Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson
Poetic, funny and insightful, Margaret the First is an impressionistic, well-researched novel about Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who published books under her own name in seventeenth-century England, when most of the few women who dared to publish did so anonymously. Shy in company, Cavendish wrote boldly in a wildly various range of genres: philosophy, poetry, plays - even one of the earliest science fiction novels, The Blazing World, in which a young woman travels to an alternate universe populated by fish men, bird men and other intelligent animals.
Through much of the novel, Margaret narrates, skipping and hopping through key periods of her life in a style that seems a tribute to the real Margaret's eclectic writing, quoted now and again in a way which demonstrates both her originality of thought and the naïveté which may have been part of the reason she decided to publish in her own name. Her first book is mocked for its imaginative spelling in "London's most fashionable parlors. 'Passionitt,' they sniggered..." But her elderly husband, almost as sparkling a gem of characterization as Margaret is, expresses pride in her accomplishment. . Intelligent, indulgent, a bit absent-minded, he tells her, "Such ill-informed, seditious readers, should exist beneath a marchioness's notice."
The historical setting is suggested more through Margaret's ideas and experiences than thorugh tangible sights and sounds, which though consistent with the time, suggest a certain timelessness: "A summer afternoon, age nine, sitting first beneath French honeysuckle, then moving nearer the brook to observe 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..." Similarly timeless are Margaret's qualms about the value of her writing, her nervousness about its reception, and her need to set down her thoughts. Readers who also write will especially appreciate Margaret the First. (2016, 167 pages, including a bibliography of sources)More about Margaret the First at Powell's Books or Amazon.com