The First Unappreciated Woman Writer

In her new novel "Margaret the First," Danielle Dutton explores the poignant life and anxieties of Margaret Cavendish, an ambitious, strange, ahead-of-her-time writer of 17th-century England.

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Mar 15 2016, 8:55pm

Image courtesy of Catapult

"Pretty punk rock" is how Danielle Dutton, founder of Dorothy: A Publishing Project (which discovered Nell Zink's unique voice), describes the first woman to ever seek publication under her own name. Born in the 17th century, the woman was Margaret Cavendish, the subject of Dutton's new novel, Margaret the First, out today from Catapult.

In her famous essay "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf mentions various historical women, from Austen and the Brontës to a version of Shakespeare's sister who could have enjoyed the same opportunities Willy had. Among these giantesses (real and potential) of literature, Woolf writes, "What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind!" It is these aspects—loneliness and riotous thought—that Dutton explores in her book. Over the last ten years, while writing another novel, completing a PhD, having a baby, and starting a press, Dutton kept coming back to Margaret Cavendish's story, until she finally completed it. The result is a compelling, slim, and dense volume about a woman so radical that she was dismissed and dubbed "Mad Madge" during her lifetime and who, as Woolf writes, "became a bogey to frighten clever girls with."

While Dutton's novel could be considered historical fiction, it's also an incredibly contemporary look at a woman far ahead of her time. "It's really hard to go back and say exactly what the makeup of imagined and factual is at this point, but [the book] does stick very close to her life," Dutton said when I spoke to her last Sunday. This confirmed my hopes: Cavendish is an inspiring character, and knowing that Dutton stayed true to facts was a relief. It is so easy to romanticize figures like Cavendish and their firsts; to know that the gorgeous romance of Dutton's language describes a true woman makes the book all the more exciting.

Born in 1623, the last of eight children, Margaret Lucas was raised in Colchester, England, by her mother after Lucas's father died when she was two. "She would have grown up with a very competent mother handling everything," Dutton explained. "She would have also grown up with the stories of Queen Elizabeth, so there were these images of strong women out there." Marie de' Medici, Christina Queen of Sweden, and Shakespeare's heroines were other role models for the strange, shy young girl. In her teens, as tensions were ramping up before the Second English Civil War broke out, she went to serve the Catholic and unpopular Queen Henrietta Maria—another interesting female figure for soon-to-be-Cavendish to have observed and grown close to.

When she was 18, Margaret Lucas married William Cavendish, then a marquess and later a duke, who was enamored with her. And it was with her marriage, Dutton says, that Cavendish's real education began. Although she had been a reader in her youth, the man she married was a philosopher, poet, playwright, and more, and he hung out with the likes of Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, incredibly influential thinkers of the 17th century. William's patronage of these men and the salons he held with them and other philosophers, scientists, and men of letters were where Cavendish learned much about the trending thoughts of her day—and about what she disagreed with, vehemently.

It was also after her marriage that Cavendish truly began to shine, because that was when she began to write. With a penchant for typos and strange capitalizations—loose even for the grammar of the age—Cavendish wrote whole books of philosophy, plays, fantastical utopian explorations, and scientific theory. These weren't little vanity projects meant to be shared among family and friends, and she didn't write these books for herself. No, she wrote seeking publication and recognition, an absurd and audacious notion for a woman of her time. "She had this inborn ambition," according to Dutton, and this is clear in Cavendish's work, because unlike many aristocratic men who had their books bound and then shared them among peers, she didn't distribute her books herself. She brought her manuscripts to printers, who then, more in the vein of today's publishers, distributed the copies and sent Cavendish a small number for herself.

Dutton sees Cavendish as one of the rare women who lived well within the confines of patriarchy but were also able to see beyond it. Cavendish didn't understand why women couldn't or shouldn't write, couldn't or shouldn't think, and she made this clear even while being incredibly hard on her own sex. She didn't believe women should be idle, but rather that they should act, make art, philosophize; in these radical beliefs, Cavendish also fulfilled the stereotype that so many proto-feminists did: She was incredibly disappointed in most women. She herself wanted to be read, to have her thoughts disseminated to the masses, to become known and recognized, and to live a public life, but she was chastised and mocked by other women. She saw these unsupportive sisters as exactly part of what was wrong with the world.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Her most well-known work is The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World, which she had published in 1666. A strange hybrid of utopian fiction, romance, adventure, autobiography, and later, in a second printing, dense pure philosophy, The Blazing World was a success in that it garnered notoriety for Cavendish, but not necessarily in the way that she wanted. Essentially, what happened to Margaret Cavendish is what happens to female artists still and often: She wasn't really taken seriously. She was a kind of early-career Björk, a woman trying to make art that was incredibly strange and different for her time. She gained a large following, some of which thought her ridiculous. Others thought she was brilliant.

"I really identified with Margaret's struggles," Dutton said. "Even though things are very different in certain ways today, there's still this universality of the struggle to create art in general and to be a woman who wants to be taken seriously as a thinker and an artist." In this way, Cavendish's character, and Dutton's book, are so timely. Recent articles such as "On Pandering" by Claire Vaye Watkins—and critical responses to it—demonstrate the struggles women artists still have today in expressing themselves and in finding audiences. Cavendish's readers were largely educated—which means they were largely male and upper class—and her ideas resonated with only a few of the freer and more radical thinkers among them. Cavendish was also "sponsored" by her husband, like Ann Bauer, who wrote for Salon in 2015 about how so many writers are supported by their partners, by family money, or by other means.

However, the difference here is that while Bauer describes herself as not unique, Cavendish was. Few men of the 17th century would have taken their wives' ambitions as seriously as William did, but he supported Cavendish beyond what any man of his time would have been expected to. He seems to have genuinely loved her and believed in her work: He wrote sonnets introducing some of her books and clearly helped with the financial aspect of funding her printing, since aristocratic women like Cavendish had no sources of income or their own wealth. (It was not until the 19th century that women were allowed to retain inherited wealth after marriage.) His belief in her was unwavering even when he, too, was gossiped about and considered a fool for allowing his wife to degrade and embarrass herself by writing and publishing her work. Because William was also a writer, some people thought he was writing her books—though when he had a play produced in England late in his life, many believed it, in turn, had been written by his wife. Despite this, the pair stuck together, through the deaths of most of their respective families and the difficulties of aristocratic society.

People were following her in the streets, chasing after her carriage and stuff, like paparazzi.

Though Cavendish spent much of her life in exile, publishing her work in England while living in Antwerp, Belgium, once she returned to England after the Restoration, she found she was a celebrity, though again, not in the way she wanted. During the course of her research, Dutton discovered that the early newspapers circulating at the time were reporting "sightings" of Cavendish, who dressed strangely (sometimes in certain elements of men's dress, or in extravagant gowns and hats that weren't the English style) and was seen as a bizarre madwoman. "Finding out that she was so noted in these daily papers was fascinating to me," Dutton, who compares Cavendish's experience to our contemporary obsession with celebrity, said. "People were following her in the streets, chasing after her carriage and stuff, like paparazzi. They didn't have cameras, but they were doing that to her."

They were also calling her "Mad Madge," a nickname that angered and saddened Cavendish. "Art itself is, for the most part, irregular," Cavendish wrote, and in this she seems to have accepted her fate of being irregular, of being different. Dutton too accepts this fate in her book, which is not traditional historical fiction in any way. She told me that she worried about the lack of hot-and-heavy moments in the novel, a trope so common in historical fiction that it's led to the term "bodice ripper." Margaret and her husband never had children—though not for lack of trying. Dutton describes some of the odd and gruesome fertility treatments of the time: the "excrement of a virile ram" spread over Margaret's belly; "a tincture of herbs put into [her] womb at night with a long syringe"; and, a personal favorite, "[she] was to be injected in [her] rectum with a decoction of flowers one morning, followed by a day-long purge, using rhubarb and pepper." These are the most intimate bodily descriptions in the book. As Dutton notes, "there's no sex."

"It's a portrait of a mind. Well," she added, "there's a tiny bit of sex." It's true—there is really a very tiny bit. However, sex wasn't foremost in Margaret Cavendish's life, either. Her loneliness was that of a woman filled with ambition, and her riotous thoughts were the ideas that ran contrary to those of many of her peers.

The book's climax, and perhaps one of Margaret Cavendish's own, is a moment that the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about derisively: Margaret's appearance before the Royal Society, a group of men who, after the Restoration, rose out of the "invisible college" of thinkers of the 1660s, before science, as Dutton puts it, "dominated the intellectual life." Cavendish arrived late to her appearance, said almost nothing, and left quickly. Theories abound as to why, but the most believable seems to be Dutton's, whose sensitive portrait of a woman who understood herself to be an apparent freak never veers into the sentimental. "Alone," Cavendish said of herself after the failed debut. "I am quite alone."