As I read Danielle Dutton’s (2016) Margaret the First, I thought of Maria Popova: specifically, Popova’s (2019) book Figuring, but also the Brain Pickings project. Popova seeks to highlight and connect across time and space the impact of women and queer individuals on the modern world of art and science, which she does through excavation of letters, writing, and biographical sketches of those whom we know little about from this history.
Dutton’s novel contributes to this long overdue conversation through the important medium of historical fiction. What is precious and vital about Dutton’s novel is highlighting and surfacing the important role one woman – Margaret Cavendish – played during the 17th century, a time of tremendous scientific, artistic, and political upheaval. It is a story untold (or unheard) in our histories of science, art, and cultural memory.
Even by today’s standards, Margaret is painted as “eccentric – more apt to read than dance. Why does she never smile? And why does her hat seem to never match her gown?” (Dutton, 2016, p. 20). She is fanciful in her youth, almost primitive and primordial in her imagination. Early in the book, sitting near a brook near her home, she envisions herself a “Queen of the Tree-people,” discovering an imaginary world where “river foam bubbles encased a jubilant cosmos” (Dutton, 2016, p. 10). Margaret ruminates that “it seemed impossible to make myself be any way but wrong” (Dutton, 2016, p. 17). She is Amazonian – baring her breasts in public at the premier of her husband’s play. She is found dead in the snowy woods, under a curious sky – “more a sea than a sky” (Dutton, 2016, p. 159), wearing “breeches and riding boots” (Dutton, 2016, p. 159). In these moments, Dutton captures Margaret as a force of nature – “she wanted . . .to live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains” (Dutton, 2016 p. 104). Margaret has the power to create, destroy, and remake worlds.
On Women’s Contribution to Philosophy, Science and Art
Dutton masterfully captures Margaret’s fascination with the grandeur of a vast world and cosmos of which we know little, and an awareness of how an understanding of that world might best be captured in small spaces: foam bubbles of the river; a pearl earring; a peach pit; a ball of snow. Margaret was, in real life, and is in this novel, a philosopher, scientist, poet, and playwright. The 17th century was a time of great scientific and artistic discovery, and the book is flush with characters, the names of which might be familiar to many: René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, William Davenant, Francis Bacon, Samuel Pepys. Yet Dutton’s challenge to readers is really one of gender: why do we know the names of these men, but not the names of women who also contributed to these conversations? Names like Margaret Cavendish.
Dutton’s project, like that of Maria Popova, is to raise awareness that women also contributed to the Western scientific and artistic revolution – through writing, philosophy, and experimentation. In many ways, the novel feels so contemporary because the questions Margaret grapples with throughout are still being contemplated today. Much of this modern contemplation comes from feminist scientists and philosophers, in fact: Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Sylvia Wynter, Stephanie Springgay, Sarah Truman.
Much of the joy I garnered from this text came in the questions Margaret raised in her writings and musings. Take this example on what we might term animal rights, environmental awareness, or anthropomorphism:
I began to contemplate all the creatures I had ever killed. . . Was I, Margaret Lucas, responsible for their deaths if I’d had no hand in the slaughter? I’d decided that I was. And I took care the following Sunday to receive a smaller portion of the roast. (Dutton, 2016, p. 11)
Do we not still contemplate such matters today? As we watch the world spiral into environmental collapse, are not some of us thinking about, and scientists and activists debating about, the tremendous impacts of meat consumption on the world’s ecosystems? Later in the book, in describing her writing and musing, Margaret discusses how she “chastised men who hunt for sport” (Dutton, 2016, p. 66) – echoing yet again contemporary dialogues on large animal hunting, for example.
Or this discussion, from Margaret’s 3rd book (Philosophical and Physical Opinions, 1655), which is so reminiscent of discussions in new materialist and feminist empirical sciences today (Ringrose, Warfield, & Zarabadi, 2019):
In it I argued all matter can think: a woman, a river, a bird. There is no creature or part of nature without innate sense and reason, I wrote, for observe the way a crystal spreads or how a flower makes way for its seed. (Dutton, 2016, p. 74)
These moments are paralleled by Margaret’s thinking on “an alternate universe of harmony and vibration,” or her thinking that “certainly one’s inability to see something does not mean it is not there until one does” (Dutton, 2016, p. 122). We have the same discussions today about dark matter, entanglement, and other quantum discoveries. And it goes as no small unappreciated contemporary moment of important discovery that we have long theorized the existence of black holes, and a female scientist, Katie Bouman, helped us create the first image of one in 2019. Female scientists, connected across space~time.
One arguable climax of the book comes near the end, when Margaret asks to speak to the Royal Society of London. Historically, Margaret Cavendish is the first woman to address this important scientific community. Having written several books on philosophy and science, and a book called The Blazing World, a sort of science fiction novel exploring the many scientific and social conundrums of the shifting world, Margaret is left speechless: “There is so much she might say: about indeterminancy and contradiction, about multiplicity and shifts and turns” (Dutton, 2016, p. 148); instead, in this fictional account, she simply says to the Gentlemen of the Royal Society: “Gentlemen. . .I am all admiration” (Dutton, 2016, p. 153).
While this ending may seem a somewhat abrupt and counterintuitive conclusion, I am convinced that Dutton is actually making a feminist point, which is subtly built into the novel in earlier, easy to ignore lines of text and thought. Namely, that “‘though it seem to be natur’l, that generaly all Women are weaker than men; yet shurly some are far wiser than some Men’” (Dutton, 2016, p. 58, spellings in original language); or, put differently, Margaret is simply on another plane of singularity, one that the Men of the Royal Society would never be able to comprehend as the gifts of nature, by nature, provided to women “are much better” (Dutton, 2016, p. 116) than those given to men.
In these brilliant and gorgeous ways, Dutton’s novel is an ode to a 17th century feminist icon, scientist, and philosopher.
On a Changing World
As a novel of historical fiction, the book brings readers into some glimpses of the upheavals that occurred in Britain and Europe throughout the 17th century. Dutton’s treatment of these subjects is not heavy-handed, but rather comes into the text in fleeting, passing moments, as when Dutton references the Great London Fire in a passing sentence: “The city is half black from the fire” (p. 136). Yet, one leaves the book understanding the very real totality of rapid change that, like the discussions of science and philosophy, have a certain resonance with the world of today.
London was grown strange. . .The House of Lords had been abolished. A new flag flew. Divorce was made legal. There was no aristocracy to set a sparkle to the city. The theaters were closed, the palace. (Dutton, 2016, p. 61)
This of course speaks of the English Civil War, the death of Charles I, and the formation of the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. The impacts of war are sprinkled everywhere in this book, and it is a fascinating subtext of the novel. There are references to great loss of life; the destruction of land, property, and history; and even the destruction of the dead in the pillaging of cemeteries and ancient burial grounds.
Of course, the biggest changes are scientific. There are fascinating discourses on medicinal experimentations throughout the text; and Dutton creates an understanding that the pace of scientific discovery was both invigorating and frightening:
Soon, beside empty glasses and snuffboxes, strange homemade instruments materialized on our tables: telescopes, compasses, captoptics, more. They spoke of new philosophies, in English or French, of bustling worlds in microscopes, the human body and mind, atomic operations and mechanical arrangement. (Dutton, 2016, p. 41)
There are the invisible colleges, the printing of pamphlets and books, and salons. As Margaret is one who read widely in philosophy and science, there is a particularly noteworthy section of the text whereupon she comes to understand the role of research in advancing scientific endeavors: “she saw a pattern emerge: one man referred to another’s research in explaining his own findings; one article led you down a path to thinking the next” (pp. 94-95). Here, of course, one cannot but catch the gendered nature of the scientific revolution through emphasis on the word man.
Notes on the Book and Its Format
It is worth noting this book’s unique format. The text is split into three sections:
A True Relation of my Birth and Breeding [Section 1]
The Restoration [Section 2]
The Blazing World [Section 3]
The first and last section are direct correspondence to two of Margaret of Cavendish’s actual books, with the narrative arc largely imagining, recreating or discussing the publication of these texts and-or the fall-out from their publication. The middle section is an ode to the Restoration of the English monarchy under Charles II. The book vacillates and meanders between prose, poetry, internal thoughts, snippets of letters, traditional narrative form, and as a historical novel, short moments of historical orientation for the reader, as in this short chapter, only a paragraph long:
The king of England was convicted of treason. Then the King of England was dead. It was Tuesday. It was 1649. Parliament hacked off Charles I’s head outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The mob, previously sick for it, drew quiet after the blow. The people were burdened with heavy taxes. May Day had been replaced by zealous sermons. Was the Civil War now over? Stunned, no one was sure. (Dutton, 2016, p. 52)
These types of beautiful paragraphs sprinkle the book, acting as a compass for the reader unfamiliar with the history, but also raising tremendously important questions and historical contemplations, if one takes the time to slow down and examine the text. In this example, Dutton’s use of the word mob is connected with a sickness (mob mentality) and then a question of possible regret through the word quiet. Does our political and personal unrest – heavy taxes, for instance – lead us to make choices which we later regret? It was just an ordinary Tuesday in 1649. I can’t help but think of an ordinary Tuesday in 2016. For me, a lover of history, these moments were beautiful and intense, a true ode to Dutton’s incredible talents as a writer.
For lovers of old English, this book will be a joy, for sprinkled throughout are snippets of original writings, poems, and other imaginings of Margaret’s grappling with the English language. Thus, there are poems in English which stop the reader in their tracks; and bits of text written with English spelling of the 17th century, as in this moment from a letter Margaret writes following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, whereupon her and her husband are banished to Antwerp, described as “the most pleasantest and quietest place to retyre himself and ruin’d fortunes inn” (Dutton, 2016, p. 53).
A Concluding Thought, on Writing
As a struggling writer myself, Dutton’s portrayal of Margaret’s own periods of writer’s block, imposter syndrome, desire to be recognized, and fear of rejection or critique, truly resonated with me. As with the other subtle themes of the book, Dutton is not heavy handed in this imagining of Margaret’s struggles. It is not important whether this is historically accurate or not. Perhaps Dutton is commenting on her own positionality and experience through this fictional portrayal.
Yet, seeing this struggle in the novel, subtly portrayed, and a gentle nudge from a friend in my book group, led me to renew my commitment to writing about books, and putting some thoughts into the world. Margaret the First is not the most earth-shattering novel you will ever read. But it offers a unique contribution to a large, important conversation about the role of women in science and philosophy and cultural memory; and, it is just a well conceptualized, well executed, beautifully constructed historical novel worth a read.
Dutton, D. (2016). Margaret the first. New York, NY: Catapult.
Popova, M. (2019). Figuring. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Ringrose, J., Warfield, K., & Zarabadi, S. (Eds.). (2019). Feminist posthumanisms, new materialisms, and education. New York, NY: Routledge.