Danielle Dutton’s recent book Margaret the First engages in a delightful illusion. By using brief passages for each scene Dutton manages to weave together events from all across Margaret Cavendish’s life beginning when she was a child right to her death. However, each passage leads to the next, creating a seamless narrative. This makes it easy for the reader to barely notice that within 160 pages 49 years of a woman’s life passes by.
A change in first-person to second about halfway through jars the flow slightly but not without merit. The shift in perspective shifts the book’s focus from the observant to the observed. Growing up, Margaret is lost in her own thoughts and still keeping to herself outside and observing the world while her sisters move on to more “adult” things like raising families. When she does marry (not without some scandal) she marries William Cavendish, an aristocrat and writer who hosted many great thinkers in their home, such as Hobbes and Descartes. Margaret discovers a passion for writing herself and begins to publish her own books of plays and philosophy. Amid critical acclaim she also meets controversy, as it’s not considered proper in the seventeenth century for women to publish their own writing. Indeed, even when she suffers from illness at one point the doctor proclaims that it was her writing that caused her to go ill. When she publishes her second book, many accuse her of being a fraud, for how could a woman be able to write so much? She chooses to take this as a good sign: “‘If any thinks my book so well wrote as that I had not the wit to do it, truly I am glad for my wit’s sake!'”
The second part of the book takes place during the reformation after the war, and is when the shift to second-person takes place. While we still follow Margaret and her innermost thoughts, our attention is adjusted to now take in the criticism of others. As she and William attempt to re-enter civil society, there are those that scorn them, or at least her. Cries of “Mad Madge” can be heard from outside her carriage as she’s on her way to visit a group of esteemed scientists, for example. Other women are critical of her as well, providing her nowhere to turn to but misery. She begins to think of herself as a monster and throughout the book laments her inability to provide William with more children (he had ten with his first wife). Yet she can not help who she is and her urge to keep writing.
The third and shortest section (aside from the prologue and epilogue) contains one more narrative shift, albeit more subtle; by changing the tense from the past to the present we have not only the affect the outside world is having on Margaret but the sense of urgency that it has on her in her later years.
Dutton presents Margaret as a sort of proto-feminist, not belonging to any specific movement. At times she resents that she doesn’t conform to feminine norms, at others she declares that she wishes to eschew society’s expectations of her in order to be herself. This latter attitude is presented as more of a solitary goal than one to elevate the status of women in Elizabethan society. However, the distinction of being the first woman to have her written work published is too big to ignore, as is society’s reaction to it. She may have been the victim of ridicule and seen as the exception rather than the rule at the time. Still, by presenting us with Margaret’s story, Dutton demonstrates the trials that one faces when stepping outside of society’s expectations. Breaking down gender roles isn’t easy but it can be done, even by one person.
The book often repeats phrases for dramatic effect, which is the biggest symptom in the book of steering too close to almost being too intelligently written for its own good. That’s better than the other way around, but the conciseness of the book prevents it from veering off into that regard. Still, the prose as it is feels just right, helping the reader take in the surroundings while breezing through this quick read. A second reading may help take in the impact of the story, but either way Margaret the First is definitely recommended.
I know I only started the Monday Book Reviews a few months ago and that they tend to be some of my more popular posts. But as I have stated on this blog a few times recently I will be taking two months off from them. In January, I want to get caught up on reading other books than new releases. I still intend on jotting down my thoughts on these books on Mondays but not in full-fledged book reviews. In February, as usual, I will be taking part in the RPM Challenge and won’t have much time to read anything other than the usual magazines and maybe a book or two. I intend on resuming Monday Book Reviews in March.