There never seems to be much time to read novels these days, and it takes a good one to divert me from the normal run of events - not only the work I have to do to earn a living but the time taken up by my many hobbies including the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship. Historical novels, when properly researched and not over-romanticised, are my favourite kind of reading, and Robert Graves has a good reputation as a writer of historical fiction. Yet little did I think that I would become fascinated by a Graves novel of which I had never heard until recently.
I don't know how he came to write Wife to Mr Milton in 1943. My assumption that he had access to some pretty extensive primary sources seems to be supported by the existence of an earlier novel on the same subject, written - like Graves' version - in the first person. Anne Manning, a prolific Victorian author, wrote her fictional account of the Miltons' married life in 1849. It opens in the same place as Graves' novel, with the teenage Mary Powell celebrating her birthday by beginning a diary. However, Manning does not make Mary's life thereafter sound quite as disastrous as that of Graves' Marie.
The latter novel has been called "a relentlessly effective satire on masculine self-regard", which is ironic when you consider its author's life - how he married a woman almost as young as Marie Powell was when she married John Milton (though in the case of Graves and his first wife Nancy Nicholson, there was no age gap to speak of), how he effectively abandoned her when she declined to continue living in a menage-a-trois with him and his lover Laura Riding and how, throughout his life, he acquired a reputation not only as a ladies' man but as a somewhat self-centred one. Alternatively, you may see the novel as another critic did, as "a libel on a man 200 years dead" - poor old John Milton, in whose favour Graves hardly finds a word to say.
Marie - or Mary as her husband preferred to call her - was the daughter of a Royalist family with property near Oxford. Graves describes their rural lifestyle in a colourful yet credible manner that suggests familiarity with the customs of the time. It is obvious that he researched it thoroughly, but is it fanciful of me to imagine that he gleaned some of his material at first hand from living in a cottage in the village of Boars Hill just after the First World War? Sadly for Marie, the Powells were not as well-off as they appeared on the surface. It later became apparent that her father had fraudulently remortgaged his estate several times over, to different people, in order to pay off the debts resulting from his over-generous expenditure. Some sources actually describe her as having been "sold" to Milton in payment of a debt her father owed him.
Rather than continue the story and include spoilers in this post, I prefer to muse for a moment on what made this story attractive to Graves as the basis for a novel. Surely it must have had something to do with the English Civil War, which dominated the lives of Milton and his reluctant young bride in such a way as to have reminded Graves of the upheavals of the years 1914-1918? Whatever one thinks of John Milton - who does seem to have changed his mind quite frequently on a number of important topics - he had good reason to be troubled by the events of the 1640s and subsequent decades, even though he did not personally participate in the fighting.
As with Sassoon and Henry Vaughan, two poets shared similar experiences several centuries apart. Yet in the case of John Milton, Graves' sympathies appear to be more with Mrs Milton, whose family lost everything during the war. In a 1957 article, he is highly critical of Milton's work, calling "L'Allegro" a "dreadful muddle". He believes that Milton took such pride in his education at Cambridge that he writes in "a Latin straitjacket".
Perhaps Milton mellowed after Marie's death. In the 1660s, blind and short of cash, he was threatened with imprisonment and even execution as a result of his outspoken anti-monarchist views. His unlikely saviour would be a man he had employed as an amanuensis, the Teflon-coated Andrew Marvell, who had avoided becoming associated with either party by the expedient of spending the whole of the Civil War travelling in Europe and was now an MP. Milton himself eventually retreated sheepishly to the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Giles, where the cottage in which he spent the last few years of his life can still be visited.