Wife to Mr. MiltonRobert Graves
Wife to Mr. Milton
Wife to Mr. Milton
Copyright © 1944 by Robert Graves, renewed 1972 by Robert Graves
Cover art, special contents, and Electronic Edition © 2014 by RosettaBooks LLC
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Cover jacket design by Carly Schnur
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795336959
I. THE LAST DAY OF CHRISTMAS, 1641
II. AN ALARM OF THE PLAGUE
III. A SIGHT OF ROYALTY, AND OF ANOTHER
IV. LIFE AT FOREST HILL
V. MUN BECOMES A SOLDIER
VI. I FALL INTO PIETY AND OUT AGAIN
VII. A STRANGE TALE OF SYMPATHY
VIII. I FALL INTO DISGRACE
IX. AN ACCOUNT OF MR. JOHN MILTON
X. I AGREE TO MARRIAGE
XI. MR. MILTON’S COURTSHIP
XII. MY MARRIAGE
XIII. I AM TAKEN TO LONDON
XIV. I SAY FAREWELL TO MY FAMILY
XV. I COME BACK TO FOREST HILL
XVI. THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR
XVII. MY HUSBAND SENDS FOR ME
XVIII. I AM PERSUADED TO RETURN TO MY HUSBAND
XIX. I AM GOT WITH CHILD; AND MY FATHER IS RUINED
XX. MY CHILD IS BORN; AND MY FATHER DIES
XXI. I SPEAK WITH MUN AGAIN
XXII. I WATCH THE KING’S EXECUTION
XXIII. EVIL NEWS FROM IRELAND
XXIV. MY HUSBAND BUYS FAME AT A HIGH PRICE
1942 was the tercentenary of the outbreak of the Civil War, and also of John Milton’s marriage to his first wife, Marie Powell of Forest Hill, Oxford.1 He was thirty-three at the time; she was sixteen. Since this book is a novel, not a biography, I need not write a learned preface to justify my conjectural reconstruction of the story—how he came to marry her, why she left him after a few weeks, why she returned three years later, and so on—but I have tried to answer all the outstanding questions plausibly and fairly in the course of the narrative.
Three centuries of English history do not seem an impossibly long time. The language and the details of social life have changed a good deal; yet war is still in fashion, the pike still obsolete, the English climate still uncertain, divorce-laws in no less of a muddle, most of the same stock people with family-faces still about, taxes as heavy as ever, newspapers as unreliable, the Colleges of Oxford University once more commandeered by the Government, and few of the political questions that the Civil Wars brought to a head yet finally settled—there is even a renewed complaint in the Press to-day of “unwarranted interference in secular affairs by the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
The post-war Cromwellian solution of these political questions, which Milton endorsed, was drastic and unconstitutional—it would now be called “undisguised Fascism”; and democratic journalists and politicians who quote with approval Wordsworth’s:
Milton, thou should’st be living at this hour.
England hath need of thee….
should read, or re-read, Milton’s life and works. It is true that during the war he had written his famous Areopagitica, a plea for the freedom of the Press; but almost as soon as the fighting was over he became Assistant Press Censor for the Council of State and helped to enforce a most repressive Censorship law. This Council was the executive of a minority Government set up by the mutinous New Model Army, after they had suppressed the House of Lords and had forcibly reduced the Commons, by a purge of the conservative majority, to a small party of Independent members who were willing to co-operate in the execution of the King and the abolition of the Monarchy.
A glossary of obsolete words and phrases will be found at the end of this book. In those times the date of any day between January 1st and Lady Day was, in England, given in double notation (e.g. Marie Powell was baptized on January 24th, 1625–26); but in Scotland in single notation, as now. I have here adopted the single notation for the sake of clearness, also modern spelling and punctuation. The documents quoted in the Appendix give a fair idea of what this book would look like in contemporary dress. The value of money was then four or five times what it was at the outbreak of the present war; to a man of Milton’s limited income the non-payment of the £1,500 which his father-in-law owed him was a very serious matter.
1942 was also the tercentenary of the battle of Newbury, in which the most sympathetic character of that period, Lucius Gary, the second Viscount Falkland, died fighting for King Charles. I have to thank my neighbour, the thirteenth Viscount (also a Lucius Cary), for his great kindness in helping me to get Wife to Mr. Milton ready for the printers.
Galmpton, Brixham, Devon.
The Last Day of Christmas, 1641
It was January 6th of the year 1641, being the last of the twelve days of Christmas, and my fifteenth birthday. My godmother, my Aunt Moulton, had travelled in her own coach from Honeybourne in the County of Worcestershire to pass Christmas at our noisy house (then hung in every nook with holly and ivy); which was the Manor-house of Forest Hill, a little town lying distant from the City of Oxford not above four miles by road, to the eastward as you ride out beyond Headington Hill. She came to me that morning where I sat in the great parlour with my brothers and sisters—for outside it was snowing plentifully—and “Here, Child,” says she, “here’s my annual gift to you; I had almost forgot.”
I sprang up, my cheeks smarting from the blaze of the fire, and made her a low curtsey, for though I had already so saluted her twice or thrice that same morning, she was a gentlewoman whose bearing naturally demanded a ceremonious exactness from children; besides, a birthday gift from my Godmother Moulton was always worth a dozen of curtseys, she would choose it so judiciously.
When I pulled off the paper wrappings I found a book, of middle size, bound in fine white vellum, with a silver clasp that had a lock to it and a little silver key. The title was stamped upon the cover in gold letters: “Marie Powell: Her Book.” My younger brothers and sisters crowded round me, and Zara who was next below me in age cried out, very unmannerly: “Let me look! Let me look! Oh, let me unlock this thing and see the painted pictures!”
My brother James, who was next in age above me, and an undergraduate of Christ Church, pulled her away and “Patience, Zara,” says he, “your birthday falls not until September. This is Marie’s own day: to-day she is all and you are nothing.” Thereupon the turbulent children fell back a little while I unlocked the clasp.
I opened the book at the title-page, as I thought, but the paper was wholly blank, as likewise was every new page that I turned over; which at first dashed me out of countenance, though I tried to hide my disappointment from my Godmother Moulton. She took my face between her hands, whereon were white worsted mittens and a great beryl ring of silver-gilt, and kissed my brow. Then she said: “Godchild, I hope you’ll take kindly to this gift of mine, which the Queen’s own stationer has bound. For I reasoned that by now you would have quite wearied of the Seven Champions of Christendom and the Morte d’Arthur and such-like old papistical tales of slaughter and magic, which were your constant entertainment when last we met together; but, further, that you would not yet be grown to an age when the gift of a good book of sermons would content you. Then I remembered your lively fancies and inventions, which indeed are proper to a child born, as you are, u
nder the capering sign of Capricorn, and on Twelfth Night too, when the stars seem to dance running-battle in the sky. Said I to myself: ‘Let the child write her own book, this New Year; but I’ll fasten it with a clasp and lock, so she may keep it private from her meddling brothers and sisters. She shall wear the key on a ribbon about her neck.’”
My Godmother’s notion, when it was dressed out in this fashion, charmed my mind. I stammered in my thanks, which she knew for sincere, and presently with a smile she cried: “Children, God bless you all! I must go and put on my bravery!” With that she withdrew herself into the little chamber over the kitchen, where she always lodged because it was the warmest, though the window looked out upon the wood-yard and the stables, rather than upon the orchard and gardens. After she was gone, my younger brothers, John and William and Archdale, who were lumpish, mischievous boys and hunted together in a howling pack like beagles, closed upon me again with “Let me see, O, let me see!”
I assured them there was nothing to see but white paper and handsome covers; so presently they went back to the fire, where they were playing some idle game with hazel-nuts. Only William stood fast, and says he: “Sister Marie, won’t you write a tale of warlocks and witches in your new book, and won’t you read it out to us every Saturday at evening, chapter by chapter? You are the best one at the telling of tales in this whole town. Or won’t you write out a history of Knights and Squires and Ogres in the brave old days?”
I did not answer him for awhile, for though his little petition flattered me, it did not jump right with what my Aunt Moulton had put into my mind, of keeping the contents of my book private to myself only.
“No,” said I at last. “There’s no need. I can read tales in the flames of the fire as I sit on my stool before it; so the fire’s a better book for your purpose than this would be. You shall have a tale to-morrow about Mother Grime, the Witch of Wheatley, who lived there in the days of King Harry—how she put a curse upon the bells in the bell-tower to prevent their ringing. That’s a firm promise.”
“And did she grease her broomstick with adder’s fat to make it fly the faster?” he asked.
“Phoo, that’s nothing,” said I, laughing. “Witches always grease their broomsticks with adder’s fat or viper’s, even the least cunning of them. Mother Grime was no common witch; she would tie three knots in the tail of the little badger-dog, her familiar, to make him invisible and give him a soundless bark.”
“Did she brew hell-broth in a great brazen cauldron? Did she throw in toads and puddocks and dead men’s fingers and the soot of sea-coal?”
But I told him he must wait until the next day if he would hear the right manner of brewing hell-broth according to Queen Hecate’s own receipt and practice. Then Zara, who was at that time a spiteful little wretch, always plaguing me, crept up again and, says she, pretending innocence: “Sister, will you indeed confide your whole heart and mind to the book? Will you write out in plain words what that little scholar of Magdalen Hall, Gregory What’s-his-name, proposed to you on Christmas Eve when you were sliding on the ice, and what answer you made him? Will you also copy into it the letter, perfumed with musk, that he slipped into your hand as we went walking towards—”
At this I brought down the book on Zara’s skull with a hearty thump and laid her flat among the rushes. Then I gathered up my skirts and ran from the room, lest any new riot might delay my enjoyment of the happy fancies that now crowded me.
I went first to knock at the door of my father’s little study, which was also the linen-chamber, where he sat casting his accounts. He worked by candlelight, the whole heaven being dark with snow. Presently he pulled open the door, the handle of which was ready to his hand, and I showed him my gift, that pleased him mightily. We conversed awhile and soon I was bold enough to beg a bundle of goose-pens, an ink-pot and a sand-caster; which he denied me at first. However, I pleaded my birthday and Twelfth Day kindness; and also gave him leave to write something for himself on the title-page, which I could see that his fingers itched to do. To tell truth, I shrank from the hazard of smudging a clean book; moreover, I loved my poor father well and was content that he should write something for me in his own hand. So in return he gave me all that I asked.
When he enquired how I proposed to fill the pages, I put him off by saying that my brother Will had petitioned me to write down tales of the brave old days of Robin Hood and Sir Launcelot du Lac, to read out before the fire every Saturday, at evening before supper. At this my father gazed fixedly on me for awhile and then with a sigh that had something prophetical in it, “Marie, my dear,” says he, “I’ll acquaint you with something to the purpose. These are the brave old days, as no others ever were. Write of them, if you will, and let the record be a solace to you in the sad new days that I fear must soon break upon us with the present alteration of the King’s affairs.”
He took up a pen and trimmed it well with his pen-knife and then thrusting aside the candle-sticks to give him more elbow-room for his task he very exactly inked me out a lozenge figure on the title-page of the book. In the lozenge he set the arms of Powell, which are a chevron (or roof-tree) argent on a sable ground, with two bloody spear-heads above and one below—“gutty de sang” is the heralds’ cant for the gouts of blood on the spear-heads. For want of vermilion colour, he painted the gouts with blood drawn from his own thumb, which he pricked with the knife to show his earnest affection for me. Next, he wrote a flowing M, and a flowing P, at the outward point of the lozenge, and below it set the day and the year, and at the foot of the page in fine Italian writing:
“These Were the Brave Old Days,”
saith Richard Powell.
With that, he kissed me and bade me begone, since he had now four times miscast the same crabbed reckoning of moneys.
This then was how the book came to me, and how I began to keep a record of my maiden days at Forest Hill, which (as it seems to me now) were truly the brave old days, as no others can ever again be. For this was to be the last year of peace in England, before the bloody Troubles arose which cast us Powells, with many thousands of other light-hearted, loyal and well-to-do families, into the lamentable black mire of delinquency and ruin.
After dinner that day, when eleven invited guests (besides our household of sixteen) sat down to table, began the customary merry-making of Twelfth Night, to which numerous persons of quality, our neighbours, came in their coaches or on nags from all the country round, so far as Thame and beyond: for we kept Twelfth Night more gaily than any other house thereabouts, upon account of my birthday. They came masked and dressed in very rich clothes, or in such grotesque disguises as the skins of wild-beasts, or the foreign garbs of Turks or Jews or Chinamen; or they assumed the characters of rufflers or fools or antics or astrologers or country sluts, disguising not their persons only but also their voices. The Lord of Misrule who controlled the festivity, that otherwise might have run out of hand, was my brother Richard, the eldest of us all, whose profession was the Law. To him all the company must formally bring their charges if they saw through any masquerade, saying that it concealed such and such a person. Then the Lord of Misrule, advancing his long black rod, would march up to the accused masker with: “Sir (or Madam), you are accused to me by this credible witness to be Such-and-Such. Do you plead guilty, or do you plead not guilty? Signify your plea either with a nod or with a shake of your head.”
A masker that pleaded guilty was straightway ordered to unmask and pay a forfeit; but if he pleaded “not guilty” with a shake of the head then the accuser himself paid the forfeit unless, pleasantly giving the accused person the lie, he challenged him to discover himself. Then the forfeit would be doubled, falling against the party that was proved to be at fault. Between ladies and gentlemen the customary forfeit was either a kiss or a grovelling abasement; and one gentleman piercing the disguise of another might give him a stroke with the open hand upon his forehead; or he might smudge his nose with charcoal, or gently tug his beard; but if upon the unma
sking he proved to be mistaken, then the other might kick his buttocks for his pains. Yet by an ancient law of Misrule, no woman might lay accusation against any other woman; which was wisely contrived, I think.
Our good friend, Captain Sir Robert Pye the Younger, of Faringdon Magna in Berkshire, came disguised as a country-carrier with a smock and whip, his cheeks well smeared with ruddle. My little brothers were tricked out as apes, capering about together and each officiously catching fleas for the others, but since they were all much of a size and shape, it was hard to tell this one from that. Little William won a forfeit on account of false accusation from Provost Tolson of Oriel College, who mistook him for Archdale; and elected to smudge the Provost’s face for him with charcoal, which he did with the letter S upon each of his cheeks. The old gentleman, thinking these to be simple smudges, joined in the laughter against himself, until in the little silver mirror which I showed him, he saw himself branded as a Stirrer of Sedition; whereupon a sort of horror overcame him and he wiped off the ignominy with spittle and the sleeve of his gown.
My mother counterfeited an aged and meek nun, which she did to the life. Her cheeks were chalked, her eyes downcast and her voice quavered as she clicked her poor cherry-stone beads; but the character that she assumed contradicted her nature point-blank, for my mother is a hearty, jolly, managing woman and by no means frequent in her devotions. Before long, upon a drunken gentleman’s wagering that she was in truth but a sinful old baggage and that she lay every third night with the Devil, she could not refrain, but burst into her familiar baying laugh and so was discovered. Then a gentleman disguised as the Devil, with hoofs and horns and a goat’s beard, laughed more heartily yet; whereat he was immediately accused to the Lord of Misrule of being my father; so the waggish gentleman had knocked down two birds with the same stone. Then the little apes, my brothers, swarmed into my mother’s lap, making as if to tear her rosary from her, and “By Sulphur and Brimstone, Nan,” the Devil cried to the Nun, “haven’t I begotten a brave horde of devilkins upon your dainty body?”