For generations, intelligent literary women have been drawn to Virginia Woolf for her complex, independent-minded works such as “A Room of One’s Own.” She was at the center of the Bloomsbury literary scene and began an independent publishing house out of her home with her husband, Leonard Woolf. The writer and publisher Danielle Dutton follows in Woolf’s footsteps.
After working at the independent Dalkey Archive Press, Dutton founded her own small press in 2010 with her husband, Martin Riker. Called Dorothy, a publishing project, it upends typical expectations and releases just two books a year, both in the fall. All, save one, have been by women.
Dutton likes slender novels that “seem somehow to weigh more than you’d think from the outside.” And as she speaks to me by phone from St. Louis, she explains she is fascinated by “female lives that seem to be constrained in some way.”
Enter Margaret Cavendish, the inspiration for Dutton’s novel “Margaret the First” (Catapult: 176 pp., $15.95 paper); Woolf’s derisive reference to the historical figure in “A Room of One’s Own” stayed with her.
“What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death,” Woolf wrote.
Cavendish, Dutton later discovered, was a childless duchess who published books under her own name (including a science-fiction novel, “The Blazing World”) and designed her own gowns. She was the first woman invited to visit the Royal Society of London.
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.
“But how could the world be wound up like a clock?” Dutton writes. “It was pulsing, contracting, attracting, and generating infinite forms of knowledge. Nor could man’s be supreme.”
The novel is a “look at the consciousness of one woman,” Dutton says, “her development of her consciousness as an artist.”
“Margaret felt like she had to be ferocious to get people to pay attention to her and take her seriously,” Dutton says. “And sometimes that made her do ridiculous and embarrassing things.”
In writing about her, Dutton grew to understand her. She even saw parallels in her own life, including that like Cavendish, she has a supportive husband who encourages her career.
Dorothy is jointly run: Dutton handles the editorial and design, Riker takes care of author royalties and bookkeeping. They started the press — and financed the first two books themselves — the year they had their son. And she now is on faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, where Riker is a full-time instructor.
Their press is named after Dutton’s great-aunt, Dorothy Traver, who was a librarian in San Bernardino County in the 1950s and ‘60s. Traver turned her station wagon into a bookmobile to deliver books to far-flung towns that lacked libraries.
Dorothy is now self-sustaining. Its releases have included Barbara Comyns’ “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” (Dutton describes it as a “grotesque parlor novel”) and the environmental novel “The Wallcreeper” by Nell Zink, whom Jonathan Franzen has praised as “a writer of extraordinary talent and range.” Although most of the books are by female authors, one, “In the Time of the Blue Ball” by Manuela Draeger, is by a man (Antoine Volodine, an award-winning French writer).
There is a restless ambition to her intellect. Teaching the same course over and over again doesn’t excite her. Dutton needs to learn along with the students. Last year, she taught a class on irregular forms in literature. Next year, she’ll teach one on Eros and fiction writing.
And while she appreciates longer books like “Anna Karenina,” she finds it “exhausting and exhaustive” when a writer tries “to write the whole universe into a book.” Instead, she prefers a book that “feels extremely specific, like it’s very much its own thing.”
She has written two prior books: “Sprawl,” fiction inspired by photographs published by Siglio, and “Attempts at a Life” from underground Tarpaulin Press. Catapult, a new publisher with major backing, is positioned to bring “Margaret the First” to a larger audience.
But reaching a broad readership has never been Dutton’s focus. She is meticulous about her decisions, which, she explains, “feels sort of contrary to the cultural moment.”
Dorothy is called “a project” because Dutton “wanted to put the emphasis on… the process and the projectness as opposed to product.” Projects take time, and that’s one of the biggest challenges for Dutton. But that means she has much in common with the early days of Hogarth Press, founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
Filgate is a writer, contributing editor at Literary Hub and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.