The loveliest aspect of this novel is its gentle, wondering portrayal of the Cavendish marriage. William, a poet and patron of the arts, encourages his wife’s ambitions even as they bring notoriety upon the household. Grasping that her genius will assure him a measure of posterity, he isn’t even unduly upset when the public credits her with writing his own stage plays. Ms. Dutton sensitively shows how Margaret’s iconoclasm complicates, but ultimately enriches their relationship.
Dutton expertly captures the pathos of a woman whose happiness is furrowed with the anxiety of underacknowledgment ... Dutton surprisingly and delightfully offers not just a remarkable duchess struggling in her duke’s world but also an intriguing dissection of an unusually bountiful partnership of (almost) equals.
This slender but dense imagining of the life of Margaret Cavendish, a pioneering 17th-century writer and wife of the aristocrat William Cavendish, could be classified as a more elliptical cousin of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels.
It is through a small miracle of imaginative sympathy and judicious sampling that Danielle Dutton, founder of the American feminist small press Dorothy, has compressed the essence of the capacious and contradictory duchess into 160 pages ... She is excellent on the domestic detail of the period ... [a] warm, witty portrait of a visionary who was both passionately engaged with her time and strikingly ahead of it.
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.
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.'”
...disparate narrative voices are united by Dutton’s stunningly evocative writing, which includes some of the most striking sentences I’ve read in some time ... With just a few precise brushstrokes, Dutton paints a gorgeous, richly detailed world that lingers long after the novel ends; this sublime writing and imagery are the book’s great strengths.
...rather than confirming her as the 'Mad Madge' of the (newborn) newspapers, Dutton’s profile constructs her as a fully formed, complicated human being, as a woman whose interests and inclinations stem from a complex personal history. It’s this profile that’s the star of the novel as much as its subject, since it deftly weaves together primary and secondary sources to form a wholly integrated, believable and gripping account of a woman who didn’t belong to the times in which she was born, not least because these times were too volatile for her to ever plant herself in them.
...by embedding Margaret Cavendish's own text into a fictitious account, and by fleshing out that fictionalized world so skillfully, Dutton refreshes Cavendish's words for a contemporary audience, rendering them relevant and powerful once more. They gain a kind of traction within the narrative that the confines of a Bible-paged Norton Critical Edition simply cannot provide. They become accessible, personal, and perhaps most importantly, they elevate Margaret the First from mere historical fiction to a hybrid of literary criticism and novel.
In the first part of Margaret the First, Cavendish reads almost like an old relative whose vivid diary we stumbled upon. There’s a painful intimacy to this section which makes it easy to understand this person who existed 400 years ago. In the second and third parts of the book, however, she is a character in a fictionalized biography, told by a narrator omniscient enough to reveal the kinds of external opinions that would eventually lead to her 'Mad Madge' image.
If you aren't the sort of reader easily wooed by the usual trappings of historical fiction, Margaret the First might be a good place to reconsider, or at least make a detour. Dutton's writing is vivid and honest—she doesn't paint the past in all rosy hues, but describes the smell of yeast and mold on city streets, stacks of soldiers' bodies, 'the birdmen with their leather masks' stepping between corpses after a bout of plague. But neither is it purely grim. Instead, the people she describes (particularly Margaret herself) feel real. They swat gnats and grow bored and worry about seeming too vain.