Over the past five years, Danielle Dutton has quietly changed the face of independent publishing, two titles at a time. As the publisher behindDorothy: A Publishing Project, she shines a spotlight on female writers like American expat Nell Zink (The Wallcreeper) and Barbara Comyns (Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead) a British writer whose work was out of print before Dorothy rescued it.
Now Dutton herself moves into the spotlight with her third book, Margaret the First (Catapult), a fictional portrait of the eccentric writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish. With Dutton’s characteristic flair for rich language, Margaret the First evokes a bright, lively seventeenth century world that feels immediate and familiar. This world longed to keep Margaret Cavendish in her place, even as it couldn’t wait to see what outlandish stunt she would perform next. I spoke with Dutton on the phone about historical research, badass ladies, and what happens when we don’t get what we want.
What was your research process like for this book? Very early on, someone told me that I was like a magpie researcher, that I was going along and finding sparkly things and then plucking them out. And that’s true. I would note in books when I came across something wonderful, whether it was a textile, or recipe, or clothes, or a scientific experiment, or a medical procedure. Because they were just like gems to me. They sparkled, and they would glow out of the research.
And there are so many of those material details made visible in the novel. Did finding the right details, or the right language, help you find Margaret? Margaret absolutely came up out of all of these tangible details in the research. I think that when you’re imagining someone who really lived, there’s a lot of pressure to feel like you’re getting close to that actual person. And so I think steeping myself in the things that would have surrounded her was one way that I gave myself confidence.
Could you describe how you made some of the structural choices in the book? The novel moves from first person to third and shifts ever so slightly in the last section, too. I wrote one of the last pieces of the book first. And it came really early, like ten years ago. And it’s right after she’s written The Blazing World, and it’s this really intense, lyrical close third person. And that came to me really naturally. Just like a gush of language. I was like, “Oh, there’s Margaret!” But I had to back up and find who she would have been in language as a girl, as a teenager, as a younger woman. How she would have gotten to be that woman who would be so meta-textual and lyrical in her later years. And that was a real pleasure to try to figure out.
I think, too, that it makes sense that we would step back and look at her [in third person] because she was so looked at, and she had such a strong persona. It’s not like we’re gawking at her, but we’re seeing her a little bit more than what she gives us access to in first person.
Margaret’s persona is very closely related to her body. I found myself thinking about the fragility of living in the seventeenth century, her inability to bear children, and her willingness to bare herself in certain fashions; how much of writing Margaret was attentiveness to her physicality? My interest in the seventeenth century was instantly so sensual. I was writing about someone who lived in a world of privilege. It’s hard not to be taken in by the rooms she would have been inside of. But also, interestingly, Margaret had all these ideas about how matter is animate. So it also started to make sense to me philosophically that she would be very much of the world. Very tied to the gardens and trees around her, very aware of them.
Margaret comes into contact with Henrietta Maria and Queen Christina of Sweden, who also behave in unexpected ways as women of their time. What was it like to uncover some of these figures and have them be in conversation with Margaret? I think it was really important, in characterizing Margaret, to have these other women. Otherwise, if you take her totally out of context, it seems just ludicrous, some of the things that she’s doing. But if you consider that she had these women around her, that she was in the privileged position of meeting these eccentric royal figures, it seems possible to her, to be that kind of a woman.
Even Queen Elizabeth, whom her parents would have known, was like a major, serious badass. It wasn’t just a persona—she was the Queen of England, and she was a really smart and strong queen. I tried to put the warrior queens of ancient England into [Margaret’s] nursery tales because I feel like all of this would have built around a young girl like Margaret possibilities for female greatness.
Were you ever tempted to work in the point of view of these other characters?Actually, the figure I was tempted to drop down the rabbit hole with was Samuel Pepys. Which is why he pops up at the beginning and the end of the novel. His diaries are just so good. He writes in code, for one thing, but you can completely read through the code. He cheats on his wife in code. He’s not an actual glutton, but he really enjoys his food. He was just saucy. So I had tons more written from the point of view of Samuel Pepys, but in the end, it only worked to have that one little moment where we step into his perspective and step back out.
I felt really terrible for Margaret when she finally gets to go to the Royal Society and doesn’t manage to say anything. Then Pepys writes in his diary, “I think I hate her.” There’s this tragic reversal of the book’s opening. It’s almost like my climax was an anti-climax. And I struggled with that. It was another one of those things in the book that I resisted in some logical place, even though on a much more gut level, I kept returning to it, like, this is right, this is my anti-climax. That happens all the time. You finally get what you want, and there’s some sort of failure associated with it. A failure of self. We want things and then we don’t handle them well.
What would you want your readers to most understand about Margaret and the world that she lived in? I think I was just trying so hard to make Margaret feel like a real person. I wasn’t trying to romanticize her, or make her a hero. She existed. She did all of this important and amazing work that was somewhat forgotten or ridiculed. There have been scholars that have been reclaiming her work for decades now, but I still think lots of people are like, “Who’s Margaret Cavendish?”
When I learned about her, it wasn’t until I was doing my PhD, and she came up in a class. And I had heard of almost everyone else we were studying in the class, but I had never heard of her. In retrospect that seems so wrong to me. I think she should be more widely taught with the men of her day. She was inserting herself into the conversation, whether they wanted to or not. She was very bold.
How do the other elements of your career—as an editor, a teacher, and a publisher—inform what you think about as a writer? I wouldn’t be that interested in just being a writer and not teaching and talking about writing with my students and reading their work, which I feel lucky to get to do. I find my students’ writing really exciting. I never know what it’s going to be. I often really like less polished writing—crazy, unexpected stuff—and my students give me that all the time. That’s often what I’m looking for for Dorothy, too. It all feeds each other.