In The Green and the Gold, his second historical novel, Christopher Peachment introduces us to Andrew Marvell, the beguiling 17th century poet and writer of "To His Coy Mistress", also a spy and politician. Marvell delightfully captured in his metaphysical poetry every aspect of love lost and gained. And yet, ironically, the man himself was a solitary figure whose reflections and tremendous insight allowed beauty to spill from an otherwise lonely existence. Peachment's Marvell allows us to witness those aspects of his life that we never would glean from history alone, as we follow him throughout his childhood, his travels in Europe, his firsthand experiences of the Cromwellian Civil War, and his endless battle between a deep-seated suspicion of women and a passionate yearning for them.
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About the Author
Christopher Peachment worked as a stage manager at the Royal Court and many other theatres in England before turning to journalism. In the 1980s, he was a film editor for Time Out magazine in London, later becoming Deputy Literary Editor and Arts Editor for The (London) Times. He is the author of Caravaggio and The Green and the Gold. He lives in Hoxton, London.
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The Green and the Gold
A Novel of Andrew Marvell: Spy, Politician, Poet
By Christopher Peachment
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Christopher Peachment
All rights reserved.
Biding My Time
'Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot:
Where willing nature does to all dispense
A wild and fragrant innocence:
And fauns and fairies do the meadows till
More by their presence than their skill.
Their statues, polished by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the gardens stand:
But howsoe'er the figures do excel,
The gods themselves with us do dwell.
Marvell. 'The Mower Against Gardens'
My sisters were too old for me. The youngest of the trio was only three years my senior, yet it made no difference. They were all grown long before me, and formed a cabal against me, which I could not enter.
When I was little, just six years old or so, I became intrigued by women. I had always liked their smell. I know now that my mother was not the most demonstrative of women, but on the rare occasions when she held me, to comfort me when I was sick or had hurt myself in a fall, then I liked the smell of her. I tried to describe the smell once to a friend and the best word that I could come up with was 'plowder'. Even though I was young I was already well tutored from my father and his young curates in Latin and Greek, and also I had my letters down well from a chapbook. True it was before I went to school, but I already had read my Aesop and some Homer and a little of Virgil, and had even begun my Hebrew. But I could not find a word that I wanted, and so made one up even before I thought about it. It just came to me, and still, now I am in my forties, when I repeat that word again to myself, her smell almost returns to me.
Just one word, a nonce word that I had made up, and my nose pricks and my eyes fill as if I were about to sneeze, and a faint crawling sensation at the back of my throat brings her back to me. Above all else it was a smell that promised warmth. A smell that arose from soft folds of flesh and the pores of a woman, which must be so different from those of a man. God built us different.
She used no perfume that I knew of. My father had been to the most puritan of colleges, but he was easy, and so not a puritan himself. He was a pious man and well learned, and he was a Conformist to the established Rites of the Church, though I confess none of the most over-running or eager in them. He was a middling sort of Reverend then. Neither was he poor. Even so, we were not extravagant, but rather plain in our living, and so my mother used no scent. But when I nuzzled my face into her neck and her hair became unpinned slightly and brushed against my face, I felt warm and safe. That smell that she had I will always associate with that state of mind, that feeling of safety. When I wish to feel more secure, I search out one of her old handkerchiefs that I keep in my chest for that very purpose. I had tried keeping them in oilcloth to start with, but the smell of the oil overwhelmed the smell of the lace. So I had a small glass box made, for glass has no smell, nor can it absorb odours. The lid was sealed with hard wax, which again has no smell once cooled. Each time that I need comforting, I have to break the wax and later reseal it, and so it is not an easy matter, but one which requires patience and a little inconvenience. It means that I can only use it for special occasions, and I like it so. The smell is growing dim with the years, but it is still there however faint, and it can calm me even when I am at my most disturbed.
The smell of geraniums will do the same, for different reasons I will go into later.
As I said, I became interested in women. It was their smell that did it. I wanted to know where it came from and whether they were all alike. And why they took so much time in their dressing. And how it was that their appearance was so carefully rendered. They did not wear paint or powder such as ladies do, but none the less they would pin their hair with much care and work upon their brows and eyes and cheeks and lips and do other things before the glass, which they would not let me see. My father would often rail against vanity and preach some sermon about how women were weak in that vein, but I knew, even as a child, that it went deeper than that. Yes, it was vanity that made them alter their appearance (how? I wanted to know how), but it was something else, some other quality I could not put a name to for I was young, that made it all worthwhile. They knew something, they had a secret, which made them realize deep down that the world was a better place if they spent a little while in front of the glass each day and prettied themselves.
You will know all this, you are a grown man, and acquainted with the ways of women; and so I am too, to a limited extent for I have not married; and you will be saying in a few short words what I am struggling for with many. Brevity was never my strong point in speech, though it is true I write short, but then I use the words of others, and Latin is a good master for keeping to the point. Stay with me if you will, I am sinking back to when the world was newgreen, and petticoats were all that I would think of.
You will be thinking that it was sex that was working upon me. Well, you may be right. I was young, but I was advanced for my years, in learning at any rate, and I do not believe in childish innocence, there is no such thing. Watch a child at play, and it will exhibit all the motions of the soul that you will see when it grows to manhood. Do you know a greedy man? He will have been a guzzler when in his cradle. Is this or that man a libertine? He will have had kinder sisters than mine, who would have caressed him when young, perhaps too much and too privily. Do you know a bully? He will have made his younger brothers and sisters live in hell, even when he was five. In the childhood of Judas was Christ betrayed. Truly is it said that the child is father to the man, and all we do, and all we be, is prefigured by our youth, right from the smallest age. There is no escape.
I wish my sisters had been kinder to me, for I would have turned out so very different from what I now am, a condition that I hate so much. They were only a little older than me it is true, but they were all three close in age to each other and so good friends, as far as any woman is a friend to another. They often quarrelled over nothing, the way women do, but why they had to treat me so unkind I can never understand. I was but a little thing, not ugly, nor horrid, and they could have used me as their own child or baby, to practise upon for when they had children of their own. I did not know that then of course, but I know it now, for I have seen older sisters pet their little brothers and cradle them and dress them up and play with them as if they were little poppets. Such girls have no need of dolls to teach them to be good mothers, they have the living breathing thing before them, which God gave them for good instruction.
They could, as I say, have done all that with me, and I would not have complained. Complained? By God, I would have loved it, for I do so love it now when a woman is busying herself about me, fixing my hose or straightening my stock, or flirting a little. It is a weakness of mine. But they did not. They ignored me in the main, and when they did not ignore me, it was only to order me about and make me fetch and carry and run errands for them. They would give me orders even when they did not need anything fetched. I was but a servant to them, and not a valued one. An annoyance at best, at worst a slave.
I did not like their smell much. It was not like my mother's. But they had something that I wanted to know about. I had rested my head in my mother's lap, and I knew well enough how it might have been figured. I knew well enough that there was a lack there, a lack which men do not have, but I had not seen the thing itself, and I will always want to see things for myself even now. Curiosity has always marked me, I know not why. And so I spied upon my sister, the eldest of the three. Her body had filled out, and she was almost become a woman. I followed her around from a distance, always keeping myself hid, and for the first time in my life, I knew a secret joy. There was something delicious, almost voluptuous, in watching her while she did not know it. It made me very excited, even at that age, before I could produce seed.
Truly man is fallen from the moment of birth, there is no age of innocence. To talk of the innocence of children is to lie to oneself. It is to draw a veil over the truth that one can remember if only one is honest enough about it. But men are not honest about themselves. They may be honest in their dealings with others, but they will not admit to themselves what they dare not. They deceive themselves in order to flatter the soul, and so they live in bad faith.
I will always be honest with myself, and to others I will dissemble. I will be the reverse of the common.
We lived at that time without the city wall, in a house provided by the charitable foundation for which my father was a Master. It was a middling sort of house, not large, nor fancy, nor yet mean, but it had several acres of garden, some of it wooded, and I grew up surrounded by flowers and trees, which I did love very much. For the flowers gave me beauty and the trees gave me hiding. My sisters would often go into the woods, for they had a little bower where they met to talk and laugh. It was well hidden from the outside, deep in a spinney of trees, and while it was not exactly a secret place, yet it could be used as such, for if anyone were approaching it, they could be heard quite easily by the rustling in the undergrowth and breaking of twigs underfoot. The girls would stop their giggling, and pick up their books and look grave, as if they were declining their verbs or reading scripture or some such, and my father would see them and would go away much pleased with his devout daughters. The hypocrites.
They thought I did not know of the place, for I was always under the eye of one or other of them. But I did. And I knew of much else besides that they did not know I knew, but I kept it all to myself, for that was my one weapon against them.
I too had a secret part of the wood. There was a box hedge which ran nearly up to the house, and bordered the parterre. It had been there for generations and was cut regularly by the gardener to keep its shape. It stood as high as two tall men, was as broad at its base as a carriage, and I discovered that it had a nearly hollow centre. If you parted the glaze green foliage at a point I discovered, you could crawl inside the hedge, and the greenery, the colour of a copper church steeple, would spring back in place behind you and cover your entry. Inside was a tangle of roots and branches, but it was possible to crawl the length of the hedge unseen. It was dusty inside, not a household kind of dust, but a dark brown heavy dust which flaked off the branches of box, and it had a strong resinous smell which always makes me think of alcohol and strong drink, even though I had never tasted that when I discovered my tunnel. I loved this place for a long time just for itself alone and because it was all mine. Then I found out what it could do, and I liked it even more.
By crawling to the end I could penetrate the woods. Not quite all the way inside, but that did not matter. The important thing was that I could get into the trees without being seen or heard. The paths were mostly gravel, which is noisy; and if you approached by the grass, then you could easily be seen crossing the open spaces by someone hidden not even very deep in the trees, but my secret hedge was like a tunnel that the engineers build beneath the walls of a besieged city. From it, I could invade my enemy.
And invade them I did. I used to creep up upon my sisters and stay within a deep thicket close by to their little bower with the pool of standing nile-green water in it. I would listen to their talk for hours, and looking back now I realize that they said absolutely nothing of the slightest interest to God or man. But that was not the point. It was not the intelligence I wanted. It was the act of watching them and hearing them while they did not know it, that so delighted me. I was not born a spy, it was my sisters made me one.
* * *
One hot afternoon in August, the house was empty. My father had gone into Hull on business with the Committee of the Charity and also something to do with shipping, and my mother had taken my sisters off visiting, and left me in the charge of the maid and the gardener. She was busying herself in the kitchen, he was working with his scythe upon the greenth, and I was left to my own devices. As the only male child, I was often alone, and have always enjoyed my own company. I went to my box hedge, taking care not to let the gardener see me, and drew back the branches and slipped inside. The sun shone only a little through the dense leaves, making the outside edge branches dappled with yellow and brown, but deep inside it was a cool ultramarine green. I crept forward slowly, with my mouth firmly closed, inhaling deeply through my nose. The resinous smell left me light-headed and I drifted through the heat haze as if swimming through a sluggish oil.
Presently I came to my spot in the woods. No one was around, but still I went for my nook in the undergrowth, and nestled down in it silently, packing the leaves and ferns down beneath me into a sort of bedding. I plucked a long stalk of yellow-green grass, and chewed the end and sucked the juice from it, which was both sweet and brackish. There was a quiet hum of insects and the occasional quick slap of water from the pool, as some bird dipped its beak in, or a gold fish surfaced and smacked its lips. And then I saw my oldest sister, and nearly gave myself away by starting. I had thought she was off with my mother, but obviously she had managed to slip away on some excuse. She was standing quietly by the water gazing intently upon her reflection in it. She smoothed her hair slowly, and dabbed a little water on her eyebrows and wiped them into a downward curve, and gently rubbed her cheeks with water to cool them, it was so hot.
Then I could hardly breathe for I knew what was coming next. She stepped out of her dress and lifted up her shift over her head, so that her small white arms were clear above her head for an instant as she stood there naked. And I saw her breasts, and the faintest bulge to her white belly and her long thin thighs. Her hips were not broad like my mother's, yet they were wider than a man's. Between her legs I could see nothing, for it was part covered in hair like a dog or a mouse. I did not expect that at all, thinking that they were all smooth, like a doll. I thought perhaps that that was all they had there, just a patch of hair such as men have under their arm. Did they? What is there, and how may I know?
She stepped lightly toward the nile-green water on tiptoe for she was barefoot, and she placed her left arm across her breasts as if to support them, though they were not so heavy. Gently she lowered herself into the pool with scarce a ripple, and sank with a sigh into the cool water. Her arm stayed across her breasts, holding them quite tight, and her right arm she sank into the water and it bobbed gently in a rhythmic motion as if she were very slowly strumming a guitar. Her head she rested on the grass of the bank and her eyes were softly closed and she breathed gently through her mouth, just faint but audible above the thrum of insects. After a while she hummed a song to herself, a sweet air, which I did not know, and have sought out over many years, and never have I found it. It stays with me though.
I had seen her and I loved what I saw.
What excited me even more, was that I was not supposed to have seen her. I was beginning to tremble, my arms and especially my thighs, which were rubbing together with an excitement I could hardly bear. My eyes became heavy as they do before sleep and I fainted dead away. But I must have come around quite quick, for I came to with a start, and a terrible fear gripping my innards and my heart hammering in my chest, for there stood my sister, towering over my nest and looking straight at me. She was clothed now, and her eyes were straining from their sockets with the whites showing all around the centre and her brows were lowered and minced together so they met above her nose, and her jaw was tight shut so that the muscles on her cheeks were bunched. She always was something of an actress, the silly bitch. It was as if she were playing some fireside game, and someone had said to her 'Mime anger.' She even had her arms akimbo, resting on her hips. There was so little natural about her, she was always putting on airs like my mother.
She did not say any word of accusation, which was strange, although she must have known I had been watching her. And I knew what was coming. And I knew I was in for it. I started to give an excuse, but stammered badly as I always used to when caught out, and I coloured till I thought my head would catch fire. She gripped me by the shoulders and shook me and said, 'This time I really will tell on you.' She was always threatening to tell my parents of any bad behaviour that she had caught me in, though she hardly ever did, and it had become an idle threat. This time I could see she meant it.
Excerpted from The Green and the Gold by Christopher Peachment. Copyright © 2003 Christopher Peachment. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ONE: The Green,
1. Biding My Time,
2. At Cambridge,
3. Mr Richard Harrington the Puritan,
4. The Edge-hill Fight on 23 October 1642,
5. After the Fight at Edge-hill,
6. Sketches of Spain,
7. Help Me Ronda,
8. Don Coyote,
9. The Madrid Office,
10. Marvell Roma,
11. Nature, Orderly and Near,
12. Trouble in Paradise,
13. Some Trees,
14. Appleton House,
15. An Axe Brought It In,
16. Stygian, Plutonian, Infernal Is Desire,
17. The Job,
18. Cromwell's Last Days,
19. At the Exiled Court of Charles. 1658,
20. The Fly Trap,
21. A Period to His Life,
22. First Instructions to a Painter. 1660,
23. Last Instructions to a Painter,
24. An Audience,
25. Bare Bones,
26. No Instructions to This Painter. 1661,
27. Ordeal by Fire,
28. Highgate and 'The Garden',
TWO: The Gold,
29. The Earl of Rochester at Sea,
30. A Year Later. 25 July 1666,
31. Restoration Comedy,
32. The Lord and the Gentleman,
33. Duelling Poets,
34. Reason and Error,
35. New market Stakes,
36. Six Mile Bottom,
37. The Poet Duels Again,
38. In Muscovy,
39. In the Court of the Tsar,
40. Astrologer Royal,
41. A Sunny Day out at Epsom,
42. Dr Bendo,
43. Violence and Its Uses,
45. The Attempt on the Crown Jewels by One Captain Blood May 1671,
Also by Christopher Peachment,