GOOD masters and fair ladies of the Cosmopolitan Culture Club; Nay, do not be so alarmed! It is, I know, out of the common for a spirit to appear upon an occasion like this, but I heard my name spoken as I flitted past this house, and have delayed my terrestrial errand to listen. Alas, that after nigh two hundred and fifty years my character should be so maligned! Alas, that misguided people should still believe that I destroyed my husband’s domestic comfort, and made his life wretched with my frivolity! I think one of you was just saying that Mr. Milton and I, “in the mysterious providence of God, met for mutual misery.” I am glad there is some one who thinks that the misery was mutual. All through my married life I was grieved by criticism, and since then I have been “to ages an example;” but now, if you will grant me the privilege, I should like to show you how much more I suffered than did my famous husband. It is with diffidence that I undertake the task, for
Goes by the worse, whatever be her cause.
I heard one of you gentlemen reading some remarks which he said were made by the Reverend George Gilfillan. So that clergyman has the assurance to declare that “ Milton’s wife had nothing to complain of except his austere manners and life, and of these she might have been aware before the marriage.” Might have been aware, indeed! Ladies, I appeal to you. If you met a man as handsome as John Milton was when I first saw him, —a man with a soft, pink-and-white complexion and fair auburn hair, — a man who looked not a day older than twentyfive, — a man who had written in praise of
Quips, and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods and Becks and wreathèd Smiles,
Sport that wrinkled Care derides
And Laughter holding both his sides,—
would you expect to find him austere ? La! he was finer looking than any of the soldiers who came to our dances at Forest Hill, and he smiled so sweetly, and talked so fair, that I thought I was going to live
Ah me! I soon realized that I was
and that my husband’s sentiments were far more truly expressed when he wrote,—
With even step, and musing gait;
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes :
Forget thyself to marble, till
With a sad leaden downward cast
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.
“Nothing to complain of!” How would Mr. Gilfillan have liked to have a wife who sat alone, and made the family keep quiet in order that she might compose denunciations of the political opinions of his family and friends ?
One month of “Spare Fast,” “Retired Leisure,” and poisonous politics was enough for me, and I showed Mr. Penseroso that I had no intention of turning to marble to please him. Once I was back in happy Oxfordshire, what cared I for the solemn lectures he wrote me, or for the silly tracts he published ? Many a hearty laugh I had over his Divorce Doctrines and Disciplines, his Tetrachordons and his Colasterions. But courting that model, Miss Davies, was no laughing matter. One has to draw the line somewhere, you know, and — well, I thought I ought to make the best of my bad bargain.
You mentioned the fact that I went down on my knees to Mr. Milton when I asked him to forgive me. Pray, what else could I have done to make peace with a man who maintained that the fault was all on my side, who held himself to be infinitely superior to any woman, and who could write, even after years of wedded life, —
Gave to the man despotic power
Over his female in due awe,
Nor from that right to part an hour,
Smile she or lour.
Well, I went back to my pensive spouse and bore with his peculiarities as well as I could. Was it no hardship, think you, to have a husband who lived by rigid rule, — getting up at an unearthly hour in the morning, requiring to be read to and sung to exactly so much every day ? Why, the strain of having his meals ready on time was enough to bear. And then, though Mr. Milton wrote so much about religion, he never went to church. Rather inconsistent, was he not ? He could not have thought his own family worth converting, for he held no devotions with us, but had the Bible read to him in Hebrew; very edifying to us poor ignoramuses. How could he, who did not deem women fit for education, blame his wife for not being a scholar ? Surely there were scholars enough in the house. Besides the wonderful Phillips boys, who were held up as patterns because they had learned Latin in a single year, there was a whole parcel of student lads; enough to drive any woman out of her senses. And then there was Pa Milton to put up with. So you can imagine that when, on account of political persecution, my own family came, too, and my poor, deformed baby Anne was born, our house in Barbican was crowded full. Is there any lady here this evening who envies me the privilege of having lived with the great poet? How would she like to have had charge of the housekeeping for that combination monastery, boarding-school, nursery, and family hotel ? She will surely grant that I had very little time for frivolity. The only comfort I had was the thought that my husband wielded a mightier weapon than any of our dashing young Oxfordshire officers, and now and then, when the babies were asleep, the hose all mended, and the morrow’s meals planned, I would commit to memory a verse or two I had heard our guests commend. I meant to surprise the poet with them some day, but the opportunity never came.
One would think that my husband’s conscience ought to have pricked him for his treatment of poor mother and her children. Taking all their property just because father owed old Mr. Milton! Perhaps he was uncomfortable, for he was uneasy enough, goodness knows. After the old folks died we moved and moved: from Barbican to Ilolburn, from Holburn to Charing Cross, from Charing Cross to Whitehall, from Whitehall to Scotland Yard, and from Scotland Yard to Petty France.
Precious little notice did John Milton ever take of his own dear children, though he wrote pages of stuff about Eddie Phillips’s baby sister, and called her a
Soft, silken primrose fadingtunelessly ; and any one could see that he had no family feeling by reading his Comus. Imagine two men hunting for their sister in a dark forest and palavering about “Tyrian cynosures” and “innumerous boughs ” for nineteen lines before they mention the lost lady!
I heard you say that Milton’s marriage with me occasioned the world to entertain a very unfavorable idea of his disposition. Pray, what idea should the world have of a disposition that could not be sweet unless life was all honey and roses ?
Well, good people, I have interrupted your remarks, and will now leave you to quote Howitt anti Cleveland and Ward and St. John and Gilfillan to your heart’s content. Much those worthies know of the merits of the case! Do you find that the Phillips boys — who lived for years in Milton’s home and enjoyed the blessings of his rule and rod — ever said that I was to blame ?
But I must not prate of “dispraise or blame.” It is all over now, and I know that
What the unsearchable dispose
Of Highest Wisdom brings about.
I trust I shall be forgiven for my momentary display of earthly temper, and be dismissed with peace and consolation
And calm of mind, all passion spent. Farewell.