Danielle Dutton - Employing literary terrorism to achieve genitive consequences. Can a goddess masturbate in a garden & make the flowers grow? She can

Margaret the First

Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First, Catapult 2016.

Margaret the First dramatizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, the shy, gifted, and wildly unconventional 17th-century Duchess. The eccentric Margaret wrote and published volumes of poems, philosophy, feminist plays, and utopian science fiction at a time when “being a writer” was not an option open to women. As one of the Queen’s attendants and the daughter of prominent Royalists, she was exiled to France when King Charles I was overthrown. As the English Civil War raged on, Margaret met and married William Cavendish, who encouraged her writing and her desire for a career. After the War, her work earned her both fame and infamy in England: at the dawn of daily newspapers, she was “Mad Madge,” an original tabloid celebrity. Yet Margaret was also the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London—a mainstay of the Scientific Revolution—and the last for another two hundred years.
Margaret the First is very much a contemporary novel set in the past. Written with lucid precision and sharp cuts through narrative time, it is a gorgeous and wholly new approach to imagining the life of a historical woman.

Dutton’s remarkable second novel is as vividly imaginative as its subject, the 17th-century English writer and eccentric Margaret Cavendish. Even as a shy young girl, Margaret Lucas covets fame and writes prolifically. Years later, she is an attendant to the queen, and when the English Civil War begins, Margaret flees with the court to Paris, where she meets and marries the aristocratic William Cavendish. Blossoming in an intellectual milieu that includes Descartes and Dryden, she begins to write even more seriously. Back in England after the war ends, she publishes wildly unconventional books to a mixture of admiration and scorn, refusing to write anonymously like other women of her time, or to let her lack of formal education silence her. Though Dutton doesn’t shy away from the “various and extravagant” antics (such as attending the theater in a topless gown) that earned her subject notoriety and the nickname “Mad Madge,” her Margaret is a woman of fierce vitality, creativity, and courage. Incorporating lines from Cavendish herself as well as Virginia Woolf, whose essays introduced Dutton to Cavendish, this novel is indeed reminiscent of Woolf’s Orlando in its sensuous appreciation of the world and unconventional approach to fictionalized biography. Dutton’s boldness, striking prose, and skill at developing an idiosyncratic narrative should introduce her to the wider audience she deserves. —Publishers Weekly

"Danielle Dutton engagingly embellishes the life of Margaret the First, the infamous Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne." —Vanity Fair

“With refreshing and idiosyncratic style, Dutton portrays the inner turmoil and eccentric genius of an intellectual far ahead of her time.”—Jane Ciabattari

"Although 'Margaret the First' is set in 17th century London, it's not a traditional work of historical fiction. It is an experimental novel that, like the works of Jeanette Winterson, draws on language and style to tell the story... There is a restless ambition to [Danielle Dutton's] intellect." —Michele Filgate

“This vivid novel is a dramatization of the life of 17th-century Duchess Margaret Cavendish... While the novel takes place in the 1600s, the explorations of marriage, ambition, and feminist ideals are timeless.” —The Boston Globe, "Pick of the Week"

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. —Kirkus Reviews

"A fabulous (and fabulist) re-imagining of the infamous Margaret Cavendish... Margaret the First isn’t a historical novel, however; magnificently weird and linguistically dazzling, it’s a book as much about how difficult and rewarding it is for an ambitious, independent, and gifted woman to build a life as an artist in any era as it is about Margaret herself. Incredibly smart, innovative, and refreshing, Margaret the First will resonate with anyone who’s struggled with forging her own path in the world." —BookRiot

"Dutton, an accomplished writer and daring publisher, here upends the genre of the historical novel in a brilliant book about Margaret Cavendish, a mold-breaking British Duchess of the 17th century who wrote poetry, drama, philosophy, and even science fiction." —Flavorwire, "Most Anticipated Books of 2016"

Margaret the First is set in the seventeenth century, but don't let that fool you. It's a strikingly smart and daringly feminist novel with modern insights into love, marriage, and the siren call of ambition.” —Jenny Offill

"All this trouble for a girl," say the bears in the book Margaret Cavendish writes within this remarkable book written by Danielle Dutton, the story of a very real woman at a very particular moment in history that is at the same time the story of every woman artist who has ever burst loose the constraints of her particular moment in history to create "a new world called the blazing world." —Kathryn Davis

"Margaret the First has such incredible sentences, and a sense of history that feels like intimacy." —Sara Jaffe

"Ever since I first encountered her writing, I've told every serious reader I know that Danielle Dutton is one of the most original and wonderfully weird prose stylists of our time, every bit the contemporary of Lydia Davis, Cesar Aira, and Diane Williams. How perfect that her new novel is a portrait of Margaret of Newcastle, whose perceived excesses and eccentricities were an object of fascination for her time, as well as for Virginia Woolf, who laments in A Room of One's Own, ‘What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind!’ And what a visionary portrait Margaret the First is, not only for the sheer joy of the sentences, but also as it’s a marvel of tenderness, rewriting a historical caricature as a life, delighting in Margaret's passion for writing and love of the beautiful and strange from childhood on. I am in awe of what Dutton accomplishes here, in this novel of the small and the sublime. What a triumph!"—Kate Zambreno

In her feminist treatise A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf finds that in Restoration celebrity, writer, and aristocrat Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, there “burnt the passion for poetry”, while her anger prevented her from writing with clear-sightedness (a case she also levels at Charlotte Brontë in the same text). Woolf writes:
what could bind, tame or civilize for human use that wild, generous, untutored intelligence? It poured itself out, higgledy-piggledy, in torrents of rhyme and prose, poetry and philosophy which stand congealed in quartos and folios that nobody ever reads.
In Margaret the First, a remarkable novel that re-tells Margaret Cavendish’s life, Danielle Dutton has pulled off the extraordinary feat of bringing to life that wildness, that generosity, and that passion for knowledge and understanding that so impressed Woolf, as well as redressing the silencing with which Margaret’s life and achievements have been met, and which Woolf mourns.
Just who was Margaret Cavendish? Margaret, the Duchess of Newcastle, married William Cavendish when she was twenty-two years old. A writer himself, William encouraged his wife’s education. She wrote plays, poems, and was a pioneer in the genre of science fiction with her 1666 work The Blazing World. As well as fiction, she composed tracts and published pamphlets about philosophy and the natural sciences, and was one of the first women to attend a Royal Society meeting.
Cavendish’s literary legacy goes beyond Woolf’s essay. As a proto-science fiction writer, her influence can be felt across the history of women’s literature. In 2014, Siri Husvedt titled her novel The Blazing World in tribute to Cavendish’s most famous work. The book, which explores the treatment and reception of women’s creativity in the art world, directly engages with Cavendish’s aesthetics and psychology, as well as the issues of credibility and reception that Cavendish faced. And it’s not just women writers that owe a debt to “Mad Madge”. Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman has plenty of references to Cavendish’s fantastical imagination, as does China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. 
We can now add to that literary legacy Dutton’s Margaret the First. 
Dutton’s book is split into three parts. The first, written in the first person, recounts Margaret’s life from childhood to marriage, and the Cavendishes’ exile from England to France and Antwerp. In the second part, the narrative voice switches to the third person, and deals with their return to England after the restoration of the monarchy. The final part, still in the third person, covers the period from the publication of The Blazing World to her death.
These shifts in narrative voice are important. In the first section of the novel, we are privy to Margaret’s inner thoughts as she grows into a young woman. We see the world through her eyes, and we see Margaret as she sees herself:
Kisses on the lawn at St John’s Green, a perfect summer gloom of vegetable bravado: peonies, bugloss, native beetles singing. The horses stamped a path through the starry dark. Alone in the carriage, flying through England, I imagined myself a beauty in satin; I imagined a crown of diamonds on my head…
It is through her inner voice that we first discover Margaret’s imaginative powers and her longing for adventure. The child Margaret plays in the stream of her childhood home, creating an entire world out of the shapes in the water and the foam on the river’s surface. In her childish fantasies, we see the beginnings of The Blazing World take shape, as she imagines an entire civilization of which she is queen:
I, Margaret, Queen of the Tree-People—discovered an invisible world. There, on the surface of the water, rive foam bubbles encased a jubilant cosmos. Whole civilizations lasted for only a moment! Yet from the creation of one of these Bubble-worlds to the moment that world popped into oblivion, the Bubble people within it fell in love, bore children, and died.
One particularly poignant moment is Dutton’s description of Margaret’s first period. As she makes this transition from girl to woman, Margaret actively mourns her childhood and the freedom it afforded her—a freedom she now realizes is only available to boys and men: “It is nobler to be a boy, I thought—and looked back with nostalgia, as if I just had been.”
Throughout the first section of the novel, the violence of the English Civil War intrudes on the narrative as news from home reports on the burning of homes and the defiling of corpses, Charles’s execution and the murders of Margaret’s relatives. Dutton neatly shows how the violence of war is both distant and close to Margaret. She offers a description of the peaceful and artificial beauty of aristocratic France:
Her summer chateau boasted grand suites with painted windows and formal gardens descending to the Seine, with canals and cascading fountains and a cove of faux-grottoes home to clacking metal birds, a bejewelled caterpillar, a golden duck that shook its head and quacked.
And then counters it with the brutality of war that has destroyed Margaret’s childhood home:
Fighting ensued at St. John’s Green. The house was destroyed, flattened. Our family vaults were again invaded, but this time it was my sister’s and mother’s coffins the mob defiled.
With these intrusions of death and destruction, Dutton brings to life the violence and confusion of the period—the juxtapositions between Margaret’s sheltered existence with the horror and violence that she can’t escape.
Dutton accomplishes quite a feat in fictionalizing Margaret’s entire life into a slim volume numbering 166 pages. We follow Margaret to Paris and Antwerp, we witness her marriage with William, and then we journey back with her to the Restoration Court in London, as the couple retreat to their country estate; we are with Margaret right through to her death.
Writing a novel rather than straight biography gives Dutton the freedom to focus on the big, blazing moments of Margaret’s life, the interior world she inhabits as well as the external world in which she lived and produced her work, all interspersed with the domestic details that are the bread of life. Interspersing fiction with the banality of domestic details, and poeticizing them, is not new to Dutton; indeed, this is terrain she covered throughout her entire paragraph-long novel SPRAWL to such powerful effect. Dutton is not only known for her experimental and daring prose because of SPRAWL, but also because of the work she publishes through her publishing house, The Dorothy Project, a press that focuses almost solely on female authors pushing boundaries and trying to make the marginal matter. As we would expect, then, Margaret the First is not—nor does it ever set out to be—a straight re-telling of Margaret’s life. Dutton takes a non-linear approach so that each big glowing moment of the novel shines on its own, and is allowed enough space and time so that the reader to relish the experience of reading Dutton’s pithy, poetic prose.
The switch to third person in the second and third sections of the novel coincides with the couple’s arrival in London. This change in narrative voice represents a shift from Margaret being a shy, retiring woman living out of the public eye to being the celebrity “Mad Madge” whose dress, antics, conversations, actions, and written work were the subject of gossip and jeers. Whereas before we experience Margaret as she sees herself, in the latter part of the book we view Margaret from the outside: Dutton thus causes the reader to shares the viewpoint of those who look at and talk about Margaret. She moves from being the subject to the object of the external gaze:
She climbs the wooden staircase, takes her place in the box. And like ripples in a summer pond, lines of faces slowly turn—from the gallery, the pit—she watches the ripple spread. William must be late, for beside her is an empty seat. Still more and more faces turn.
As in SPRAWL, Dutton pays minute and often uncanny attention to objects and the body. Dutton doesn’t shy away from Margaret’s body’s physicality—from a description of her starting her period, to Cavendish pinching her virginal nipples, and the horrifying concoctions pushed onto Margaret by doctors as she tries (unsuccessfully) to get pregnant. The level of detail is both fascinating and grotesque (and makes one grateful for modern medicine): “Come autumn I was to be injected in my rectum with a decoction of flowers one morning, followed by a day-long purge, using rhubarb and pepper.”
Fevers, deaths, constipation, leeches and blood—Dutton bombards the reader with intimate and uncomfortable physical detail. Like SPRAWL, this repetition of lists is effective in creating the sense that Margaret’s body is invaded by doctors and quacks who view her as a problem, an object to be cured.
The final section of Dutton’s novel is entitled, like Margaret’s great work, The Blazing World. It is this section that is most overtly feminist, dealing with the reception of Margaret’s writing and philosophy by both the intellectual and the society circles that swirl around the Restoration Court. We witness her anxiety that no one is reading her work, or that her work is subject to mockery, as well as her swelling of joy when her work is met with praise. In her anxiety and pride, we see a woman writer who wants to be taken seriously, who wants her work to be seen as important and interesting on its own terms, and who is desperate for validation. Yet she is writing in a world that views a woman with a pen as monstrous, a world that is more interested in her appearance and her personality than as an intellectual force.
It’s a battle that has been familiar to women writers throughout history. Are people more interested in Aphra Behn’s scandalous life than her poetry, for example? Do people prefer to debate whether Branwell Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights or whether Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Frankenstein than to read either book and appreciate for them for their own merits? In the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein was well aware that her audience was often more interested in Stein the personality than Stein the writer. Today, the novelist Elena Ferrante actively hides her identity to escape the attention paid to her as a woman rather than her as a writer. It is a fight Margaret herself faced, and which Dutton chronicles in this fine novel. When Margaret goes to the Royal Society to talk with the men about her writing, she recognizes that they have come to look at her, to see the famous Mad Madge, rather than because they want to hear her views on science and philosophy: “That hat is too much, Pepys thinks—still, her shape is fine.”
Samuel Pepys’s observation of Margaret’s exterior shows us his lack of interest in her interiority. Throughout the novel, his thoughts (and the thoughts of others) are offered—each focused on the gossip and noise that surrounds Margaret, the “Mad Madge” of their social and intellectual spheres, rather than the woman herself. But despite all the noise that surrounds Margaret, her own intellect, creativity and passion for learning shines through—she cannot be silenced or repressed by the gossiping women and egotistical men around her. Dutton demonstrates Margaret’s belief in her own importance and genius through this reflection on The Blazing World:
[O]ne quiet day, having run out of questions, the empress is ready to share her ideas. She asks the spirits to send her a friend, one chosen from among the greatest modern writers; “Galileo,” she says, “Descartes?” But the spirits assure her that these men would scorn to be scribes to a woman, and they instead suggest an author called Margaret Cavendish, who writes, they tell the empress, nothing but sense and reason.
In Margaret the First, Dutton has written a remarkable book that gives us a joyous and minutely detailed insight into a female writer’s inner life. She brings to life in full colour, scent, and sound the history of one of our most remarkable and, sadly, as Woolf lamented, forgotten women. A decidedly feminist novel, the thrill for the reader lies in Margaret’s lively inner voice, along with Dutton’s imaginative prose. Her writing is inventive and artful, conjuring a luminous and colourful world just as extraordinary and innovative as Margaret’s own blazing world.
With Dutton’s novel, Margaret Cavendish will no longer be Woolf’s “crazy Duchess…a bogey to frighten clever girls with.” Instead, we discover an ambitious, hungry, and sensational woman who blazed and created and refused to be cowed by a society that saw her as an object of mere fun and gossip. - Sian Norris

Dutton has picked a fascinating subject in the life of Margaret Cavendish, and the author's own admiration shines through in the prose of Margaret the First. In this slim volume of under two-hundred pages, Dutton traces a poetic outline of the life of the woman known as "Mad Madge."
Seventeenth century England expands before the reader in short bursts; there is no waiting for the story to begin. From page one, you're in Margaret's stream of consciousness, and it's a very interesting stream to be in. Margaret Cavendish lives within a series of contradictions. At first cripplingly shy, she rises to great infamy for her wild fashions and ideas. She becomes the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London, and she scandalizes the aristocracy by attending one of her husband's plays dressed as a bare-breasted Amazonian. An early advocate for feminist ideals, she writes prolifically and is consistently anxious about how her words are received. Her thoughts attempt to pry apart the workings of the world. This isn't a novel about gowns and clandestine love affairs—it's a deftly executed account of a woman who struggles to find some understanding of the universe and her place in it.        
If you aren't the sort of reader easily wooed by the usual trappings of historical fiction, Margaret the First might be a good place to reconsider, or at least make a detour. Dutton's writing is vivid and honest—she doesn't paint the past in all rosy hues, but describes the smell of yeast and mold on city streets, stacks of soldiers' bodies, “the birdmen with their leather masks” stepping between corpses after a bout of plague. But neither is it purely grim. Instead, the people she describes (particularly Margaret herself) feel real. They swat gnats and grow bored and worry about seeming too vain.
In short, Margaret the First is a refreshing and cerebral read that's perfect for a park bench in early spring. - Leah Dearborn


The problem with the “contemporary novel set in the past” is that it often encourages us to judge the past according to the standards of the present. This is fine if the novel is nothing but a contemporary one in historical clothing, but if it biographically treats a historical figure whose behavior was, for all her idiosyncrasies, a product of her time, then it runs the risk of unfairly comparing her against modern-day expectations, mores, and conventions. To a certain extent, this is what happens to the Duchess of Newcastle in Danielle Dutton’s second novel, Margaret the First. Painting the life of Margaret Cavendish as she grows from the daughter of prominent Civil-War-era Royalists to the first ever woman in England to write published works, it frames her as a social pioneer of sorts. Yet even though she emerges as a figure who demonstrates that women were much more capable than Stuart England ever gave them credit for, her overall detachment and passivity mean she falls far short of qualifying as a proto-feminist, of being someone who displayed the kind of social engagement and activism we expect from our contemporaneous crusaders for equal rights.
In other words, even though Catapult have described Margaret the First as a “contemporary novel set in the past,” Margaret Cavendish was certainly not a ‘contemporary feminist’ lost in 17th Century Britain. Still, the novel and its acute prose illustrate why the Duchess was such a fascinating and unique figure, seaming lucid realism and surreal fantasy into a portrait of a woman who transcended the stiff conformity of Ye Olde England largely because her dreamy lightness had never inhabited it in the first place.
Dutton brings this out subtly yet affectingly in the early years she reimagines for Margaret. Her father dying when she was only two years old, the majority of her family perishing in quick installments after the outbreak of the English Civil War, she finds herself without a strong male influence during her infancy, and then without a family influence as she settles into adulthood. As Dutton appears to hint, it’s this removal of roots that enables her rootless self and equally rootless thought to develop, to nurture the possibility that the “world was not so easily explained by a tutor’s reason.” Without strong familial presences to shape her life, she begins reading and daydreaming a great deal, plunging into such childhood reveries as that of “an invisible world” housed in “river-foam bubbles,” where the “Bubble-children grew up and bore children of their own.”
In many ways, the novel softly backlights her whimsical character as an escape from the stresses and anxieties of being prematurely bereaved from a parent. For example, when she’s sent at the age of nine to visit her older sister Mary in London, she dispels the exaggerated fear that her mother might die while she’s away by entertaining herself with the pleasant image of “a floating dinner on a barge upon the Thames.” Yet at the same time, her flights of fancy are also an escape from the political situation that’s erupting around her as the novel opens, this situation being the overthrow of the monarchy by a certain Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads. As she’s forced to flee England’s turmoil and sail to Paris, she uses Twelfth Night as a springboard to envision her new situation: “washed ashore in a strange new world and dressed like a man.”
This quote is key, because it underlines the complexity with which the Duchess is invested in Margaret the First. Not only do the strains and traumas of her unsettled existence activate her escapist, blue sky thinking, but they end up providing her with the material and inspiration for a new identity of her own, one that doesn’t simply defer to family and to men. Slightly earlier in the novel, she pictures herself “married to a celebrated general, but that days after the wedding my husband would fall in battle, so that I […] would have no choice but to rally his troops and lead them onto the field.” Here, the pain of her father’s demise returns to her in the figure of a fallen general, yet at the same time it points her towards a nobler, more glorious life, in which she can pursue the independence that’s already been foisted on her by fate.
And she does eventually accede to this nobler existence, coming to marry the then-Marquess of Newcastle (William Cavendish) in 1645 and writing the first of her books in 1653. The latter was called Poems & Fancies, a collection of poetic and prosaic musings on natural philosophy, love, honor, death, and other worlds. As Dutton humorously envisages in a two-page chapter, its publication in London generates a “tidal wave of gossip” among the general English public, partly because it addressed odd themes like “vacuums and war,” partly because Margaret’s odd “spelling did astonish,” and partly because it was just downright odd that “a lady had published at all.” Yet it nonetheless comes to the attention of such luminaries as the Dutch mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens, thereby providing Margaret with enough motivation to dive further into her newfound career.
From here the novel becomes more layered and engrossing, delicately implying that as her public reputation balloons and she publishes more “various and extravagant” tomes like The World’s Olio, Margaret becomes more disconnected from the everyday world around her. Unable to bear children for her “ceaseless, sleepless” husband, who’s occasionally so busy he appears “to her a stranger dressed in her husband’s skin,” she loses many of her links to mundanity and her worldly future within it. She falls “asleep by day, the bed as dark as night,” and when she wakes, Dutton brusquely suggests that “her dreaming filled the chamber.” These abstracted tendencies are partly the fallout from her unstable circumstances, which see her shipped from London to Paris to Antwerp and then to the secluded Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, where “[e]ach hour that passed with no ink from her quill was a quiet affliction, a void.” Even so, she takes very little interest in people when she has the chance to meet them, save for ‘devotees’ like the poet Richard Flecknoe who “knew her work and praised it to her face.”
It’s because of this self-absorption and mild vainglory that the force and resonance of the book is diluted somewhat. Because of her distanced vanity, the reader can’t help but suspect that her writing is not so much something she employs to address the world and change its prejudices for the better, but simply another route she uses to absent herself from it. Even if she was writing “all-female plays for an all-female troupe,” she “never meant them to be staged,” and neither does she really speak to another person about the role of women in English society nor encourage any of the women she encounters to think or act for themselves like she does. It’s because of these failures that sympathy for her is often lost, irrespective of Dutton’s artful ability to invest her character with plenty of intriguing nuance and dimensionality (e.g. the “she felt a certain stirring” line that appears in the account of her plays insinuates that she may have harbored lesbian tendencies).
Of course, it may be rejoindered that Cavendish was alive at a time when even aristocratic women would have been laughed out of the room if they’d argued directly that the sexes should be accorded equal rights. However, given that the book is “very much a contemporary novel,” it’s hard to avoid holding her up to the standards of today and feeling for her (or not) accordingly. In some respects, Dutton may indeed be prodding us toward a recognition of Cavendish’s faults, what with all the references to the Duchesses’s obliviousness and disconnection she inserts throughout the life-spanning text. At one point, the following two sentences are placed above and below each other, emphasizing Margaret’s remoteness from the very life of her country in the most succinct and staccato two paragraphs imaginable:
Cromwell was dead.
I was at my desk.
Later, she attends one of her husband’s plays in a topless dress, without seemingly realizing that the sight of her naked breasts in a theater would have caused a tizzy. But even without such examples of her maladroit ignorance of and indifference to society, her divorce from reality is highlighted by her attitude to science, which as Dutton vibrantly depicts was still fledgling at the time. She completely disdains it, calling “microscopy a brittle art,” despite the suspicion that she’s uncomfortable with it simply because its matter-of-fact coldness and brute reductionism threatens the fantastical world she’s built around her. In fact, it’s via science that Dutton presents the most abiding image of her incapability or unwillingness to translate the alleged progressivism of her writing into actual debate or discourse. She becomes the first women to visit the Royal Society near the very end of the novel, but rather than comment intelligently on what was presented to her or criticize “their artificial delusions,” she “said nothing!”
With this nothing, she ends up identifying herself as someone whose interest resides mainly in her eccentricity, and not in any attempts she could have made to contribute substantially to national conversations. As the novel concludes, she’s neither a progressive nor a feminist, but rather a titled aristocrat who was simply able to take advantage of her privileged status to indulge her taste for colorful literature, without ever seeking to extend this privilege to other members of her sex. However, rather than confirming her as the “Mad Madge” of the (newborn) newspapers, Dutton’s profile constructs her as a fully formed, complicated human being, as a woman whose interests and inclinations stem from a complex personal history. It’s this profile that’s the star of the novel as much as its subject, since it deftly weaves together primary and secondary sources to form a wholly integrated, believable and gripping account of a woman who didn’t belong to the times in which she was born, not least because these times were too volatile for her to ever plant herself in them.
Yes, she may not have effected any radical change during her own life, but this same account does movingly relate that she was buried in Westminster Abbey, where her dedication reads, “This Duchess was a wise, witty and learned lady, which her many books do well testify.” This reveals that she managed to win over at least some admirers before her death, and that Stuart England immortalized her as an example and a role model to the generations of female writers that followed her. Thanks to Margaret the First and Danielle Dutton’s elegance with words, this may continue for many more generations to come. - Simon Chandler


Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is a fictive recreation of the life of Lady Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth-century word-smith, scripter, raging oddball, and wheeling brain. This was a woman who ventured to publish her outlandish thoughts and writings when there was very little precedent for acts of this kind (she was, after all, a woman, and constrained by the conventions which dogged her era). In some ways reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Dutton’s book unfurls in prose which is arrestingly poetic; it concentrates on the small moments, emotions, and sensuous details which make up Margaret’s life, though without forgetting about the larger, less fleeting events which might be termed her life’s frame. It is a work in which colourful linguistic molecules reign, a work whose language is perhaps as excessive and stunning as Lady Cavendish’s own wardrobe was said to be.
It is also a work of extraordinary emotional and psychological complexity, about a woman who locates salvation in her own creativity and is audacious enough to seek recognition in a world governed by men, from which it is not readily forthcoming. It is a novel which plays with the line between confidence and egoism in a setting in which the slightest display of confidence on a woman’s part is too easily glossed as egoism (“Hadn’t I thoughts, after all?…It cannot be infamy, I reasoned, to run or seek after glory, to love perfection, desire praise…”; “I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”). On another level, it is a novel about a woman being pushed along the line that is her life, a woman being buffeted about and subjected to forces she has no control over—wars, illness, her own body—while others, including loved ones, drop away: “In March, in London, my niece died from consumption. In April, my sister Mary. In Ireland that summer my brother Tom was crushed by his horse. The following autumn, our mother was taken…Alone in my room in Paris, I felt oblivion creep near.”
Margaret Cavendish, the character Dutton has fashioned, is at once bold and insecure, audacious and isolated (she is often more daring on the page than it is possible for her to be in person); even when she is all the rage (because her writing or eccentric attire is garnering attention) she is without community; she is by turns an object of praise, admiration, ridicule and resentment. The novel sweeps breathtakingly along from her birth to a noble family and early childhood in Colchester, England, to her death on a garden bench one winter’s morning. In between these events, the young Margaret Lucas serves the queen as a lady-in-waiting, marries William Cavendish, an aristocrat with no money but good connections (they dine and otherwise socialize with the best minds of the time: Hobbes, Descartes, Dryden, and others—all of whom more or less ignore Margaret), writes copiously (though she has her crises), and moves with him, in exile, from place to place: They are Royalists and the English Civil War is raging.
It is interesting to consider Margaret the First in light of Dutton’s other works. Dutton, who identifies as a writer of fiction, is nonetheless preoccupied with forms of narrative which resist the very distinction between poetry and prose. Neither her collection of short stories, Attempts at a Life, nor her first novel, SPRAWL, make use of conventional plot. Both are works which appear to let the sentence guide ‘what happens’ in the writing: the only rule seems to be that whatever comes next must be linguistically surprising, or refreshing. (Carla Harryman is another American prose-writer who works in something like this way, and Dutton is of course familiar with her.)
Today there’s no use for descriptions of the past. But life changes on a dial, in a garden, a clinking of beetle wings, a shrimp bush and dry pink petals of Chinese lanterns dangling. Once I thought: I’ll just plant things until there’s no time to be afraid. But storms are furious in their own way, green lightning and bullets as big as hail in the desert, as frogs.
My tongue reveals something faintly audible here. But birds come in off the low-slung roof and confess themselves atop cupboards. Even the occasional warm bird sandwich is prohibited. I spend a term untouched, living in an abandoned chophouse, pulling weeds. I post banns up and down the avenue, on palm trees and street signs. I drive a simple bargain. (“20C Pastoral” in Attempts at a Life)
Whereas Attempts at a Life consists of very short pieces which coalesce like poems (it is almost tempting to think of them as prose-poems), SPRAWL, whose structure is supposed to reinforce its theme, consists of a single, stream-of-consciousness-like paragraph whose sentences inventory the phenomena making up an equally sprawling suburbia:
We have a distinctive ecology involving cows, furniture, farms, real estate, azaleas, fires, corn, curtains, dust, passion, malefactors, milk, meat, cherries, wasps, mayors, pipefitters, fences… So we sit on the couch and drink cocktails with umbrellas and are strongly on this one side of taxation, with an emphasis on judges, unpleasant violent crime, serenity, the good life, biographies of famous leaders, science fiction, and marijuana. I say, “Thanks for coming.” Then I say, “Sakes alive!” then “Mendicant!”
Both books are textured, so to speak, like fiction, but the linguistic parts which make that texture up are allowed to sit next to each other in ways which are perhaps more mysterious than conventional fiction would allow (and how do the elements making up a poem fit together?—often they fit together illogically, which is to say: magically). In this vein, Dutton is an adept maker of lists. Many of her sentences, and paragraphs, too, assume the form of a list whose elements are motley enough to startle expectation, but coordinated enough to sustain a kind of sense overall. This kind of slightly discontinuous listing, if we can call it that, makes Dutton seem aesthetically close to Gertrude Stein, who is one of her acknowledged influences (Virginia Woolf and Georges Perec are others).
Margaret the First makes use of this technique as well, though the items which make up its various lists are slightly more coordinated than they are motley. This is perhaps because the novel, unlike Attempts at a Life, say, although it too is made up of short, poetically-cohering sections, strives to transcend its parts to sustain a longer, unified story. In this respect it is like Dutton’s first novel, though Margaret the First labours under an even greater constraint than the rather open-ended SPRAWL, since, however fictionalized it is, it is about a specific historical figure, whose life it promises to animate. ‘The list’ serves precisely this end; its recurring presence is one of the reasons the book’s prose is so sumptuous, and the world it conveys so vivid. It is also one of the reasons the mundane details of Margaret’s life become entirely engrossing:
One morning that June, I took only a conserve of marigold for breakfast, trying to loosen a cough, and, after wandering the halls, went to the garden with two hard plums in my pocket. I ate; the church bell tolled. Eventually, in petal-flecked shoes, I found my way to the sitting room, where my mother dozed and John’s pregnant wife stood absently by the settle. The room was remarkably hot, for Mother believed in keeping windows shut, and a fat summer fly bumped against the glass. I stood at a table fiddling with a vase. I counted thirty-seven stems and dreamt up a ruby coat for a Chinese empress, a watery dress for Ophelia, a series of towering crystalline hats that rattled, sparkled, and shook—until from the hall came a series of noises.
The kind of writing fictionalized Lady Cavendish does appears in the novel, too. It is also described. At times, it almost seems as if lodged in Dutton’s book is a poetic—a theoretical articulation of a writing practice (Cavendish’s)—which exceeds the poetic the book itself (that is, Dutton’s) partakes in. This poetic is presented in a positive light, as if it is radical and desirable, fully endorsed, even loved. Perhaps it is loved all the more because it does not speak to the novel’s actual style; instead, it is held at a distance, a condition for eros:
Margaret writes everything: poetry, plays, essays, fancies, alternative philosophy. The structure of many of her texts is chaotic, directionless (“just a jumble of speeches and scenes” without structure—though, of course, even a mess has structure: life’s chaos is structured, and Margaret wishes her texts would unfold “like the natural course of things”). Her writing also embraces hybridity (she produces a book which is both fictional and theoretical, both fanciful and philosophical, for example), and switches styles on a whim (“Might not language be as a closet full of gowns?”). It disregards grammatical requirements as well, mainly because Margaret is unfamiliar with them, but refuses to be held back. In a word, her text is wild. It is as wild as she is inexorable. It cuts what seems like it must be an impossible figure of freedom, but which is precisely not impossible: We could say that in Dutton’s novel lies an unformulated manifesto for writing, which in principle, but so rarely in practice, is open to every possibility.
Margaret’s theoretical thinking, too, is feral and fantastical. She disapproves of many of the scientific trends of her day (including experimentation on animals) and produces, we can gather from certain snippets, a kind of alternative metaphysics (which reads like a ‘pataphysical critique): “I rejected any clock-like vision of the world. I chastised men who hunt for sport. The moon might be a ball of water…” When she is finally able to attend one of the Royal Society’s meetings (she has to nudge, but she does get in), she is silent however. Internally, she is enraged; externally, she is docile. “Gentleman,” she says disingenuously, “I am all admiration.” Later, she tells her husband that the meeting was only “more chatter,” and we are given a fuller idea of her own sense of impotence; her docility, her agreeableness at the meeting, was just a throwing up of arms; her speech was the silence of one whose speech is dictated, of one who is trapped or cornered, of one whose genuine thoughts, if they do not provoke violence, will fall on deaf ears, of one who is alone in the world, while the rest of the world bears down.
Psychologically acute moments like this, subtle emotional swivels, rather than action per se, give this narrative shape and depth. The single constant Margaret has in the world, besides her writing, is her husband, William, but even her relationship with him sours and sweetens. He is initially supportive of her writing, even proud, going so far as to distribute copies of it to his eminent friends, but he becomes peevish later on (at one point he even tells her—more or less—that women should be seen and not heard). She does not help matters, either: for all her shyness, she is a shameless self-promoter, and is perhaps too preoccupied with her own doings to realize when she is stepping on his toes: She attends the opening night for a play he has written with her breasts bared and nipples painted—something of a fashion experiment, which is much noted during the performance. “Congratulations,” she tells him afterwards. “No, no,” he says, “Congratulations to you.”
Lady Cavendish is undoubtedly a complex, perhaps even contradictory, character: she is a character one for the most part sympathizes with, though she has it in her to be mortifying. She is an awkward character, to put this another way: both very public and extraordinarily private. The text holds a part of her in reserve, or seems to refrain from disclosing her fully. She wonders if William has forgiven her after the play-incident, but we are given little other insight into her anxiety: we know enough to know it is there; we know enough to know she suffers; still, these things are cloaked with silence. Dutton’s striking novel has its own way of wrapping things in silence: it leaves us with a winter’s tomb after giving us page after page ashake with leaves and petals, orations and courtships, wars and corpses, air pumps and eldritch grammars, seas and sciences, itinerancy and gossip, plums and manuscripts, ups and downs, birds and debt, kings and crates, fancies and Fox-men, wit and infertility, stupor and chewed goose, poems and autumn roses, Spanish stews and steady love. Its energy is inimitable; its curious aura—its curious beauty—burns a long while.— Natalie Helberg


Danielle Dutton’s second novel, Margaret the First (out March 15 from Catapult), tells the story of Margaret Cavendish, the eccentric and revolutionary 17th-century writer and polymath. Despite its period setting, the novel—billed by Catapult not as “historical fiction” but as “a contemporary novel set in the past”—feels distinctly modern. Dutton’s fictional speculation of Margaret depicts her as a fierce and creative woman struggling with many of the same issues that contemporary artists deal with.
Dutton, who holds a PhD from the University of Denver and an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is also the author of SPRAWL and Attempts at a Life. She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, and is the founder of the independent press Dorothy, a publishing project dedicated to works of fiction mostly by women.
I spoke to Dutton over video chat about how she found Margaret’s voice, the role aging plays in the novel, and her research process.

3:AM Magazine: In your author’s note, you mention that reading Virginia Woolf is how you first learned of Margaret Cavendish. She obviously sparked an interest then, but when did you realize that you wanted to write a book about her life?
Danielle Dutton: When I first read the Woolf reference in A Room of One’s Own, I mostly just read past it. But part of the description that Woolf has for Cavendish—there’s something about her being like a gigantic cucumber that was crushing the roses in the garden—really stuck out to me. So, I remembered that. In The Common Reader there’s a whole essay on Margaret called “The Duchess of Newcastle,” but I never really made the connection between it and that cucumber bit in A Room of One’s Own until after I took a class on seventeenth-century New Science. Margaret Cavendish was one of the people who came up in the course. That was when I started thinking about her as a character for a book, but my idea was for a totally different book. It had all these characters in it; Samuel Pepys was one of the main characters. He famously wrote these extensive diaries through the period that are really funny and sort of saucy, actually. So it was this multi-perspective, multi-character book, and it went through all of these different manifestations. I’m not sure there was a single moment where I thought to myself, Oh, I need to write about Margaret Cavendish. She just kept taking over the book I thought I was writing.
3:AM: That seems fitting given her personality.
DD: It is. She’s very aggressive. I would be researching seventeenth-century garden design or I would be doing something with Pepys, but I just kept using all of it to write about Margaret Cavendish. It took me a long time to realize that I just wanted to write a book about her. Years.
3:AM: Can you speak about how you first were able to decide on a form? Specifically the three distinct parts into which the book is organized—the first, second, and then that close third, where the novel is driven by very lyrical, poetic language, straight from Margaret’s head?
DD: That came a lot later, too. Finding the form was really a very dynamic process. I went through a lot of shifting, trying to get it right. Because the writing took place over such a long time, it’s hard for me to pinpoint when specific things happened, but basically the final version only materialized in the last two or so years. It was there, but it took me a while to see it and then to refine it after I’d seen it.
3:AM: It’s a slim book, but it’s quite a weighty book.
DD: Well, that’s nice to hear, because I think there’s this feeling that when I say to people that it took me ten years to write it… I sense people expect something to show for ten years. But I do feel like it is dense. Some of my own favorite books are slim, but there’s a lot of weight and power in them.
3:AM: I’d like to talk about the style and the voice of the book. Margaret’s voice pulled me in right away. How did you go about developing it? I’m especially interested because the voice seems to change as the book progresses. It seems to get more lyrical as Margaret herself gets more out there, diving deeper into her interest in science fiction.
DD: The oldest writing in the book is the beginning of part three. The part where she’s at Welbeck and it’s very lyrical and she’s looking out, thinking about how she’s just finished The Blazing World and about what its reception is going to be. It’s extremely dreamlike. It even actually has her dreaming in it: all those celestial bodies and the waves of the ocean. It literally might be the first thing I wrote in the whole book. And I wrote all those pages really fast. They just came straight out like that. There’s been tweaking to them since then because of other things that came up, but basically that body of text is the voice I heard.
Back then, when I had that original idea to write about the seventeenth century, the whole thing was set in 1666. I was thinking of Margaret near the end of her life, and that was the voice I heard for her. But when I realized it was actually going to be this portrait of the artist, birth to death, I had to then discover who Margaret as a young woman would be. I had to find the different voices for her throughout her life. I had a lot of fun discovering that. I had a lot of fun writing the childhood sections. By imagining her childhood, I was able to come up with this voice that matures as she gets older.
The reason the middle section switches to third person is, well, this is middle age. This is the part in her life where she loses track of something that was driving her and has to figure out what’s going to drive the next part of her mission, this mission to be an author. I had to push back away from her for a while before we could come up to that really lyrical close third in the final section.
So it was a process of working backwards. I asked myself, If this is who she is post-middle age, who is she as a young woman and how does she get to that really lyrical place?
3:AM: I do want to talk about research. Were there things—both about Margaret and the world surrounding her—that you had to pass on including in the novel because it wasn’t necessary to the larger narrative? How did you decide on what stays and what goes?
DD: The way I’ve talked about my research process is that it was like magpies. I was just sort of moving through all these books and when something shiny would pop out I’d be like, Ooh, I love it! and I’d pluck it out. It’s fun to figure out how to use those bits you really love—like I’d read about gold shoes with cork heels. Obviously, Margaret would have to wear those shoes.
So I had all these sparkles I’d collected and wanted to work in, but when I originally started writing it and it was originally this novel about all these people set in 1666, what I was so interested in was the New Science. I was obsessed with the scientific instruments people were building and all the weird experiments they were doing. I did actually wind up working in some of that, but there were whole sections I’d written about these instruments that ultimately had to be abandoned when I realized that the book really was about Margaret Cavendish. I couldn’t justify using all of them. I was sad to see some of them go. Like a magic lantern that would project images on walls and people would travel the countryside with these magic lanterns and tell stories. And there was this cabinet that you would walk up to and it had a little peephole and inside the whole thing was covered in thousands of little mirrors. There was a stage inside it and a crank on the outside that would rotate something, like a tiny tree carved of cork, onto the stage, and then the thousands of little mirrors would multiply that one tree so that the viewer would see an infinite forest instead.
3:AM: I want to see that!
DD: I know, I know. So, those fell by the wayside, and then there were lots of things about Margaret’s life that I had to leave out because it wasn’t a novel about her stepchildren, for example. I was trying to focus on Margaret’s trajectory as an artist, as a woman and an artist. Hopefully Cavendish experts won’t be angry at me for anything I’ve left out. I feel like all the major movements of her life are there.
3:AM: Catapult calls your novel “a contemporary novel set in the past,” rather than “historical fiction.” What do you think that distinction is?
DD: I’m not entirely sure what a historical novel absolutely has to be, but you don’t want a reader who loves a very traditional historical novel to go in with the expectation that this is going to deliver the same kind of reading experience. I think what’s contemporary about my book has something to do with how condensed things are.
I loved reading historical novels when I was young, but I definitely don’t think I wrote one. When I read my book through, when it was completely done and in printed galleys, I was surprised by how uninterested in the passage of time and history the book seemed to be. Even though you can feel it all there, that’s just not what it’s focused on.
3:AM: That’s intriguing that you were surprised by your own book.
DD: Till the end! Till the very end!
3:AM: Why do you think that is?
DD: It’s all just so fraught when you’re writing and then going through the editorial process. It feels like this shape-shifting thing. When it’s done, and you can’t change a single word, it’s a totally different thing. I was surprised by what that thing was.
3:AM: Interesting. Let’s return to talking about Margaret. Margaret is someone who doesn’t just want success: she also wants fame. As a result, she’s often viewed as arrogant. I wanted to know how important it was for you to display traits that are commonly thought of as negative when writing Margaret’s character.
DD: It was important for me to not romanticize her and make her some simple heroine. She was a complicated person. I just wanted her to be complicated in the book and have strengths and weaknesses, like any complicated person would. I think, like many women probably feel these days (and this was how Margaret seemed to me) she felt like she had to be totally ferocious if she was going to get anyone to pay any attention to her or take her seriously at all. She had no choice. She had to be awkward or shrill or arrogant at times in order to get people to even read her books. That’s another way the book feels quite contemporary, just how relatable certain aspects of her struggle might feel. I think there are probably a lot of women writers—or just writers—who would identify with that feeling. I myself identify with how shy she is, but I didn’t in every sense identify with how bold she is. I really liked that about her, and it was fun to live that out. She’s so insistent that people should take her seriously. That was refreshing to me.
3:AM: Margaret doesn’t just write. Of course you can’t really know, but why do you think she also does things like show up to the theatre topless or place stars on face? Why the element of performance?
DD: The way I answered it for myself was to think a lot about who she was as a child. I was an extremely shy, quiet, but weirdly performative child. It just…this jived with the sort of…the descriptions I found of her in the biographies. There’s less information about her childhood than the other parts of her life, which is what made it so fun for me to write, because I didn’t feel as if I was intruding quite as much into the biography. She grew up so sheltered from the world, and within her family space she was quite precocious and performative, but then immediately upon going out into the world, she withdrew into herself, but meanwhile that other part of her was never gone. That’s how I read her. Always in her was this imaginative, performative, strange, eccentric self, but she was shy and awkward around other people.
3:AM: Margaret and William’s marriage is one of the most compelling marriages I’ve read about in recent memory, and not at all the kind of marriage I’d expect to read about in a novel that takes place in the 17th century. I love William. He’s so supportive of her, and gives her so much creative freedom. I wanted to know how you think the marriage of William and Margaret allowed her to be who she was.
DD: It’s everything. If it hadn’t been for William, I just don’t think we would have Margaret Cavendish’s work to read and study. If she’d married an aristocrat who didn’t want her to publish, she might’ve just been a woman with all of these frustrated ambitions who was unable to express them. It was a totally remarkable marriage then and it’s still a remarkable marriage now. He’s utterly supportive of her. They have their moments in the book. They have some clashes. Again, I didn’t want to romanticize their marriage. There are times when they’re very close and there are times where they feel far apart. But I think they had a loving marriage. That surprised me. I mean, I didn’t expect my book to be so much about marriage—about that marriage. But it definitely became important.
3:AM: I read in another interview where you mention that the book is about aging. Can you expand on that?
DD: Because it took so long to write, I aged while it was happening quite a bit. I started it in my late twenties and I finished it when I was 39. As I was approaching 40, there were things I could understand differently about aging and the desire to accomplish something by a certain age that I couldn’t have understood when I was 29. I just wouldn’t have had those same thoughts. It made me realize that the book was also about Margaret aging. It seems so simple. Over the course of a life, of course she would age. But I think I had to age myself to be able to write about it. There are moments when she feels the pressure of being an aging woman physically, but also a pressure to get something done before she dies. Part of her desire for fame seems related to a fear of death. She wrote a lot about oblivion and her fear of oblivion. I had to feel that ramping up before she approached the end of her life. And, of course, she died young, but she actually did manage to write The Blazing World a few years before her death. That was the book that really sucked me into her work.
3:AM: Margaret the First is Catapult’s third book and their first-ever Spring book. What’s it been like to work with such a new press?
DD: It was amazing. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about every single person there. They’re brand new, but it feels like there’s tons of energy and knowledge there. I’ve been totally impressed. The editorial, the design, the marketing, everything.
3:AM: Your editor, Pat Strachan, is something of a publishing legend. What was it like working with her?
DD: It was great. I was in this funny place where I was like, EDIT ME! I remember this excellent episode of The Simpsons where Lisa has to stay home sick from school and at the end of the day she’s like, GRADE ME! I was like that. Pat was a very smart editor with a light touch, but I think her light touch really helped me finish the book. - Michelle Lyn King

Sixteen, I reflected, biting into a stolen pie. By this time in her life, my sister Mary had been pregnant. Ovid had dedicated his life to poetry. Queen Elizabeth had seen a suitor beheaded. Romeo and Juliet were dead. Whereas I, Margaret Lucas, was nothing if not in health, no single true adventure to my name.” – Margaret Lucas, 1639.
However bored Margaret may be at the age of sixteen, her life, like the lives of everyone else in England, is about to change: war is on its way, with Parliament working to annul the powers of the king, who responds by taking up arms against his people. Oliver Cromwell, an intense Puritan, is about to lead the “Roundheads,” or Parliamentarians, into fierce battle against the crown, and everything Margaret has ever known is about to be challenged. A member of the high aristocracy who has known nothing but elegance in home, dress, and manners, she will soon become an attendant of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, whom she will follow into exile when the Queen and her court leave for France and the court of Louis XIV. It is in Europe where her life begins to take shape and where she will be exposed to new ideas in science, philosophy, and writing. In this period in which the role of women like Margaret has been carefully circumscribed, she will create and live through many adventures of her own making, challenging the social fabric of her class and her country.
In this remarkable and insightful novel, author Danielle Dutton recreates the life of Margaret Lucas (1623 – 1673) from her teen years until her death years later. From her exile in France with the Queen of England to her marriage to William Cavendish, an older widower who patiently accepts her unusual views of life and, eventually, her growing need for independence, Margaret shines here as a modern woman, one with whom the reader identifies because she feels so familiar, so modern. Despite the fact that as the Duchess of Newcastle she and her husband associate with kings, queens, philosophers, artists, and writers, Margaret is shy and vulnerable enough to make a modern reader hope for her success, despite some of her disastrous missteps and chronic inability to put herself into the shoes of others and to see herself as others see her. The history of the period, which the narrative wears lightly, focuses clearly on Margaret and her personal goals, and as the chronology slides smoothly from the civil war to the Restoration and eventually to Margaret’s career as a writer, the reader recognizes that it would actually be possible for a woman like Margaret to become an iconoclastic feminist recognized for her talent in the world in which she lived almost four hundred years ago.

Welbeck Abbey, William Cavendish's primary home before the Civil War.
Welbeck Abbey, William Cavendish’s primary home before the Civil War.
William Cavendish, whom Margaret marries in Paris in 1645, makes no pretenses about his political and financial difficulties when they are married. The owner of the partially restored Bolsover Castle, built in the 12th century in Devonshire, and of a country estate built on the site of Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Cavendish has seen his property in England, like that of other aristocrats, seized by the Puritan government. In debt, he still finds elegant living accommodations in Paris and elsewhere among friends with large European estates. A dramatist in his spare time, Cavendish is described as a “world-class host,” a patron of Ben Jonson and John Dryden, and a friend of writers like Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys, and dramatist Richard Flecknoe. Their lives involve balls and galas for kings, queens, and other European royalty, many of them held at their own rented quarters, and thanks to their elaborate lifestyle, the reader gets no sense that Cavendish is truly penniless until well into the novel.
"It was the century of magnificent beds. Beds like ships from China, or beaded urses, a cloud of scented silk. Now an elaborately embroidered brocade curtain exposed my arm...." - Margaret on her wedding night.
It was the century of magnificent beds. Beds like ships from China, or beaded purses, a cloud of scented silk. Now an elaborately embroidered brocade curtain exposed my arm….” – Margaret on her wedding night.
Before long, Margaret becomes frustrated, however. Childless, she has few outlets for her energy, and since she is inherently shy, she does not mix well socially and is largely ignored. The one area in which she has limitless energy lies in her writing. Untutored, and, she admits, not an expert in spelling and grammar, she nevertheless spends hours writing, then locking away her creations. “Why must grammar be like a prison for the mind?” she wonders. “Might not language be as a closet full of gowns?” Occasionally, when they have learned guests, she forgets her “place” and interrupts the intellectual conversation among the men visiting, after which she feels compelled to disappear, embarrassed, into her own world. Eventually, as the political winds change, Margaret is able to return to London, though William cannot, at this time, and his brother begins buying back William’s inherited estates so that they can bring in some revenue while William remains in debt in France.
Portrait of William Cavendish and Margaret, later in life, by Gonzales Coques
Portrait of William Cavendish and Margaret, in their maturity, by Gonzales Coques
Alone in England, Margaret decides to publish some of her writing without asking anyone for advice. Though one person indicates, regarding the author, that “there are many soberer people in Bedlam,” William turns out to be proud of her, and the book becomes required reading in London’s fashionable parlors where the ladies like to snigger at it. Eventually, after receiving encouragement from someone she admires, she opens her chest of other writing, revisits it, and then publishes again. When William finally returns home to England after the Restoration, he finds his two estates ruined and in need of major repairs, and he and Margaret return to Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire and begin work on the estate and the rest of their lives. She continues her writing, and with The Blazing World, considered the first science fiction novel, she becomes bold, even planning to send a copy to the king. Her confidence veers toward arrogance sometimes, and at one point William hears her telling their guests that “if the schools do not retire Aristotle and read Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, they do her wrong and deserve to be abolished.”
The saga of Margaret, her insecurities, her boldness, and her furious passion to write, regardless of the writing’s reception within her own society, reveal a modern approach to a writer’s goals and sense of commitment, the willingness to do what is necessary at all costs. The novel feels real and contemporary, though Margaret was real almost four hundred years ago. Dutton’s own writing here is like magic, erasing time and societal expectations in favor of the pure act of creation. And as Margaret becomes the first woman ever to be invited make a presentation before the Royal Academy of London, a feat not duplicated for two hundred more years, readers will celebrate her stamina in the face of her wide reputation in London as “Mad Madge.” - marywhipplereviews.com/danielle-dutton-margaret-the-first-england-france-17th-century/


Publisher, author, pioneer: Danielle Dutton's very Virginia Woolf life

The Rumpus Interview with Danielle Dutton
Danielle Dutton by Kate Zambreno

Danielle Dutton, S P R A W L, Siglio Press, 2010.

"Absurdly comic and decidedly digressive, S P R A W L chronicles the mercurial inner life of one suburban woman. With vertiginous energy and a deadpan eye, the narrator records the seeming uniformity of her world—the dissolving marriage, crumbs on the countertop, the drunken neighbor careening into the pool, a dead dog on the side of the road—constructing surprising taxonomies that rearrange the banalities, small wonders, and accouterments of suburban life. As the abundance and debris accumulate, the sameness of suburbia gives way to enthralling strangeness. We suddenly feel the force of orbit when only moments before the world felt infinitely flat.

Inspired by a series of domestic still lifes by photographer Laura Letinsky, Dutton creates her own trenchant series of tableaux, attentive to the surfaces of the suburbs and the ways in which life there is willfully, almost desperately, on display. In locating the language of sprawl itself—engrossing, unremitting, ever expansive—Dutton has written an astonishing work of fiction that takes us deep into the familiar and to its very edge: nothing is ever the same under such close inspection."

"Dutton's mini-masterpiece—a womanly treatise on suburban decay and fatigued love—is a triumph! Each sentence should be celebrated for its hilarity, rigor, eccentricity, and passion. S P R A W L is the work of a brilliant mind." - Deb Olin Unferth

"Just when it appeared that suburbia was going to be strangled in its own entrails, a victim of peak oil, collapsing infrastructure, and credit card debt, here comes Danielle Dutton to show us how magical that sprawl is after all. The magic is in the oddities of the particular, the cat that "doesn't matter so much as the feelings its tiny feet feel." Dutton's S P R A W L is a different kind of sprawling: it reaches forth, takes up, and redeems. Here, the same old is something else again. As she writes, "Prepare to Merge!" - Curtis White

"Dutton's groundbreaking S P R A W L . . . jams Lisa Robertson's intelligence and music into a Jane Austen-ish scrutiny of the manner of being in those new landscapes we continue to call "suburbs." - Matthew Stadler"Danielle Dutton’s S P R A W L reads as if Gertrude Stein channeled Alice B. Toklas writing an Arcades Project set in contemporary suburbia. Dutton’s unnamed housewife roams sidewalks and manicured lawns like one of Benjamin’s flaneurs, reminiscent of the contemporary urban walkers of Renee Gladman’s stories or Gail Scott’s My Paris. But this novel is like other works, and it is not—it is both unabashedly voracious in terms of literary sources and an extraordinarily original text.
While in her first book, the remarkable collection Attempts at a Life, Dutton lifted language from other literary works as collage, in S P R A W L other texts pop up as allusion or inspiration, in the names of books or characters. Sources include Gertrude Stein novels; Lyn Hejinian in “Two Stein Talks”; an article on “Tupperware: Suburbia, sociality and mass consumption”; Laura Riding in Anarchism Is Not Enough; Roland Barthes in “The World as Object”; and A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating. As in Attempts at a Life, Dutton pays homage to female literary characters, particularly wives, from Woolf’s Clarissa D. to Emma and Alice B." - Kate Zambreno

"Dutton’s archly comic first novel (after story collection Attempts at a Life) forms, literally, a block of prose: the book itself is nearly square in shape, and the story consists of a single long paragraph. The unnamed narrator lives in a sprawling suburb with her husband, Haywood. In lieu of a conventional plot, there’s a series of observations and reveries, prompted by such events as the narrator and Haywood seeing a movie in which the blonde heroine says "magnificent" as her "eyes shine with tears." Elsewhere, the narrator shares the minute rituals of a pet cat, has a 19th-century daydream inspired by a sunny morning, and dissects her appearance in a mirror and the dinner on a table. As the narrative proceeds, some change is seen, largely in Haywood’s disillusion with marriage and with his wife’s increasingly brittle musings. This experimental novel is best read in a single sitting and, like the photographs that inspired it, can be viewed in any number of ways, with a different effect each time." - Publishers Weekly

"In her essay “Photography: A Little Summa” Susan Sontag wrote, “To be modern is to live, entranced, by the savage autonomy of the detail.” She’s talking specifically about seeing, about how photographs, being themselves details, “seem like life.” Every percussive sentence of Danielle Dutton’s witty debut, Sprawl, a novel riffing, among other things, on “domestic still life” photographs by Laura Letinsky, is an autonomous detail. These details, these sentences, do not so much accumulate or build as, well, sprawl, while story eddies underneath, a current under a surface littered with bobbing disposables, pictures of a life’s objects, be they material or psychic. If, like the commodities she describes, such details seem at once to describe and cancel history, they also advance an interiority whose innerseam is inseparable from landscape-as-market, which is to say, the American mind as a sensual, internal elaboration of objects.
The accretion of these kinds of sentences, each one a “line of flight” to use an outmoded phrase, rather than a cause leading inexorably to an effect, alters our experience of time. Dutton eschews forward motion for concentric ripples.
The narrator, an astute and highly intelligent joker, caustically if resignedly skeptical—“I do it and say, ‘I doubt it.’” — is complicit in the bloated and charming excesses she is also ironic about. The event, the “plot” as such, is mostly about the mental consequences of living in a politically and mentally immature culture. Where conformism, consumption, privilege, aesthetics, and assimilation are the modus operandi, the political disappears and time seems to flatten out, reduced to a decoratively paved digestive system. In the satirical tradition, the first-person narrator of Sprawl is fully of the folly she articulates, more or less consciously.
The primary rhetorical devices here are irony and compression, for example, of metonymy and complicity: “Babies stand in the water in plastic diapers.” It’s not just that plastic diapers near water stands for oceanic pollution. It’s that oceanic pollution stands for human extinction and thus so do babies: birth is death?
As J. M. Coetzee wrote of Kafka’s “The Burrow,” in Sprawl, time stops, “one moment does not flow into the next — on the contrary, each moment has the threat or promise of being… a timeless forever, unconnected to, ungenerated by, the past.” Burrowing is the opposite of sprawling, though both indicate at once threats of incursion and strategies of expansion. While both verbs are also nouns, Dutton’s sprawl is unspecified, lacks the article, and is, thus, everywhere at once, viral, ever encroaching upon habitats, an over-exposed car-and-lawn-centric placeless-place, the inevitable result of the logic of eternal “growth” and its twin, over-consumption." - Miranda Mellis

"The metaphor of sprawl serves Dutton well. In this brief, winding novel, Dutton peers into the open spaces of a flatlined suburban life. The narrator of the story, a woman clearly at odds with her surroundings, begins: “This place is as large as any other town,” not bothering to distinguish it further than that. She and her husband don’t quite fit into the idealized roles they’ve set for themselves: “He is angry because he was raised to be a substantial Protestant, with stories of utility to tell the women, and relevance.” Mostly, Haywood just passes offstage: a closing door or a floor creak in the distance.
In the long line of novels about the vapidity of suburbia, Dutton’s has a narrator who may be one of the most likable. Aloof and hilarious, she dissects their lives with the casualness of a cynical scientist: “A lot of these dilemmas aren’t ever solved. They’re like rotting fruit concealed beneath their own sweet smell... This is further emphasized by Haywood’s new beard, which is representative of a lost tradition of safety and justice.” Insights like these are interspersed with notes on the detritus of her life and a fascination with her cat. The reader, then, is invited to peer into the open spaces between the narrator’s sentences. Is there pain there? It mostly reads as resignation. Perhaps novelist Deb Olin Unferth, who blurbed the book, put it better than we ever could, calling it “a womanly treatise on suburban decay and fatigued love.” Fatigued. It’s not that nothing is progressing, it’s that it’s taking a lot of forced effort to get anywhere." - Jonathan Messinger

"At the heart of Danielle Dutton's Sprawl is a lavish, endless list of domestic objects: water pitchers, sweaters, cakes on cake stands, petunias in a terra-cotta pot. Borrowing techniques from both fiction, poetry, and visual art (particularly photography), the book not only infuses each object, be it a juice glass or a paper napkin, with a Vermeeresque glow but arranges it into part of a verbal still life. The result? A fresh take on suburbia, one of reverence and skepticism.
In terms of plot, the book follows the crumbling marriage of the nameless narrator. At night, her husband "makes creaking noises in some other part of the house" while she "resists the anti-rhetorical impulse to hurl paranoid, prefabricated abuse his way." The couple still go to dinner with other couples, still have sex after watching television, but for the narrator, a wry sense of loss has taken over her life. Reflecting on her furniture, she notes, with a hint of unbalance, "Several of my tabletops are tilted for better locating the center of my domestic charisma." Overall, the marriage plot becomes merely a hum under a symphony of observations and formal experiments.
Dutton, you'll quickly notice, does not use paragraph breaks. Though this may at first seem overwhelming, the book is highly, highly structured. The author uses three organized, recurring strands of thought: the domestic still lifes ("Meanwhile, a copper pot on its side sends a gleaming reddish glow onto a honeydew melon"), imaginary letters to neighbors ("Dear Mrs. Leslie, Take heed. Certain people have become married, certain streets have become diversified, certain birds continue to peck"), and exchanges of cropped dialogue ("Haywood says 'Fill in the blank." He says 'Refreshing' and 'Obvious' and 'Bacon'"). The narrator weaves these three strands together, in and out, adding a dash of action (finding a dead squirrel in the gutter or confronting her husband's affair), which moves the story forward even as it stays still—a technique that nicely encapsulates the motion/nonmotion of the narrator's life.
Only the cropped dialogue fails to captivate. Dawn Raffel uses this kind of dialogue to hushed, grim effect in similar yet bleaker domestic settings (see: In the Year of Long Division). In Dutton's case, however, it feels frustratingly cryptic and out of place, in light of the book's overall transparency. The beauty of Sprawl resides in its fierce, careful composition, which changes the ordinary into the wonderful and odd.
Sprawl in fact does not sprawl at all; rather, it radiates with control and fresh, strange reflection. "One hardly sees oneself," the narrator says. "For example, one never sees one's own eyes." The humor and pathos, the intelligent and unexpected point of view, are why we keep reading along with Dutton, even as her narrator "makes all sorts of ordinary choices" and "campaigns hard with cheese-pimento sandwiches." - Leigh Newman

"It was Maupassant, I think, who wrote something to the effect that the greatest challenge facing the artist is to see familiar things with new eyes. With S P R A W L, Danielle Dutton has accomplished the minor miracle of seeing the suburbs in a fresh way - and in the process reinvigorates an exhausted genre. Her attention to the overlooked and insignificant opens before us, suburbanites and city-dwellers alike, a vision of a corner of the world that proves the marvelous is always at hand, if only we’re willing to see it. A beautiful book." - Green Apple Books in San Francisco

"While walking those safe and sterile streets at night and crossing my neighbors' perfect lawns, I felt—or maybe assumed—that their whole world was empty and that nothing was going on even in the minds of the people inside their homes. While living there I was always comforted by the idea that the lives of neighbors were as empty as they seemed. But Dutton has filled all of the supposed emptiness of suburbia with a flood of thought and feeling. Her protagonist's powerful stream of consciousness peeks inward and outward, bringing her marriage, her world, and herself in powerfully shifting focus, as if she was passing everything around her under a microscope for the span of a second. This is a truly disturbing book... and it makes me damn nervous." - 57th Street Books / Chicago

"S P R A W L is a novel form of writing that comprises a single layer of sentences arranged in a flat suburban lattice. Even though Sprawl is uniformly one sentence thick, the sentences cohere with exponential strength and are super conductive of awareness of emotions, bodies and things. The narrator behind the work is an advanced sexual being, capable of receiving great heat and dispersing it... [She] is the apotheosis of a suburban goddess, childless, very interested in what she likes and what you or someone else likes: she is the biotech blend of Circe and Athena and the formidable American woman. She employs literary terrorism to achieve genitive consequences. Can a goddess masturbate in a garden and make the flowers grow? She can. Reading S P R A W L, I want to fall in love with a flesh and blood American woman poet and be newborn." - Spoonbill & Sugartown / Brooklyn
Danielle Dutton, Attempts at a Life, Tarpaulin Sky, 2007.

"Operating somewhere between fiction and poetry, biography and theory, the pieces in Attempts at a Life, though nominally stories, might indeed be thought of as “attempts.” They do what lively stories do best, creating worlds of possibility, worlds filled with surprises, but rather than bring these worlds to some sort of neat conclusion, they constantly push out towards something new. In “S&M,” a marriage suffers from “the words you were always missing: sky, loft, music, dogs, pipes, puppets, war.” In “Mary Carmichael,” a woman with a pair of scissors and the need to “cut out her insatiable desire” slices “a veiled hat from a fern in a pot” and “a river out of a postbox.” Like the “experiments in found movement” one character conducts (in “Everybody’s Autobiography”), Dutton’s stories find movement wherever they turn, in every phrase and cadence, each sentence a small explosion of images and anthems and odd juxtapositions. This is writing in which the imagination (both writer’s and reader’s) is capable of producing almost anything at any moment, from a shiny penny to an alien metropolis, a burning village to a bright green bird."


"Danielle Dutton’s stories remind me of those alluring puzzles where the pool is overflowing and emptying at the same time. Dutton’s answer? That the self is a rush of the languages of storytelling and moments of helpless intimacy, and she recalculates the lives of her numerous heroines to assert the busy and the broken." — Robert Glück

"Danielle Dutton writes with a deft explosiveness that craters the page with stunning, unsettling precision. Here “car lights like licorice whips slick the road outside the window,” there “the puffed-thumb Emma person” sways and falls, and everywhere “the firelight is orange against the midnight of the ocean.” Her marvelous, generous Attempts at a Life proves that, like Gertrude Stein, she knows how to be “at once talking and listening.” — Laird Hunt

"A dizzying turn of sentences... a palpable intensity... playful, yet precise.... marks Dutton as the descendent of the modernist portraits by--and of--both Stein and Pablo Picasso, as handed down through Language poetry, prose poetry and experimental fiction lineages." - Rain Taxi"She recontextualizes the gothic setting. The ruined estate becomes language itself... It’s serious, but as many dramatists celebrate: comedy orbits a dark sun. Which is to say, this is also a very funny book." - American Book Review

"A compelling, enigmatic read. Ideal for readers of the fiction and the literary essay alike, Danielle Dutton's new book is a significant contribution to contemporary experimental writing." - Dogmatika

"With a dizzying turn of sentences, Danielle Dutton uses Gertrude Stein’s technique of “insistence” (also known as repetition) to create a palpable intensity, and the playful, yet precise simplicity of the word choice in her debut collection, Attempts at a Life, marks Dutton as the descendent of the modernist portraits by—and of—both Stein and Pablo Picasso, as handed down through Language poetry, prose poetry and experimental fiction lineages.
Dutton’s piece, The Portrait of a Lady, begins with the following paragraph: “I was a tomboy and fought on open fields. The days passed unmarked and I called them: Mrs. Days. ‘She is a different child!’ I heard the women say even as they were forgetting me. And while my sisters practiced their stitches in the parlor from the light of a beaded lamp, I stood on the battlefield with what I thought was a gun in my hand, but it turned out to be a bright green bird. Thankfully, an opportunity arose to chart well-charted republics. I sailed east in front of viewers. With body erect I sniffed the air, tilted generously with numerous impressions. Someone said: ‘If there is a wound then bacteria or peroxide will take care of it one way or another.’ I heard someone say: ‘Bring your body closer. Bring up your five parts.’ But I was the dancing girl for my own army after all, and a vixen.”
By contrasting the “Lady” of the title with the first-person revelation that the portrait’s subject was a “tomboy,” Dutton echoes Stein’s wonderfully gossipy sense of humor. Because we encounter this work as fiction (as it is labeled) we must ask ourselves whether we are dealing with an unreliable narrator or merely charming candor. However, Dutton’s choice of the preposition “on” rather than the expected “in” shows an author willing to manipulate word choice with a poet’s sensibility in order to create her desired effect. In this case, the preposition “on” creates a physical surface that simultaneously illustrates the condensed passage of time that we are about to experience, as well as the girl’s inability to assimilate properly, as a “lady” would, to her surroundings. The rest of the paragraph reaffirms that we are dealing with a narrator who is—if anything—reliable to a fault. Her outsider status, that of a “different child” and a “tomboy” in a household populated by sisters who “practiced their stitches in the parlor from the light of a beaded lamp,” hint to us that this narrator uses the label “lady” as both an ironic term and a title she has appropriated for herself. She is a self-described “dancing girl” and “vixen” who has traveled the world in order to “chart well-charted republics” and she has returned to bring this knowledge to her well-heeled but dull kin: A lady is a lady who says she is a lady. Additionally, Dutton’s subtle repetition of “chart” and “charted” and “bring” and “bring” in this short passage, utilize Stein’s “insistence” technique to reinforce the narrator’s progression through years and landscapes.
In section after section in Attempts at a Life, Danielle Dutton executes expert, miniscule language slips that make us slide down the surface of her narratives like raindrops streaking the windows of the last un-gentrified house in an old Victorian neighborhood. While Attempts at a Life may not present us with a fully formed artist in the mold of Stein and Picasso, it most certainly introduces an important new literary voice." - Peter Conners

"Danielle Dutton’s Attempts at a Life is an extended meditation on the pleasures of reading—primarily that vicarious experience of trying on the lives of the characters that one encounters in fiction. The book begins with the poem “Jane Eyre,” a stripped down version of the familiar novel, in which the basic outlines of the plot and character are presented with quick and careful sketching:
It started out I was hungry and smaller than most. Not pretty, but passable. Rest easy, for this is not another story about a girl and her father; I never even knew mine.The poem continues with the same remarkable ease that it begins with. The poem is ultimately less about the experience of reading Jane Eyre than the experience of re-reading Jane Eyre—the poem moves forward with an intimacy that can border on fatigue (familiarity breeds what, dear reader?)—but the final effect is something that’s hard to describe. It’s not quite elegiac, although it does have that slight obituary quality of covering the full life in a tiny space. It’s also not quite exhaustive, although it does dip into all of the crucial contours of the novel. It’s most like love—the way that something familiar and known can continue to excite past the point of discovery. That the fact of the beloved remains a source of wonder even after it has ceased to be a source of surprise.
Her poems often approach familiar texts by condensing the personality of the characters. One of the strangest things about trying to talk about Dutton’s work is that everything I want to say sounds like an insult, but I don’t mean it that way. For instance, her poems often feel like what remains you with you long after you’ve read the book—the personality and the plot boiled down to its most basic outlines—but it’s actually a rather serious accomplishment. Her aims here are quite modest, but represent a kind of embodiment that I think is quite difficult to accomplish, where she manages to strip down certain texts to a kind of embodied personality or core. Why can’t I praise someone for thoroughly making a modest achievement? Why doesn’t that sound like real praise?
As the book moves forward, it becomes clear that Dutton is not only exploring the vicarious pleasures of reading—she is also discovering the limitations of those pleasures. The selves of the poems begin to shatter as the book moves on, and how could they not when the second poem is composed of collaged lines from Celine? There’s the knowledge here that trying on other people’s lives is dangerous and shattering stuff. Once the boundaries of the real and the fictional start being crossed, there’s a way that the self is in danger, and Dutton manages to work these transformations and breaking with great ease. The poem “Landscapes” ends:
“Oh, dear me! I’m sorry to hear that,” said the literary gentleman in a shocked tone.It’s a playful rebuke to the reader at the same moment that it invokes the clichés of hastily written novels. The collection touches on a number of authors—Alice James, Louis Zukofsky, Sappho, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and others. But each of them are incorporated by Dutton’s voice. She’s able to work with their material while keeping her own authorial voice vibrant and clear.
Having been seduced by the familiar, I found myself able to enjoy Dutton’s more disorienting and disjointed work. The tone of the final poem “Sprung” is clear, even if the subject matter is not:
Once upon a hard-pressed twiggy stuff, under spectacles of small trees, a gorgeous modern promiscuity made a pretty rare bird. “With respect to your work,” said the congregation of men at a useless festival under a hard-to-think sky, “Hey, death shaves me sideways under an anarchy root. Just pull a thread so the world can worship the dictatorship of the Warblers.”The poem continues in this manner, using “material,” the notes inform us, “from William Carlos Williams’s ‘Spring and All.’” It’s a fitting tribute to Williams’s explosive and fascinating volume, much of which is concerned with finding the boundary between poetry and prose. I think that Williams would approve of these as poems—particularly for their refusal of pure exposition in favor of what he might call “imagination.”
The back cover of the book unequivocally demands that it be shelved with Fiction (that charming “keyword” in the upper left hand corner), although the copy from the press begins by telling us that these pieces are, “Operating somewhere between fiction and poetry, biography and theory…” Even without Williams, I would want to claim these pieces firmly as prose poems—in large part because of the way that poetry has become the big tent where everything that doesn’t fit somewhere else is welcome. To the extent that these poems live in the realm of what we now call “theory”—it’s a remarkably friendly version of the term. Most of us who spend time doing/reading “literary theory” know it is a somewhat prickly terrain, full of untranslatable French (“jouissance” anyone?), arcanely nuanced distinction (Foucault is not an existentialist because he believes that power precedes the subject), and gleefully pronounced paradox. Dutton is certainly at home in a theoretical universe—one could discuss many of these poems—and quite profitably, I think—in terms of contemporary literary theory. However, Dutton’s work is incredibly inviting—she’s able to inhabit the insights of theory and then perform them without having to get bogged down in the sort of jargon or explanation that might deter the general reader (whoever you are). Dutton’s work is “accessible” in the best way possible. She’s working at a remarkably high level of insight while still inviting you to enjoy yourself.
Confession: I’m almost seven months behind on this review. Why? Because I find these poems as hard to talk about as I find them pleasant to read. Who said that poetry is always pressing forward the boundaries of what can be thought and said? I think she’d be glad to see that it’s still true." - Jason Schneiderman"There are heroines in Danielle Dutton’s work, some of the novel’s biggest—Hester Prynne, Emma Bovary, and Jane Eyre among them—and Dutton’s retelling of their stories, though only a portion of the book, gives Attemps at a Life its center. These are characters known for their confinement by societal forces at least partially, and inseparably, due to their gender. Hester Prynne has her letter, Bovary her desires, and Eyre her orphaning. And so out of their stories Dutton crafts their alternative dialogue, thrusting them from prim realism and into a poetic consciousness, as if they’ve been given the benefit of having read their own novels. Prynne: “Who is afraid of me? Even light runs from me. I run after.” Emma Bovary, whose doesn’t get a monologue exactly but a neat summary of her story that Dutton cherry picks until it has a consciousness: “In the highway. In the garden. To poke stuck waste, wept nights, was pregnant.”
And then there is Jane Eyre’s, which begins the book, starting everything off on a note of powerless misfortune and savvy awareness: “It started out I was smaller than most. Not pretty, but passable. Rest easy, for this is not another story about a girl and her father; I never even knew mine.” Eyre’s story, condensed like astronaut ice cream to four pages, takes the familiar path here—Rochester is blinded and in the end they wed—but the narrator’s immediacy is intense and the prose is cutting:
It is love and it is (as he explained it) as though a string were tied from his lowest left rib to mine and would, upon separation of too many miles or months, bring forth wrenching internal bleeding, or death.
The image is found in the original, but much in the way a flag appears in a Jasper Johns painting or a hit from the 60s finds its way into a hip hop song, Dutton makes it her own not through mimicry but through omission. By straining out the Victorian niceties and putting the words, retold, into Eyre’s mouth makes the visceral body immediate, and love seems to have put the characters, if not their ribs, at risk for a pain different than that for which they are destined. When the separation comes sentences rather than chapters later, the effect is complete and devastating.
Dutton also takes up the pen of authors like Alice James and Virginia Woolf who, surprisingly naturally, fall into a similar intellectual space as the fictional characters. Like the characters, Woolf and James felt the restrictions of their sex in unjust societies (and homes), but here Dutton gives them unbound reign over the page. “Virginia Woolf’s Appendix” is a passage of images which, of course, offers no explanation. “Alice James” is the story of the diarist as a young girl who ends with a knowing joke that “patience…gets me novelists for brothers.” It’s a witty portrait, but the implication is that Alice herself is denied that outcome, and, like Woolf, her growing madness is eventually what confines her.
Dutton’s attraction to these characters and writers seems to be how stunted they are by the world around them, and Dutton crafts them—and her own characters—with tangible, earthy descriptions, firmly bounding the voices to a physical world. When not borrowing classic characters or authors, Dutton builds small stories out of lives similarly subject to the will external forces, and it is this struggle that Attempts at a Life seems to take its title. The titular stories, nine different lives spanning history, take on the ambiguities of the work around them, and one is immediately struck with a mystery of names. To read the pieces here is to take refuge in Dutton’s hard, ecological nouns at the expense of identity. Dutton’s characters, and they are vivid characters, all approach the world as if it were immovable in its construction and the ways it will hurt them. The narrator of “S&M” writes, “What is it to walk away? Love treats my tongue like an oak leaf” but doesn’t walk away. She, like Madame Bovary, like Alice James, is bound by others. Even Jane Eyre, precariously tied at the rib, becomes less the recipient of a happy ending than a life dangled out to the world, incomplete." - Adam Peterson


Danielle Dutton interviewed by Angela Stubbs
Danielle Dutton interviewed by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Danielle Dutton: From A World Called The Blazing World
Danielle Dutton interviewed by Anne K. Yoder

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