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Looking for a new England

MILTON IN AMERICA by Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 15.99
Peter Ackroyd's reputation has taken some time to settle down as, in copywriting terms, an ace biographer with quite a nice novelist attached. While his studies of Eliot, Dickens and Blake have strengthened the recent tendency to regard biography as an art form, Ackroyd's fiction, while invariably well-researched, interesting, accomplished and readable, somehow resembles what aviators call an "Iron Bird": a decommissioned aeroplane which has been transferred to a museum as an object of sentiment or study. All the parts are there, structurally sound and immaculately maintained, but one knows it will never fly again.

This may be in part because Ackroyd's novels are essentially period pieces, seemingly conceived as a means of enabling the author to indulge his love of, and talent for, literary archaeology, particularly in the accumulated sediments of the London subsoil. But it is also because the generating concept usually appear to be intellectual rather than imaginative, perhaps most memorably the chilling conceit in Hawksmoor that the architect's London churches embody a demonic code still potent today.

In his latest novel, this concept is characteristically original and thought-provoking. In 1660 John Milton - not yet the celebrated author of Paradise Lost - was in a dicey position. As Latin secretary to Cromwell's regime, he had written an official apologia attempting to justify the execution of Charles I. His anti-monarchical views were well-known, and as a pamphleteer he had laboured in vain to prevent the Restoration.

If the late king's son was of a vindictive nature, Milton could expect at the very least a lengthy term of imprisonment, if not the hanging, drawing and quartering which awaited the regicides whose actions he supported in print.

In the event his Royalist foes preferred the milder but more humiliating punishment of witty derision, but Milton could not know that at the time. Hence the plausibility of Peter Ackroyd's alternative scenario, in which the poet flees Old England for New, taking refuge among the Puritan settlers who had emigrated earlier for very similar reasons. But where the historic Milton, a blind, powerless outsider, returned to poetry for the first time in 20 years with results which ensured a posthumous rout of his enemies, his American simulacrum becomes the political and spiritual dictator of a colony named in his honour - very much along the lines he himself laid down in his polemical pamphlet The Readie and Easie Way - and experiences paradise lost not as the epic we know but, as Italians say, on his skin.

Matters come to a head with the arrival of a group of Catholic Virginians who found a settlement near New Milton. The eponymous ex-poet accuses their leader of inciting the Indian tribes to attack the Puritans, and persuades the latter to launch a campaign of what would now be called ethnic cleansing. (That this was a perfectly credible threat, even a century later, is shown by the charge in the Declaration of Independence that George III had stirred up "the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions" against the Colonists. Now that the Founding Fathers and the Native Peoples are regarded with almost equal veneration, this particular reference is rarely cited.)

So far from being "merciless Savages", Ackroyd's Indians are noble and Rousseauesque to a degree with which even the most extreme adherents to that latterday Puritanism, political correctness, could find no fault. Having lost his way in the forest, Milton gets caught in one of their traps, breaks his leg, regains his sight, and later has a drug- induced experience of the Carlos Castaneda variety in the course of which he sees Something Naughty But Nice in the Woodshed. But since he cannot accept his inner child, he has to externalise and destroy it in the form of the tolerant, worldly, multicultural Catholic settlement up the river.

If this rather crude psychological schema is one drawback to Milton in America, another is the protagonist himself; a dour, priggish, repressed fanatic rather like the Reverend Ian Paisley minus the Celtic charm. A little of this goes a long way, and 275 pages is in any case excessive for what is essentially a novella-length concept. Ackroyd has perhaps missed a chance in not pruning this story and adding a contrasting pendant featuring the subject of his last biography. For if Milton had reason to be concerned for his safety in 1660, so did William Blake in 1804, awaiting trial for sedition after manhandling a soldier out of his garden in Felpham. What more natural than that he should have sought refuge in one of the newly independent Thirteen Colonies, about which he had written an epic crucial to his own artistic development and where one suspects he would, unlike Milton, have had a thoroughly good time?