A review by Nalini Haynes
Set in 17th century Europe, Margaret the First is historical fiction of an author and feminist from the era of Elizabethan, Cromwell and Charles II.
The author, Danielle Dutton, was inspired by A Room With A View and Virginia Woolf’s writing on Margaret, who became Duchess of Newcastle. While reminding readers that this is a work of fiction, she also cites various sources, including Margaret’s own writing, some of which Dutton has incorporated into her own story.
Margaret the First tells the story of an odd immature girl who becomes a lady in waiting in the queen’s court in order to flee potential violence during working class revolts. There she meets the man who was to become her husband. Reproached for her barrenness, Margaret suffers horrendous medical treatments intended to fix her that would probably poison any baby and potentially trigger miscarriages.
Eventually Margaret finds solace in writing but, after publication, must contend with misogyny and accusations of madness. Thus Margaret precedes Mary Shelley as a woman author writing romance, philosophy (including science), and fantasy in a blurring of the genres. (I aim a long hard stare at all those who wish to silo genres.)
Although Margaret is a complicated character, she remains fairly two-dimensional on the page except when, I suspect, passages of her own are invoked to delve into the inner workings of her mind.
Although a deceptively simple and fairly short book — more a novella really — Margaret the First grapples with immense issues of the day: society’s attitude to women including precluding women from education; scientific endeavours and philosophical advances of her era.
It’s difficult to tell where the line is drawn between fact and fiction but I suspect that Margaret suffered from depression, probably a form of learned helplessness (see Martin Seligmann). This appears to also be because she has insufficient intellectual stimulation coupled with feeling socially awkward.
According to Dutton’s tale, Queen Christina of Sweden was publicly trans: wearing men’s clothes and accoutrements and even sweeping her hat off at the appearance of a lady. In what I suspect are Margaret’s own words, Dutton conveys Margaret’s unhappiness with her lot in life and, possibly, some non-traditional gender orientation. She breaks social conventions including baring her breasts in the theatre, gaining a reputation as an eccentric and worse.
Margaret the First says, ‘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.”‘ One wonders if right wing governments around the globe hold to Cavendish’s philosophy in this era although sources as reputable as the New York Times report that increased spending on education improves students’ results. After all, they don’t want the unwashed masses trained to think and seek out truth, or they may lose their political positions and lucrative perks.
Margaret the First lacks plot — it’s more Larks Rise to Candleford than my normal fare — but conflict abounds. Tightly written and positively lyrical in places (possibly when borrowing from or most influenced by Margaret’s own work). Her struggles with society, the learned establishment and her health are painted vividly if starkly within this short, beautifully designed novella. I highly recommend Margaret the First for book clubs and academic discussion and as a primer for those afeared that society is losing ground in the quest for equality.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
ISBN (13): 9781925321654
Format: hardcover with dust jacket, 176 pages
Publisher: Scribe (in Australia)