Everybody Wants a Piece of Milton

A review of Jennifer Wallace's new novel about the fate of John Milton’s corpse.

By Erik GrayJune 6, 2016

Everybody Wants a Piece of Milton

Digging Up Milton by Jennifer Wallace. Cillian Press Limited. 210 pages.

IT WOULDN’T BE TRUE to say that John Milton is neglected nowadays. Milton still has plenty of admirers. Paradise Lost continues to be regarded by many readers as the greatest poem in the English language, and it remains a fixture in college survey courses of English literature. The 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth, in 2008, was celebrated with readings, performances, exhibitions, and academic conferences around the world. It also saw the publication of a raft of scholarly books, including one, by the Princeton professor Nigel Smith, entitled Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? (Answer: Yes, especially if you are American and/or love liberty.)

What Milton lacks, unlike Shakespeare, is fans. Fandom implies a different relationship to an author than simple admiration, something more proprietorial. Fans are not content to be mere readers; they become fascinated with every aspect of the author’s life as well as his or her works, and they dream of entering into both. Hence fan fiction, which in its most common form appropriates the world of the books but sometimes, with the most popular authors, turns its attention to the writer’s biography. The result in Shakespeare’s case is movies like Shakespeare in Love (1998) — or else, on a different level, the whole authorship controversy: Shakespeare’s fans, dissatisfied with the meager and often mundane facts that remain about his life, have chosen to reinvent him as someone else entirely.

In some ways, of course, it isn’t surprising that Milton doesn’t receive such celebrity treatment. Very few writers of the Renaissance do anymore, Shakespeare being the exception. Shakespeare aside, the earliest author in English to be the object of such widespread fascination is probably Jane Austen. It’s also true that poets generally don’t receive the same kind of attention as fiction writers, although there are still quite a few with their share of active fans: Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath. But there was an era when Milton was roughly as distant in time as Byron and Dickinson are from us, when he was nothing short of a fan favorite. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, artists and writers were far more likely to offer imaginative depictions of Milton’s life than of Shakespeare’s.

At first glance this appears counterintuitive, since the Puritan Milton seems so much less attractive a subject for fiction than the theatrical Shakespeare. But Milton’s biography turns out to provide a lot of colorful material. First there is his public life. When the British monarchy was restored in 1660, after an 11-year interregnum, Milton was promptly condemned to death; it was only through the intervention of a few powerful friends, who pleaded for clemency on account of the poet’s age and blindness, that his sentence was commuted. Milton would not have been the first major British poet to be executed by the monarch, but he would have been the last. He would also have been the only one to have deserved it. Milton was never a member of parliament and so was not directly involved in the decision to execute King Charles I at the end of the English Civil War in 1649. But he immediately joined the new government and, on its behalf, wrote the official justification of that decision. Milton thus became the public face of regicide, and he continued to publish antimonarchical treatises up until the very eve of the Restoration, knowing full well the probable consequences. If Milton had received the punishment he clearly expected, Paradise Lost would never have been written.

It wasn’t Milton’s political activities that captured the imagination of later artists, however, but his domestic life. Two pieces of Milton’s personal history in particular, both involving women, became the stuff of legend. The first concerns Milton’s first wife, Mary Powell, who abandoned him after barely a month of marriage and then — three years later, after her parents had lost their fortune — pleaded to be allowed to return. Milton, who in the meantime had written a series of pamphlets in favor of making divorce more available, took Mary back in, together with the whole of her bankrupt (and royalist) family. The second now-legendary aspect of Milton’s domestic life concerns the children of that marriage: tradition has it that, after blindness had left him unable to write, Milton employed his two youngest daughters as scribes, dictating some of his major works to them, including Paradise Lost.

The first story was frequently retold by fiction writers, including in a best-selling novel by Anne Manning, published in 1855, which offers Mary Powell’s first-person account of how she came to appreciate her brilliant husband and to repent her desertion; the book concludes with Milton’s magnanimous forgiveness and Mary’s private vow to be a worthy wife. Visual artists, meanwhile, tended to fixate on the second story. Beginning in the late 18th century, the scene of Milton dictating his great epic to his daughters became a favorite subject for painters both in England and abroad, including Eugène Delacroix. (I recently came across an enormous 19th-century rendering of this scene hanging in a waiting room at the university where I teach.) These stories circulated so widely that they eventually became part of a shared cultural consciousness. Thus the young Dorothea Brooke, at the beginning of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–1872), dreams of marrying Milton, longing to fulfill the role of both wife and dutiful daughter; as a consequence she soon rushes into marriage with the weak-sighted, middle-aged scholar Mr. Casaubon.

In almost all these reenvisionings of his life, Milton appears as a heroic figure. But already in the 18th century some people questioned his behavior toward his family. Critics publicly wondered whether Mary might not have had good reason to leave her rigid husband, and likewise whether Milton was really justified in using his daughters as his secretaries — or, in another version of the story, making them read aloud to him in languages they did not understand. (Thus Mr. Casaubon reminds Dorothea, when she cites Milton’s daughters as her models, that their relationship to the great man may not always have been a happy one, although he then marries Dorothea anyway, with unfortunate results.) Eventually, this alternative view of Milton’s private life became the dominant one. The same stories that had formerly seemed so admirable and romantic now redounded to his discredit, and Milton became a byword for (literally) dictatorial patriarchy. Two 20th-century fictionalizations of his life by prominent writers, Robert Graves’s Wife to Mr. Milton (1943) and Peter Ackroyd’s Milton in America (1996), both cast Milton as the villain.

But the mood has changed again. In the final decades of the 20th century, feminist critics began to reevaluate Milton and found, in his works if not necessarily his life, a great deal to celebrate. Eve is, arguably, the hero of Paradise Lost. It is true that, in keeping with religious beliefs that Milton shared with most of his contemporaries, Eve is explicitly described in the poem as being subordinate to Adam; but she shows a more independent and inquisitive spirit than Adam does, as well as a greater willingness to accept responsibility after the fall. In short, it is she, rather than Adam (or Satan, as some have suggested), who most resembles Milton himself. Milton’s divorce tracts, meanwhile, are now regarded as important precursors to current conceptions of egalitarian, companionate marriage. Milton was one of the first to argue in favor of allowing divorce on the basis of irreconcilable differences. In doing so he redefined “the chiefest end of marriage” (in his words) as being not mutual convenience, or even procreation, but “meet and happy conversation” between spouses. Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost provide an example of just such a marriage, with each partner equally engaging in and benefiting from their dialogues.

This ambivalent history is reflected in the most recent piece of fiction about Milton, Jennifer Wallace’s Digging Up Milton. The novel centers on a little-known episode of Milton’s life, or rather afterlife. In 1790, during renovations to the church in London where Milton was buried, a coffin was found beneath the church floor that seemed in all probability to be the poet’s. Having identified the casket, church officials ordered that it be reinterred with all due reverence, but the next day a group of parishioners raised it again and this time opened the lid. Not content with gazing at their hero, some of the men reached into the coffin and helped themselves to relics, mostly consisting of hair and teeth, though also the occasional bone. They then left the coffin exposed for the rest of the day under the care of one of the parish’s gravediggers, Elizabeth Grant, who promptly began allowing people to come view the corpse for a charge of sixpence; some of these gawkers may also have taken pieces of Milton’s body. This information, along with almost everything else we know about the episode, comes from a single pamphlet decrying the incident, published a few months later by a lawyer and self-professed admirer of Milton named Philip Neve. Wallace does with Neve’s short pamphlet essentially what Milton did in Paradise Lost with the opening chapters of Genesis: takes the bare-bones narrative given in the original and fleshes it out into a richly detailed story, divided into 12 “books.”

The incident itself is rife with ironies. In several of his poems Milton alludes to the death of Orpheus, the mythical ancient bard who was torn limb from limb by a group of bacchanalian women, driven mad by Orpheus’ music and by their desire for him. Midway through Paradise Lost, specifically recalling the fate of Orpheus and anxious that his own work should never inspire such frenzy, Milton prays that his poem may find “fit audience […] though few.” Instead, its enormous popularity, more than a century after his death, led to his posthumous dismemberment. Worse still, Milton spent his life as a dedicated iconoclast, arguing passionately against anything that smacked of idolatry; even more than other people, therefore, he would have been appalled at the idea of his own body parts being turned into relics. To these ironies Wallace’s book adds a third. The actions carried out by the enthusiasts in 1790 merely enact, in a more literal manner, the resurrection and appropriation of favorite authors performed by novels like Wallace’s. The discomfort the reader feels when reading the description of the ransacking of Milton’s coffin is accompanied by a frisson of complicity.

Like all good epics (including Paradise Lost), Digging Up Milton begins in medias res — in this case with the plundering of the grave — and returns only later to fill in the backstory. The narrator is Elizabeth (Lizzie) Grant, the gravedigger who makes a profit from the viewing and parceling out of Milton’s corpse. Lizzie is no mere observer of the action but an instigator and spirited participant, who seems to change her shape continually as the narrative progresses. Early in the novel she seems to resemble Sin, the unreliable keeper of the gates of Hell in Milton’s epic. At other times she appears as Milton’s dutiful wife, married to an older, blear-eyed man, whom she admires for his learning and whom she seeks to please. (In this sense she most closely resembles Milton’s third wife, also named Elizabeth, with whom he lived contentedly in old age.) Yet Lizzie also fills the role of Milton’s daughters — not the faithful amanuenses of legend but the spiteful daughters who, according to a different story that appears in early biographies of Milton, stole the books from their blind father’s library and sold them for their own profit. Lizzie goes a step further and, in the ultimate act of filial impiety, sells off parts of the father-figure himself. But above all, Lizzie recalls Eve as Milton depicted her: curious, intelligent, experimental, and independent, yet left vulnerable by her sex and situation.

These parallels to Milton’s life and poem are sprinkled throughout the text. Wallace, who teaches English at Cambridge University, is a scholar and critic specializing in the subject of literary influence. (She has also published a book on her other main interest, archaeology — an interest that is reflected in the excited description of the disinterment of Milton’s coffin.) Digging Up Milton is her first novel, and it can be clunky at times, notably in the passages of historical exposition, when characters suddenly begin to discourse learnedly about Milton, or about contemporary events, in order to provide the reader with necessary information. But this is a problem that besets almost all historical fiction, and it doesn’t interfere with the pleasures of the novel, which overall is highly engaging. The various characters mentioned merely in passing in Neve’s pamphlet are all here distinctly and vividly imagined. Lizzie above all holds the reader’s attention as she struggles with the unforeseen consequences of her actions.

Wallace also manages to avoid two temptations that face the writer of a book like this. The first would be to make every element of the novel correspond to some aspect of Milton’s life and work, or to map the events of the story directly onto those of Paradise Lost, so that it became a modern retelling of Milton’s poem. But that sort of game is amusing only for those in the know (the writer above all), and Wallace wisely eschews it. The Miltonic parallels do exist, but they are scarcely the most notable parts of the novel, which quite aside from those echoes provides the reader with much to consider and appreciate. At one point, for instance, Lizzie is haunted by guilt over the role she played in the depredation of Milton’s body; she also feels guilty about never having admitted to her husband what she did, and she decides to make it up to him, at least, by getting something special for dinner at the market. But,

when I reached the stall for meat I discovered that there were only a few pieces of mutton left and that a small crowd of women had gathered around the seller, jostling with each other to be served first and shouting louder in frustration […] so I surged forward and began using my elbows as vigorously and expertly as the next woman.

Lizzie thus unconsciously reenacts the book’s primal scene (and sin), the feeding frenzy that took place around Milton’s casket, though this time it is replayed by a female cast of characters. A few pages later, the motif of disappearing flesh is taken up again, but reversed. Lizzie visits one of the men who took a bone from Milton’s coffin and finds him also haunted by guilt; when she enters, he is frenziedly reading Paradise Lost, and he accosts her with Milton’s account of Eve’s creation:

“What a miracle Lizzie! What a marvel! Why here Milton writes (and he pulled me towards the book which he was jabbing with his bony finger) that ‘the rib he formed and fashioned with his hands; under his forming hands a creature grew.’ Just think about the power of creation, all that from a bone!”

New creation from old bones: it’s another metafictional moment, in which the novel seems to point a finger in its own direction.

The other temptation would be to turn the novel into “Eve’s Revenge” — a tale in which a strong female character, representing all the women in Milton’s life and works, finally gets to say and do to him as she likes. Digging Up Milton is indeed a feminist retelling of myths associated with Milton; the feminist sensibility manifests itself, though, not in some triumphant trampling of the dead body of patriarchy, but in the novel’s attunement to the difficulties and complexities of Lizzie’s predicament. Lizzie is no symbol of female virtue or empowerment but a flawed human character. She is attracted to Milton partly for his reputation as a champion of liberty, but even more, as she freely admits, for the opportunity he provides of making a profit.

Nor does Lizzie triumph in the end. One of the central ironies of the book is that, although the narrative centers on an occasion when Milton’s body is desecrated by a group of rapacious men, we come gradually to realize that Lizzie faces such rapacity throughout her life. Her body is never wholly in her own control, and we learn in a flashback that Lizzie’s mother, too, was sexually exploited by a powerful man. Even Lizzie’s voice, it turns out, is not truly her own. Digging Up Milton offers an unsparing representation of the inequities of sexual relations in the patriarchal world for which Milton, justly or unjustly, has been taken as the spokesman, even as it also provides a fresh angle on that world from a female point of view.

As for Milton himself, he is neither the villain nor the hero of the book. Wallace’s novel is not about Milton so much as it is about Milton’s legacy and the challenges it continues to pose. Different characters in the book — men, women, scholars, radicals — grapple with Milton in their different ways; his example proves alternately stifling and inspiring. By implication, this divided legacy continues: to each his (or her) own Milton. In its refusal to offer up simple judgments, Digging Up Milton provides a fitting 21st-century contribution to the tradition of Miltonic fiction.


Erik Gray teaches English at Columbia University in New York, where he specializes in British poetry.

LARB Contributor

Erik Gray is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he teaches courses on poetry and love, among other topics. He has written widely on British and European poetry, particularly of the nineteenth century. His most recent book is The Art of Love Poetry (2018), which considers the relation between poetry and love in the Western tradition.


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