Danielle Dutton’s ‘Margaret the First’ Traces Media Misogyny to the Dawn of Print

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Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is, as the writer Kate Zambreno astutely notes in one of the book’s blurbs, a case of an author “rewriting a historical caricature as a life.” The new novel is set across the early-to-mid 1600s, at the dawn of printed media — when the likes of ballads, newspapers in the form of pamphlets, and good, old-fashioned street gossip joined forces to dole out popularity and ridicule. Dutton wrote the book during the current decade, during which the media has increasingly turned away from print, in an era when misogynist ridicule propagated by new media and morphed by tweeted gossip — but also criticized and often set right by it. We’ve entered an age when written misogyny can be both perpetuated and shot down immediately upon its publication; Dutton’s book speaks to the beginning — and, now, to an end — of an era when it couldn’t.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, is survived by her bounty of works — including treatises that served as precursors to modern science (Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy); two volumes of plays; a somewhat straightforward memoir (A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life); and The Blazing World, a peculiar work of Utopian pre-science metafiction (the Duchess of Newcastle is written into the book) with moments of clear self-aggrandizement. (Self-aggrandizement and pre-science fiction were, for obvious reasons, wildly brave modes for a woman in 17th-century England to be writing in. And Cavendish was one of the first women to publish without anonymity or pseudonym.)

She wrote prolifically, and her works were unruly and criticized for being unfocused — but toyed with hybridity in ways that wouldn’t become popular in literature until postmodernism emerged in the mid-20th century. (One current example is… Margaret the First.) Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Cavendish is survived not just by her works, but also by the bounty of gossipy and extravagant accounts of who she was: she became a historical caricature.

In Margaret the First, the Duchess of Newcastle’s internal life is depicted, like Cavendish’s own writing, in fits of lushness and “fancies.” Dutton has an impeccable way of tempering these by writing her as a unique, flawed person, rather than simplistically upholding her as a feminist hero or perpetuating the narrative that she was “mad.” Her interpretation of Cavendish’s story is a contemporary one, at odds with what the misogynistic 17th-century gossip machine — the germs of media culture, emerging as printing became less specialized — would make of it. Dutton’s Margaret is a woman born into privilege, who openly craves fame — as men so often did without scorn. Whether or not she opened a door for other women is a murky question, and the book is more concerned with how this one particular woman opened a door for herself in a culture of gendered walls than it is with heroizing a historical figure.

As it’s posited in Katie Whitaker’s Mad Madge: The Life of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, both during Cavendish’s life (1623-1673) and through the centuries following it, she would develop a reputation for eccentricity that was sensationalized to the extent that people could disregard her work as florid gobbledygook, or form merely a vested interest in her persona. It’s a testament to the breadth and intelligence of her work and to her tenacity — which Dutton emphasizes as an unremitting, fervid passion for writing and a “long[ing] for fame” — that beyond whatever spectacle was made of her, she was taken seriously enough to be published in the first place, and continued to publish despite scorn.

Dutton’s novel of slightly experimental historical fiction draws on this early example of the dichotomy between the female artist as a person and the female artist as a mediated persona, at a time when newspapers and word of mouth were merging as surefire ways of monumentalizing gossip and caricature. Newspapers grew more common during the English Civil War, with the easing of controls on printing with the fall of the Star Chamber (and then subsequent tightening). Dutton describes that “scores of pamphlets were being printed each day — flicking down London’s streets, catching horses’ legs — and all of it in English, not French, not German, not Latin — so that Margaret could, for the very first time, read the new ideas herself when they were truly new.” Such was the cultural climate that’d seemingly enable the simultaneous recognition and ridicule of Cavendish.

Because she was one of the first women writers in England to publish under her real name, she marked a new kind of woman celebrity — not one purely known through family and royalty, but rather someone who’d earned her celebrity by being an artist. There’s a distinction, though, between having been a celebrity by virtue of being an artist and becoming famous for your actual art, and society had a hard time letting her be the latter; more often, it seemed to be the fact that she’d deigned to engage in the discourses of men that scandalized and fascinated people. This aspect of the novel feels more familiar to a 21st-century reader than we might hope. Especially with works of fiction like Dutton’s — which bills itself as a “contemporary novel set in the past” — we’re aware of understandings of the past mediated by the present, that then reflect insidiously timeless tendencies back at us.

The book takes us through a first-person narrative (that’s vastly speculative) in Cavendish’s childhood and adolescence; we feel we’re getting to know her, and then, as she’s rising as a writer and eventually as a celebrity, her first-person perspective is pried away from us. The sudden shift toward a third-person narrative doesn’t take an unkind tone reflective of social scrutiny, but it distances the perspective to show the exteriority that could lead to sensationalization. “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,” Dutton told The Rumpus of this choice.

In the first part of Margaret the First, Cavendish reads almost like an old relative whose vivid diary we stumbled upon. There’s a painful intimacy to this section — for example, in the way she describes her first period (“one day I woke to find I’d stained my sheets and thought I’d split in two”) — which makes it easy to understand this person who existed 400 years ago. In the second and third parts of the book, however, she is a character in a fictionalized biography, told by a narrator omniscient enough to reveal the kinds of external opinions that would eventually lead to her “Mad Madge” image.

Parliament member Samuel Pepys’ diary became a key source describing Margaret’s invitation to the Royal Society (the first invitation a woman would ever receive, and the last for 200 years to follow). Pepys — and a crowd of others — had gathered to catch a glimpse of her arrival at the society, and his account of the event spoke only of his distaste for her dress and her “deportment so unordinary” that he did “not like her at all.” In Margaret the First, Dutton breaks away from the Duchess to show Pepys writing that she’s a “mad, conceited, ridiculous woman.” Meanwhile, according to Mary Ellen Lamb and Karen Bamford, in Oral Tradition and Gender in Early Modern Literary Texts, a friend of the real-life Pepys — Elias Ashmole — penned and popularized a condemnatory ballad about her, calling her, “Shame of her sex/ Welbeck’s illustrious whore/… The great atheistical philosophaster.”

Whitaker published a piece in the Guardian prior to the release of Mad Madge in 2003 whose headline deemed her the “Duchess of Scandal.” The article describes how, in 1667, when the Duchess returned to England (where her works were being published during the large portion of her life she spent abroad, in exile, with her husband William), “Margaret had become a celebrity. Crowds of a size normally reserved for royalty fought for a view of her. Gangs of children chased her carriage through the streets… And news-sheets and diaries filled with reports of what she wore, where she went, who she met and what she said.” (Her fashion adventures included an incident in which she attended the theater with her nipples exposed and painted red — scandalizing the public in much the same way as any number of contemporary celebrity breast exposures.)

In Dutton’s fictional portrait, the name “Mad Madge” ultimately greets her quite frequently, like a spoken 1600s hashtag. But as Whitaker notes in the epilogue to her biography, “Mad Madge” was likely not even a name used at the time; rather, it seems to have emerged in the 1800s as a “misremembered” fact about social perceptions of Cavendish, which escalated into myth over time.

The masses shouting the nickname in Dutton’s novel name brings to mind the red carpet: a platform designed solely for scrutinizing celebrities — and especially female celebrities — before they’re purportedly awarded for their creative achievements. And the fact that it’s in England where Margaret has this experience with celebrity (more than any of the other places she resides in the novel) seems indicative of the cultural trends to come. “Britain is defined by its tabloid newspapers. It is the only country to have developed a competitive, national, popular press and, in so doing, to have created a nationwide tabloid culture,” writes Roy Greenslade in the Guardian.

Reading the words “Mad Madge” over and over, it’s easy to forget the book is referring to Margaret and not, say, Madonna — whose Madge nickname was also coined by the British press. It’s reminiscent of the British press feeding on Amy Winehouse’s “newsworthy” problems — a relationship to a celebrity that was far more dangerous than Margaret’s ever seemed to be. As Whitaker notes in her Guardian piece, it’s reminiscent of Princess Diana, who died trying to escape the paparazzi. It’s reminiscent of British tabloids’ treatment of trans women — as was seen when Lilly Wachowski recently came out because she worried the Daily Mail would out her first. (Though the Mail denied this was their aim.)

Now, at least, the same tools that spread misogyny are often used to collectivize a global cultural resistance to it. The second a celebrity is ridiculed on a gendered basis, that derisiveness is questioned. It is an immensely better time as far as this is concerned. But, as the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton has shown, a woman’s success is still often seen as gendered, and is picked apart on that basis in the media.

The fact that Dutton uses the name “Mad Madge” in the book — despite its potential historical inaccuracy — underlines its interest in the temporal bridge between mediated misogyny then and now. Describing Margaret’s entrance to the Royal Society, a moment that’s both the pinnacle of her recognition and thus the pinnacle of her ridicule, Dutton writes:

A crowd in the streets pushes and stares. “Mad Madge!” she hears, as the gates swing wide. She does not turn her head. In the formal yard: Lord Broukner, Sir George, the Earl of Carlisle. They bow as she descends. Beyond the gates, the crowd: “Mad Madge! Mad Madge!”