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Margaret the First

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Margaret the First dramatizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, the shy, gifted, and wildly unconventional 17th-century Duchess. The eccentric Margaret wrote and published volumes of poems, philosophy, feminist plays, and utopian science fiction at a time when “being a writer” was not an option open to women. As one of the Queen’s attendants and the daughter of prominent Royalists, she was exiled to France when King Charles I was overthrown. As the English Civil War raged on, Margaret met and married William Cavendish, who encouraged her writing and her desire for a career. After the War, her work earned her both fame and infamy in England: at the dawn of daily newspapers, she was “Mad Madge,” an original tabloid celebrity. Yet Margaret was also the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London—a mainstay of the Scientific Revolution—and the last for another two hundred years.

Margaret the First is very much a contemporary novel set in the past, rather than “historical fiction.” Written with lucid precision and sharp cuts through narrative time, it is a gorgeous and wholly new narrative approach to imagining the life of a historical woman.

176 pages, Paperback

First published March 15, 2016

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About the author

Danielle Dutton

11 books125 followers
Danielle Dutton's fiction has appeared in magazines such as Harper's, BOMB, The Paris Review, The White Review, Conjunctions, Guernica, and NOON. She is the author of Attempts at a Life, which Daniel Handler in Entertainment Weekly called "indescribably beautiful"; SPRAWL, a finalist for the Believer Book Award in 2011, reprinted by Wave Books with an Afterword by Renee Gladman in 2018; Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera, a book of collages by Richard Kraft; and the novel Margaret the First. In 2010, Dutton co-founded the feminist press Dorothy, a publishing project, named for her great aunt Dorothy, a librarian who drove a bookmobile through the back hills of southern California. Over the past decade, the press has published the work of Renee Gladman, Leonora Carrington, Cristina Rivera Garza, Barbara Comyns, Jen George, Amina Cain, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Sabrina Orah Mark, Nathalie Leger, and other innovative writers.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 562 reviews
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
696 reviews3,263 followers
February 7, 2017
Margaret Cavendish wrote utopian science fiction as well as feminist plays, essays, and poems in the 17th century. She went on to have her work published at a time when women were not supposed to be writers and the world believed women had no business being published.

The key to enjoying Margaret the First is to open the book with proper expectations. To begin with, it's much shorter than the average novel, coming in at just one hundred sixty pages. It's a condensed but lyrical jaunt through Margaret Cavendish's life that's written with stunning prose and crafted with poetic finesse.

Despite highlighting a woman both feminist and progressive for her time, this is not a book liable to advance the modern revolution for women's rights. Nonetheless, this book offers a finite education on what life was like for women in the 17th century. Some readers may recognize antiquated methods of thinking that are still prevalent in some places today.

"The truth is," William suddenly says, "women should never speak more than to ask rational questions, or to give a discreet answer to a question asked of them. They ought," he wipes his mouth, "to be sparing of speech, especially in company of men."

Margaret Cavendish is portrayed as a woman of substance. She demonstrates great intellect, a scientific mind, advanced philosophical thinking and creative inclinations. She is bound by her gender, despite her rank as a duchess, and the more restless she grows with her position, the more outspoken and candid she becomes, making her more likable with every passing page.

Hadn't I thoughts, after all? A mind of my own? It cannot be infamy, I reasoned, to run or seek after glory, to love perfection, desire praise. There were other ladies in London who wrote - I'd met them at the secret Royalist concerts we'd attended. Yet the poems they circulated among themselves were anonymous elegies for dead children or praise for noble husbands. My own quill went marching across the page. I rejected any clocklike vision of the world. I chastised men who hunt for sport. The moon might be a ball of water, I proposed, and the lunar mountains we think we see only reflections of our own.

A second man then sportingly suggested they debate the nature of women. "You will find, sir," I abruptly spoke, "women as difficult to be known and understood as the universe."

Many of the passages read like diary entries, giving the book a sense of subtle intimacy.

A summer afternoon, age nine, sitting first beneath french honeysuckle, then moving nearer the brook to observe the butterflies that gather at pale daffodils, a dead sparrow spotted along the way, and a sonnet begun upon the ability of a sparrow to suffer pain, I, Margaret - Queen of the Tree People - discovered an invisible world.

Ever-present is the clipped, abbreviated sentence structure employed by Dutton to great effect.

"Thoughts," I wrote, "as a Pen do write upon the Braine."
I drew a glittering fairy realm at the center of the earth, its singing gnats and colored lamps. I would not leave the house.
Rumors swirled. Servants talked, of course. The floorboards creaked as I paced and spoke alone. The hallway went sharp with the scent of burning ink. Did I cook up incantations? They sounded half afraid. Pacing, yes, reciting my favorite lines.

Margaret the First gives a melodic portrait of an unconventional woman who boldly destroyed the shackles of sexism and braved social criticism in exchange for the freedom of being her true self.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,862 reviews1,897 followers
May 24, 2016
Rating: 6* of five

Review of MARGARET THE FIRST at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud. This gorgeous-looking Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton book by the wonderful talented writer and publisher, Danielle Dutton, gets 6 stars of five for the joy I got in meeting the rescued 17th-century true original character. How many of those are there ever? And the odds that even an aristocratic woman could sustain such an outrageously public persona! Catapult, the publisher, made book lovely to match its joys of writing.
Profile Image for nastya .
410 reviews231 followers
April 8, 2021
This is a tiny (190 pages) work of historical fiction about an interesting eccentric poet, philosopher and writer in the middle of 17th century Britain, Margaret Cavendish. Her legacy was neglected and not taken seriously by scholars up until the 20th century when Virginia Woolf wrote her essay in The Common Reader. And then second wave of feminism rediscovered and embraced her. So obviously I was intrigued.
This is a nice little book, but it is slight and felt a bit inconsequential. We were racing through her life and I never got a feeling for the human behind the eccentric and petulant facade. I wanted to spend more time with her, to get to know the London of her time, to take a breather. But the pacing and jumping through the times were relentless.
But this is me, I love my historical fiction to pull me in like molasses and to be transported in this other foreign world. Now I'm curious to find Virginia Woolf's essay on her.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,670 followers
January 6, 2020
"I had rather been a meteor, than a star in a crowd."
- Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First

"...the mind is without a sex!"
- Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First


A short, vibrant, nearly perfect novella. I'm not sure if I loved it more because of the prose, the protagonist, the setting, or because it was infused with life, energy, worlds. I'll steal an hour at lunch to finish my review tomorrow at work. Lovely.

The book is an ode to feminism, science, knowledge, prose, and marriage. My only disappointment is the novella had to finish. Somethings, like meteors burning up in the atmosphere, are gone too quickly.
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews108k followers
March 10, 2016
A fabulous (and fabulist) re-imagining of the infamous Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth-century duchess who wrote feminist philosophy and utopian science fiction in an era when being an eccentric (see: attending the theater in a topless ballgown) and writer was an unthinkable career path for a woman. Margaret the First isn’t a historical novel, however; magnificently weird and linguistically dazzling, it’s a book as much about how difficult and rewarding it is for an ambitious, independent, and gifted woman to build a life as an artist in any era as it is about Margaret herself. Incredibly smart, innovative, and refreshing, Margaret the First will resonate with anyone who’s struggled with forging her own path in the world. –Sarah McCarry

from The Best Books We Read In February: http://bookriot.com/2016/03/01/riot-r...
Profile Image for Puck.
635 reviews298 followers
May 30, 2018
"The whole story of this lady is a romance, and everything she does."

A lyrical biographic of a remarkable woman who deserves to be remembered. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was a writer of feminist plays, philosophical essays and author of one of the first science-fiction stories (The Blazing World).
While she caused already scandal by doing this, her dramatic and shocking actions (tits out at the theatre!) made her famous among the English elite and the common people.

But neither her husband nor "Mad Madge" cared for these rumors. As they say: well-behaved women seldom make history. 😉

In this short, dazzling written novella we learn why this line certainly fits Margaret Cavendish so well. Not every reader will like Dutton's flowery prose, but I found it fitting Margaret's poetic state-of-mind: she never had a proper education, but that didn't stop her from wondering about life's mysteries. Very inspiring still today!

So although I loved getting to know Margaret Cavendish, and finding her relationship with her husband surprisingly touching, I don't leave this book feeling like I 'understand' her.
A little sad, but perhaps this is just what she wanted: to be a beautiful mystery, then and even now.

"I had rather been a meteor, than a star in a crowd.”
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,040 followers
May 13, 2020
Margaret Cavendish was a fascinating person in the 17th century, an intellectual and published writer long before this was acceptable for women, the first woman to present to the Royal Society of London. A short novel is probably the best vessel for the story in my mind, although I wonder if the author might have arranged it differently than in such a linear fashion, which made it seem more fragmented than it needed to be.

I did experience a brief moment of regret for not forcing myself to finish The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson (Quicksilver is first) because whether or not she is mentioned in those books, they are about the same time period. (I looked at a character list and don't see her but I do see some shared characters.)
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,372 reviews1,420 followers
April 19, 2016
Margaret the First is written like a dream- the scenes come and go with little or no explanation in them and years pass in the blink or an eye or turning of the page. Usually, I read historical fiction to immerse myself in the details of a time period, but this book doesn't really cater to that. It's a bubble in the wind or a glimpse from the windows of a fast moving car. It hints at depth more than delivers it. But still, despite this strangeness, I was mainly captivated.

Margaret describing her mother: "As for our mother, she was beautiful beyond the ruins of time. None of her children would be crooked, of course, nor in any ways deformed. Neither were we dwarfish, or of a giantlike stature, but proportional, with brown hair, sound teeth, sweet breath, and tunable voices- not given to wharling in the throat, I mean, or speaking through the nose, unless we had a cold- yet we were none so prone to beauty as she, and I perhaps the least of them all." pg 14 (ebook) Beautiful.

Margaret describing the difference between her childhood education and her brother's: "You must wear chicken-skin gloves on your hands all night," my mother began... "When inside the house," my mother went on, "you must not spend all your time writing little books."... "Virtue," my mother was saying, "beauty and virtue." Yet out the window, as she spoke, under a net of branches, my youngest brother, Charlie, arrived on the lawn with a hawk. Hood lifted, the hawk flew off. It is nobler to be a boy, I thought- and looked back with nostalgia, as if I just had been." pg 18 (ebook)

The first time Margaret speaks out in a group of intellectuals: "A second man then sportingly suggested they debate the nature of woman. "You will find, sir," I abruptly spoke, "women as difficult to be known and understood as the universe." The room fell silent. I was surprised as any man." pg 43 (ebook) This may be a work of fiction, but I feel like that's something that Margaret would have actually said. Don't you?

The attitudes of that time period were astonishing: Unlike Mr. Hobbes in his Leviathan, then under production in Paris, William thought that common man should be kept illiterate and happy, with sport and common prayer. "Too much reading," he said, "has made the mob defiant." I chewed my mutton and considered." pg 56 (ebook)

Margaret undergoes a lot of unfortunate medical treatment in this book. I thought that this passage was charming and really showed the time period rather than purely grotesque, bodily manipulations like some of the other doctor visits: "He (the doctor) tapped and patted, then scribbled in a book: how clear, how pale, how pink. I looked, he assured me, ten years younger than my age, in blossom, in perfect health, and prescribed only a new herb from China called tea. "The decoction of it drunk warm doth marvels," he told Charles. "Very comforting, abates fumes." To me he spoke nonsense, as he would to any child, suggesting candy or gossip, or candy with gossip, to lift my mood." pg 64 (ebook)

The science of the 1600's was so off from reality as to seem absurd now in retrospect. Take this scene where Margaret and an intellectual friend are viewing a map of the North Pole:"Here," he said, "lies the very pole of the pole of the Earth, where all the oceans' waters circle round and fall, just as if you'd poured them down a funnel in your head, only to see them come back out the southern end. And in the middle of the middle sits a large black rock, the very pole of the pole of the pole of the Earth, wholly magnetic, possibly magic, and thirty-three miles across!" "Where is the ice?" she wanted to know." pg 100 (ebook)

In this passage, Margaret's husband asks her what she wants in life and I thought that Dutton captured the (occasionally) unsettled attitude of every woman who has ever lived nearly perfectly:"But Margaret wanted the whole house to move three feet to the left. It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains." pg 102 (ebook) I've been there.

If the reader is looking for a historical fiction with more umph to it, she may want to consider The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg. But, if she wants a frothy, fun, and fantastical journey into what might have been, look no further than Margaret the First.
Profile Image for Simon.
Author 6 books136 followers
March 22, 2017
Margaret Cavendish is one of a number of women philosophers who are now beginning to be resurrected and studied alongside their canonical male counterparts. The impression of Cavendish given by this beautiful and striking book, however, is of her isolation. She reads avidly (in English only) works by members of the nascent Royal Society, with many of whom she was socially connected. But everything we learn about her own thinking marks it as the product of fantasy and imagination. This impression is heightened by the way the novel is written - in a sort of fragmentary, poetic way that suggests a quixotic and fevered mind. I have not read her philosophical work but I believe it is more systematic and reasoned out than this novel suggests. (Not The Blazing World, which I have read part of, and is every bit what one would expect from this novel!)

In any case, this was a lovely and moving book that vividly conveys the huge disjuncture between her ambition, aspirations, and talent, on the one hand, and her opportunities as a woman on the other. Paramount in the portrait of her is her sense of frustration, never more so than in the heartbreaking episode where she finally is invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, and everyone is there waiting to hear what she will say in her address to them, and she cannot overcome her own shyness to say more than that she finds their work excellently done! (Actually, I don't think "shyness" is the right word at all. It is more that she is failed by her great powers of imagination when faced with the insuperable task of imagining herself actually speaking in that context.)
Profile Image for Hina ♡.
227 reviews105 followers
January 22, 2023
“It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains”

I expected more from this, way more. This book did not impress me at all. I really think the author could have explored more about Margaret's accomplishments amid the struggles of woman in that era but it stopped short of that and left me wondering why that was not pursued much more in the book.

The story, although fiction, was very shallow, and without substance. I found myself waiting for a good part, yet none came. This book about a famous, eccentric woman, is left wanting of better writing. I would have to believe that Margaret herself would agree.
Profile Image for Lyn Elliott.
680 reviews173 followers
August 4, 2016
Dutton’s writing gleams with precision, sometimes sharp and brilliant, almost crystalline, sometimes brittle, sometimes flattened, as her difficult subject reveals herself, and is revealed, in the course of this short work of art.
For it is a work of art, swirling with colour, almost pointillist placement of words, images and ideas, each section engaging the reader in a different way.

The prose is dazzling, the subject so difficult to come to terms with it took Dutton 10 years to write. The book is sensibly short, miniatures rather than broad canvas.

In the first section Dutton imagines Margaret Lucas’ childhood, then youth and marriage to William Cavendish, attached to the Royal Court in exile during the years of the English Civil War and then the Commonwealth. Here she has Margaret speak in first person, sensitive, imaginative, intensely shy, prickly, melancholic, childless, brave, independent, anxious and resentful.
Margaret says of herself: ‘Bold on the page, in life I was only Margaret.…I’d hardly set down my quill before I took it up again, writing stories unconnected – of a pimp, a virgin, a rogue – strung up like pearls on a thread…I ultimately declare: “I am very ambitious, yet ‘tis neither for Beauty, Wit, Titles, Wealth or Power but as they are steps to raise me to Fames Tower”’.

With the Cavendish's return from exile to Restoration England, we are pushed a little further away, as the voice shifts from first to third person. Margaret's own words, drawn from her writings, flow into the text, so that we continue to feel we are part of her inner world of imagination and dreams.

Dutton herself says about the change of voice:
' I was trying to evoke her writing through my own, but more in the spirit of her work, and the irregular, unconventional beauty of her life, which had itself a sort of artistic bravura. My reason for those narrative switches, though, was much more to do with the needs of my own book, how to manage the reader’s sense of distance from Margaret at different moments in the development of her sense of self, to in some way enact the distance she comes to feel toward herself and her own experience'. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/margar...

And in an interview with Kate Zambreno in BOMB Magazine she talks about her first encounter with Margaret Cavendish through Virginia Woolf, who wrote: “What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.” 'So Woolf’s take on Margaret absolutely affected my own [Dutton], but I don’t see Margaret quite as Woolf saw her. For me she is that awkward cucumber, but also the roses and carnations. She spreads. She crushes. She’s crushed. Margaret is the whole garden. http://bombmagazine.org/article/90922...

We follow the extremes of Margaret' flights, plunging from wild fantasy to deep melancholia, through pride, arrogance, anger and shame, and in the end I think I was just a bit exhausted by the ride.
Profile Image for Jennifer (Insert Lit Pun).
314 reviews1,965 followers
February 7, 2017
A heady, lyrical take on the life of an extraordinary woman. This is a fictional study of Margaret Cavendish (a 17th-century British duchess and writer) that brings her fanciful inner world to life, laying her passions and talents beside her flaws and contradictions. And Dutton writes clearly and concisely (150 pages, people!) while leaving room for delicious ambiguity. Absolutely gorgeous.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
653 reviews3,203 followers
December 8, 2016
This isn’t your typical historical novel, but its protagonist Margaret Cavendish wasn’t your typical 17th century English aristocrat either. Attendant to Queen Henrietta Maria and married to William Cavendish, First Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, she could have spent her days reclining on a chaise lounge. Instead she engaged with the scientific, literary and philosophical ideas of her day by writing her own essays, plays and unconventional romances. Danielle Dutton has written an inventive fictional portrait of her life by delicately inhabiting this girl who grows up relatively care-free sketching stories and sharing a close relationship to her siblings. But she’s rudely awakened to the hard realities of the world when she experiences the death of family/friends, political conflict and torturous medical treatments that were meant to help her conceive after marrying. Gradually she’s inspired to make her thoughts and feelings known by publishing books which invigorate and challenge society. Showing a radical determination she declares: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone.” In pursuing her writing and ambition to be famous, this woman with a penchant for couture fashion achieved a level of notoriety and lasting influence on disparate groups of people over time – everyone from Virginia Woolf to Siri Hustvedt to animal rights activists.

Read my full review of Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Crysta Coburn.
Author 15 books12 followers
March 7, 2016
I really struggled to finish this book, if one can really call it a book. It's more like a rambling prose poem with very nearly zero character development and no plot whatsoever. Margaret Cavendish is presented as an infantile and delusional silly woman. At no point do I see her be clever or witty, I just have the author's assurances that she is so. Vain, whiney, depressed, and out-of touch, yes. She was depressing to read about. And why the hell does the author switch point of view half way through the book? There is no reason to jump from first person to third limited to Margaret to a brief two pages of third limited of some unnamed random person then back to Margaret. This change in style was confusing and pointless and came across as amateurish. I wasted my time reading this drivel.
Profile Image for Nadine in California.
917 reviews89 followers
September 13, 2020
What an absolutely lovely little book, inside and out - the cover is gorgeous, the title perfect in its egotistical simplicity. The tone, the writing, the structure, all combine to create not just a picture of Margaret, but the very feel of being with her - maybe even of being her. What a woman of contradictions - shy, egotistical and bursting with frustrated creativity.
Here's a little writing sample that gives a window inside Margaret's head:
But Margaret wanted the whole house to move three feet to the left. It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains."

Of course, all of the book isn't inside Margaret's head - we also get a vivid sense of life in 17th century Europe and England. In the right hands, this would make a fabulous movie. I hope I can find a good biography of her now. And Queen Christina of Sweden too, who has great cameo appearance.
Profile Image for Tyler Goodson.
171 reviews122 followers
January 11, 2016
In the 17th century, when men were trying to understand how the universe worked, Margaret Cavendish asked herself the same questions: not just of the universe, but of the society in which she found herself, and the many roles she came to play: duchess, writer, thinker, wife, celebrity. If you have never heard of Margaret Cavendish you are lucky, because now you get to know her through Danielle Dutton's words, and her life and story glitter in these pages. As Margaret says, humans are not equipped to understand all the wonders of the universe. I can't explain all the wonders of this novel. I am content to say Dutton is magic.
Profile Image for Jess Penhallow.
332 reviews21 followers
September 3, 2018
Historical fiction about real people is tricky. It needs to stick to the facts but to add something either dramatically or stylistically that is different from a non-fiction account.

Unfortunately I don't feel that this book does that. Whilst I found Margaret and her work fascinating, she is too erratic a character to narrate her life story and there were times when I got a bit lost.

I think I would have been better off reading a biography which includes excerpts from her work which I may well do in the furure. If nothing more, this book has encouraged me to learn more about this trail blazing woman.
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
Author 53 books551 followers
March 7, 2017
This was a complete delight. Margaret Cavendish is definitely the next historical figure Lin-Manuel Miranda should write a musical about. What a fascinating woman! Perfect reading in anticipation of International Women's Day tomorrow. Be sure to read this.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
424 reviews214 followers
February 5, 2017
The imagery scattered across the pages, blazing like gemstones, like fireworks, like constellations! The rhythms of the language, the stream of consciousness, and events liberated from the tyranny of time-- it’s all very Woolfian. High praise indeed.

In fact, Dutton says in her Author’s Note (page 161) that “the book incorporates, here and there, lines and images from Woolf’s own writing” and while I could not identify specific examples borrowed from Virginia, I was thinking of her long before I got to that Note. Her influence absolutely permeates this book. It reminded me of nothing so much as Orlando with its issues of gender and casualness about time. While Margaret was told chronologically, there was no slavish devotion to linking each event to another, rather an organic flow of episodes that illustrated the tone, the meaning of a life.

When the Scheldt froze this time, I stood at the window, watching Antwerp’s well-to-do slide by. Their sleighs, gliding, were lit by footmen with torches. William easily persuaded me to go out. Bundled in blankets, we rode to the shore, to revelers skating, vendors selling cakes and fried potatoes under lamps. The frozen expanse glistened in the dark, icicles licking the pier like devil’s tongues. William stepped down and waited for me to follow. And – oh!— how I longed to go, to dance with him on incorporeal legs. But I couldn’t. Or I wouldn’t. He climbed back up. We turned around. William looked strangely heartbroken, and we rode through the streets in silence. Then alone at my desk, I imagined a frozen river in me: “a smooth glassy ice, whereupon my thoughts are sliding.”

I first became aware of 17th century author and celebrity eccentric Margaret Cavendish through references to her in Siri Hustvedt’s brilliant The Blazing World , which also happens to be the title of one of Margaret Cavendish’s books. I still haven’t read Cavendish’s work – it’s still on my virtual to-read shelf, where the entries continue to multiply like bunnies -- although I’m glad to have made her acquaintance through this vividly imagined fiction about her and her unconventional artistic life. that A member of the nobility during England’s Civil War, her life was spent in various European cities and settings, where she encountered many illustrious writers, philosophers, and scientists of the time (all men, of course) and often raised contemporaries’ eyebrows and set tongues wagging. Margaret the First is also a reflection on the journey of an artist who was a trail-blazer by virtue of her gender and at times explores her simultaneous defiance of convention, doubt about her own talent and worth, and the burdens of fame.

I loved this to death.

On my list: more Dutton for sure and Cavendish, soon.
Profile Image for Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac).
660 reviews587 followers
August 3, 2016
What a delightful little historical novel. Size doesn't matter, here: at 160 pages, Margaret The First punches far above its weight.

It's based on the extraordinary, little-known life of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, a maverick, scientist, and proto-feminist writer in the seventeenth century. You'd probably benefit from reading a brief biographical sketch of Cavendish online before diving in (just not the Wikipedia one, which is bloated and terrible); however, the novel really narrates itself so well that most readers will float along enjoying the story without worrying too much about what's true, left out, or distorted.

Author Danielle Dutton situates her fictional protagonist in time, yes; but more importantly, she conveys Margaret's rich, capricious, meanderingly curious inner life and flights of imaginative fancy with some of the most gorgeous prose I've gasped at in a long while.

Margaret Cavendish's life was by turns dramatic, dull, stimulating, disappointing and outrageous. That I and so many other 21st century readers could be so deeply moved by the yearnings of this fictionalized duchess who lived centuries ago - her ache to write, to be acknowledged for having written - is a singular achievement. Danielle Dutton has plucked an obscure, fascinating tale from history and made love to it.
Profile Image for Alice.
750 reviews2,736 followers
January 15, 2017
An odd and wonderfully written book. The story feels a bit fleeting and ungrounded, but the writing style is magnificent.
Profile Image for Orsolya.
604 reviews287 followers
July 12, 2016
William Cavendish is a name/figure familiar to those well-versed on Stuart England and the court of Charles II. Lesser known in modern times but famous during the era was his wife, Margaret Cavendish. Margaret was an author, Duchess, celebrity, and first woman invited to the Royal Society of London. Author Danielle Dutton features ‘Mad Madge’ (as she was dubbed) in, “Margaret the First”.

Dutton may call “Margaret the First” a ‘novel’ but this must be declared as a false statement. “Margaret the First” can be described as a novella or short story but certainly not a novel as the pages consist of 1-2 page chapter blurbs along with a thin and under-developed plot. The story and characterization both lack growth and depth which makes “Margaret the First” a very quick read but without leaving much of an impact.

Margaret herself also fails to engage the reader in the full sense of the word. Telling her story in a retrospective, almost diary-like way; Dutton abruptly cuts thoughts and merely just mentions events in passing. Yet, this device causes a sort of stream of consciousness flow from Margaret giving the book some essence and spice. Sadly though, the reader doesn’t learn as much about Margaret as anticipated and therefore “Margaret the First” is more of an introduction.

An issue also arises with the setting of “Margaret the First”. Both the environment descriptions and the ‘feel’ are more Victorian than Stuart. This isn’t ‘bad’ per se; it just simple isn’t accurate and doesn’t present the era well.

All complaints aside though; there is something compelling about “Margaret the First” (perhaps the ease of reading) which encourages page turning and provides pleasure. It is definitely a story which could use more flesh on its skeleton but it isn’t terrible. Thin, but not terrible.

In the vein of the Victorian feel, “Margaret the First” causes one to rethink women’s roles which were once (and still are) inhibited. This results in a somewhat philosophical air to Dutton’s writing.

The narrative perspective changes in “Margaret the First” with the section that focuses on the Restoration from first-person to third person, adding depth to the story. The pace at this point steadies versus being over-eager.

The concluding pages of Dutton’s work is slightly off course, choppy, and doesn’t mesh well with the plot but on another hand, this works to emphasize the eccentric nature of Margaret (or at least how she was perceived at the time). The ending is somewhat flat and disappointing not leaving on a powerful note.

Dutton doesn’t dive deep into explaining the historical merits of the story but does provide some sources for further reading/research.

“Margaret the First” is a quick 1-2 day read lacking the depth and development of a novel but introduces Margaret and provides some fodder to chew on. Dutton’s story won’t change your life but is suggested if looking for a fast read with an interest in Stuart England.
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,578 reviews984 followers
June 27, 2018
As a creative interpretation of the life of Margaret Cavendish -- early feminist natural philosopher and sci-fi writer! -- Dutton interprets a clearly broad and detailed research with a spare poetic elegance, creating a precisely arranged experience of the Restoration and Enlightenment, and its heroine's remarkable life. I'd become interested in Dutton's writing after discovering that she's behind the excellent Dorothy, a publishing project, and she's clearly of a part with the pantheon of great new writers she's building there.
Profile Image for Resh (The Book Satchel).
419 reviews487 followers
September 18, 2020
I had expected to love the book after hearing raving reviews. But I feel I didn't know enough of the history to enjoy the book enough. Also I would've liked more depth (of characters and settings) which again might be because I didn't know enough of the history being covered in the book.
Profile Image for T.D. Whittle.
Author 3 books188 followers
July 16, 2017
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, is presented here as a vibrant, fascinating, unique, and lovable woman, which I've no doubt she was. She was also (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious and egocentric to an astounding degree, but no more so than many men of that or any age. Egocentricity always stands out in a woman of past centuries because it's so unexpected. One suspects it would not have been tolerated had she not been of noble birth and marriage. Happily, for us, Margaret was protected by the good fortune of both. She is most certainly a shining example of a woman who indefatigably pursued her life's work and her social, intellectual, and artistic interests, despite the criticism of her peers.

Whilst reading this book, I found myself being constantly grateful to William for standing by Margaret no matter how outrageously (for the time) she behaved. William and Margaret, as presented by Dutton, are a devoted couple who marry for love. They are mutually supportive of one another. William encourages and indulges Margaret's writing, her autodidactic education, and her whimsical sense of style. Of course, all husbands should do, but I mention this because it was not typical of husbands at the time. William, in this way, was also unique.

Margaret's fashion choices get a lot of attention in Dutton's book because they are singularly unforgettable. One evening, Margaret appears at court to meet the new queen in a dress with such a long train that the maid has to stand outside the door holding it, thus Margaret upstages the queen herself. It is a rule that one may not wear a train longer than the Queen's but Margaret has not remembered this. William takes it in stride and promises to make it all right with the king but, really, the best part of all this is the description of the dress itself: At last they disembark and enter the Banqueting Hall together, William greeting familiar faces, Margaret in diamond earrings and a hat like a fox that froze. . . . in a gown designed to look like the forest floor, like glittering yellow wood moss and starry wood anemone and deep-red Jew's-ear bloom. It has a train like a river―so long it must be carried by a maid―yet hitches up in front, so she might walk with ease. Gone are the golden shoes with gold shoe-roses, just flat boots laced to her knees. (pps. 136-137) On a related note: I want that outfit―but obviously, the fox hat would have to be fake because I love foxes.

On one occasion, William fails to appreciate Margaret's choice of dress. She arrives at the theatre wearing a gown that fully exposes her breasts to a crowd attending the performance of a play he's written. (It also stings that everyone in London assumes that Margaret herself has written the play.) Still, William does not react like a beast, as many men would have done. Here is a description of her costume for that particular evening. (She is always turned out in spectacular fashion!): She has her mask, her gown. The 'femme forte' she explained to the seamstress. And so the dress, like an Amazon's, is all simple drapes and folds. . . . A glass bead in the back of her mouth holds the mask in place. . . . She tries not to gag on the bead. . . . her dress is gold, her breasts bared, her nipples painted red. (p.139)

The dialogue between William and Margaret, at the end of the play, made me laugh out loud:

. . . but before Margaret can say a thing in all that noise, William has her elbow and is guiding her through the crowd.

"Congratulations!" she tells him once their carriage door is shut.

"No, no," he says, "congratulations to you."

The horses lurch ahead, crossing the Fleet in the dark.

"Is something amiss?" she asks, placing the mask in her lap.

The river oozes beneath them, a blacker sort of black.

"What could be wrong?"

The driver turns north onto John.

"Only tell me," he finally says, looking out into the night, "exactly who wears such a gown to an evening at the theater?"

"The 'femme forte'," she explains, "a woman dressed in armor."

"Do you think you are Cleopatra?" he asks.

Margaret bristles. She fingers the mask. "I had rather appear worse in singularity," she says, "than better in the mode."

"Do not quote to me from your books," he snaps.

The driver flicks his whip. (p.140)

Whilst reading Margaret the First, I was repeatedly reminded of one of my favourite writers, another inspirational woman of history and a legend in her own time, Madame Colette. Though Colette did not involve herself in politics or science, she was certainly a singular sensation and a shining star of the Belle Epoque. Like Margaret, Colette was an intellectual, an autodidact, and an egocentric who challenged the cultural mores of her time; even amongst Parisians during the decadent Belle Epoque, she knew how to cause a stir. She was outrageous and unpredictable, charming and loveable. Reading about Margaret's breast-revealing la femme forte gown, I was reminded of Colette's costume in her stage premier of La Chair, 1907. Colette was an unrepentant sensualist and a bon vivant of epic proportions who loved to shock and delight a crowd, but it is significant that she came along two hundred years after Margaret and, for her time, was no doubt less radical than Mad Madge. Margaret bared both breasts to the public,* without the protection of an acting role and a stage to play upon. She wrote books when women did not write. She thought and spoke at length about politics, philosophy, and science, and made gifts of her own books at a time when women of the nobility were meant to give birth to male heirs, refill tea cups, and then sit quietly sewing in the corner.

This book was not my introduction to Margaret. About a decade ago, I tried to read The Blazing World and Other Writings, drawn in by both the title and what I knew of its author. Alas, I could not get through it. I love Mad Madge as an historical personage of distinction and flair, and I love her ideas. It is so disappointing to me to find them poorly executed and monotonous to read. The book began to feel like a chore to be completed rather than a pleasure to indulge in.

Dutton is a beautiful and subtle writer who does great honour to this inspiring woman. I often think that novels can tell the truth better than biographies, and certainly better than autobiographies. Of course, whether Dutton has captured the essential nature of Margaret and the life she led, we can never know for certain. I like to think she has because it is a beautiful homage she has written, even if it is fiction. Margaret herself lived her life more in her mind than anywhere else, and Dutton certainly captured that about her. You will not find this book a chore at all.

Note: Besides the woodland gown with the faux-fox hat, I now need some stars to paste on my cheeks too.

* Regarding the baring of breasts: It is true that, throughout history, some noble women have been painted or sculpted with one or both breasts bared. Saints, of course, were often depicted in this manner but those were mythic paintings, not portraiture. The baring of breasts was rarer, but not unheard of, in the peerage of England during the Restoration. It is also true that Margaret was not the first female public breast-barer who did it for reasons of personal aesthetics rather than political protest (i.e. Lady Godiva), but I've no doubt that she was also making a social point about women being individuals and persons in their own right. Nevertheless, the trendsetter Agnès Sorel beat Margaret by two hundred years: In 1450, Agnès Sorel, mistress to Charles VII of France, is credited with starting a fashion when she wore deep low square décolleté gowns with fully bared breasts in the French court. Other aristocratic women of the time who were painted with breasts exposed included Simonetta Vespucci, whose portrait with exposed breasts was painted by Piero di Cosimo in c.1480. See décolleté.

Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, by Peter Lely
Profile Image for Holly.
367 reviews68 followers
May 8, 2016
This is an ultimately successful experiment, if a bit aimless. Danielle Dutton fictionalizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, or, as the protagonist muses that she would one day like to be known as: Margaret the First. The prose is tucked inside a bland-looking nest, but it really holds the most beautiful eggs imaginable. Dutton explores how Margaret maneuvered through a society where "intellectualism" was dominated by males. It's quite funny at times: with the benefit of living in 2016, we watch as these men conduct pseudo-scientific experiments and insist on their own genius. Margaret's frustrations, writing process, and everyday trials are jocular subjects and made this a quick, enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Jenni.
261 reviews226 followers
July 26, 2017
Actual rating: 4.5 stars

This books is so lovely. Beautiful and entertaining and full of wonderful quote worthy passages! I'm definitely going to be rereading this one at some point.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,656 reviews616 followers
January 7, 2017
I first came across Margaret Cavendish when one of my best friends wrote their undergraduate dissertation about her. She is sometimes considered the mother of science fiction, thanks to her 1666 book The Blazing World. In this, a girl survives a shipwreck and finds herself in a strange and fanciful other world of talking animals. Cavendish is a fascinating and unusual figure: an eccentric intellectual woman in an era when that was vanishingly rare. I was thus delighted to come across a review of this book, a fictionalised account of her life. It’s a brief read, with short chapters and effervescent use of language. Cavendish comes across as a quixotic, thoughtful, and sympathetic figure. I found this paragraph particularly astute:

But Margaret wanted the whole house to move three feet to the left. It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains.

“I want my crates” was all she said.

The descriptions of her clothing are also a joy. She designed wonderful gowns, variously inspired by forest floors and amazons. I wish there were pictures of them all. The only faults I would find with this book are occasional Americanisms (I have an irrationally intense hatred of the word ‘snuck’) and its short length. What’s there is beautiful, though, and re-piqued my interest in Margaret Cavendish. Although my dissertation-writing friend warned me that The Blazing World is very difficult to read, perhaps I’ll give it a try. Or maybe find a more substantive biography.
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