Margaret the First
By Danielle Dutton
In Iain Pear’s 1995 novel The Instance of the Finger Post, the antiquary Anthony Wood and his friend, Dr. Richard Lower, share a meal at one of Oxford’s squalid eateries. Lower, who has nearly completed a scientific treatise on the cardiopulmonary system (Tractatus de Corde, 1669), speculates on which member of the British aristocracy would be a suitable dedicatee for his publication. When Lower’s first possibility, King Charles II, is dismissed as too obvious, Wood suggests a more “imaginative” possibility: the Duchess of Newcastle. Lower’s response?
Very funny. I might as well dedicate it to the memory of Oliver Cromwell. A fine way, if I may say so, to ensure that the world of curiosity never takes me seriously again. A woman experimentalist, indeed; an embarrassment to her family and her sex.
Ian Pears is not the only contemporary writer to trade on the notoriety of author Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, for the purposes of fiction. Danielle Dutton, an author known for her own literary experiments (Attempts at Life, 2007, and S P R A W L, 2011), has rendered imaginatively, compellingly, and provocatively one of the most interesting figures of the seventeenth century, regardless of gender. Dutton introduces us, however, not to the glittering, figure so fascinating to the likes of Samuel Pepys, but the deeply creative, unabashedly inquisitive individual whose inner life is, at least in Dutton’s hands, even more compelling than her public persona.
Margaret Cavendish’s adult life spanned one of the most tumultuous times in English history, from the English Civil War to the Restoration of 1660. Born Margaret Lucas in 1623 in Colchester, Essex, she was the youngest of 10 children, and spent her youth living on her father’s estate. From 1643, when Margaret left her family to serve in Queen Henrietta Maria’s retinue in Oxford, to the court’s exile to France in 1645, she lived in obscurity. Her advantageous 1645 marriage to William, Marquis of Newcastle (elevated to Duke in 1665), cemented her relations with the royalist faction, but the couple experienced poverty living in exile in Paris, Rotterdam, and, finally, Antwerp. During the period of their exile, Royalists fought Parliamentarians in a Second Civil War, which led to the capture, trial, and execution of King Charles I, and, eventually, the establish of a new government under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. After the Restoration, the couple continued to experience challenges as William failed to gain sufficient preferment at court while also struggling to rehabilitate his debt-burdened estates. Yet owing to the encouragement offered by her husband, who was 30 years her senior, the marriage offered Margaret the intellectual freedom and poetic license that was seldom available to young women in the Seventeenth Century. William urged Margaret to write and publish while still in exile, which eventually brought her into the spotlight after the couple returned to England.
As a woman “experientialist” Margaret Cavendish wrote romance, utopian fiction, poetry, and closet dramas, as well as treatises on natural science and philosophy. Her intellectual and literary effusions were undoubtedly alarming to Restoration men of letters like Samuel Pepys, whose commentary on Cavendish is liberally employed by Dutton. Cavendish’s persona and her writings evoked fascination, disgust, and, for later novelists like Virginia Woolf, disappointment. In A Room of One’s Own Woolf writes,
What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death. What a waste that the woman who wrote “the best bred women are those whose minds are civilest” should have frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly till the people crowded round her coach when she issued out.
It wasn’t until the later half of that century that Margaret Cavendish finally found her audience when feminist scholars rediscovered her work, producing contemporary editions including The Blazing World and Other Writings (Penguin Classics, 1991), The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy 2001). A quick search of the MLA International Bibliography lists 50 books and over 300 scholarly essays in which she figures as the primary subject of study. While Dutton, who holds a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing, no doubt owes some of her inspiration to this scholarship, it is clearly from Cavendish’s own writing that she finds her most interesting material.
Margaret the First opens with a brief, third person Prologue, in which Dutton introduces us to the totality of her subject, from the obscurity of her childhood to her triumphant celebrity. First we see the mother of eight, whose youngest daughter Margaret “made the world her book.” The child writes on walls, and then constructs hand-sewn books to fill with words, writes plays performed by her favorite sister, providing ample evidence of the “fertile inner workings” of her mind. Young Margaret longs for fame . . . and then suddenly she is an adult woman, “adornin[ing] herself like a peacock,” her carriage marked by throngs of English people on London streets, including the infamous Samuel Pepys, who also hopes to gain a glimpse of this remarkable lady when she passes by. This brief glimpse of Margaret’s entire life places the read in the same position of the curious onlookers, as we, too, are enchanted by this first encounter.
Dutton immediately shifts from this external examination of the Duchess to an internal view, handing the chronological narrative over to Margaret herself for the first section of the novel, “The True Relation of My Birth and Breeding,” the title of Cavendish’s actual autobiography. In the earliest chapters of this section Margaret introduces herself to us as a child and adolescent, socially awkward and oblivious to conventions because she lives in a world in which things smaller than herself—and things not of this world of human society—command her attention. In nature, Margaret finds “an invisible world,” where “river-foamed bubbles encased a jubilant cosmos,” and in these microscopic moments Dutton inevitably recalls Cavendish’s own “Atomic Poems,” which frequently treat what is so minuscule that it could only be imagined. From the time Dutton’s Margaret is a child, her poetic interests are noted and criticized. Her mother cautions she will be compared to the earlier 17th-century poet, Lady Mary Wroth, an association meant to frighten Margaret into submission—or so her mother clearly hopes. Having now reached puberty, where she moves out of the nursery, and is subject to new feminine rituals, Margaret wistfully observes her brother and his hawk, concluding it is “nobler to be a boy.” Her biological sex, which renders her curiosity and creativity both suspect and, for a time, useless, undermines her aspirations and situates her at odds, however silently, with her exasperated mother and siblings.
Margaret seeks a place in the court of the Queen of England partly because she is terrified by the growing resentment and violence directed at the aristocracy in Colchester (her family is taken to jail, only to return to a vandalized estate), but also because she is fascinated by the stories she hears about Queen Henrietta Maria acting in plays at court, preforming such exotic roles as an Amazon and a water nymph. Although life as an attendant to the Queen, first in Oxford and later in France, offers neither a respite from violence nor creative fulfillment, it is through these new associations that she eventually meets her husband, fellow-exile and widower, William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle. A former Captain in the King’s army, an expert horseman (he wrote treatises in French on the subject), and an amateur poet, William is fascinated by this shy, awkward creature, and is certain of what we, as readers, already know: that Margaret’s internal life is rich, her mind astute, and her sensibility whimsical. And while the marriage is a bit of a scandal—the aging William is, even in reduced circumstances, still quite the catch, but Margaret is deemed less-than-suitable, or at least not as promising as the other ladies-in-waiting—the match is made and, eventually, proves a boon to the bride in more ways then one.
While exile is a trial for both husband and wife, it affords Margaret many opportunities to develop her imagination and explore her interests in natural philosophy. Her husband surrounds himself with intelligent companions, and although painfully shy, Margaret has access to their conversation—even if she is reluctant to participate herself. But financial and political circumstances imprison them, although Margaret and William are able eventually to break free, abandoning the oppressive “piss-stink alleys” of Paris for the “golden views” of the Low Countries—first Rotterdam, then Antwerp where they rent the house of the late painter Peter Paul Rueben. Like a painter, Dutton is often impressionistic—offering a burst of sight, sound, and movement, and it is this microscopic detail that allows us to experience Margaret’s world, psychologically and intellectually. This period of Margaret’s intellectual reawakening is darkened by her ill health and fertility problems, not to mention a string of personal and national tragedies—the death of William’s son Henry, the failure of the Royalist forces, the death of her brother Charles in battle, and, eventually, the execution of King Charles I—which sharpen both her sense of inadequacy and her powerlessness.
Despite Margaret’s lack of formal education, she eventually revives her youthful habit of scribbling, and does so with the approval of her husband. While William attempts to manage his English affairs from a distance, ever seeking ways to improve their financial situation in exile, Margaret writes and, during a brief stint residing in London while her rebel husband remains in Antwerp, she’s emboldened to deliver a manuscript to the publisher Martin & Allestyre, thinking she “would rather seek pardon” from William later rather “than ask permission first.” The book, Poems & Fancies, is printed in 1562 and William seems to approve. Children do arrive, eventually, but in the form of books, not flesh, but these fruits of her labors are almost destroyed forever when the trunk filled with manuscripts of her precious stage plays are temporarily lost at sea when the couple returns to London in the penultimate section, “The Restoration.” For a time, Margaret herself is rudderless, but she eventually finds her way again, recovers and publishes those manuscripts—although never completely satisfied with her work nor its reception by the public.
“The Restoration” marks a shift from the first person perspective back to the third, which coincides with the novel’s shift from the private, intimate world Margaret has created for herself to the larger, public realm in which she strives to find a secure place. The official return of the couple to England in 1660 brings Margaret closer to her scientific ambitions—this part of the novel is replete with references to the leading scientists of the day—and while this new proximity to men of ideas could narrow the gap between Margaret’s present reality and her ambitions, her scientific and philosophical work is largely disregarded or thought ridiculous. William, who is unable to find a meaningful appointment at court, also faces defeat, and the couple eventually retreats to the country. Here they find some solace, but also sadness, especially as William, enjoying a leisurely walk with his wife, finally sees the extent to which his estates had been exploited during the Civil War.
He took her hand as they rounded the water, a scene he had often described. But when they cleared the trees, he met instead with a shock: stump after stump after stump after stump after stump and dried-out shoots. He sat on the ground. The sky was white. The day was everywhere quiet. “I left it,” he finally said, “so full of trees. And a river of fish and otter. And rabbits and partridge and poots.” Now he grieved. Now everything hit him at once. All he’d lost was lost in that grove. “Sixteen years,” he said. And Margaret helped him up.
Shifting our focus away from Margaret’s concerns toward her husband’s disappointments (of which there are many), Dutton reminds us that William is also a victim and that this story is about two people, a husband and wife, whose entire relationship has been haunted by exile, hardship, and loss.
Margaret’s final frustration coincides with William’s success—he too is a writer, remember—and at the premiere of his play The Humorous Lovers at Lincoln’s Inn Field, his wife cannot resist upstaging him on opening night. Her arrival dressed as an Amazon, with “her dress gold, her breasts bared, her nipples painted red,” divides the audience’s attention. On the way home, their conversation in the carriage is tense:
“Do you think you are Cleopatra?” he asks.
Margaret Bristles. She fingers the mask. “I had rather appear worse in singularity,” she says, than better in the mode.”
“Do not quote to me from your books,” he snaps.
The driver flicks his whip
She immediately acknowledges to herself that her behavior constitutes a betrayal, even more shocking considering “everything he’s done.” Margaret’s impulse to create is often tarnished by her relentless desire for fame (although clearly fame poses no such conflict for the ambitious male writer of the period), and she does much to alienate those around her. Dutton does not shy away from these scenes in which her protagonist is less than sympathetic.
Tragically, the moment in which one truly hopes the Duchess will shine—the occasion of her invitation to the Royal Academy—is one of utter failure for her. Surrounded by famous men, she is invited to obtain a glimpse of their world when Robert Hooke places a microscope before her eyes:
Margaret looks inside—she blinks—a horse neighs in the streets. She sees the bodies, swimming like blossoms on the breeze, like actors in a play, she thinks, in and out of view. The image flickers, suspended . . . She shifts he gaze to the bodies that fill the room. Like one body, she thinks, with many pairs of eyes. And a feeling comes over her then, the feeling that she’s been walking here across a vast expanse with something in her hands. The images flickers, suspended. Alone, she thinks. I am quite alone.
In the presence of her most important and desired audience, she offers these men not her own remarkable insights, but rather her admiration. Despite the tensions regarding William’s theatrical premiere, she returns to her husband who offers love and consolation, if not entirely understanding, when she expresses her frustration and regret. “They will say I failed or that I’m a fool,” she opines. He replies, “the honor was theirs.”
One of the great virtues of Dutton’s novel is her adept handling of this complex marital relationship. For most of the novel, William is (like nearly everyone else Margaret encounters) very much on the sidelines of her story: he is the amused, gentle suitor; the kindly, supportive spouse; and, finally, the clearly frustrated husband whom Dutton ultimately allows to emerge as the tragic widower. While the Prologue positions readers voyeuristically (like Samuel Pepys), anticipating what delights and scandals this lady will bring when her carriage arrives and she emerges in all of her splendor and obscenity, the Epilogue positions us as respectful onlookers to a deeply personal and affecting tragedy: Margaret’s premature death at the age of 49.
William was unprepared. He’d never imagined he’d outlive her, his blushing, awkward wife. With her body laid out below and villagers filing through, he sat alone in her chamber amid her gowns and her books.
When William dies three years later, the inscription on their tomb describes her as a “wise, witty, and learned lady, which her many books do well testify.” This flattering but restrained image is in sharp contrast to the provocateur who wrote fantastical books, and donned outlandish gowns, but while the epitaph also honors Margaret as a virtuous wife, Dutton resists this neat packaging. Dutton allows Margaret to emerge not as the world of the Restoration would have seen her—as an embarrassment to her husband and family, an amateurish interloper into the intellectual questions meant only to be asked by men—but as a remarkable women with an exceptional mind.
Although Virginia Woolf had no love for the writings of the Duchess of Newcastle, Danielle Dutton’s biographical novel of her would, in fact, have greatly pleased Margaret’s most famous twentieth-century critic. In keeping with the experimental approach to narrative, the exploration of the inner life, and the immersion in poetic language, Dutton mirrors the eyes that Margaret Cavendish turned on both the world and herself. Moreover, Margaret the First will satisfy those who are intrigued by the inner life the artist, attuned to the barriers faced by women intellectuals, and appreciate science and nature. If this slim, intimate, and highly imaginative portrait of a women obscured for centuries leads new readers to Margaret Cavendish’s writings, it will also have served a perhaps unintended yet noble purpose.
Jessica Tvordi is Associate Professor of English at Southern Utah University, and she is currently completing a book-length study examining the representation of deviance in narratives of nation formation in early modern England.