Danielle Dutton’s forthcoming novel Margaret the First dives into the story of Margaret Cavendish, an unconventional 17th century British Duchess. This work of historical fiction explores Margaret’s writing life at a time when “being a writer” was not an option open to women, as well as the unexpected support from her husband and her rise to literary and academic fame.
Dutton, whose fiction has appeared in Harper’s, BOMB, Fence, Noon, and other periodicals, grew up in Central California, and holds a PhD from the University of Denver and an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is also the author of S P R A W L and Attempts at a Life. She is the founder of the independent press Dorothy, a publishing project dedicated to works of fiction mostly by women. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she lives with her husband and son.
Here, she discusses Margaret Cavendish as an inspirational feminist figure, letting her fascinations direct her research, and the influence that her life as a small press editor has on her own writing.
The Rumpus: In your author’s note at the back of the novel, you remark that reading Virginia Woolf is what first brought you to Margaret Cavendish’s story. Who is Margaret to you? Why did you find her story so inspiring?
Danielle Dutton: Reading Woolf is where I first came across her name, but I didn’t really know Margaret Cavendish’s story until she came up in a class I was taking in graduate school (one of the course books was the excellent Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader). The class was on the New Science, this moment in London at the start of the Enlightenment—we studied men like Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke—and one of the first things I remember learning about Cavendish was that she was the first woman ever invited to the Royal Society of London, a huge honor, and then the last, for another two hundred years. Each subsequent detail I learned about her (that she wrote her own utopia in response to Bacon’s, that she designed her own gowns) made her seem more magical and enigmatic, and so I wanted to try to know her.
Rumpus: I’m always so amazed by people who undertake a work of historical fiction because there is such a massive amount research that goes into the project–this is pretty evident from the extensive list of sources in the back of the book. Can you describe your research process? Where did you begin?
Dutton: I began with Paper Bodies. At the outset, though, my plan was not to write a novel about Margaret Cavendish. I was really taken by this moment in history, and I thought I was going to write a novel set in London in 1666, in which Cavendish would be just one character. It was an intellectually dynamic period in the city, at the rough beginning of what we would now call science but which was then called philosophy, or natural philosophy. I liked how odd and asymmetrical, or anti-systematic, it all seemed—how a man could be a botanist and a lawyer and a poet and then a glassmaker in his spare time. So I read books about their inventions (I couldn’t manage to fit many in, but they were wonderfully weird, my favorite being the theatrum catoptrica, a mirrored box meant to multiply reality against itself).
As is my tendency, I let my fascinations direct me. I read Samuel Pepys’s diaries and from there naturally moved on to period cookbooks and from there to medical treatments. I wound up reading Pascal, for no reason except that it was nice to read. I read way too many books about seventeenth-century garden design. I stared at old maps. Then at some point I realized I was using all of it to write about Margaret Cavendish. She essentially hijacked the novel I’d planned to write.
Rumpus: It seems Margaret is overwhelmed and ashamed of her opinions while in the company of William and his male friends, but begins to gain confidence in herself and finds voice when she begins writing for other women. It’s clear that this is a feminist story, but I’m wondering whether you think it was the act of writing or the sharing of work with other women—and gaining their approval—was the initiation of Margaret’s confidence (that grows exponentially over time)?
Dutton: She’d written privately since she was a girl, but, as you say, in the novel it’s around the time she begins to compose riddles and anecdotes to share aloud with a group of aristocratic women she meets in the Low Countries that she begins to feel some confidence in her own ideas. That said, what mattered to her was that the leading minds of her day read her work and take it seriously. She wanted fame, desperately, but the readers she wanted most were the scholars, the writers, the philosophers, etc., and all of these would have been men. She certainly believed that women should be given opportunities they (mostly) weren’t given, but once she began to publish there wouldn’t have been much of an audience for her among the women of her time, even among those who could read.
Rumpus: To me, the three parts of the book are very different: the first section, written in the first-person from Margaret’s perspective, the second, written in third-person and segmented much like the first section, and finally the third section written in third-person narrative but far less segmented. Once I reached the end of the novel when Margaret’s Blazing World is described in three parts, I felt like maybe your breaking of the novel into these three distinct parts was meant to mimic her design. Blazing World is described as having one part “romancical,” one part philosophical, and one part fantastical. Do you think this rings true with Margaret the First?
Dutton: Well, I didn’t consciously structure the book to mimic her Blazing World, but I like that that occurred to you as you read. You’re right, of course, that in many ways I was trying to evoke her writing through my own, but more in the spirit of her work, and the irregular, unconventional beauty of her life, which had itself a sort of artistic bravura. My reason for those narrative switches, though, was much more to do with the needs of my own book, how to manage the reader’s sense of distance from Margaret at different moments in the development of her sense of self, to in some way enact the distance she comes to feel toward herself and her own experience.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the idea of “managing the reader’s sense of distance” from Margaret as the novel moves along. Did you want the reader to feel further away from Margaret in the final section of the book?
Dutton: Well, I wanted the reader to feel a slightly unsettling new sense of distance from her at the beginning of the second part of the book, at that moment when she and her husband finally return to England after living abroad in exile for many years. I imagine this moment was a huge disruption in her life, in her work, her relationship to her work, and in terms of her sense of herself as a public figure. Here she’s coming back to the city and country where she is, by then, already somewhat well known. What would it be like to come to a place where you expect to be celebrated and then for that celebration to not really occur, for it to be overshadowed by the much larger celebrations all around you, the king’s return, etc.? What would it be like to come home after sixteen years and for it to feel totally unfamiliar and unwelcoming? I think she’s thrown by the change—her expectations all unsettled, and her home life, too, because up to then she hadn’t even been on her husband’s vast estates—but there’s meant to be a slow coming back to her (for us and for her) that carries forward into the final section of the book. This final section is also in third person, but it’s a much closer third, almost lost in her thoughts. I might actually feel closest to her in that final part.
Rumpus: At a particular point in the book, (I’m thinking specifically of the time when she and William have John Evelyn and his wife over for dinner) we begin to see Margaret sort of obsessed with the way she and her writing are perceived. After Margaret interrupts dinner to redirect the conversation to her writing and who’s talking about it, Mary Evelyn, among many other people, deems Margaret too full of herself. Later, she almost demands to be invited to visit the Royal Society of London. Do you think Margaret was actually full of herself, or do you think she was just trying to get what she deserved?
Dutton: Both! She’s such a wonderfully complicated figure.
Rumpus: She is massively complicated! But in an excellent way. Part of the complication of Margaret has, I think, something to do with the fact that her husband is so supportive of her. For that time period it is highly unusual that a husband would be happy about his wife publishing and I think this must contribute to her confidence. What are your thoughts on William and on their marriage?
Dutton: It’s true that as a woman/wife in the seventeenth century her fate was very much in her husband’s hands. Luckily for her, William Cavendish didn’t want an average wife. I think he would have found that beneath him, somehow. I remember reading somewhere that he thought a true aristocrat should be an original, and he certainly found that in his wife.
Rumpus: Thinking more about their marriage, later in the novel when they finally move back to William’s home, Margaret takes notes of the portraits of William’s late wife and her collections of things in the home but it almost seems like a fleeting thought and there’s never any jealousy exhibited. In a similar vein, there isn’t a whole lot of interaction between Margaret and William’s children. In your research did you find that this was fairly customary for the time? Or was that less important for you to dwell on in the writing?
Dutton: I don’t know that it was convention, but there were reasons (having to do with Margaret as well as the circumstances of her marriage) to think she would be distant from her stepchildren. William’s kids did figure in their lives (to varying degrees), but you’re right that they aren’t a major focus in the novel.
Rumpus: Could you further describe the process of writing the novel? How long did it take you? How long was the editing process?
Dutton: I started writing it ten years ago! Which at times has seemed strange to me, since my previous book, S P R A W L, took only a year or so to write, and I guess I thought of myself, back then, as a “fast” writer. But maybe you’re only whatever kind of writer you are because of the particular book you’re writing.
Anyway, as I mentioned before, I had very different plans for this historical novel I was dreaming up back in grad school, but it’s true that there are a some pages of Margaret the First that were written that long ago, even though so much has changed in the meantime. I mean, changed in the book and changed with me. When I started it, I was still working on my PhD in Denver, and then I moved to Illinois to work full time at Dalkey Archive Press; I had a baby, started my own press, got a teaching job, and moved my family over the river to St. Louis. So, there were longish stretches of times when I wasn’t working on the book, and other times when I was trying out different versions of what I thought the book should be. It’s only in the last four years or so that I’ve been able to work on it in a focused way, particularly over the summers, and this was when the book really took shape for me.
It wasn’t just life distraction, though. It was also a matter of my life catching up to the book, in a way. Getting older, having a kid, these things all changed my sense of myself and, frankly, my sense of Margaret. It is among other things a book about aging, and I don’t think I could have written this book (or this vision of Margaret) as a younger woman, and that is one of its most interesting aspects for me.
So it went through all of that and then happily I got an agent, Cynthia Cannell, who asked good questions and helped me shape it further and then the manuscript found its way to the incredible Pat Strachan, at Catapult, who kindly helped me polish it into an actual state of doneness.
Rumpus: Your press, Dorothy, was named by Flavorwire as one of five small presses “slyly changing the industry for the better.” Do you think running a press has changed your writing in any way?
Dutton: I’m not sure running the press has changed how I write (though perhaps it has in ways I can’t see), but it has certainly changed my relationship to how books get made. For example, I can be a fairly hands-on editor, and when I’m editing someone I feel intensely invested in that writer and her work. I love helping to shape a book, and I feel very privileged to get to do that with writers I’m excited about. I think doing that work for the past six years has changed me, and it better prepared me for the questions and suggestions that Pat and Cynthia eventually had for me. I wanted to be edited, I mean. I wanted to see the work through someone else’s eyes at that point, someone who was invested in it with me.
It’s interesting, editing can be so immersive for me that I’ve noticed that the authors I edit have a pretty profound effect on how I hear language for a while. This happened with Amina Cain’s Creature, big time. There’s something unique about Amina’s prose, and her rhythms are so different from my own. Even now, when I spend time with Creature, which I do go back to and teach from, I’ll find myself writing in an Amina-space for a while.
I suppose also that watching marketing and publicity stuff play out from behind the scenes, making those plans and seeing each piece fall into place or not, each year, for each book, has made me a little more tranquil about the process for my own book than I might otherwise be. It’s so exciting when a book catches traction you didn’t even expect (or completely did expect!), and so frustrating when a book never quite catches the traction you know it deserves. But either way it doesn’t change the book, it doesn’t change how much I love that book, or how thrilled I am to be publishing it.
As my husband’s always saying to me: literature is about the long game, not the short game (what that means in terms of sports I have no idea). But I think he means that as a publisher what you are trying to build is a long life for a book, to help it find its readers in many different ways, whether or not it made this list or got that review, etc. I’m sure some of that thinking has been useful to me as a writer as well.