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Margaret the First: A Novel, by Danielle Dutton.

November 17, 2015

Margaret the First: A Novel, by Danielle Dutton.  Catapult (2016), 160 pages.

4 stars

A fictionalized account of an eccentric aristocratic woman who supported the king in the English Civil War and protested the limits she experienced as a woman.

Margaret Lucas (1623-1673) was born into a Royalist family and served the queen in France during the English Civil War. While there she met and married William Cavendish, another English Royalist thirty years older than herself. They lived in Antwerp because he was in exile and his land taken by the English Parliament. With the restoration of royal rule, they returned to England. Eventually his land was returned to him, and he became Duke of Newcastle, making Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle or Lady Cavendish. Margaret was a truly unconventional woman, so much so that her contemporaries referred to her as “Mad Madge.”

What Danielle Dutton has accomplished by fictionalizing Margaret Newcastle is to make this strange and brilliant woman and her writing somewhat accessible to all of us. Dutton is a young writer from California who has already published two other novels as well as stories in major magazines. She also is an editor and teacher of creative writing. She is fascinated with the writing process and enjoys playing with words. Her own writing style is intense and experiential and well suited to convey Margaret’s own fanciful approach to language.

Margaret the First is told in the voice of Margaret herself. The title is one she one she gave herself to represent her view of herself as the equal of kings. She describes herself as a young girl as being shy and an ardent reader. Throughout her life she dressed in her own flamboyant style, a style recreated in her writing and in Dutton’s account.  Often her words flow out as a stream of consciousness. At times she deliberately blends analytic writing with fantasy.

William, Margaret’s husband, moved in the company of Enlightenment figures such as Hobbes and Descartes and other men who were beginning what we know as science. These men were laying the foundation of a world we know as modern. But the men did not include Margaret in their exciting conversations. For years she simply listened. Then she determined to ask her own questions, and to challenge the logical, “clocklike” version of the world they were assembling. “Hadn’t I thoughts, after all? A mind of my own.” She knew that other women wrote, but they simply circulated among themselves their “anonymous elegies for dead children or praise for noble husbands.” She set out to do more. Addressing the intellectual questions of her time, she published her ideas.

If atoms are so small, why not worlds within our own? A world inside peach pit? Inside a ball of snow? And

so I conjured one inside a lady’s earring, where seasons pass, and life and death, without the lady’s hearing.

Because she has had no formal education, Margaret ignored grammatical rules and asks why “grammar should be a “prison for the mind.”

Might not language be a closet full of gowns? Of a generally similar cut, with a hole for the head and neck to pass, but filled with difference and a variety of trimmings so that we don’t get bored?

She also challenge the new interests in experimental science, asking for example, whether enough knowledge was gained to offset the harm done in killing dogs.

A publisher saw Margaret’s manuscript as outrageous and sure to be read. He was right. While a few readers praised her writings, most were critical and viewed her with ridicule. Among her controversial words were those about how women were treated by men.

Men are so Unconscionable and Cruel against us, as they Indeavor to Barr us of all Sorts or Kinds of Liberty, as not to Suffer us freely to Associate amongest Our own sex, but would fain Bury us in their Houses or Beds, as in a Grave; the truth is, we Live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts and Die like Worms. [Quoted directly from Margaret’s text.]

Margaret was definitely a creature of her time and of her aristocratic class, yet her words strike a modern note. Today we are again challenging the ideals of the Enlightenment and the sciences which are based on them. Women still find their voices dismissed, especially by those who would define our world. Her words and those of Dutton strike responsive chords.

I recommend this book enthusiastically to those who enjoy words and language and who are open to their unusual uses.

I am grateful to Edelweiss for a digital review copy of this book.

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