This book is life story of Margaret Cavendish, a duchess and one of the first popular, female writers in England.
Nice hat, right? Digital image from nottingham.ac.uk
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)
Actual chicken skin glove. Image from www.museumofleathercraft.org
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?
Cover of one of Margaret’s books. Photo from wikipedia.org.
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)
Painting: The Doctor’s Visit by Jan Steen.
Digital image from b-womeninamericanhistory17.blogspot.com
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)
Map of the known world by Pierre Desceliers. Image from prints.bl.uk
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.
Thanks for reading!
This review also appeared on O’Fallon Public Library’s blog.