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Margaret the First
By Danielle Dutton
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
I have to admit I didn't expect Dutton (who, besides being a novelist, founded the small press Dorothy, A Publishing Project) to follow up her great 2010 novel Sprawl, perhaps the only impressionistic comic novel I've ever read, with a work of historical fiction. Granted, I definitely see the similarities between Dutton's protagonist here, the real-life Margaret Cavendish, and the narrator of Sprawl. Both are creative and engaged woman hemmed in by their own circumstances; Sprawl's by the stifling nature of suburbia, Cavendish by the more-stifling nature of being any sort of woman, but especially an eccentric and creative woman, in the 17th century. Regardless, Dutton abandons that almost impressionistic style entirely here, which certainly makes Margaret the First a more conventional novel than its predecessor.
Still, Dutton picked a fascinating figure to write about. Virginia Woolf fans in the audience might remember Cavendish from A Room of One's Own; Woolf gives her as an example of a woman writer with as much imagination and talent as any given man who's nonetheless not taken seriously because she's a woman, although she's at least given as an example of a woman who has "money and a room of her own." Born into a middle-class family, she married a duke supportive of her work, a blend of philosophical and scientific speculation and what we might call fantasy nowadays. Her writing asks questions such as "if atoms are so small, why not worlds inside our own? A world inside a peach pit? Inside a ball of snow?" (66), which also allows Dutton access to the creative process. She's picked a fascinating figure to write about, and I felt I got a sense of Cavendish's fullness as a person through these pages. I also loved it on a sentence level. Dutton's prose in Sprawl was terrific and she hasn't lost a trick here, turning great sentences like "Now the smoke rises from a chimney in the village, a greyish plume in a greyish sky" (119).
My main complaint here is she tries to fit too much in a mere 160 pages. This shortcoming can especially be seen toward the oddly paced middle, which rushes through Cavendish's development as a writer and then slows down once she's gotten her books out. However, I also think Dutton could've benefitted from honing in a little on what exactly interested her about Cavendish, or else stretching this book out so the various aspects of her life could unspool a little more patiently. Is this book about her development as an artist? Her integration into high society? Her eccentricities? Of course the three of these interact, but I think she could've done more work to make them interact. But that doesn't take away from the fact that she more or less brings the long-dead Cavendish back to life in these pages.
Out of 10: 8.0