Books: Paradise rediscovered

Peter Ackroyd's fictional account of Milton's flight to the New World crackles with wit. By Lucy Hughes-Hallett; Milton in America by Peter Ackroyd Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 15.99

Peter Ackroyd's Milton doesn't write Paradise Lost, he lives it. Unlike his historical counterpart, who went briefly into hiding at the time of the Stuart Restoration but emerged to live undisturbed while writing his great epics, this fictional Milton flees to that terrestrial Eden, that world which seemed to 17th century Europeans as virginal as one new- created: America.

It's a strikingly clever premise for a novel, one lifted above the ruck of historical-hypotheticals by its ingenious aptness, and by the fact that it is not original. The pilgrim fathers and mothers conventionally represented themselves as the First Parents in a New World. The fabulous and far-fetched conceit Ackroyd elaborates when he identifies New England with Paradise has been, for 300 years and more, an essential part of America's self-descriptive rhetoric. This novel is not only full of biblical and literary echoes, it also explores a metaphor which has had tremendous political consequences.

Of itself, though, Milton in America is far from tremendous. It is an elegant, erudite scherzo, at its best when crackling with jokes. Its two main characters, who are also its alternating narrators, are Milton himself and the run-away apprentice whom he has renamed Goosequill, and who acts as his secretary and as his eyes. Milton's voice is (for Ackroyd, a brilliant pasticheur) rather surprisingly unMiltonic but its relative restraint and colloquialism is certainly a better narrative vehicle than the real thing. Goosequill, a quick-tongued Londoner, makes a nice linguistic contrast with his master. When the two of them are conversing Ackroyd's prose fizzes and sparkles as brightly as an electrical misconnection.

They are shipwrecked. Washed up stark naked on the shores of the New World, Milton begins his new life, and rapidly spoils it. He is adopted as leader by a community of pious Puritans whom he incites to fanaticism, violence and warfare. Simultaneously Adam, Eve and the Serpent, he loses Paradise for himself, for those who might have gained it (his fellow settlers) and for those who previously possessed it (the natives, from whom he recoils in abhorrence.)

Quite why he does so is not satisfactorily explained. True, the real Milton was a man of passionate convictions, but he was not a bigot. True, the Milton of this novel is, even before his Fall, over-persuaded of his own superiority, but he is also a subtle, witty man with sweetness in his manner.

The least successful part of the book is that which should be its pivot. Walking alone in the forest, Milton is caught in an Indian's deer-trap. Suspended by one leg, he finds that he can see again. He spends some weeks with the Indians during which time his leg is magically healed by a pow- wow. Eventually he accepts the sexual favours of a squaw. When he refuses to marry her he is turned away and, stumbling back into the forest, finds he is once more blind. On his return to the Brethren's settlement he has become inflexible and furious. The episode is neither plausible in its conception (as the rest of the story is) nor persuasive in its execution. Its excision might have weakened Ackroyd's plan, but it would have made a better novel.

The remainder is consistently entertaining and intermittently exhilarating. Ackroyd is Milton and Goosequill incorporated. He has the former's encyclopaedic frame of reference: quotations and echoes are buried thickly in his text. He has the latter's playfulness and acuity. Goosequill, on first hearing Milton preach, reports "He could put on a better act than any street acrobat or ballad-singer I had ever seen." I'd say the same about their creator, with the same blend of scepticism as to his high purpose and enthusiasm for his dazzling skill.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot