A slim, poetic meditation on the writing life as seen through the experiences of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, a 17th-century woman of letters.
In the Author’s Note, Dutton (Sprawl, 2010, etc.) thanks Virginia Woolf for introducing her to her subject: the Duchess of Newcastle appears in Woolf’s essay of that name as well as in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf’s famous plea for women’s economic and intellectual autonomy. Woolf hovers over this brief novel, audible in its cadences and visible in its cascading images of nature, artistry, and oddity. Margaret Lucas, a daughter of royalist gentry, is sent to sit out the English civil war as a lady-in-waiting to the English queen in Oxford: “I found myself in an unknown universe, whirling far into space: African servants, dogs in hats, platonic ideals, sparkling conversation, and ivy-covered quadrangles with womanizing captains, dueling earls, actors.” The war heats up and the queen's court moves to Paris. Back home, offstage, most of Margaret's family members die in the war. She wins the heart of William Cavendish, 30 years her senior. He’s a rich, intellectual marquess, quite the catch, but the Parliamentarians have confiscated his vast estates and fortune. The couple lives in exile in France and the Low Countries, where they hang out with scientists, poets, and philosophers (Descartes, Hobbes, Waller, Davenant), writing plays, poems, and treatises, until the Restoration reverses their fortunes (and for some reason the narration switches from first person to third). Back in England, now a duchess, Margaret gets weirder and weirder, all in carefully crafted, lyrical sentences. She offends the new queen by showing up to an audience in a dress with an extravagant train. When visitors come, she rants and recites at them. She wears a topless outfit to the theater, rouging her nipples. People follow her around, calling her Mad Madge. Most of all, though, she struggles to write. Despite its period setting and details, this novel—more poem than biography—feels rooted in the experiences of contemporary women with artistic and intellectual ambitions.
Margaret’s alternating bursts of inspiration and despair about her work may feel achingly familiar to Dutton’s likely readers, many of whom will probably also be aspiring writers.