Margaret the First

by Danielle Dutton

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

Other historical novels about women writers:

Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan (2009), about novelists Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë and their family. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (2002), about a prostitute striving for a better life in Victorian London. More info

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998), about Virginia Woolf in 1923 as she was writing Mrs. Dalloway, a woman reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949 as she plans a birthday party for her WWII veteran husband, and a present-day New York woman planning a party for a poet friend. More info

Nonfiction about Margaret Cavendish:

Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind by Anna Battigelli (1998). More info

A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle edited by Stephen Clucas (2003). More info

The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy During the Scientific Revolution by Lisa T. Sarasohn (2010). More info


Margaret Cavendish at the Poetry Foundation

Back to Novels of the Seventeenth Century

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