Wife to Mr. Milton ~ Robert Graves

This book was mentioned by a character in another novel I recently read. I can no longer recall which novel that was, but it was from one of my recent readings. I do that sometimes: choose a book based upon the recommendation of a character! I know that’s a bit odd, but my thought has always been that the novel must have had an effect on the author to go so far as to have one of his characters reading it. The recommendation, by whomever it was, did not steer me wrong. Published in 1943, this novel by Robert Graves is written with all of the best aspects on show for historical novels. There’s a minor figure related to a major historical one, and through this character we are given a different perspective on the famous figure. The story, reduced to a human level, also pans out to include the history of the time. And of course, the characters, mirror those times. We feel as if we’ve been given a complete picture of how it was – personally – in those days.

The year is 1641. It’s Christmas. Fifteen year-old Marie Powell receives a diary as a gift from her Aunt Moulton. Into this diary she begins to record her days, her thoughts and eventually her heart. First she sets the stage, describing in brief her large family and all her siblings. She has a scare that her family fears is the plague, but it turns out it is not. She falls in love with one Edmund Verney (Mun). She was 10 years of age when she met the King and Queen. She briefly sees and asks about someone who calls himself Tiresias. Later this turns out to be the poet John Milton. She describes her life at the Manor, Forest Hill. She writes that her hearts desire Mun is leaving to become a soldier. At this juncture she has caught up to “the present” in her diary. When sometime later Mun returns on leave from his service, they meet in a church secretly. After they are discovered by a meddlesome priest, rumour and innuendo follow Marie, ruining her reputation, despite the fact that the meeting was platonic. In some quarters, this makes her unfit for marriage. In large part (and because her father was in debt due to fraudulent – and complicated financial maneuverings) she is steered by her parents into a loveless marriage with John Milton.

Marie is a wonderful, real character. She has spirit, and pride and chafes under the rigid household “rules” of John Milton. When she has a headache on her wedding night and feigns her period, the marriage is off to a rocky start. The honeymoon is over before it starts. Marie here writes of the term “honeymoon”:

…the honeymoon is a Londoner’s term for such as are  newly married and who will not fall out because of the exceeding strength of their love; it is honey now, but it will change as the moon when their mutual desire begins to assuage and the taste of honey to cloy.

But the marriage is never consummated, and Milton sends her back to her mother for what is supposed to be a brief respite, but turns into a much longer separation when civil war breaks out and communication and travel become dangerous. It’s a sign of the times that women are like chattel, not worthy of discussing principles of thought. During this period, Marie writes perceptively about Milton’s personality:

He is a man who never graciously acknowledges himself at fault, fearing by any such admission to impugn his own authority and judgement. For though he has often changed his mind and turned cat in pan even upon matters of religious principle, yet (this I write without irony or reproach, but as a mere matter of fact) he is constant and loyal to one thing at least, which is a humble faith in his own infallibility: no man in the world was ever so sincere and modest in his self-devotion.

When her husband finally sends for her, she (with the support of her parents) decide to remain longer, using the war as an excuse. Marie writes, though:

I was like a dog that has broken free, yet still trails the chain.

She finally does return, she is resigned to her fate, the marriage is consummated and she begins her child-bearing years. Her father dies and the King is executed. Her husband’s career is in the ascendancy as he has chosen the “right” side. The Milton’s live in a fragile accommodation, and Marie lives out her life in love with another man who makes a name for himself in the civil wars (but on the “wrong” side).

Graves paints a dark and disturbing portrait of Milton as a vain, controlling personality, driven to be acclaimed the genius of the literate world. It’s a surprisingly compelling book, if a bit difficult to unthread the morass of political and religious complications in play during this period. A terrific portrait of a particular domestic arrangement in London, mid 17th Century.

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