Years ago, there was a programme on TV (The South Bank Show?) which dramatized bits of Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd. It was fascinating, so I bought the book, and it was indeed wonderful. For a while every novel of his I read seemed to get better (for me, the very best is still English Music), I even started getting his biographies. I am not a great fan of Charles Dickens, but Ackroyd’s massive Dickens is a mesmerising read. But all of that seems a long time ago. The last heaven knows how many novels have been hit or miss affairs, mostly miss. This review of Milton in America, which I wrote for Vector 191, January-February 1997, dates from around the time when the decline set in, which means this is not a bad book, just nowhere near as good as it might have been.
Ever since Hawksmoor played tricks across time, Peter Ackroyd’s novels have regularly brushed with the fantastic. This new novel does so overtly by presenting an alternate history scenario, though at first it seems that this change in the time stream could have little effect upon our world. John Milton served in Oliver Cromwell’s government and might indeed have considered his life in danger when Charles II was restored to the throne. In actuality, Milton was honoured during his lifetime and went on to write his greatest works, most notably Paradise Lost. In this world he flees across the Atlantic to a Puritan settlement in New England – and the epic verse is therefore never written.
But as the story slowly unravels, it becomes obvious that Milton has, by his actions, translated Paradise Lost from the page to the political stage. Fervent in his beliefs, skilled at using words to bend others to his will, Milton quickly establishes himself as the political leader of the settlement which takes his name: New Milton. At first his dictatorship is benevolent, doing no more than hold the settlers to the puritan beliefs they all profess. Milton plays music and sings, he is relaxed in response to the teasing of his young companion and ‘seeing eye’, Goosequill. Goosequill, who narrates a large portion of the novel, has no time for puritanism, likeing ‘strong water’ and bright colours and women – especially Kate, the sister of one of the settlement’s original leaders – nevertheless he is content to stay, admiring his master.
Then blind Milton wanders lost into the forest, falls into an Indian hunting trap, and miraculously recovers his sight. The New World, this untouched commonwealth for which Milton has such high expectations, has already got an air of the fantastic, its primeval innocence reflected in the way that native creatures such as the beaver and the turkey are described like mythic beasts and Indian cures are shown to work as if by magic. So the restoration of Milton’s sight is just the most dramatic exemplar of the unspoilt perfection offered by the New World. Living with the Indians for a few weeks, Milton is able to see all that this Paradise could be. It is a glorious world that he loves, but its acceptance would mean the abandonment of all the principles for which he fled the Old World, the strictures which have made him the ruler and shaper of a world according to his vision. When he returns to his community he is not only blind once more, but his fanaticism is more pronounced than ever.
Now a Catholic community is established nearby. A community which is presented as being open, lively, colourful, free, a way of life for which Goosequill yearns yet which is anathema to everything Milton stands for. To the Puritans the Catholics represent the very devil, their beliefs, their practices, their involvement of the Indians in their community life, their inter-racial marriages all threaten the roots of the puritan commonwealth. Milton exaggerates these deep divisions, until he whips the whole of Puritan New England into a war fever. And the Paradise of the New World is lost by the introduction of war.
As ever, Peter Ackroyd has a flair for the sharp and accurate pastiche, but the language can too easily obscure the story. Here, for instance, he has written a telling fable, but it is lost within the language and the genuine strength of the story is dissipated by the cleverness of the telling.