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Opening the cracks: revisiting the 17th century woman writer Margaret Cavendish

Like the historical fiction of Hillary Mantel and Ali Smith, Danielle Dutton's Margaret the First investigates, more than anything, what it means to be a woman and write.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a writer at a time when being a writer was unusual enough, let alone being a woman as well. Before Daniel Defoe, before Aphra Behn, Cavendish wrote – voluminously, uncategorisably, turning out works of science, philosophy and fantastical fiction. She was nicknamed “Mad Madge” for both her eccentric outfits and her gender-flouting insistence on recognition. Margaret’s untutored invention has embarrassed even ostensibly sympathetic readers: Virginia Woolf, in one of her swipes of matricidal waspishness, likened her to “some ­giant cucumber [that] had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death”.

Yet strangeness suited the duchess’s purposes, in a world where “normal” com-passed a very small realm for women. “Art itself is, for the most part, irregular,” she wrote, and these words become the epigraph to Danielle Dutton’s fictionalised account of Margaret’s life. For Woolf, she had the profile of a mortifying aunt, honoured out of obligation but held at a remove for fear that her oddity might point to some congenital disarray in the “female author” as a type. Dutton’s sympathy and love, however, are offered more uncomplicatedly in this luminous historical novel.

Dutton’s book is as irregular as her subject, taking its inspiration not only from Margaret’s extraordinary life but also from her writing. At a concise 155 pages, Margaret the First captures both the fast-burning intensity of its subject’s prose and that cucumber-wild invention. And if nothing here is quite as sensational as the bear- and fish-men of Margaret’s fantasy The Blazing World, Dutton’s hybrid of history and fiction is still a wonder in its own right.

Like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell or Ali Smith’s Francesco del Cossa, Dutton’s fictionalised Margaret is a kind of argument developed in the cracks of the factual record. The author is less concerned to establish the narrative of what happened in her subject’s life (something well covered by biographers, including Margaret in her autobiography, written when she was 33) than to explore how it felt to be this person at this moment, in a narrative that blends fragments from Margaret’s writing with Dutton’s own vivid and ambitious prose.

It was a turbulent time through which to live. Margaret’s idyllic childhood, spent in dreaminess and invention, is demolished by the English Civil War. She goes with the dead king’s queen into exile in France in 1644 as a maid of honour, while at home her family and estate are torn apart. The devastation is total: “Since leaving England,” she tells us (the first section of the novel is written in the first person), “I’d lost two brothers, one sister, a niece and a much-loved mother. My childhood home . . . was gone, my mother’s body strewn across its park.” She receives just one consolation in all this but it is a substantial one: in France, she meets and marries William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle.

Financially William is no great shakes, as his estates are all tied up; but emotionally he is the perfect support for Margaret. Not only does he tolerate her freaks of creativity, he actively encourages them. And so she turns herself into an experiment in one of the hot topics of the age: “Talk of the place and role of women had been circulating through fashionable salons in each district of the city. Sex a physical distinction not a quality of mind?” Having spent half a lifetime in exile, for ever cast out of her childhood Eden, Margaret becomes a refugee from femininity as well.

She takes her gender’s culture with her, rendering the masculine world of the intellect in terms of fashion. “Yet why must grammar be like a prison for the mind?” she wonders. “Might not language be as a closet full of gowns? Of a generally similar cut, with a hole for the head and neck to pass, but filled with a variety of trimmings so that we don’t get bored?”

The conventional life of a woman, however, is one she simply cannot live. That is true for physical reasons as well as those of character, for Margaret is infertile. Dutton describes her sadness, her torturous treatments (purges, pessaries, “steel medicine” and bleedings) – and her resolution to devote herself to art and science instead – in a bravura chapter that returns repeatedly, incantation-like, to the phrase: “I wrote”.

More than anything else, Margaret the First is about what it means to be a woman and to write; to live in a female body and to defy social constraints on what that body may accomplish. “My ambition is not only to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World,” Margaret wrote in The Blazing World. Dutton’s wonderful book anoints her as a founding mother to the whole sphere of women’s invention. 

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton is published by Scribe (155pp, £12.99)

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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