In my recent reading streak of modern fiction, I’d had yet to read anything set in a time period other than the present day. Margaret the First, however, is a historical work; a fictionalization of the life of Margaret Cavendish. And yet, it is so thoroughly modern, and that’s where it delights. Dutton’s writing is incredibly skillful, owing to its lilting, almost hypnotic style. The book is brimming with research and references, but they’re laid so gentle-handedly, that pure immersion is still the result.
The story focuses on the near maddening ennui that Margaret suffers whenever distanced from her self-expression, which often takes shape through abstract writing, ideas and fashion. Her access to this expression is particular and fickle, as creativity so often is. Certain cities leave her uninspired and cramp her innate ability to think outside of the box. Equally restraining is a 17th-century society that doesn’t leave much wiggle room to be an intellectual woman. (Not to say that this struggle is a complete relic of the past. One of the many levels this book works on is its protagonist’s soulful link to the present.)
Margaret is as contradictory and complex a character as I’ve seen on the page, and the novel is completely devoted to her evolution, rather than any particular tale. Instead, it’s a gateway to moments where we stand beside her, gazing in the mirror, as she reacts to the passage of time and constructs her philosophies.
160 pages. Lovely. (And check out that beautiful cover featuring art by June Glasson.)