Thursday, September 15, 2016

Many worlds in this world - Danielle Dutton's Margaret the First

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.


  1. OK, I'm interested. What you say about the strangeness of the world, and then the fitness of the people for it, reminds me of what I felt about Nicola Griffith's HILD, also not simply 21stC people dressed in costumes.

  2. Yes, I think you'd like it. The depiction of the Cavendish marriage, for example, is by itself of interest.

    You made me curious - more than curious - about Hild. One major difference is that Margaret the First is only 160 pages.

    If I were more cynical, I would think the novel had been written to be assigned in 17th century women's lit courses, alongside Margaret Cavendish's actual writing, but how many of those can there be, really?

  3. That's the thing: sometimes you're just writing a novel, and have no intention of doing "historical fiction." And someone reads your book and asks if you meant to push against the conventions of the genre and you had no idea there was such a thing. It's just a novel you wrote, in the form that seemed correct at the time of the writing.

  4. I ran into (on the internet) a writer who responded to a question about what you say here that the "historical fiction community" didn't do things that way, and I thought "that hobby sounds fun but doesn't have a dang thing to do with art" and "you should get away from those people" and "that hobby sounds miserable."

    1. I hope the "historical fiction community" is a gated one, with the lock on the outside.

  5. The Blazing World shows up in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen... but everything! shows up in it.

  6. Ruth Scurr's John Aubrey: Mine Own Life sounds like a companion to this book. It's sold as nonfiction, and it's an arrangement and re-imagining, mainly through Aubrey's own writings, but parts are Scurr's own interpolations. It also shows Margaret wasn't actually very eccentric compared with her contemporaries.
    It was when the times were on the turn: Aubrey was the first secretary of the Royal Society and reported on spirits and ghosts at the same time that he practised archaeology and encouraged science;
    Thomas Browne could criticise "vulgar errors", try to establish a scientific basis for medicine and act as an expert witness for the prosecution at a trial for witchcraft; Newton was "the first scientist" and "the last alchemist". When he wasn't producing Principia Mathematica Newton was working out the Date of the Creation, practising Arianism and poisoning himself with mercury while he practised alchemy.
    Incidentally, in England, witches were hanged, not burned. I'm a little suspicious of the general reliability of a book which includes that error. Cintempt for fairies may not have been as common as your quote suggests: Aubrey thought fairies might exist and while it tries to be sceptical there's a wistful regret to the mockery in Bishop Corbett's song Farewell, rewards and fairies.


    1. "I'm a little suspicious of the general reliability of a book which includes that error."

      That's a joke, right?

    2. By "reliability" I didn't mean exact veracity, but it's accuracy as a re-imagining of the time it was set in.
      "He’d once nailed his wife’s poodle to a board." is - presumably was as well - a story told about Descartes (he never married, so it can't be true), but I'd be prepared to accept that as Margaret's belief, because it was other peoples' belief, but a seventeenth century Englishwoman who wrote about burning witches - until Tom explained - is just wrong - a false assumption about the time which raises my doubts about every other aspect of the book.

    3. Yours doubts should be raised! It's fiction. It's all made up, even the parts that are true, by which I mean inadvertently accurate. I am more or less anti-accuracy in fiction.

    4. I think every author of fiction owes the same fidelity to fact and history as was shown by Shakespeare. Anything less raises doubts about every other aspect of the work! If you see what I mean.

    5. Settle for accuracy when you can't come up with anything better.

    6. Danielle Dutton probably isn't as good a writer as Shakespeare so she hasn't earned the same right to imprecision. Paradoxically, a book - including a novel - about a seventeenth-century weirdo and genius trapped in the assumptions of her time and sometimes escaping them needs more accuracy in the way it portrays her time and background. There are ways in which she was weird by the standards of her time and there are ways in which she was weird by the standards of Woolf's time and ours - which aren't always the same either - so getting the normality of her time right is an obligation for the writer. Going back to Shakespeare: put Coriolanus or Henry V in modern dress and after a quick adjustment for the difference in language and we'll accept them. Put Margaret, Newton, Aubrey in moders dress and they aren't weirdos; they're preposterous.

    7. "getting the normality of her time right is an obligation for the writer"

      Novels set in the past are not ipso facto history textbooks. No novelist anywhere is obligated to do anything at all. It works the same way for painters, composers, and choreographers. A novel is a made up work of art, and that is all it is, and that is everything it is.

      You should read Tolstoy on Shakespeare. He thought the characters were all preposterous; he'd have rewritten them all if he could, or just thrown them into the fire.

    8. How I wish I could suppress the Reply button.

  7. Right, Alan Moore, the 17th century version of the League! How funny. I had not understood the reference when I read it.

    I would not take this book as reliable at all, but rather as a hodgepodge of stuff. Some of those "scientific" questions, and others like them, could well be stolen directly from Browne.

    In the case of the detail about witches, though, Dutton is on safe ground. Margaret Cavendish spent the years of the Civil War and Cromwell's rule in France and Antwerp - they rented the house of Rubens! - so burning makes sense as her frame of reference for that passage.

    That book on John Aybrey is a strong temptation, and directly to Dutton's point, I suspect.

  8. The loathsome reply function, how I hate it, so I am moving down here.

    I do not understand the point at all. The right to imprecision is not earned, but inherent, natural, God-given.

    If anything, I wish Dutton's novel were less accurate, more openly a travesty. As accurate as Mason & Dixon, for example, or Mumbo Jumbo.

  9. It's not that the point anonymous is trying to make is so bad, it's just not properly phrased.

    Given certain outdated conventions about suspension of disbelief when it comes to historical novels, a lack of accuracy in the details used to portray the time period and background, and/or unconvincing characters are counterproductive to keeping that disbelief suspended.

    Of course post-modern writers couldn't care less about verisimilitude or disbelief: novels are merely strings of words telling made up stories. Some novelists enjoy continuously reminding their readers of this fact.

  10. And post-modern critics care less than anyone. No, wait, more, we care more. That's why we won't shut up about this stuff.

    "All historical novels do X."
    "All historical novels I like do X."

    Very different statements. A couple of years ago, there was a similar argument here about ghost stories, I remember.

  11. If you're able to edit the style sheet (CSS) of your site, adding the following should hide the Reply links:

    a[o="r"] {
    display: none;

  12. How interesting. Thanks for the tip. We'll see how much damage I do in the process.

  13. "A novel is a made up work of art, and that is all it is, and that is everything it is."...but it is about something, and that something is, somehow, reality, scott g.f.bailey.
    In the case of a book like Margaret the First , which sets out to be precisely historically accurate in so many ways - including quoting historically inaccurate allegations - then, yes, inadvertent historical inaccuracy is a fault. Going by Tom's quotations, what Margaret says may not always be her own words, but they were the thoughts and the way of thinking of intelligent radical people of the time and she may well have thought like that. On the other hand, if Dutton had ascribed to her belief that the earth is flat or belief in Darwinian evolution, then, as you say, she would be entitled to do that but it would be an obvious error - an artistic error - in the book. Saying witches were burned may not be as obviously wrong, but it raises questions of accuracy, and in a book about someone whose ideas were unusual for her time and her country you need to get the received ideas right or the unreceived ideas aren't right either.

  14. "sets out to be" - no, that's my argument. This novel sets out to be something else. It is not all the way over in the Mason & Dixon camp, but like Song of the Shank it moves in that direction. The author allows herself freedom in that regard. I suspect the book of many advertent inaccuracies.

    Allen's novel opens with a map of a city much like New York City except that it among other things omits Long Island. Screwy. This kind of novel deliberately messes with history, although I didn't notice Dutton going that far.

    I still don't get the witch-burning objection, though. This poor woman was burned for witchcraft in France in 1646, just a few years before the relevant bit of the novel. Saying witches were burned at the time is not only not wrong, it is accurate.

  15. I'm not sure that your apparent definition of "reality" as a verifiable set of historical facts is a definition widely shared by artists working in the field of fiction. I am not sure that ideas of "accuracy" can be accurately applied to the arts. Once you allow metaphor, you immediately cede all rights to a one-to-one mapping of art to concrete physical reality. That is one of the strengths of literary art: the ability to examine "reality" without being some kind of hidebound empiricist. Storytellers since Homer's great grandparents have understood this. "Realism" and verisimilitude are fairly recent narrow minded conventions.

  16. Maybe one way to think about this is that Dutton, John Keene, John Barth, Alejo Carpentier, Virginia Woolf, and Homer, do not assume that their readers are learning history from their work. They assume that the readers already more or less know the relevant history and thus have some idea of where and why the author is screwing around with history.

  17. Like in The Alchemist, I think a reader is best off already knowing who Tycho Brahe is, what he did - the reader saw Cosmos as a child, for example - and understanding that the legendary or historical Hamlet story has been temporally moved.

  18. Sometimes places, events, characters and objects are just materials out of which a story is made; the story uses these objects, but is not about (or "about") them at all.

  19. "Is this true?" is a natural enough question, though, one I ask all the time, and it takes an additional effort to slot interesting facts into a "maybe, but I read it in a novel" category. The bulk of historical novels do set out to be precisely accurate, as Roger says, promising readers that for at least some category of information - firearms or factory conditions or ball gowns or whatever - I am encouraged to move the information over to the easier "yes, true" category.

    Now, I have trained myself to do that only once I have looked up the interesting curiosity somewhere else, but I am always asking the question.

  20. It just occurred to me that there is a prominent example of the kind of historical novel I am talking about on the U.S. best-seller list right now, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, in which the "railroad" is an actual railroad, and episodes and figures from many periods are encountered along the tracks.

    And this is an Oprah book. Readers know how to sort this stuff out.

  21. Of course I'm aware that there is a genre called "historical fiction" wherein writers are expected by readers to have researched the historical era they are portraying, because part of the point of that genre is to more-or-less accurately present the past. But I think the author gets to decide if that's what she's writing.

    Much of this, I am sure, is reaction to amusing comments on my own little novel. "Your Longomontandus character," one says, "is pretty far from the real guy." "That's because," I answer, "my character Soren is based on Shakespeare's Horatio, who is a fictional person." And things like that. Historical facts that ran counter to my purposes when I was writing my novel were killed off, and replaced by better facts.

  22. Oh yeah, what I'm saying is that answering the "is this true" question is my job, the reader's job, not the author's.

    Every writer who pretends to pure accuracy in historical fiction fills with book with inaccuracies, generally pretty grotesque ones. But somehow those inaccuracies don't matter.

  23. Since nobody mentioned it, I'll point out that history books aren't particularly accurate, either. They're always subjective, because history is written by humans. Many of the inaccuracies in Shakespeare's plays come straight out of Holinshed. I suspect the categories of fiction and non-fiction are pretty well blurred.

  24. Historians, though, like literary critics, should at least try to be accurate. And they should sacrifice style to accuracy when necessary. Artists should sacrifice accuracy for style.

  25. Well, yes, of course. But I'm not convinced our primate brains are capable of writing non-fiction, so inaccuracies don't bother me much. We tread here onto the fearsome paths of philosophy, which may be unwelcome here... But, you know, all writers are just telling stories, whether they think they're true or not.

  26. Philosophy is always welcome here. I don't want my limitations to spoil anyone else's fun.

    But, yes, I pretty much agree with that. The way a story is told - what makes it fiction, poetry, history - is as much a matter of the choice among rhetorical devices as anything else.