21. Margaret the First, by Danielle Dutton

5 May

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Daily life in the 1600s was stranger, even, than we can imagine, but it’s fun to try. Margaret the First is the story of Margaret of Newcastle-on-Tyne, an eccentric lady-writer-aristocrat, a wearer of weird hats whose London provocations and bizarre plays were a Baz Luhrmann wet dream, all flocks of rooks and potted limes and stars like comets. Here are some science questions Margaret asked:

“Are seeds annihilated when a plant grows?”

“Is God full of ideas?
“Is lightning a fluid?”

“Is thunder a blast of the stars?”

Margaret was the first woman in England to write for publication under her own name. She wrote poetry, philosophy, feminist plays and utopian science fiction—some of the very earliest sci-fi on record. Dutton takes these accomplishments as a fictional jumping-off point, and writes Margaret’s story as that of a woman artist inventing herself, with a focus on the difficulties she faced as a woman in a men’s arena.

The writing on Margaret’s creative process is exciting, vivid, beautiful. I related to this:

“But Margaret wanted the whole house to move three feet to the left. It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains.”

The delight of this book is Dutton’s prose, and her skill at inhabiting the weird details of the historical moment. Hair is “crimped and fierce as wild lettuce”. Young Margaret wears “petal flecked shoes” and takes a “conserve of marigolds for breakfast, trying to loosen a cough.” Awful sounding medical treatments, arcane plants and flowers, strange outfits, carriages, Kings, wars, hysterical blindness and perilous sea voyages…. it’s a lusciously textured vision of the 1600s.

My only slight cavil was that the pro-woman-artist perspective felt so….modern. Margaret’s “woman-in-a-man’s-world” struggle was recognizable as how we think today. And I suppose since obviously we know that story, it’s a little bit flat as a plot. The fun is discovering how Margaret’s era was weirdly different than ours. I wanted her values, and especially her feminism, to have that same psychedelic pulse of difference. But overall this was fun to read and I enjoyed it.

 

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