By Jennifer Wallace
Reach up to that shelf Lizzie and fetch me down the immortal book of Milton. I wish to have what in me is dark illumined once more.
1790s Cripplegate, England. Mr. and Mrs. Grant live nearby St. Giles where presumably Milton is buried. One day as the church is being renovated, Mr. G, Mr. Fountain, Mr. Strong, Mr. Lamming and a bunch of others start digging up beneath the clerk’s desk where it is rumored that Milton’s actual coffin is buried. And they actually uncover the bones of Milton. The guys start touching the body and taking small parts of it: a few locks of his flowing hair, the jaw, and a few ribs. Mr. G and the guys then go to their work and they leave Mrs. G in charge of protecting the body.
Next thing you know Mrs. G is starting a black-market business, charging people 6p for a look at the body and before you know it, nothing is left of Milton and a relics sale flourishes in the city. The rest of the story follows the aftermath of this underground market and the consequences of desecrating the body of Milton.
…I felt the tragedy of Adam and Eve’s banishment with its full force, as the were driven out from Paradise by fiery angels with flaming swords and departed in tears with wandering steps, uncertain where to go, with too much liberty of choice and not enough mercy from God. But Mr Grant said that this was not the correct interpretation and that God was merciful and that he was not deliberately mischievous and calculating when he set a delicious fruit tree in his garden just so that Adam and Eve could be tempted to pick from it. I accepted his words, and my admiration for Satan in the same secret corner of my memory where I still retained the information about Mr Poole’s pamphlet and the argument for free speech.
I picked up this book after a friend tweeted about it, I mean it had Milton on the cover so I was pretty much sold. Literary fan fiction, that should be exciting, right? Well, it wasn’t that great. It was fun to read but not a book that I’d read again. Sure it’s creative in it’s own way but in many other aspects it was very bland.
The best thing about the book I would argue is the attempt at making Miltonic parallels. Wallace divides the book into 12 “books” instead of chapters, just like Paradise Lost, and she has an excerpt of each Book from PL at the beginning of her chapters. Wallace didn’t choose the most famous or obvious sections, and that excerpt would color the events of the upcoming chapter. You have to give it to her, it was a great move; but without it the book would utterly fail because her plot line and narrative were held up by those parallels. I kept reading because I wanted to see how she weaves Paradise Lost into her own narrative and it was a fun exercise. That being said, you obviously need to have read Milton and have a relatively firm grasp of Paradise Lost in order to appreciate what Wallace was doing with her own narrative, and the jokes and digs she snuck in. You’d still understand the story no problem if you’ve never read Milton but then it would be a boring and meaningless story.
So the verdict: if you’re a Milton enthusiast, maybe give it a shot, it’s lighthearted summer reading; if you don’t even know who Milton is or don’t like him then, a) we can’t be friends, and b) you don’t want to waste your time on a mediocre story such as Digging Up Milton because you won’t get all the inside jokes.