Intangible Consciousness: A Q&A with Danielle Dutton

Article by liz

History usually remembers women who break the norm as either heroes ahead of their time or villainous instigators disrupting the status quo. (And usually, the same woman will be described as both, depending on who's doing the talking.) But there's one thing that a rule-breaking woman will always be to the people of her time, no matter who's doing the talking: a spectacle. Breaches in standard femininity draw scrutiny from all corners, whether in support or in outrage. In a year where women's rights, gender equality, and the suitability of women for certain roles in our society have leapt to the forefront of national discourse, I find this truer than ever.

Into this volatile, charged discussion comes Danielle Dutton's MARGARET THE FIRST, screaming like a comet blazing in for a collision. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, lived abroad during the English Civil Wars as a maid to the exiled English queen, and then as the wife of marquess William Cavendish, hosting famed philosophers and scientists in their home in the Netherlands. On their return to the England with the Restoration, Margaret became a scandal and a sensation with the publication of her memoirs, poems, philosophical essays, and her extravagant, outlandish personality and dress—which earned her the popular nickname "Mad Madge." Her publication of a utopian romance, THE DESCRIPTION OF A NEW WORLD CALLED THE BLAZING WORLD (one of the first examples of science fiction), earned her an invitation to the Royal Society of London. She was the first woman ever invited—and the last for two hundred years. I'm surprised there haven't been more books about her, honestly. She stuck velvet stars on her cheeks, for crying out loud, and went to the opening of one of her husband's plays dressed as a topless Amazon.

But despite her outrageous public persona, Margaret the woman was, by her own writings, far more complicated than just a lightning rod for controversy. She wrote of her own melancholia, her shyness and fears, as vulnerable and open as any memoirist today, and was as open in her seeking of validation and fame as anyone who feels they have something important to say. Dutton's novel, almost a fictionalized diary, alternately in Margaret's own voice or that of a detached observer watching this brilliant woman work, gives a gorgeous realism and immediacy to Margaret's longings, cravings, and intellectual agonizing. It's not a linear story, or a traditional work of historical fiction. The worldbuilding is sparse, the story told in fits and starts--it's fiction, it's biography, it's essay and poetry and rumination. Like Margaret herself, MARGARET THE FIRST defies categorization.

I spoke to author Danielle Dutton about Margaret, women's voices, and the creation of this exquisite flash of fiction.

Brazos Bookstore: You've been working on MARGARET THE FIRST for a long time—over ten years! I've read that your plan originally was not to write about Margaret specifically, but more about the time and place. Can you talk more about how the novel changed from your earliest ideas of it to the form we have in our hands now? When did Margaret hijack the plan?

Danielle Dutton: In a funny way, I think she hijacked it in the beginning, and it was my resistance to that, my desire to have the novel be something other than what it wanted to be (about her! only her!) that kept me drafting and drafting in those early years. So, yes, it’s been about a decade since I first had an idea to write a novel set in the seventeenth century with Margaret Cavendish as a character—but it wasn’t ten years of solid writing/wrestling. I had to finish graduate school, and then I got a full-time job, and had a baby, and then I got a different full-time job. I never really lost sight of it along the way, it was always the book I was working on, it was simply impossible to always be working on it. But I’ve come to think it needed to take the route it took. This book couldn’t have come out in a mad rush. There’s a density to it, and even a sort of luxuriousness (at least in my experience of it), that only comes, I think, with a slow, intricate, careful attention.

BB: One of the things I loved about the book was its jumps in time. It felt dreamlike, almost, the way events would blur and change. How did you decide which moments of Margaret's life to include in the book? I'd imagine distilling a whole life into such a slim text was incredibly difficult—were there any particular parts that were in an earlier draft that didn't make it to the final?

DD: Yes, there were many scenes I wrote and then cut. There was a lot more of the fantasy stuff that’s in the third section of my book, for example, those scenes with the talking bears and the Empress—all characters from Margaret’s own THE DESCRIPTION OF A NEW WORLD CALLED THE BLAZING WORLD. But overall I wanted my book to feel tight and light and quick, which is not, I suppose, a description I would use to talk about most of the historical fiction I’ve read. I went through a big historical fiction jag when I was a teen. I loved how vast and time-bound those books felt, but that was never what this book seemed to want to be. I guess it’s really a portrait of a consciousness—in as much as you can make a portrait of something so intangible—more than it is the story of a life.

BB: On that note, I'd love to discuss the structure of the book, especially the way that it shifts. You said in your amazing interview with The Rumpus that you were trying to manage the reader's distance from Margaret, by shifting the perspective from first person to a distant (and then a closer) third—but to me, the tense shift from past to present was equally affecting. How did you come to the decision to make those shifts? Did you put a stronger weight on perspective or tense?

DD: I think you’re right that the tense change is just as important as the change in perspective, but very few readers have mentioned it to me. I mean, the switch in point of view seems to trump the tense switch, and I find that interesting. I never even tried writing the final section in past tense. It was always, somehow, the present of the book...always in the first two sections we’re moving toward that moment in her life.

BB: I loved how I never felt like, for whatever her other faults, the book was judging Margaret for being too outlandish or controversial. Even when she went to the theater topless with painted nipples (which would be considered "too much" by modern standards, let alone those of the 1600s) I never felt like she was being shamed by the narrative, which I really appreciated! How do you think the perception of "controversial" women has changed—in public, in literature—from Margaret's day until now?

DD: Yes, I never wanted to judge Margaret, but I also didn’t want to romanticize her. I wanted to try to imagine her as honestly as I could.

As for the second part of your know, despite there being continued problems of sexism and misogyny, obviously there’s a lot more room for a woman to be bold and ambitious now than there was back when Margaret was alive. And I’d like to think she’s partly responsible for that, a link in a chain, along with many other early pioneers, such as Aphra Behn or Mary Wollstonecraft.

BB: Your press Dorothy, a publishing project, puts out two amazing books, mostly by women, each year. I think it fills a wonderful space in the publishing world; I love the care and curation of small presses. Could you talk a little about how you feel women's voices are heard in publishing today?

DD: Thank you! It seems like we have a lot of information these days about women in publishing. On the one hand we have that recent survey showing that the industry itself is made up of about 80% white women. On the other hand we have the yearly VIDA count showing that male writers are disproportionately likely to be reviewed in major review sources, to win major awards. At Dorothy I’m interested in (as you say) curating a space that showcases the stylistic diversity of writing by women. I’m not interested in “women’s writing”—whatever that might be—but in supporting brilliant, unusual, urgent writers and their books.

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Margaret the First Cover Image
ISBN: 9781936787357
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Catapult - March 15th, 2016

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