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.

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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 appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016