeness.
Within this world, Dutton portrays Cavendish as an eccentric, fallible proto-feminist. She seems less interested in Cavendish's genius than her ambition, or perhaps her ambition is her genius: After all, Cavendish's near-pathological belief that her life was worth writing about was in itself notable at a time when women were just beginning to break into what would go on to become the Western canon of literature.
She was the first woman in England to write for publication, but others followed. Though the poets of the 17th century often make for dry reading (probably the only one most of us have read is John Donne, whose objectively gross extended metaphor "The Flea" is a staple of high school English departments), they defy expectation in that THEY WEREN'T ALL DUDES. Lady Mary Wroth, Countess of Pembroke Mary Herbert, Aphra Behn (who was also a spy), Anne Bradstreet, and Aemilia Lanyer were all actively writing and publishing during the 1600s. Though their writings' mere existence was revolutionary, to a modern reader it's not exactly a joy to read. As with most of the metaphysical poets of that era, their plays, poems, and autobiographies (autobiographies were HUGE) are especially dense and difficult to parse, full of irregular spelling and infuriating punctuation.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that appreciating the significance of a literary work and appreciating the work itself are often two different things. But by embedding Margaret Cavendish's own text into a fictitious account, and by fleshing out that fictionalized world so skillfully, Dutton refreshes Cavendish's words for a contemporary audience, rendering them relevant and powerful once more. They gain a kind of traction within the narrative that the confines of a Bible-paged Norton Critical Edition simply cannot provide. They become accessible, personal, and perhaps most importantly, they elevate Margaret the First from mere historical fiction to a hybrid of literary criticism and novel.
Near the beginning of Margaret the First, Dutton quotes from Samuel Pepys, who once said of Cavendish, "The whole story of this lady is a romance, and everything she does." Who knows if this was true of the real Cavendish—and who cares? As she appears on the page in Dutton's cool, clean prose, it's undeniable.
Margaret the First
by Danielle Dutton
In conversation with Alexis M. Smith Annie Bloom's Books, 7834 SW Capitol, Wed April 6, 7 pm