Filler content with alternative history

A review that originally appeared in Sol #30 back in 1998:-

Milton in America by Peter Ackroyd. Published by Vintage. ‘B’ format paperback. 277pp. £6.99.

Biographer of Dickens, T. S. Eliot and Blake, winner of the Somerset Maugham award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, Peter Ackroyd is a writer who comes with an impressive literary pedigree and is not someone you would automatically associate with genre fiction, though the horrific and supernatural elements in such books as Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee are undeniable. With this latest novel he dips a toe into the waters of alternative history, one of the most distinctive of science fiction’s many sub-genres, at the same time indulging his love of England’s literary heritage.

In the real world John Milton served in Cromwell’s government and was an outspoken critic of the institution of monarchy, but when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 the blind poet was forced to go into hiding and only narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose. In later years he wrote Paradise Lost and the other great poems for which he is chiefly known today, becoming an inspiration to many and a power for good.

In Ackroyd’s fictional alternative, rather than wait on the mercy of King Charles, Milton takes passage aboard a ship bound for New England, with the boy Goosequill as his guide and secretary, where he is welcomed with open arms by the Puritan colonists. Milton quickly becomes their leader, uniting the far flung settlements under a strong central government. The result however is not so much Paradise on Earth as an illustration of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting influence of power.

Beautifully written, in a language that harks back to the time of Milton but won’t alienate modern readers, this is a sombre novel, a compelling exercise in the art of seeing ourselves as others see us. Milton believes himself to be a deeply moral and righteous man, one who always acts in accordance with the will of God and for the greater good of his people. In opposition to this self-view we have the testimony of Goosequill, who sees his friend and mentor transformed from an amiable visionary into a stern and intolerant demagogue, undone by a carnality his religion forbids him to embrace, until at the end he is the personification of the very tyranny he fled from.

Ackroyd is not interested in the game of consequences and the tricks of name dropping that seem to delight most dabblers in this sub-genre. Instead he simply uses alternative history as an embarkation point for a sublime exploration of the malleability of human nature, the way in which our most dearly held ideals and visions can be undermined. If poets are indeed, as Shelley contended, the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, then Ackroyd seems to conclude it were better they remain so. Recommended reading.

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