This year, November 8 falls on a Sunday, as it did in 1674, the day John Milton died. Milton, the evidence suggests, went quietly, dying, as Samuel Johnson writes, "by silent expiration." Indeed, those surrounding his deathbed did not notice that death had come to him for some time, according to early accounts, but it was his lack of silence about three months earlier that brought Elizabeth Fisher, his maidservant, and Christopher, his brother, to court on November 23, 1674 and again in December 1674, and obliged biographers to alter the early view of Milton's, as well as his last wife's, relationship to his daughters during his final years.
In July 1674, Milton had dictated to Christopher, a lawyer by profession, a new will, which may have essentially, if not completely, cut his daughters out of it: it left them money that Milton was owed rather than money that he possessed. The will--the account of which was rediscovered in the late eighteenth century and published as an "Appendix to the Preface" of Thomas Warton's 1791 selected edition of Milton's shorter works called Poems upon Several Occasions--shows that the poet had become disappointed with his daughters, who, tradition says, served as his amanuenses during the composition of Paradise Lost.
The report of the will reads as follows:
"The Nuncupative [word-of-mouth] Will of John Milton.
"Memorandum, that John Milton, late of the parish of S. Giles Cripplegate in the County of Middlesex gentleman, deceased, at several times before his death, and in particular, on or about the twentieth day of July, in the year of our Lord God 1674, being of perfect mind and memory, declared his Will and intent as to the disposal of his estate after his death, in these words following, or like effect: 'The portion due to me from Mr. Powell, my former wife's father, I leave to the unkind children I had by her, having received no part of it: but my meaning is, they shall have no other benefit of my estate than the said portion, and what I have besides done for them; .they having been very undutiful to me. All the residue of my estate I leave to the disposal of Elizabeth my loving wife.' Which words, or to the same effect, were spoken in the presence of Christopher Milton."
Among the offenses the daughters were accused of committing, according to the transcript of the court proceedings that were held to confirm the last will's validity, are abandoning their father for the last four or five years of his life, suggesting that news of his death would be good to hear when his last marriage was announced, and, perhaps worst of all for those reading this blog, making "away some of his books." The report goes on to say that they "would have sold the rest of his books to the dunghill women," suggesting that some of the books were saved from the market, even though Johnson, believing Milton had approved of the sale, reports that the money earned from selling his library had been the source of the money Milton had bequeathed to his heirs.
This document alters the impression that early biographies of Milton left of "Elizabeth [his] loving wife." Prior to the 1790s, she had been drawn as a villain who stole the majority of the inheritance--1,200 of 1,500 pound--that was to be divided among her and Milton's daughters. The will cleared her of that calumny, but ruined, or potentially ruined, the idealized picture of Milton's daughters as his amanuenses. (That ideal picture of them, despited the evidence of the will, was promoted in the nineteenth century.) Who, if anyone, is blameworthy in this family squabble, however, remains uncertain. In some recent accounts, Milton takes his wife's place as the villain and becomes the one mistreating his daughters, who do not appear as guilty as the above quotations suggest in all of the testimony. His daughter Anne, for example, is described as lame and helpless, a fact that makes Milton seem cruel for leaving her no sure money with which to survive, though another witness, at one point, notes that Anne had been taught a trade, making gold and silver lace, at her father's expense and can support herself following it. The record, then, is open to the interpretive whims of those who like to find villains, while the truth may be as boring as most family truths generally are: everyone involved bears some responsibility for whatever grievances exist.