Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), was the first woman in England to write for publication, most notably “The Blazing World,” “one part Fantastical and one part Philosophical,” a work sometimes cited as one of the earliest examples of science fiction.
In this fictional re-imagining of her life, Margaret also appears to be one of the earliest examples of a certain sort of celebrity, her life a performance intimately — or not so intimately — connected with her work.
When the empress, “having run out of questions … asks the spirits to send her a friend, one chosen from among the greatest modern writers,” Galileo and Descartes are discarded as unlikely “to be scribes to a woman,” and “an author called Margaret Cavendish” is brought in instead.
Meanwhile, in the midst of aristocratic life in Restoration England, Cavendish is angling for more than a reading. The words of the young King Charles II, murmured to her at a ball, “Did you know … you are something of a celebrity in London?” come back to her teasingly again and again.
Not content to have her book talked of everywhere, Margaret attends the theater, “her breasts bared, her nipples painted red.” (Amusingly enough, the paragraph describing her “dress” begins, “She is worried there’s something she left behind.”) Soon enough Samuel Pepys is writing in his diary, “The Duchess of Newcastle is all the pageant now discoursed on.”
Conjured in a prose at once lush and spare — so precise and yet so rich in observation — Danielle Dutton’s Margaret is a creature exquisitely of her own creation, who can tell herself, and perhaps believe, that she “had rather appear worse in singularity, than better in the Mode.”
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.
Margaret the First
By: Danielle Dutton.
Publisher: Catapult, 163 pages, $15.95.