I sometimes come across peculiar articles about historical fiction defining what the genre does and does not do, peculiar because any kind of novel can do anything, right? Obviously? A piece by Lucy Ives on the New Yorker website that reviews Danielle Dutton’s new novel Margaret the First begins with some throat clearing about what a historical novel is supposed to be – “ostensibly objective” and so on – but later puts the novel in the company of John Keene’s Counternarratives (2015), where it belongs. Could have mentioned Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank (2014), or something by Ishmael Reed, or a thousand other screwy books.
Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73), was one of the first women in England to write for publication. There are a number of related “firsts” attached to her name. She had plays produced; she wrote a Utopian fantasy, The Blazing World (1666, and of course the original title is much longer), that, “with its river of liquid crystal, its caves of moss, and bears” – talking bears – must be something to behold.
I have just read a couple of poems by Cavendish, including “Of Many Worlds in This World,” where she imagines universes within atoms, including, amusingly, in earrings:
And if thus small, then Ladies well may weare
A World of Worlds, as Pendents in each Eare.
I’m quoting the version in The Penguin Book of English Verse. Cavendish’s bad spelling is one of the running gags in the novel. Part of what makes her interesting is that she was an autodidact. Another part is that she was a weirdo. She may still be most famous as a subject of Virginia Woolf, discussed in A Room of One’s Own and “The Duchess of Newcastle,” in The First Common Reader:
… though her philosophies are futile, and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the Duchess is leavened by a vein of authentic fire. One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and lovable personality as it meanders and twinkles through page after page. There is something noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted, about her… She has the freakishness of an elf, the irresponsibility of some non-human creature, its heartlessness, and its charm…
Dutton’s Cavendish is not an elf. Her counternarrative is in some ways counter-Woolf, even if she borrows from and even quotes Woolf. This character is a human weirdo, something of an outsider artist, tangled up in the bizarreries of early modern science without being allowed to join in, until she just does, through a combination of creativity, willpower, a supportive husband, and the celebrity of being a freak, a woman who writes books.
Dutton is terrific with the strangeness of the 17th century. Strange to me, I mean. The surrealism of early modern medicine, for example these fertility treatments:
… one for elevating, made of the backbones of vipers, to be taken half-a-dram each day dissolved in broth. That same French doctor urged mutton dressed with new-laid eggs and a little nutmeg or amber. He advised my husband to anoint his big toes in Spanish oil each night. (44)
Science as such is a mix of metaphysics and odd experiments, a groping towards scientific method:
He thought the soul was attached to the human body through a gland, I remembered. He thought the universe was like a machine, the body like a clock. He’d once nailed his wife’s poodle to a board. (57)
More purely surreal is what Cavendish see when she is invited to the Royal Academy, where women had been forbidden:
She sees a skeleton in the corner. A jar alive with bees. (149)
This is the world that leads her to write books about talking bears who live under the North Pole and mean it as science, not fiction.
Why do men deny fairies, yet burn witches at the stake?
Do fishes have brains?
Are stars made of fiery jelly or are they flecks off the sun? (65)
Margaret the First is not one of those historical novels where every stitch of clothing ("two new gowns: one white and triumphant like a lighthouse, one bruised like autumn fruit," 84) has a historical citation but the characters are just clichés from 21st century popular fiction. This world is strange, and these people are of this world.