Margaret the First: A Novel

by Danielle Dutton

Paperback, 2016

Call number




Catapult (2016), Edition: Reprint, 176 pages


"Margaret the First dramatizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, the shy, gifted, and wildly unconventional 17th-century Duchess. The eccentric Margaret wrote and published volumes of poems, philosophy, feminist plays, and utopian science fiction at a time when 'being a writer' was not an option open to women."--Publisher website.

User reviews

LibraryThing member KateBaxter
This is a charming and poetic fictional account of the amazing life of Margaret Lucas Cavendish - Duchess of Newcastle. She was smart, intellectual and bold during the English Civil War of the 17th century and the peace time following. She was a feminist before her time; a celebrity (pretty much of
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her own devising) - bold and sassy. She was so highly regarded that she was the first woman (and only for two hundred years) to be invited to The Royal Society of London - a fellowship of distinguished scientists. Danielle Dutton's prose is painterly and she deftly presents a story of an intriguing and enigmatic female character of English history. Well done!

I am grateful to author Danielle Dutton, publisher Catapult and Goodreads Giveaway program for having provided a free Advance Reading Copy of this book. Their generosity, however, did not influence this review, the words of which are mine alone.

Synopsis (from book's back cover):
Margaret the First dramatizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, the shy, gifted, and wildly unconventional 17th-century Duchess. The eccentric Margaret wrote and published volumes of poems, philosophy, feminist plays, and utopian science fiction at a time when “being a writer” was not an option open to women. As one of the Queen’s attendants and the daughter of prominent Royalists, she was exiled to France when King Charles I was overthrown. As the English Civil War raged on, Margaret met and married William Cavendish, who encouraged her writing and her desire for a career. After the War, her work earned her both fame and infamy in England: at the dawn of daily newspapers, she was “Mad Madge,” an original tabloid celebrity. Yet Margaret was also the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London—a mainstay of the Scientific Revolution—and the last for another two hundred years.

Margaret the First is an intimate portrait of a woman whose life was a brilliant paradox, but who is largely unknown. Written with lucid precision and sharp cuts through narrative time, the novel also revels in the physicality of a garden or a gown, and turns tender in its rendering of family and marital ties.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This novel felt more like a teaser about the life of an interesting 17th-century English duchess. The author traces Margaret Cavendish's life through the English Civil War, exile, and restoration as Margaret forged an independent identity for herself as an author. Fascinating, but I wish this book
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had been longer, provided more detail, and developed the characters more. As it was, I felt as through the novel simply skimmed the surface of Margaret Cavendish's life, without providing much depth.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a biographical novel about Margaret Cavendish, a woman who lived during the English Civil War. She wrote books that some consider to be the first works of fantasy and science fiction, as well as plays. She was extremely eccentric.

Dutton puts the reader inside Margaret's very strange head.
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The writing is lush and poetic, and instead of presenting a clear narrative of events following events, we get a kaleidoscope of impressionistic images and feelings from Margaret's life. For people who want their biographical novels to be narrative and informative, this might be frustrating, but I found it delightful. She was an enigmatic character, and her biography is also appropriately enigmatic.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
Dutton's novel is a fictionalized biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. A shy and imaginative girl who enjoyed pondering the "unseen worlds" in cobwebs, stones, and drops of water on her family's country estate, Margaret's world changed forever with the onset of the English Civil
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War. She was sent to serve as a lady-in-waiting to queen Henrietta Maria; her family believed (and rightly so) that she was ill-suited to court life, but they also knew that she would be safer in the queen's retinue, which eventually fled to France. Margaret's family home was demolished, two brothers died fighting for the royalists, and even the bodies of her ancestors were dragged from their tombs and desecrated. Times were, indeed, dangerous.

At court, Margaret captured the attention of William Cavendish. Although thirty years her senior, he seemed to understand her and encouraged her inclinations towards philosophy and writing and often brought the greats of the day to dinner--Descartes, Hobbes, John Evelyn, and many others. In despair over her childlessness, Margaret began to write and became obsessed with the desire for fame. She published collections of poems, her thoughts on natural history and philosophy, and stories that are now considered the forerunners of modern science fiction. In her day, she was as notorious as she was famous: people called her "Mad Madge," in part because of her outlandish self-designed dress. Her work has sparked a renewed interest in recent decades; Virginia Woolf was one of the first to bring her to attention in the last century. She was also the first woman invited to address the Royal Academy.

Dutton does a fine job of creating Margaret's shaky world and of fleshing out her unusual personality (and that of her indulgent husband). I would encourage anyone interested in this book to also peruse some of Cavendish's own writing. As fantastical as it is, some considered her examination of "atoms" and other scientific phenomena to be quite logical and innovative in her day.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
This is a rather odd little book. Margaret the First is Margaret Cavendish, a duchess that lived during the British Civil War and Restoration. A rather fey child, she became a lady in waiting to the Queen, and stayed such during the Queen’s court in exile. At court she met and married William
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Cavendish, a man 30 years her senior. It was an enduring love match.

She became noted for her style of dress- she would design her own dresses, taking inspiration from the mossy forest floor or the like. During the time in the Low Countries, she met many noted thinkers, scientists, writers, and philosophers. When they were able to return to London, where there were books written in English, she became an autodidact, reading voraciously. She wrote almost ceaselessly- plays, poems, essays, and a novel or two- but of course she was not widely read; what could a woman write that could be of consequence, after all?

Margaret was a conundrum. She upstaged the first showing of her husband’s play by showing up at the theater topless, and stated that what she wanted was fame. Her conversation- or, more apt, her holdings forth- swung from physics to fairies. She wrote what might be considered the first science fiction novel, and was the first woman (*only* woman for 200 years) invited to a meeting of the Royal Society of London. She ranged from horribly shy to never shutting up. She is almost portrayed as bipolor in this novel, ranging from deep lows to frantic highs.

This is not the kind of historical fiction where the history takes precedence. The focus is on Margaret, with history happening around her in the background. At only 160 pages and with fast paced writing, the book can be read in a few hours. While not my favorite book in the world- I’d give it four stars out of five- it was a few hours well spent.
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LibraryThing member BraveNewBks
I am bowled over by this. I knew next to nothing about Margaret Cavendish when I started it, and by the end, I was determined to look up more.

In an era where women of noble birth were often little more than decorative objects, Margaret Cavendish wrote feverishly for most of her life, everything
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from wild flights of fancy to philosphical musings (and sometimes both, as when she reflected on the possibility that, given the size of atoms, there could be a whole microscopic world contained within a lady's earring). She paid for several of her books to be published, which were widely read and discussed (Samuel Pepys mentions her multiple times in his famous diaries). She argued with and criticized some of the foremost scientific thinkers of her day, despite having little to no education. She also was famous for her daring costumes (as examples, she sometimes wore black velvet stars and moons on her face, and once commissioned a dress for the theater that left the breasts exposed). In short, her life was nothing short of fascinating, all the more so for the way it flouted almost all the womanly conventions of her time.
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LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
Very enjoyable fictionalized account of Margaret Cavendish, writer-ahead-of-her-time. I'd love to follow this up with a real biography and/or her writing. Great for historical fiction readers of all stripes.
LibraryThing member wyattbonikowski
I was delighted to receive this book in a Goodreads Giveaway. I've been following Dutton's work as a writer, editor, and publisher of Dorothy, a publishing project, for a while now, and was greatly anticipating this novel to see how Dutton would handle the story of Margaret Cavendish. This is a
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wonderfully written novel that moves fluidly through time and Margaret's consciousness. While not a traditional historical novel, it nonetheless captures the essence of the moments of Cavendish's life, creating a portrait of an extraordinary, eccentric, brave, strange, fascinating woman.

As a fan and scholar of Virginia Woolf, I was also interested to read Dutton's appreciation for Woolf's work in interviews (Woolf's comments on Cavendish were, in part, inspiration for this novel). There is a wonderfully Woolfian quality at times in Margaret the First, not just in the rhythm of sentences and the charting of Cavendish's consciousness, but also in Woolf's ideas about women's writing and biography from her essays. This is all under the surface, though, and not necessarily anything one would pick up on unless one was looking for it.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
Beautifully written and quite enjoyable, but also difficult to recommend to anyone in particular. My wife read it first, not knowing anything about Margaret Cavendish. She thought it was okay, but she was very confused, because Dutton alludes to Cavendish's life and writing, but rarely fleshes out
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those allusions. Okay, I thought, I'll re-read a bit of Cavendish and a read bit about her before I read the novel.

But having done that, it's pretty clear that the character Margaret is nothing like the woman, Cavendish. This is quite intentional, as Dutton's author's note explains: "I am also indebted to the writing of Virginia Woolf... in whose life and work I unexpectedly found much inspiration for the woman who took shape inside this book." Woolf wrote two great essays about Cavendish, and it makes sense that Dutton, who is clearly interested in writing well (and does, in fact, write very well), should have appreciated Woolf's work.

The problem is that Woolf and Cavendish are so very, very different. What we have here is basically Woolf's personality in Cavendish's historical existence, and it's quite jarring. The world sees an eccentric, outgoing, flamboyant character: which is what you get from Cavendish's own clear, confident, world-encompassing prose. We, the readers of this novel, see Virginia Woolf, who was none of those things.

The book might be intended as an investigation of the difference between public perception and private reflection, but if that's the idea, it doesn't quite work. I'd have to re-read to work out why: is it a flaw in the work of art? Or is it just an unavoidable consequence of writing a book about a flamboyant English eccentric, based on the life and writing of a woman who, no matter how fascinating and intelligent, was externally quite conformist? Hard to know. But I'll be happy to re-read and find out.

[Don't even get me started on the ludicrous politics of this novel, though. This is the last time anyone will ever be allowed to ask me to sympathize with the plight of the wife of an 18th century English peer. The suffering of being inhumanly rich! The humanity!]
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LibraryThing member books-n-pickles
Dutton has successfully convinced me that Margaret Cavendish was a remarkable woman ahead of her time, a writer of philosophy, politics, science, plays, riddles, fantasy fiction, and a sensational figure in the London scene. What the author has not done is convinced me that you can fit an entire
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creative life into a novella, and certainly not one whose publishers have used the description to summarize Cavendish's life--and, therefore, the plot. Though Dutton does use lovely literary language and techniques, there is a list-like quality to this slim little volume that doesn't do this complex personality any favors.

I'm a very empathetic person so I read a lot of emotion into Cavendish's life whether it was there or not: her inability to have children, her frequent retreats to isolation even as her husband begged her to participate in society. Here is a portrait of depression if I ever saw one. But while Dutton seems able to convey both sadness and love of writing, she doesn't do much to speculate about the times when Cavendish splashed so spectacularly onto the scene: how she acquired and dared to display high and eccentric fashion sense when she spent so much of her life in isolation, and what drove her to finally engage in person with the scientific and philosophical minds of the day. Her later-in-life entry to society seems to come out of nowhere and is riddled only with her anxieties, not whatever it was that she must have liked about going about town if she continued to scandalize everyone.

Dutton integrates snippets of Cavendish's writings into the narrative to great effect, demonstrating how her spelling and grammar improved over time with her growing access to English-language reading. Summaries of Cavendish's plays and books, artistically done rather than sounding like the rote Wikipedia article that we get when famous personalities troop through her life, help us appreciate how her slice-of-life subjects, feminist vs. contemporary misogynist discourses, speculative fiction, and interrogation of the purpose of scientific discovery where so far ahead of her time. Dutton also, as she says in her author's note, integrates pieces of Virginia Woolfe's writing about Cavendish, to my frustration. Which pieces of Margaret the First are Dutton and which are Woolfe? Are the more literary passages that lean toward stream of consciousness or repeat sentences during the most monotonous days of Cavendish's life a product of Dutton's creativity or Woolfe's? True, I lean toward Dutton--but taking inspiration rather than direct (unmarked) quotation might have made me feel a bit less, well, inferior for how little I remember of "A Room of One's Own".

There is also a remarkable lack of invented characters in Cavendish's life. Historical fiction often speculates about the people neglected in the historical record, such as, ya know, women. But aside from Lucy, Cavendish's housemaid, and the historical records of women mention her in letters--accounts probably shaped by the intended recipients--we experience almost no speculation about her relationships with women. Considering that she wrote about how a marriage between women might be superior to a marriage between men (see below), this feels like a major oversight.

I do admire Margaret the First for what it does: introduce us to an often-overlooked woman actually allowed (yes, allowed) to express herself and her complex thoughts publicly in writing. But if there was ever a time when a book ought to be longer and more introspective, well, this is it.

Summary for self:

Margaret is one of the youngest (the youngest?) in a noble family. She is highly imaginative but also very shy and awkward. She writes funny little stories and binds them up, but her mother suggests she ought to set them aside once she hits puberty. Her Royalist family is at risk in the brewing English Civil War, so for safety she suggests that she join the Queen's court in Oxford. This turns out to be wise, as her family's estate is overrun. Marget then travels to Paris with the Queen and stays in the Louvre--though she is still largely solitary.

Eventually she makes a couple friends, and through them is introduced to her future husband, William Cavendish. He is quite a bit older than she is, but they form a quick attachment, and he woos her with poetry. Like many handsome, popular, literary men, his financials are wobbly at best, not least because his ancestral land has been claimed by the Parliamentarians. They live first in Paris, then in Amsterdam, where they entertain much high society and many intellectuals; Margaret listens and writes her own fancies but does not contribute much. As the years pass without children (despite William's children by a previous wife), Margaret turns more to writting--sometimes for her lady friends, sometimes for herself--poems, riddles, and plays. She seems to fall into a deep depression, rejecting society. Ultimately, she publishes her first book, though it does not make as much of a splash as she'd like. But William supports her writing, both the act and the publication.

When Cromwell dies and Charles reclaimes his father's throne, Margaret and William return to England...but her trunks, which included her life's work, are missing. This, along with their grim, poor lodgings, throws her into another depression, though she continues to write. When William's lands are finally restored, they retreat to the country where Margaret writes all the more. She revises her prevoius book (her spelling has greatly improved now that she can read books in English) and publishes new ones: plays, responses to the scientists of the day, and a grand philosophical work that some totally dismiss and others consider a rival to Utopia.

William's social climbing ambitions take them back to London, and it is here that I had the most difficulty with how scant the story seemed. Our shy, depressed Margaret is suddenly the scandal of the town, decked out in ostentatious finery and revealing clothing. Where did this come from? Ironically, after years of having her work attributed to William, his own anonymous play is then attributed to Margaret, to his great dissatisfaction. Margaret wants more: she asks to be invited to the Royal Society, and ultimately is...but once there, contributes nothing. Again, I'd have liked a little more reflection on this.

Margaret and William return to the countryside. Soon after, barely into her 40s, Margaret dies. We're told she's in the garden wearing men's clothes--which, again, seemed to come out of nowhere. Did she often dress eccentrically when not in town?

I'm glad I read this book and learned about Margaret...I just wish there'd been a little more fiction/speculation into her personal life.
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