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Margaret the First

November 18, 2015

margaret-the-first-cover-3d_grandeBack in the spring, I wrote about historical women who lived amazing, adventurous lives and deserved recognition in the form of novels. I’m still waiting for most of those books to surface, but as it turns out, someone has written a novel about Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. I know this because the publisher of the novel reached out to me a couple days later and offered me a reading copy. Naturally, I said yes, and I finally got the book a couple weeks ago. They haven’t explicitly asked me to review the book publicly, but I feel it’s the least I can do.

First, the story: the book traces Margaret from birth to death, first stories to last, from country manor to court-in-exile to married life to London and on. It’s written in an engaging, lovely literary style that’s both easy to read and packed with dialogue and descriptions. I enjoyed the read quite a bit, and I have a hunch it wasn’t as easy to write as it looks.

It’s very much a fictionalized biography, which I wasn’t expecting. Danielle Dutton has clearly done her research as to when and where things happened, where Margaret was when, and what sort of person she was. (There are quotes from her novels and from contemporaries too.) It never really reads like a bio, though. Margaret’s thoughts and moods shine through too much for that, it flows entirely differently, and it’s not so much about recording Margaret’s life in detail as it is about recording the sensations of it.

The novel’s very feminist as well, which I did expect. One can’t write about an early female novelist and essayist with a love of science and outlandish gowns without taking that tack, I don’t think. There are moments of “this lady had gumption” and moments of “life was tough for women back then”, and both build Margaret up as a person rather than detract from the story by getting preachy—except for maybe a couple moments. Maaaaaaybe. A lot of the more obvious feminist bits come from the Duchess herself, and man, was she angry. No wonder she upset the establishment.

All that said, I liked the book but didn’t love it. I think that’s partly my fault—I went in expecting something deep and sweeping, covering everything in detail instead of just the important bits—and partly the fault of my reading list—I’ve read some Very Good Books this year and they’ve made just about everything afterwards seem lesser. (Don’t get me wrong on the first point, though. Margaret the First absolutely works as it is; it just wasn’t what I was expecting.) I also tend not to read a lot of literary fiction, and certainly not literary-historical, so that probably contributed too.

To sum up: very interesting, very beautiful, very readable, flawless as far as I can tell, but didn’t light a spark in me. I was really kind of hoping it would.

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton comes out in March and can be preordered here.

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