Rating: 3.5 stars
Earlier this year I read Alan Bilton’s The Known and Unknown Sea for a reading challenge. I had to find an independently published book, and I came upon local publisher the Cillian Press. I enjoyed Bilton’s book enough to seek out another title from this publishing house. I chose Jennifer Wallace’s debut Digging Up Milton.
I really enjoyed it as a quick read. The story has a lot of interesting points and is written in a lively way. The premise is the discovery and exhumation of the poet John Milton’s body and the fate that befalls the people who interact with it. Wallace includes some contemporary accounts from the popular press and uses the scant information available to her to spin an entertaining yarn. Her writing style captures the rhythms of Georgian writing well, and the characters are all believable and sympathetic.
We follow the story through the experiences of Lizzie Grant, a young woman married to an older man, who enjoys a good flirt. She is funny and spirited and at the heart of her community.
As well as experiencing married life, London parish life, and all that surrounds the existence of working class Londoners at the end of the 18th century through Lizzie’s eyes, we also learn alongside Lizzie about Milton’s revolutionary past and the agitation among some that echoes the revolution happening in France. As a social historian, I enjoyed these elements of the book very much. I didn’t know much about Milton, other than he wrote the epic allegorical poem Paradise Lost, so I was interested to discover that he had written pamphlets in support of Oliver Cromwell and had spent time in prison for his sedition on the restoration of the monarchy. I do love an historical novel that educates as well as entertains.
At the start of each chapter is a clever device – a passage is quoted from each of the books of Paradise Lost that gives a flavour of what is covered in the chapter. I’ve never read the poem, so I appreciated the opportunity to experience at least part of it.
Lizzie Grant is, of course, a barely literate woman, as would be the case with someone of her social standing at the time, so there is a question of how reliable her testimony is. The question is answered at the end of the book and raises the issue of how women of Lizzie’s class only had a voice when it was filtered through that of a man.
I thought the book worked very well and would read something by Jennifer Wallace again.