Review: Margaret The First by Danielle Dutton


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Book Title: Margaret The First

Author: Danielle Dutton

Date Published: 15/03/2016

Publisher: Catapult 

Number of Pages: 176


'Margaret the First' is a snapshot of one of history’s most colourful characters. Referred to by her contemporaries as ‘Mad Madge’, Margaret Cavendish was of the first English “celebrities”, and a tireless pioneer. Dutton’s book examines what it meant to be an ambitious female aristocrat in the 17th Century world.

Margaret Cavendish was an English Royalist who lived most her life travelling across Europe. She published poetry, essays and plays at a time when most women had to publish anonymously, and wrote one of the earliest examples of science fiction – 'The Blazing World'. Famous also for her eccentricities, she wished to be known as Margaret the First, and was the first woman to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London.

If Dutton’s aim was to emulate Margaret’s character with precision and charm, this short book achieves that wonderfully. Margaret isn’t a universally relatable character, but I found myself constantly fascinated by her on the page. This concise skill allows the reader to see Margaret as many of her contemporaries would have. It takes the form of diary-like extracts, but fails to feel personal. This is not a fault, as Dutton’s book does not pretend to be a biographic work. It retains the same air mystery that we must view all historical figures through, and leaves you constantly wanting more. I have no doubt this book will compel an upsurge of interest in the works of Margaret Cavendish in all who read it.

Margaret Cavendish came of age in the brutal civil war of the mid-1600s. It’s an interesting setting, but Dutton never asks the reader to sympathise with either side. The character’s existence in history can never be anything but political, but Dutton weaves these themes into the book so quietly and subtly that you can hardly notice they are there. It is not a book that addresses the English class system that Margaret was complicit in, and whilst its feminist interpretations feel indirect, this book is ultimately an education on what it was like to be an unusual woman in the 17th century, and thus an exploration on the restrictions placed on the British female population.

These themes are clear in many extracts from the book, but here is one of my favourite passages:

“Hadn't I thoughts, after all? A mind of my own? It cannot be infamy, I reasoned, to run or seek after glory, to love perfection, desire praise. There were other ladies in London who wrote - I'd met them at the secret Royalist concerts we'd attended. Yet the poems they circulated among themselves were anonymous elegies for dead children or praise for noble husbands. My own quill went marching across the page. I rejected any clocklike vision of the world. I chastised men who hunt for sport. The moon might be a ball of water, I proposed, and the lunar mountains we think we see only reflections of our own.”

We see many sides of Margaret, and she is a fully formed character, almost coming to life on the page. The reader follows her as she battles through her life, transforming from a young girl who was so shy many thought she was a fool, to a woman so fascinating that people would line the streets in hope of catching a glimpse of her face through a carriage.

Most enjoyably, the book is written with a lyrical skill that few writers possess. It is a melodic portrait, but a series of Polaroids, rather than one large landscape. The sublime cover art only feeds into the atmosphere that Dutton creates with her language, which is so poetic it feels almost aesthetically pleasing in its own right. The book is pioneering in structure and poeticism, just like its eponymous character.

Although this is not a fictional biography, it is a clear attempt to recreate Margaret’s voice. It includes extracts of Margaret’s own writing, and you can tell just how much effort Dutton has put in to trying to adopt her stylistic characteristics. She manages it incredibly well, and does a wonderful job of conveying Margaret’s eccentricity through her use of language and structure.

That being said, if you are looking for a piece of historical fiction, this is not it. The historical setting is almost invisible, you get so little sense of it. An unsurprising feature, as Margaret is such a commanding character, it leaves little room for much else. In the end, whilst a beautiful book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, I struggled to understand what to take from it, or to comprehend what the author’s purpose was in writing it. By the time I had reached the end, it felt almost unfinished.

Overall, an incredibly pleasant read, and I cannot wait for Danielle Dutton’s next piece, or to seek out the words of Margaret the First herself.

Read this if you liked: Romantic Outlaws, Love, Madness and Scandal, The Fingersmith. 

Have you read 'Margaret the First', and will you be adding it to your TBR list anytime soon? Let me know in the comments below.