Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century poet, philosopher, godmother of science fiction, and one of the first tabloid celebrities, is the subject of Danielle Dutton’s delicate, lovely new historical novel Margaret the First. Brilliant, ambitious, and apologetically aware that her world does not like women to be ambitious, Margaret is a perfect heroine for the 21st century.
She's an avatar of confined feminine ambition, of the polite young women in Rebecca Solnit's 2008 essay "Men Explain Things to Me," appearing "deferential and mostly silent" in the face of the men who explain the world to her — before heading home to write down her own thoughts anyway.
And what thoughts they are.
Margaret Cavendish was wildly ambitious in the face of condemnation from pretty much everyone
Margaret was the first woman in England to write published works. Painfully shy, she rarely spoke to the glittering intellectuals her husband, William, habitually rubbed elbows with — Descartes, Hobbes, and all the other big names of 17th-century Europe's philosophical circles — but she thought ferociously.
She wrote essays, plays, and fantasies. Her 1666 romance The Blazing World, with its interplanetary travel and multiple universes, is an early forerunner of science fiction (it was the first book to feature interplanetary travel and multiple universes), and her philosophy, much mocked in its day, anticipates contemporary naturalism.
She was also a tabloid celebrity, with all the baggage that entails. A duchess and a clotheshorse in the era of the first daily newspapers, "Mad Madge" was a fixture of the society pages. She was always good for a scandal: publishing her books in a time when women didn't publish was almost as good for newspaper sales as the time she went to the theater in an elaborate topless gown with her nipples rouged.
She was not, by and large, respected. She did not like or study the philosophy of the era, and she rejected its tenets without blinking. "Order, continuity, the logical development of her argument are all unknown to her," wrote Virginia Woolf. "She has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs."
Her contemporaries performed the peculiar double-think of declaring her work at once comically unlearned and so sophisticated that it was impossible a woman could have written it; it had to have been the work of her husband. Samuel Pepys called her a "mad, conceited, ridiculous woman," confiding to his diary, "I do not like her at all."
But Margaret persevered. She wrote:
"I am … as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which makes, that though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavor to be Margaret the First."
Danielle Dutton's Margaret the First is a portrait of confined female ambition that resonates even today
In Dutton’s stained-glass prose, Margaret comes vividly to life.
Like 2015’s Viper Wine (also, incidentally, set in 17th-century England), Margaret the First is a postmodern historical novel, one that uses the aesthetics and events of the past to examine the culture of the present. And vain, ambitious Margaret — brilliant Margaret, ignorant Margaret — is a perfect subject.
What makes Margaret as written by Dutton so remarkable and so contemporary is the conflict between her adamant belief in her own brilliance and subsequent desire to be recognized for that brilliance — and her apologetic knowledge that she is not supposed to desire attention for herself, because we teach girls young that they should not overtly seek it.
But Dutton is clear on the fact that Margaret is an extraordinarily original thinker, and that her thoughts deserve all the attention we can give them. Consider, for instance, the passage in which young Margaret watches the "invisible world" on the surface of a brook:
Whole civilizations lasted for only a moment! Yet from the creation of one of these Bubble-worlds to the moment that world popped into oblivion, the Bubble-people within it fell in love, bore children, and died, their bodies decomposing into a fine foamy substance that was then reintegrated into the foamy infrastructure of the world as the Bubble-children grew up and bore children of their own and died and were integrated into the sky and air and water, and even into the furniture, which was itself a fine foamy substance that the Bubble-folk called "coffee."
That precise Enlightenment rhetoric, that tumble of clause on top of clause as Margaret’s thoughts pour out of her too quickly to be tamed into single sentences, speaks to a mind in constant, relentless motion.
But Dutton's Margaret, like her historical counterpart, is not content merely to think. She wants recognition for her thoughts. She wants fame.
Margaret’s desire for fame is not unapologetic, but it is insistent — and that makes lots of people uncomfortable
Margaret is not unapologetic about her desire for fame. Like nice, shy, smart girls everywhere, Margaret apologizes on multiple occasions for her ambition. What would be more accurate would be to say that she is insistent.
As Margaret the First builds to its climax, in which Margaret finally achieves her goal of visiting the learned scholars of the Royal Society, there is an excruciating passage set at a dinner party. Margaret, the host, is trying to get one of her guests to invite her to visit the society; she waits, politely, for him to bring up her work.
When he does, it's to mention that it caused a stir among the society's members, so she asks him what sort of stir. But then another man interrupts her to ask an unrelated question. And as the conversation meanders off course — to foreign trees and fossils and which celebrity has a limp — the whole party is excessively diverted, except for Margaret.
At last Margaret can bear it no longer and gracelessly wrests control of the conversation. "Forgive me," she says (that apology again!), "but we have been speaking — that is, Sir George had been speaking of my recent book."
You can’t help but cringe — for her to demand more attention than she is freely given! It’s almost as painful today as it was in the 17th century. We want our exceptional women to be content with whatever scraps of attention we are willing to toss their way, and that attention is minimal. We assume we know more about women's work than they do; we interrupt them more than we interrupt men. We tell them that their work is meaningless, and also so good that they can't have done it themselves.
When a woman dares to demand more, it makes us shockingly uncomfortable.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Margaret’s demands for attention seem to have considerably disquieted early critics of Margaret the First. "Because of [Margaret’s] self-absorption and mild vainglory," one reviewer writes, "the force and resonance of the book is diluted somewhat. … She ends up identifying herself as someone whose interest resides mainly in her eccentricity, and not in any attempts she could have made to contribute substantially to national conversations."
In other words: "She’s just doing it for the attention." Is there a more damning phrase for any woman, let alone a woman who is also an unpopular intellectual?
Historically, it damned Margaret. She was constantly told that her brilliant, original thoughts were not worth expressing, and while she still found ways to write them down, she never could say them out loud.
In Margaret the First, when our heroine eventually manages to secure an invitation to the Royal Society through sheer force of will, she’s the first woman ever to do so. But once she finally makes her way into those hallowed halls, her voice fails her.
She says not a word.