Margaret the First

Written by Danielle Dutton
Review by Nicola Imbracsio

Margaret Cavendish was a woman of firsts: she was the first woman to write what is now considered science fiction (The Blazing World); she published under her own name during a time when most women published anonymously; and she was the first woman invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. Her writings—both fiction and philosophical—provoked both praise and derision. While some admired her originality and boldness, many of her critics thought her to be “mad” and ridiculous in both her writing and her personal style (she was known for wearing outlandish clothes in public).

It is this “mad” Margaret that is the subject of Dutton’s nuanced fictionalized biography. Writing in the first person, Dutton takes readers through the emotional struggles of Cavendish—an introverted, artistic girl growing up in a family of dazzling extroverts, who finds herself a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, and eventually flees with the English court to France when the royalist forces are defeated in 1644. Readers are given insight to Cavendish’s travails—and how they influence her own stories of young ladies fleeing danger to unknown, strange lands.

Dutton writes Cavendish in a lyrical stream of consciousness, often spending time to focus on small details, like the motes of dust in the air, or the color of a landscape as it passes a carriage window, which is appropriate for a subject like Cavendish, who spent much of her own life immersed in the details of natural history. The narrative carefully and seamlessly incorporates lines from both Cavendish’s writings and Virginia Woolf’s (whose essays introduced Dutton to Cavendish). Overall, Dutton’s fictionalized biography is unconventional in its approach, but entirely sensuous and captivating in its style – much like her subject.