Excerpt

Margaret the First

Danielle Dutton

March 21, 2016 
The following is from Danielle Dutton’s novel, Margaret the First. Danielle Dutton's fiction has appeared in magazines such as Harper's, BOMB, Fence, and Noon. She is the author of a collection of hybrid prose pieces, Attempts at a Life, which Daniel Handler in Entertainment Weekly called "indescribably beautiful," and an experimental novel, S P R A W L, a finalist for the Believer Book Award.

It is a cold morning in early spring. The sun has risen; the sky is piled with clouds. Soon the snow will fall. Over the trees, the pond. The cows and pigs and sheep. Now smoke rises from a chimney in the village, a grayish plume into the grayish sky. The little village houses are not visible from the window, not through the woods, the innumerable leaves, though on certain days, if the wind is right, she can hear the village children shouting and playing games. She can smell the bacon fried. When she drives through in her carriage, when she makes her daily tour, she sees their faces peering out from cottage doors. She is a specter. A spectacle? The snow will blanket the road.

Margaret stands inside her room and stares out at the grounds. It is early spring. Or is it winter’s end? So much now is changed. Yet like the flakes beyond the window glass, some years rise up while others sink down, out of her view, without concern for order. She remembers a day six years ago, which feels much further back, how the fountains plashed with wine—soldiers, trumpets, a drift of pigs in the street. Every bell in London swung. It was the king’s thirtieth birthday, and he arrived on a ship awash in satin and guns—the Royal Charles moaned in shallow water—then disembarked and spat upon the ground. “A pox on all kings!” cried a hag. He flipped on a wig and mounted his stallion, rode with billowing hair down billowing streets, the bluster of many horses’ hooves muffled by petals and tapestries, puddles of wine and shit—Fleet Street to the Strand to Charing Cross to the palace—then ordered Cromwell’s traitorous head severed from its body, stuck up on a twenty-foot spike above Westminster Hall evermore.

Or had she only heard that part from William?

She paces as it snows. Her skirts wave around her as she takes this morning exercise, fold upon fold of fabric unfurling in continued variation. Of course, it doesn’t snow inside her room, onto the floor, the Turkey carpets, yet every other minute she flicks her hand before her face as if hurrying away a flake. No, winter is kept outside. Or is it early spring? In any case, the room is warm—stuffed with roses, a blazing fire, the honeyed air her husband finds so stifling. He prefers she visit him in his chamber a floor above, where the Ballad of Robin Hood is painted on the ceiling. He isn’t at Welbeck today, however, gone to London on forest business, having been named at last the Justice-of-Eyre. Not the position he’d hoped for at court. At least they are a duke and duchess—she is Duchess of Newcastle now.

But I am old, she thinks, turning to the mirror.

She touches her hand to her neck.

Normally, she would begin her writing directly, but her newest book, really two books in one—Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy and the Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princesse, the Duchess of Newcastle, which she calls one part Fantastical and one part Philosophical, “joined as two Worlds at the end of their Poles,” and in the preface of which she claims to be “as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which makes, that though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”—has just returned from the printer.

She is anxious for its reception, plans to send a copy to the king, copies to Oxford and Cambridge. On her desk this new book sits, leather-bound, a strange and reverent object. It marries, Margaret thinks, all of my life’s work. And she opens it at random to a passage near the start, finding the Emperor of the Blazing World leading the visiting Duchess of Newcastle to see his horse stables of gold, cornelian, amber, and turquoise—they are utterly unique!—whereupon the duchess confesses that “she would not be like others in any thing if it were possible; I endeavor,” she tells him, “to be as singular as I can; for it argues but a mean Nature to imitate others; and though I do not love to be imitated if I can possibly avoid it; yet rather than imitate others, I should chuse to be imitated by others; for my nature is such, that I had rather appear worse in singularity, then better in the Mode.” Surely it shines, she thinks. And she wishes it one thousand or ten thousand million readers. Nay, that their number be infinite! The Blazing World with its blazing sky and river of liquid crystal. Its gowns of alien star-stone! Its talking bears and spiders! William has told her it’s her finest work, and even composed a poem to include:

You conquer death, in a perpetual life

And make me famous too in such a wife.

 Margaret shuts the book.

Her eyes burn from reading too long by candle last night: one new pamphlet from the Royal Society called “Some Observations of the Effects of Touch and Friction” and another, well-thumbed, from Hooke’s Micrographia; or, Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon, on the discovery of a new world—not a new world, she thinks, for certainly one’s inability to see something does not mean it is not there until one does—opened for the first time to his sight, with so-called new stars and new motions, and in particular one section regarding the moon, wherein Hooke, observing light near the Hipparchus crater, concludes that the moon “may have Vegetables analogus to our Grass, Shrubs and Trees; and most of these encompassing Hills as may be covered with a thin vegetable Coat, such as the short Sheep pasture which covers the Hills of Salisbury Plains,” as well as the description of an experiment that may, he writes, reveal a hidden world beneath our very feet, beyond the reach of even the most powerful microscope, an alternate universe of harmony and vibration—and hadn’t she thought the very thing herself, and years ago? A world inside a peach pit? Inside a lady’s jewel? Yet he magnifies a flea to fill a folio page, as if to turn nature into a monstrosity is the most profound success. He turns a flea into a thing not wholly flea!

So it’s for the best—it is, and she will not regret it—that in this new book she addresses these men directly. Of Hooke and his Micrographia: “The inspection of a bee through a microscope will bring him no more honey, nor the inspection of a grain more corn.” She calls their microscopy a brittle art. Hooke himself admits it! How the light inside the instrument, coming from different angles, causes a single object to take on many shapes. They distort the very thing they claim to expose! Indeed, she pities the flea. Meanwhile, their so-called observations reveal only the outer shell, and nothing of the inner essence of a thing. The mysteries of nature go utterly unrevealed! She even challenges the Royal Society to debate her ideas in public, for why should it be a disgrace to any man to maintain his opinions against a woman? “After all,” she says to the mirror, “I am a duchess and not unknown,” and she straightens out her heavy skirts, twisted all around.

The light in the room is piercing. Now the clouds have gone, it pours in through tall windows, made harsh by the whiteness outside, echoes sharply off a collection of mirrored boxes and several glass drops—a gift from her old friend Huygens, whose son has just completed his own new book, Systema Saturniam, in which the rings of Saturn are described—so she calls her maid, Lucy, to pull tight the heavy drapes.

“It was a mighty storm, Duchess,” Lucy says as she pulls.

“No letters today?” Margaret asks, still waiting for word from William.

“Not today, Duchess. Though Mr. Tapp says the London road is down with snow. You’ll likelier hear tomorrow.”

Lucy curtsies, closes the door.

Alone again in semidarkness, Margaret stands in the corner and fancies herself a statue, with silken robes and a crown of topaz, erected in a garden, atop a pedestal, at the center of a circle divided into four parts, with lines drawn, and points laid, in the service of some abstruse mathematical thought, and covers her eyes with her palms. She can see her Blazing World before her: the emperor’s bed is made of diamonds. The walls of his room are jet. His penis is made of silver. She opens her eyes. No, it’s just a penis. But there are his horse-stables of gold, cornelian, amber, and turquoise. There are his horses. This is his golden city, his flickering canal, his woodsy archipelago stretching all the way to the granite cave where Bear-men sleep on the cool dirt floor. She imagines the salty musk. She imagines the cave steaming, drenched, covered in moss and crystals.

The binding cracks. She sniffs it. Her book smells like a shoe.

Then, as if she’s been struck by alien star-stone, she’s suddenly struck by doubt. Is it ridiculous? Is she a joke? Not that these doubts are new, only here, again, and racing in the dark. And where moments ago she saw a golden city, now there is only this. The fallen snow. This dread. She places the book in a shallow drawer, scans the room to fill her eyes and so to fill her mind: the bed, the mirrors, the tapestries, a portrait of herself. But even with the curtains drawn she finds her eyes are burning, a headache coming fast, and she calls again to Lucy to assist her in retiring to a sofa of pillows embroidered with garden scenes. Off come her skirts and petticoats, her lace cuffs and collar, her shoes and whalebone stay, until she lies on her side in nothing but a cotton shift and endless strands of pearls. Dust hangs in a crack of light between red velvet drapes, like stars.

Her dreams are glimpses, bewildered—celestial charts, oceanic swells, massive, moving bodies of water, the heavens as heavenly liquid, familiar whirlpools, the universe as a ship lost at sea—but the ship she imagines arrived safely, years ago, loaded with their possessions. It’s true her crates took long to find her—something mismarked or misnamed—and she wept for her missing manuscripts as she would have wept for an absent child. Long reconciled to childlessness, she worries instead about barrenness of the brain: “I should have been much Afflicted and accounted the Loss of my Twenty Plays, as the Loss of Twenty Lives,” she’s written, “but howsoever their Paper Bodies are Consumed, like as the Roman Emperours, in Funeral Flames, I cannot say, an Eagle Flies out of them, or that they Turn into a Blazing Star, although they make a great Blazing Light when they Burn”—and as she wakes, her mind alights on something she read last night, Copernicus’s dying words: “It moves!”

****

When he returns, the snow is melted, the almond trees in bloom. “I nearly forgot what you looked like,” Margaret says. It was only those two weeks he’d planned for, plus another six or seven he could never have foreseen.

William has brought her a gift: Experimental History of Cold, the latest from Robert Boyle, which includes an account of experiments touching the force of freezing water, experiments touching the weight of bodies frozen and unfrozen, bodies capable of freezing other bodies, and bubbles formed in ice. “It is,” he says, “the latest talk of learned men.”

She turns it in her hand.

Like throwing an apple into the pond without causing a single ripple—has no one read her Blazing World?

“Give it time,” says William. The plague has only just passed, if it has; the theaters are still black; the birdmen with their leather masks still step between the corpses. Yet when he praises Boyle’s book, Margaret gets tart and raspish; she can feel it, and dislikes it, and she walks a path through the garden thinking Margaret Margaret Margaret. I am old, she thinks. I am ugly. “But you do it again and again,” he has said. “Into what depths of despair had you let yourself fall before receiving those letters from Flecknoe and Hobbes in praise of your plays?”

“Give it time,” he says.

So Margaret gives it time, and William gives Margaret a pony: black with a star on its crown.

Together they ride to Creswell Crags, where cool wind whistles in and out of caves, and spiderwebs like watery nets link the tallest branches. 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?” William cannot hear; he’s ridden ahead; she’s alone with the wind and the spiders. Why else don’t we float into the sky?

****

In a copper tub of lukewarm water scented with burnet, water mint, and thyme, Lucy colors Margaret’s hair, with radish and privet, to give it back a reddish glow, for on Tuesday they’ll be visited by John Evelyn and his wife, whom Margaret hasn’t seen these many years.

“Not since Paris?”

“Not since Antwerp, at least.”

They arrive, John and Mary, in a plain coach thick with dust, though Margaret, curtsying deeply, assures them that she’s never seen one finer. Together they view the grounds—the alley of fir trees, the riding house, a black and trumpeting swan—and as they turn around the lake, William begins an account of a demonstration he witnessed in London, in which a spaniel and a mastiff were each tied to a table. “The spaniel was bled out one side,” he explains, “while the blood of the mastiff was run into the spaniel through a quill.” The mastiff died on the table. But the spaniel was taken to the country to recover. “Remarkable!” Evelyn says, sorry he missed it. They fall behind to talk. Meanwhile, Margaret notes Mary is smartly dressed, in a long-waisted bodice, a narrow skirt draped and pinned in back. Her own shimmering sea-green dress billows like a wave.

“That a person might even think up such a thing,” she says at last, as if in answer to a question.

“The dogs?” says Mary. “But surely you see that here is progress. Imagine the possibilities.”

“No, my dear, imagine the risk. Such hubris.”

They pass before the stables, which stink in summer heat.

“Nature,” Margaret advises, “is far too vast for you or I to comprehend her.”

Mary says nothing, still in her traveling hat.

Then Margaret tries again, for truly she once loved Mary’s mother, Lady Browne, now as dead as her own. “Do you remember,” Margaret smiles, “how you carried my bridal bouquet?”

Back in the house: a chilled silver bowl with ripe fruits from the garden. Lunch is lamb from the flock that munches the nearby hill, and stewed chicken with prunes, and boiled leeks, and salmon, though Margaret eats only a clear broth and clarified whey with honey, hoping tonight for success on the stool.

“You and your duchess are absolute farmers,” Mary smiles at William, who credits a recent rain.

“Naturally,” Margaret says, “every part and particle in nature hath an influence on each other, and effects have influence upon effects.” But Mary only eats her lunch, while, over the raisin pie, Evelyn tells how plague deaths are down in nearly every parish. How Hooke established the rotation of Mars. How Hooke discovered tiny rooms called “cells.” Of coming trouble with the Dutch. How a lead actor in Davenant’s company killed a man in a duel in a play. And an invention the size of a pocket watch meant to slice a human foot into many thousands of parts.

“For whatever possible reason?” Margaret finally blurts.

“For mathematical purpose,” says Evelyn.

Back outside they drink their wine. Blue and yellow flowers dot the garden wall. The couples split again: he with him and she with her. In gaps in his own conversation, William hears his wife: “I am sufficiently mistress of,” then, “with the devastating clearness that I do.” The sky is light as servants refill their glasses, yet evening shadows begin to creep cool air across the lawn. The two men soon fall quiet. “It is a great pleasure to me to write,” Margaret is telling Mary, “and were I sure that nobody read my books, yet I would not quit my pastime.”

“Indeed, Duchess,” Evelyn says, turning in his chair, “I’ve heard admiration of your new book.”

“Have you?” Margaret says—but jumps in her chair, for someone shoots in the woods.

The Discovery of a New World Called the Blazing World,” he says.

“There, you see,” William says, taking a bite of fruit.

“From Samuel Pepys,” says John, “who works in the Navy Office.”

“Yes?” she says, straining to seem relaxed, as pop! pop! pop! go the woods.

“Indeed, he declares it quite romantic. Also from Robert Boyle, author of The Sceptical Chymist, you know, who,” he turns to catch William’s eye, “is lately writing an account of objects that oddly shine. Inspired, I am told, by a piece of rotten meat found glowing in his pantry.”

William and Mary smile.

“Forgive me,” John says, coming back to Margaret, “for I have not had the pleasure of reading your book myself.”

But before she can ask him, What were Boyle’s words? John has turned and attends his wife, who is speaking to William of their garden in Deptford, its many species of trees. “Conifers,” Mary tallies, “and laurels, oaks, and elms.” Margaret dabs her upper lip. Robert Boyle, she thinks. Robert Boyle. Samuel Pepys. She dabs her neck, her lip. She has had too much to drink. But would it be rude, she wonders, not to acquaint him with my book? On such a pleasant night? For he says he has not read it. Yet Boyle has, she thinks, and a man called Samuel Pepys. She could easily fetch a copy. She could read them the passage about Descartes . . . or the description of the Bird-men . . . or the one about the microscope . . . or the vehicles made of air . . . “Two potted limes!” laughs Mary, and John and William smile. Still someone shoots in the woods nearby, and a flock of rooks rises from the treetops like a cloud.

****

In bed that night, she won’t be sure what she said next. She’ll remember how the cloud of birds rose up over the trees. It begins as in a dream, she might have said. Then the cloud broke up and found itself again. But thing must follow thing. She must put her thoughts in order. I pray, she might have said, that if any professors of learning and art should humble themselves to read it, or even any part of it, I pray they will consider my sex and breeding, and will fully excuse those faults which must unavoidably be found . . .

“It starts as in a dream,” she likely said, “with the abduction of a lady, stolen by a merchant seaman, taken to his ship and a mighty storm. Next comes the death of the merchant and his men. For after that storm, the ship drifts not only to the pole of the world, but even to the pole of another, which joins close to the first, so that this cold, having a double strength at the conjunction of two poles, is insupportable. Too weak to throw their bodies over, the lady lives for days amid blueing flesh, kept alive by the light of her beauty and the heat of her youth as the ship floats across the fish-bright sea. Then she and the vessel pass—mysteriously, unavoidably—into the other world, a world called the Blazing World, where cometlike stars make nights as bright as days. And when at last the lady spies land, it glitters with fallen snow, and talking bears, up on two legs, are coming to her rescue. But she is unable to eat what the gentle bears offer, so the bears take her to Fox-men, who take her to Geese-men, who take her to Satyrs, who take her to meet the emperor of the land. They travel for days on a golden ship in a river of liquid crystal.”

Darkness fell, and John and Mary rose, but Margaret wasn’t tired. John and Mary curtsied, bowed. Margaret stayed and watched the moon wheel across the sky; she climbed the stairs; she lay upon the sheets.

But might it have been more prudent, she thinks, lying there in the room, to have better explained the book’s more serious philosophical contemplation, for without it the other half no doubt sound pure fancy and could be easily misunderstood? The night is hot and close. An owl calls in the woods. Margaret sleeps. And she dreams of that room without a mirror on Bow Street, and Robert Boyle asleep in the bed with her Blazing World on his lap, open to a passage about a golden hollow rock, which produces a medicinal gum, which causes a body to scab, which scab will open along the back and come off like a suit of armor.

 

From MARGARET THE FIRST. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2016 by Danielle Dutton.


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