Margaret the First: A Novel
By Danielle Dutton
176 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
Authenticity in fiction is both incredibly satisfying to read and equally as difficult to produce. Prose should enhance the plot, the setting, the characters. Readers must be completely enveloped by the story. Any fiction rooted in reality, especially that reality of the past, succeeds and fails due to this alone. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton succeeds in many ways by taking risks, by staying the course, and by rewarding the reader in full. This story is one very dear to Ms. Dutton, and one she takes extraordinary care of. This story is that of Margaret of Cavendish, a writer and playwright, a scientist and a critic—one of the many unknown mothers of early science fiction. Her story is one of great importance and Dutton treats it as such.
The structure of the novel is disorienting in a very peculiar way; you seem to quickly follow the prose at any given point of the story and then find yourself finished quicker than anticipated. The short bursts of fiction, the timeline of which we see Margaret develop into a truly complex character, rewards the reader for sticking around. Danielle Dutton has a way with words, she makes no bones that she wants to stay as close to the time period as possible and shows it masterfully in the opening:
The woman had eight children. The first, called Tom, in 1603, the final year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. It was five daughters and three sons, and she dressed them richly but simply and cleanly to ward off sharkly habits. Margaret was the youngest. She made the world her book, took a piece of coal and marked a blank white wall. Later, she made sixteen smaller books: untitled, sewn with yarn. Her girlhood heroes were Shakespeare, Ovid, Caesar. She wrote them in beside thinking-rocks and humming-shoes and her favorite sister, Catherine, who starred in all but five. Snow fell fast as she sat by the nursery fire; ink to paper, then she sewed. The last book told a tale of hasty gloom, teeming with many shades of green: emerald, viridian, a mossy black. In it we meet a miniature princess who lives in a seashell castle and sleeps in sheets woven from the eyelids of doves.
There is this duel sensation of whimsical narration combined with concrete details that makes Margaret the First something of a gift among contemporary fiction. It excites the reader, it empowers our characters, and it gives importance to this story, a real origin story for someone we should frankly know more about.
And yet, at the same time, Dutton continues to live and develop in the neighborhood of classically successful fiction. This is no slight; this is simply understanding the power of what’s needed in fiction, at least that of which we consider good if not great fiction. Whereas there is a hundred ways to create historical tension in the background, to remind the readers that this character, this actual person, was in the middle of heavy historical events, Dutton manages to stay consistent to her prose where others would fall into rather dull traps of exposition:
The King of England was convicted of treason. Then the King of England was dead. It was Tuesday. It was 1649. Parliament hacked off Charles I’s head outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The mob, previously sick for it, drew quiet after the blow. The people were burdened with heavy taxes. May Day had been replaced by zealous sermons. Was the Civil War now over? Stunned, no one was sure.
The reader travels through time, it seems, and follows not only the life of Margaret, but the world around her. We need her transform into a booming and important voice, in her writing as well as in taking the reins of her own life.
It would be incorrect to merely dub this novel as the life and times of a person in history we ought to know. It would be equally as incorrect to say it’s a character study. This is a novel of passion, of wit, of the kind of thing that shows readers what really excites writers. Although dubbed as a contemporary novel set in the past (of which, this is true), this should be a standard of how we view our treasured past, how we create and destroy the icons of our histories, and most importantly, the importance of creating something out of pure need to do so.