Margaret the First, the new novel by Danielle Dutton, is simultaneously an engrossing character study, a window into the intellectual history of a particular place and time, and a chronicle of the evolution of one woman’s responses to the social barriers enacted by her society. Dutton’s protagonist is Margaret Cavendish, a literary figure whose writing has endured to the present day, and whose challenges to the gender expectations of her society continue to inspire. I spoke with Dutton via email about the process of writing and researching Margaret the First, and of delving into a radically different time and place for inspiration.
In the Author’s Note at the end of Margaret the First, you mention that you first encountered Margaret Cavendish through mentions of her in the writings of Virginia Woolf. What initially drew you to her?
I did first encounter her in A Room of One’s Own, but it wasn’t until several years later when I was in a graduate course on the literature and science of the seventeenth century that I really got hooked on Cavendish. In the introduction to Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, I read: “In the process of writing, Margaret Cavendish fashioned a personal identity, indeed an entire universe, radically different from the world in which she lived.” I was attracted to this idea, to the drama of fashioning a self via writing. Then of course there were the facts of Margaret’s life: that she was shy but longed for fame, that she once went to the theater topless, that she was the first woman ever invited to the Royal Society of London, and so on.
Structurally, you move into and out of Margaret’s mind over the course of the book, which encompasses several decades and multiple nations. How much research did you need to do in order to write this novel? Were there any areas where the historical record wasn’t all that helpful?
I never really stopped researching. As I’d write my way into a new part of the book I’d realize I needed to know more about, say, Restoration printing presses or the architecture of seventeenth-century Antwerp or Parisian palace gardens. I like that archival work, though I can so easily fall down a rabbit hole.
I’m not sure I’d say that the historical record was ever not helpful, but there were certainly huge chunks of Margaret herself that I couldn’t access through research. This might have been a problem if I’d been writing a historical biography, but as a novelist those gaps were productive. I had no choice but to imagine what she thought or how she felt, what she did alone in a room. It was probably as much or more in these non-historical moments that I found the character who lived inside my novel, since the historical figure—any historical figure—remains always at a distance.
About halfway through the novel, you shift from first person to a more omniscient third person perspective. What was the reason for that change in perspective?
This shift comes at the moment of the Restoration, as Margaret and her husband are heading back to England after living in exile in Paris and then Antwerp; this is at the beginning of the second section, the first section being, as I think of it, something like “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman,” a coming into being. The second section starts after she has achieved what she’d initially set out to: she is an author and people read her books. Yet somehow it isn’t what she’d thought it would be. And there’s all this upheaval: coming back to England, being known, moving to her husband’s estate. So as I see it, the perspective shift coincides with her own feelings of alienation and change (her youth and her exile are over: what next?). Of course, I wouldn’t have put it this way when I was writing. What I knew then was that when I tried to carry on with first person, it felt wrong. I did worry the shift might alienate readers, but ultimately I couldn’t fight the form the book wanted to take. It felt important that we step away from her there, and then important that we come closer again in the final section of the book.
A large chunk of Margaret the First is set during the English Civil War, and the effects of the war are felt by almost every character. Was there anything about this conflict that you found particularly resonant to the present day?
Beyond the obvious (that there are always people who have too much and people who have too little, always anger, manipulation, fear, greed), I’d have to be a better historian (or a historian!) to draw any meaningful comparisons between the English Civil War and our own current political moment. I was just talking to someone who pointed out that the infertility treatments Margaret undergoes seem oddly relevant to today, as so many women still undergo very invasive, painful procedures to try to get pregnant. I have to admit, I loved writing about the medical procedures Margaret underwent. They were absurd to an almost poetic degree: The dung of a virile ram . . . A decoction of flowers . . . Nephritic wood and amber!
What was the experience of reading Margaret Cavendish’s writings like after you had decided to write this book? Do you have a particular favorite of her writings?
I basically read her work as research. I wasn’t reading it for its own sake, but mining it for ideas about its author, which isn’t how I normally read. Overall I’d say her work varies in terms of quality, yet taken together it’s truly remarkable. She was a radical. She could see no reason why women should live the way they lived, be kept home, kept to their husband’s beds, constantly giving birth, kept out of school, etc. So her work is very exciting in that way. Some of her poems and plays are delightful. She writes very nicely about fairies. I love “A World in an Eare-Ring,” a poem that proposes a whole world hanging from an unsuspecting lady’s ear. But my favorite is her utopia: A Description of a New World Called The Blazing World. In it two worlds are connected at their poles, and a young woman accidentally passes from her world into the other world, The Blazing World, so called because its stars are so dazzling they make night as bright as day. The Blazing World has an Emperor, talking bear, Spirits, and Margaret Cavendish herself makes an appearance. But it’s not really fiction, or dramatized the way we’d expect a novel to be now. It’s this other thing, a utopia, sort of like a thought experiment with characters stuck inside it.
Especially in the novel’s second half, you immerse the reader in the intellectual life of 17th-century England. Was there anything that you noted about it that surprised you while researching it?
It was fascinating to read about the early years of the Royal Society of London. Alongside major scientific advancements on blood transfusion or astronomy, there were presentations on “windy holes” and monsters. All this wonder mixed in with the rational. It was just a fantastically anti-systematic moment, when a man could be a poet and a lens-maker and an ambassador all at once.
There’s a brief mention of Bishop John Wilkins’s 1638 plan to colonize the moon in the novel. Were there any other bits of 17th-century literary ephemera that you came across that impressed you?
So many. I spent a lot of time cruising around the Early English Books Online database. Many an hour was lost reading dire astronomical predictions based on the coming year 1666. I’m not sure this would count as ephemera, but I’m a huge fan of Samuel Pepys’s diaries, which are bawdy and fresh and oddly readable. I recommend them.
After immersing yourself in history for Margaret the First, do you find yourself wanting to revisit another period of history for your next book, or are you planning to head closer to the present day for it?
My pattern seems to be that each of my books comes out totally different from the one before it. According to that, I expect my next book will be nothing much like Margaret the First. It might be about a man in the year 2025 who travels to Bhutan.
Photo: Sarah Shatz