MARCH 10, 2016
IN A KEY SCENE in Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, the titular heroine walks into a bookshop in rural Nottinghamshire to buy a copy of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. As she stands reading it in the shop, the stationer watches her face grow taut: “‘We must hound Nature in her wanderings,’ she read. Unlock her secrets and penetrate her holes. ‘Break her,’ Bacon argued, ‘and soon she will come when you call.’” This is not, to say the least, a happy reading experience for Margaret. For her, the natural world is “a jubilant cosmos,” and Dutton’s novel is at its best when evoking the ways in which she experiences and imagines it. The historical Margaret Cavendish, on whom the novel is based, was one of the most prolific writers and notorious personalities in 17th-century England. She published some 20 books on topics ranging from natural philosophy to political history, which she circulated, rather aggressively, to the major libraries of Europe. Several became bestsellers. She was also the first woman to visit the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific academy. “Margaret the First” was the title she imagined for herself in the preface to her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666).
Dutton’s novel is interested in Margaret’s ambition, particularly in how others get in its way. In one scene late in the novel, Margaret asks John Evelyn, a founding member of the Royal Society, if he’s read her utopia, and he smiles at her husband over her head. “Forgive me,” he says, turning back to Margaret after this meaningful act of masculinist condescension, “I have not had the pleasure of reading your book myself.” Shortly thereafter, she dreams that Robert Boyle, a much better scientist than Evelyn, falls asleep in his bed with her book in his lap, open to a page about a medicinal gum that causes a body to scab, eventually opening along the back and coming off “like a suit of armor.” In many ways, this vision is an apt metaphor for the way Margaret moves through the book: at once open to the world and fully armored against it only in the realm of her imagination.
The novel proceeds chronologically, starting with a young Margaret who wanders the English countryside with “petal-flecked shoes” and two hard plums in her pocket, writing stories about miniature princesses who sleep in sheets woven from the eyelids of doves. One day, she wakes up to find she’s stained her own bed sheets with blood and is removed from the nursery. This mildly traumatic entry into adult sexuality haunts Margaret’s relationship to her body for the rest of the novel, during the course of which she is frequently “bled” and medicated with a dizzying array of compounds, including, at one point, a tincture comprised of “steel shavings steeped in wine with fern roots, nephritic wood, apples, and more ivory,” which is syringed directly into her womb. These somewhat ghoulish accounts of bad medicine are clearly meant to invoke both the abuse of nature and the pathologizing of Margaret’s very way of being in the world, which are among the novel’s central themes, but the book spends perhaps a little too much time on Margaret’s feelings about her failure to have children — a subject of negligible concern in the historical Cavendish’s work.
Margaret’s removal from the open fields of her childhood occurs even more dramatically with the outbreak of civil war, the arrest and imprisonment of her family — who’d been stocking weapons for the royalist side — and her own departure for the English court in exile as an attendant to the queen. There, Margaret is seduced by William Cavendish, an aristocrat and failed royalist commander some 30 years her senior. Dutton’s account of the consummation is somewhat elliptical — “It was the century of magnificent beds” — and the newly married Margaret takes up residence in Peter Paul Rubens’s old house in Antwerp, which her husband turns into a kind of salon frequented by male scientists and philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes. Despite, or perhaps because of, this milieu, Margaret doesn’t fully start her own scholarly career until she goes to London to petition for her rights to her husband’s estate. Only after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and her subsequent return to England in her 30s does she come fully into her own. The novel marks this moment by switching from the first person, in which Margaret’s story has been told up until this point, to the third person, suggesting that her story has now become historical narrative rather than merely the assertions of an insistent “I.” Thus the novel’s account of her return home: “In morning light, she dressed. And over the following week, as William prepared to petition the courts for the return of his elegant townhouse, Margaret prepared for some sign of the notice she’d allowed herself to expect.”
Dutton is clearly engaged with Virginia Woolf’s famous accounts of Margaret Cavendish’s life in both The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own as well as with Margaret Cavendish’s own writing. Yet while she certainly suggests the necessity of a woman intellectual having a room of her own — there’s a great scene in the novel when everyone else is jumping up and down about the death of Cromwell and, Margaret tells us, “I was at my desk” — Dutton is far more interested in what it might be like to have acres of one’s own. While her husband looks into the forests that comprise much of his 500,000 acres and sees “timber for building, charcoal, hunting for the rich,” Margaret sees a brilliant network of spiderwebs lacing the trees, which she imagines, like other, much more famous scientists after her, as a figure for the connectedness of all matter. Head tipped back, she asks: “Might not the air be made like that? Little lines, clear and close, which stretch across the universe and hold us all in place?”
Margaret’s engagement with the history and current practices of science is capacious, and, as with her reading of Francis Bacon, it is also bracingly skeptical. In one scene, her reading of Robert Hooke’s world-changing Micrographia, the first account of the natural world seen under a microscope, solicits a series of ruminations on the uses of nature and the value of empiricism. “The inspection of a bee through a microscope will bring him no more honey,” she notes. And such scientists’ “so-called observations reveal only the outer shell, and nothing of the inner essence of a thing. The mysteries of nature go utterly unrevealed!” The historical Margaret Cavendish believed that observation and the imagination could reveal as much of the mysteries of the natural world as the tools touted by the new empiricism. In the novel, Margaret’s rejection of certain forms of empiricism as both unnecessarily violent and imaginatively impoverished is expressed most beautifully in a scene in which she and her husband consider Robert Boyle’s air-pump — a cause célèbre in the period, and in the male-focused history of it — which he demonstrated by using it to kill a bird. “All this,” she objects, “to prove a bird needs air?” Her husband responds: “Before devising the pump, he’d had to strangle them with his hands.” Dutton seems to make a dig here not only at her male characters, but also at Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s prize-winning Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985), a work of scholarship that, among other things, rendered Cavendish (and all other female scientists) the briefest footnote to an illustrious history of scientific discovery. When Margaret imagines Boyle asleep with her book open in his lap, then, she is imagining her way into his consciousness in much the same way as Dutton is imagining Cavendish’s way into the male-dominated history of science.
Thus, as much as Dutton honors Woolf in her novel, she also offers a corrective to her vision of Cavendish. In one moment in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes that Cavendish “should have had a microscope put in her hand. She should have been taught to look at the stars and reason scientifically.” If history has proven Woolf wrong on Cavendish’s readership — her work has not remained “congealed in quartos and folios that nobody ever reads” — she might also have been wrong about her science and her methodology. Many of Cavendish’s ideas, including her thinking about the vitalism of matter, and her fantasy of a medicinal gum that allowed a body to heal within its ultimately sheddable artificial skin, have been borne out by scientific discoveries in the 350 years since Cavendish first imagined them.
“What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind,” Woolf wrote, “as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.” Like many of her readers, Dutton prefers monstrous vegetables to the tedious perfections of carnations and roses, overdetermined even in the 17th century. Dutton’s Margaret is interested in motes of dust alive in the sun and the “summer gloom of vegetable bravado.” She describes her own hair growing “crimped and fierce as wild lettuce” upon her head. This makes her story a lot more interesting to read. Margaret the First is perhaps too enamored of its subject’s biography; it hews closely to the chronology of Cavendish’s life and the political events that marked it, as well as the somewhat familiar story line of a woman ahead of her time. Yet its more experimental aspects, particularly the ways in which it presents Margaret’s perspective alongside the technologically enhanced perspective machines of 17th-century natural science, are thrilling in the close-ups they show of a world in flux.
Julie Crawford is the Mark Van Doren Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, where she specializes in 16th- and 17th-century English literature. She is currently completing a book titled Margaret Cavendish’s Political Career.