Monday, 27 March 2017

A portrait of an author ahead of her time

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
Pp. 160

Margaret Cavendish was a poet, philosopher and visionary. As a child she created imaginary worlds (populated with thinking-rocks, humming-shoes, her favourite sister and Shakespeare, Ovid and Caesar) and stitched little books together with yarn. “Eventually she achieved fame, but it was not necessarily that which she sought, as children chased after her carriage calling out to ‘Mad Madge’ and she became a cautionary tale for young girls who dreamed of becoming too intelligent.

With the civil war raging, she joined the court of Queen Henrietta Maria and followed her into exile in France, where she met and married the much older William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. William was generally very supportive of her work and encouraged her to speak up and express her thoughts. Through him, Margaret came into contact with many of Europe’s leading thinkers; but she was bashful and awkward in society. When she was invited to speak at The Royal Society (the first woman to be so invited, and the last for 200 years) she could only stammer appreciation and rush away; causing Samuel Pepys to write, “A mad, conceited, ridiculous woman. I do not like her at all.”

As a woman who published books of her thoughts, she was considered doubly shocking. First that she had them, which was scandalous enough, but to voice them was even more so. Furthermore, she was childless, attempted cures for which included syringing herbs into her womb and “a drench that would poison a horse.”

Many of her thoughts centred on the physical world. As well as poetry and philosophy she wrote and published works of extraordinary utopian science fiction and fantasy. In her book, Philosophical and Physical Opinions, 1655, against the prevailing ideas of the time, “I argued all matter can think: a woman, a river, a bird. There is no creature or part of nature without innate sense and reason, I wrote, for observe the way a crystal spreads, or how a flower makes way for its seed.”  

In contrast with much current weighty (in size) historical fiction, this short novel (160 pages) covers historical events in brief detail; The English Civil War is dealt with very succinctly:
“The King of England was convicted of treason. Then the King of England was dead. It was Tuesday. It was 1649. Parliament hacked off Charles I’s head outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall.” Halfway through the novel, Danielle Dutton changes from first-person to third-person narration. This ambitious move reflects the fame Margaret sought as people began to talk about her after the coronation of Charles II, and the Cavendishes’ return to London.

While Danielle Dutton doesn’t claim Margaret specifically as a proto-feminist, she does dwell on her issues with equality, or the lack thereof. Indeed, the title comes from her own self-honorific. “Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”. She was far from saintly, however, and, jealous of William’s success, she upstaged him at the opening of his play by attending the theatre with her breasts bared and her nipples painted.

Margaret Cavendish was a remarkable woman. She has been championed by Virginia Woolf and deserves wider renown. Unfortunately, with society’s attitude towards women, she will be better remembered for her outfits and her manners than her literary and artistic achievements.

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