There has never previously, I believe, been a novel about Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, one of the 17th century’s foremost female authors, philosophers and eccentrics. But there have been several near misses. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando tips its cap to her: Orlando, just like Cavendish, is a feverishly imaginative, androgynous aristocrat afflicted by the ‘honourable disease’ of writing, filling folios with the speed of an addict.
Writers from Pepys to Lamb have tended her flame, as have two recent biographies. Siri Hustvedt paid extensive homage to Cavendish in her 2014 novel set in New York’s art scene, The Blazing World — a title, devotees of the Duchess will notice, appropriated from Cavendish’s fantasy novella of 1666. Not even our media’s peculiarly self-serving cultural amnesia, which so often leads to the excited reintroduction of the marginal or the female with a drumroll of discovery, could dare to call Margaret Cavendish ‘forgotten’.
Magnificent in her fantastical hats, prolix in her production (poems, plays, memoirs, dialogues, fiction) and overweening in her pride, Margaret claimed to be
as Ambitious as 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.
Disappointingly, the sheer bombast of her character is suppressed by this novel which, perhaps in an attempt to make her more likeable, tones down her class-based imperiousness and plays up her shyness, even when she is attending the first night of her husband’s play dressed like a virago, bosom bared.
The contradiction makes for a richly complex characterisation, but is it ultimately convincing? Flamboyant dressers do sometimes describe their clothes as a counterweight or disguise to their shyness — think of Isabella Blow — but the zest of Cavendish is extirpated here. She was exceptional, the first woman to witness experiments at the Royal Society. Perhaps it is asking too much of a slender novel to give us both context and anomaly.
Danielle Dutton’s book is cautious, crystalline and well-observed, but I came away reaching for the confident summations of Woolf’s short essay in The Common Reader: ‘She [Cavendish] has the irresponsibility of a child, and the arrogance of a duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs.’ Unlike Dutton, Woolf barely remarks on Cavendish’s childlessness, but has her vividly engaged with her own creativity, calling out from her writing closet to her brother, ‘John, John, I conceive!’ This outrageous, self-indulgent person is, briefly, uncannily present.