John Evelyn was a dry old stick – and here that metaphor has an almost literal force, since his first and greatest love was for trees. In Fumifugium (1661) he argued that smoky workshops should be banished from London, and that the environs of the city should be planted with ‘such Shrubs, as yield the most fragrant and odoriferous Flowers’ to sweeten its stench. Sylva, printed in 1664 under the auspices of the Royal Society, was described by its author as ‘dry sticks’ which might afford readers ‘some sap’. It lovingly describes how to plant, tend and ultimately harvest all kinds of tree, from the solid English oak to the Frenchified acacia with roots ‘which insinuate and run like loquorize under ground’. In his gardens at Sayes Court, on the edge of the naval dockyards at Deptford, he laid out complex arrangements of the most exotic trees and plants. Like his Norfolk contemporary Sir Thomas Browne, he admired the fact that a tree could ‘generate its like without violation of Virginity’. But he was no Swampy or tree-hugger. His plans for giant plantations of trees had a military and industrial purpose: they were eventually to be felled to provide the raw material for ships, or a cleaner fuel for manufacturing than the sulphurous Newcastle coal which befouled the London air throughout the 17th century.
Apart from trees Evelyn had few real loves, and those that he did have do not on the whole give rise to zesty or even extended passages in the diary for which he is chiefly famous. His wife was plain, loyal and witty. When she feared he might be abandoning her and his gardens for life in ‘a glorious Court amongst great beauties and wits’ she wrote jokily to summon him back, calling herself Hortensia (‘garden-girl’) to tickle his dendrophilia. Evelyn in turn writes appreciatively of her loyalty, but if he felt passion for her (they married when she was 13) it is not immediately apparent in the didactic treatise on how to run a household and be a wife which he wrote for her during their engagement. He adored his first son, Richard, a prodigy who (if we believe the diary) could recite the Psalms and read Greek at an age when most children today are thinking about Lego. But Richard died when he was only five, and Evelyn found it hard to transfer his affection to his remaining son, John, who was lame and less apt to learn than his brother. Evelyn’s grief at his son’s death was massive and unfeigned, and was perhaps that of a man whose love was most alive when it had lost its object.
He also enjoyed the company of youngish girls. He had a flirtatiously avuncular relationship with the 13-year-old Anne Howard, the daughter of a near neighbour in Deptford. During a period of separation from Evelyn she wrote him a letter which teasingly looked forward to hearing more of his ‘hard wordes and supuerfin comilements’ – evidently Evelyn did not repress his taste for words like ‘fuliginous’ when in female company. How far Anne’s affection for the author of Sylva determined her eventual choice of husband, a middle-aged man called Sylvius, can only be guessed at; but she remained one of Evelyn’s friends for most of his life. He also enjoyed what was called, after Robert Boyle had popularised the term, ‘seraphick love’ with Anne Russell (whom he dubbed ‘Platona’) and Elizabeth Carey (who became his ‘Electra’). It is exceptionally hard to describe what Evelyn felt for these women: probably it is best to say that the concept of platonic love enabled this socially awkward and excessively serious man to talk easily and flirtatiously, if polysyllabically, with young women. In this period it was almost de rigueur to cast erotic affections as platonic romances, in which lovers with Greekish names relished each other’s virtue in a way that now looks suspiciously unerotic. Evelyn seems genuinely to have attempted to live out these fictions.
Then, in 1669, Evelyn, aged 49, met a 17-year-old Maid of Honour of the Duchess of York called Margaret Blagge. She enters the diary first as ‘the excellent Mrs Blagg’ and then rapidly becomes ‘my particular Devota’. In 1672 she asked the diarist to look after her affairs, to be her ‘friend’, and to regard her as his ‘child’ (her father had died in 1660). He agreed, and remarked in his diary on ‘this Miracle of a young Lady in a licentious Court & so deprav’d an age’. Evelyn drew an altar with a heart on it and a pentacle beneath it, and Margaret inscribed it: ‘Be this the symbol of inviolable friendship.’ Before long he was referring to Margaret in his diary simply by the figure of a pentacle, and would dine and converse with her on most Tuesdays. His diary, intended as a more public record of his affairs than Pepys’s, reveals tantalisingly little of what the two friends did or spoke about when they dined – sometimes alone, sometimes with poverty-stricken widows, sometimes with Evelyn’s wife, Mary.
Margaret had become engaged in 1667 to Sidney Godolphin (nephew of the poet of the same name), who at this point was caught up in the gambling and loucheness of the Court of Charles II. After an extended courtship, full of doubts, delays, debts, separations and declarations of love and piety, Margaret Blagge eventually became Margaret Godolphin on 16 May 1675, in a marriage so secret that not even her platonic friend Evelyn was told about it until the following April. Even then it was not Margaret herself but her sister who let the news slip. Evelyn’s diary for the period during which her marriage was still a secret reflects his uncertainty as to what her relationship with him had become: sometimes she is Mrs Blagg, sometimes (usually when Evelyn is seeing her alone) she is represented by the pentacle, and sometimes she becomes Mrs Godolphin. The married form of her name is used even in entries dated before, but presumably written or revised after, Evelyn knew of the marriage. He confessed that he ‘expostulated with her about the Concealment’ in what he later described as a ‘friendly quarrel’. ‘Friendly’ there struggles to mean ‘amicable’ rather than ‘between friends’.
On 16 April 1678 Evelyn’s diary drily noted that Margaret was ‘great with child’. It may be that some of the complexity of his feelings about her pregnancy were registered in his more than usually graphic description a fortnight later of a meeting of the Royal Society
concerning a woman that in Lions had been 24 yeares with Child, which had been dead 7 years before the Mother, who lived to 60 . . . Also of another Conceiv’d out of the Womb, lying in the hollow of the body, during which the Mother conceiv’d and brought forth another child; the first coming forth by piecemeal, bones & putrid flesh.
Margaret gave birth to a healthy boy, Francis, on 3 September 1678. The boy lived, but his mother contracted puerperal fever, and died six days later in delirium. Evelyn’s diary rises at this moment to something approaching passion, recording ‘the unexpressable affliction of her deare Husband, & all her Relations; but of none in this world more than my self, who lost the most excellent, & most estimable friend, that ever liv’d: I cannot but say my very Soule was united to hers, & that this stroake did peirce me to the utmost depth.’
During the years in which Evelyn saw Margaret most frequently the diary is unusually thin. He was busy, and was at the best of times not prone to dwell on his own emotions. Two other sources cast strong but oblique light on the – well, what does one call it? ‘Friendship’ is now too thin a term, ‘affair’ too explicit; ‘seraphick love’ has the right tang of 17th-century Platonism, but does not quite catch the mildly unwholesome blend of piety and checked eroticism that rippled through the relationship. The first source is Evelyn’s Life of Mrs Godolphin, which he wrote eight years after Margaret’s death, and dedicated to his former seraphic nymphet Anne Howard (by now Lady Sylvius). This presents Margaret Godolphin née Blagge as a saint, who sought out Communion each week, posted admonitory notes to herself around her chamber to think fine thoughts and act fine deeds, and who prayed with Evelyn, without Evelyn and for Evelyn. After the first publication of the Life in 1847 Margaret Godolphin came to be regarded as a model of Victorian womanhood who had just happened to live in the 17th century. The rhapsodical panegyric style of the Life is barely readable today without a faint sense of unease and suspicion as to what kind of affair it was that made Evelyn quite so determined to spiritualise it after the event. There is quite a lot in the life of John Evelyn which might make one wonder whether his spirit doesn’t belong in the same circle of hell as that of Humbert Humbert, though he was, probably, more humbug than Humbert.
It’s here that the second major source of knowledge about Evelyn’s platonic love (or what you will) comes into play. The surviving letters exchanged between the couple were acquired by the British Library in 1995. Before this the documents were deposited at Christ Church, Oxford, where they were interpreted to the world by a librarian, G.A. Hiscock. More than half a century ago, Hiscock wrote an account of the relationship which assailed the Victorian image of the couple as spiritual lovers. It did so partly by selective quotation from the letters, partly by broad innuendo (‘What he was doing we can only surmise’), and partly by some serious and possibly wilful misdatings of their correspondence. According to Hiscock, Evelyn devoted much of his Tuesday evenings to persuading Margaret not to marry Sidney Godolphin, preferring to retain spiritual control over her, along with some sort of sublimated sexual interest (Hiscock is coyly 1950s about this).
Enter Frances Harris, a senior curator of manuscripts at the British Library. In this meticulous book she presents a finely balanced and doubtless definitive view of what must be one of the most complexly motivated of human relationships. She redates letters which Hiscock had misdated, and she intersperses letters between Evelyn and Margaret with the evidently passionate correspondence between Margaret and Godolphin (also now in the British Library) to show that Margaret’s affair with her future husband also had its intensities, its coolings and its spiritual aspirations. She also gives an impressively inward account of the pressures bearing down on a relatively poor Maid of Honour in the Court of Charles II. Margaret Blagge emerges from this book for the first time as a person with active desires and ambitions. Harris crushes Hiscock’s view of Margaret as a neurotic, pious creature whom Evelyn warned off marriage so that he could keep his spiritual talons sunk in her flesh. She evidently experienced religious worship through the eroticised language of Francis de Sales (‘o Inlarge my heart, I am sick with love’), and used ‘courtship’, in all its various senses from ‘behaviour appropriate to the Court’ to ‘the process of developing a love for a person of the opposite sex’, to achieve as much as she could of her ultimate desire, which was to live a religious life. Harris shows that Margaret did not delay her marriage because Evelyn bullied her into staying chaste, but because Godolphin gambled and had no money, and because she had a profound (and sadly justified) fear of childbirth which reinforced her equally genuine wish to retreat from the world. Had it been possible in this period to become an Anglican nun it is likely she would have done so: as things stood she was stuck with playing the goddess Diana in court masques, and attempting to embody the spirit of chaste love in her evenings with Evelyn.
There is no question that the affair was rooted in shared piety, and no question either that the two friends believed that theirs was a form of love which could ennoble them, and perhaps lead them closer to God. But the relationship was evidently also charged with something more, and it was probably asymmetric in its charge. Evelyn’s own account of the compact between them shows a gleeful emphasis on its bindingness, and suggests that he regarded it as virtually a sacrament. ‘You have brought your selfe into Bonds, you can never untie whilst you live: The Title that has Consecrated this Altar, is the Marriage of Soules.’ Margaret’s motive at the start seems to have been chiefly a wish to acquire a financial adviser and protector of her interests after the death of her father. For the zealous Evelyn the process of planting God in her soul and nurturing her in preparation for marriage became a scheme to which he committed as much time as he had put in to propagating his trees at Sayes Court: passions, he believed, like trees, need careful tending, and only when they are properly cared for does man become ‘fit for Culture and for God’s Husbandry’. And friendship, too, was for him a species of botany, being ‘implanted by God alone’. His was, in the words of his contemporary and fellow tree-lover Andrew Marvell, a ‘vegetable love’, which he tended with an energy that the unfortunate Margaret evidently came to feel was too zealous.
Harris never disappoints in the detail with which she documents this extremely curious relationship, but she rarely suggests what it might show us about larger patterns in late 17th-century methods of managing and articulating affection. This is a shame, because it means that this book never quite states the most important truth that it illustrates: that ‘friendship’ was so deeply and richly over-determined in this period that friends did not always know what to expect from each other. ‘Friendship’ operated on the delicate boundary between the erotic, the religious and the social. And this fact enabled those who described themselves as ‘friends’ to conceal from each other, and often also from themselves, which of these predominated in their motives at any one time. It also made misunderstandings between friends inevitable. When Margaret wrote Evelyn a letter celebrating the anniversary of their compact of friendship she exclaimed, presumably in all innocence: ‘O that I did love nothing but God and you.’ Was she aware as she wrote of how easy it would be to read that ‘and’ as disjunctive (‘if only God had all my spiritual love and you all my corporeal love’) as well as conjunctive (‘love of you is as pure as love of God’)? Reading 17th-century friendships is acutely difficult now, but it was exquisitely hard in the 17th century, too. The story Harris tells is full of moments when the two seem to be pulling each other and themselves in directions which are quite contrary to their explicit intentions, as they are beguiled by one strand or other within the meaning of the word ‘friendship’. Margaret’s concealment of her marriage from Evelyn – which Harris does not explain entirely satisfactorily – strongly suggests that she knew it would arouse sexual jealousy in her friend, and that by this stage of the affair she had recognised that he wanted something more from ‘friendship’ than she would give.
There are pleasures as well as perils in being a 17th-century ‘friend’, though. It could enable the partial satisfaction of desires which in theory ‘friendship’ transcended. ‘Friend’ could still mean ‘mistress’, and in this period as in any other men and women who dined together regularly could not expect to avoid scandal and jealousy. Evelyn seems to have taken a little pleasure in the hint of worldly wickedness which potentially lurked within his friendship. He wrote in a letter to Margaret: ‘Now would this looke like a love-letter as any thing in the World, to any body living, who should light upon it, but you and I?’ The friendship licensed him to write love-letters which he could deny were love-letters even as he nudged her into thinking that they were. The spiritual dimension of ‘friendship’ enabled him to avoid any unpleasantly carnal ‘violation of Virginity’, but it also enabled him to feel superior to what Donne called ‘dull sublunary lovers’ who might vulgarly suppose that his love was earthy. In imagining how the love-letter would look to ‘any body living’ Evelyn also allows himself imaginatively to enjoy a little of the kudos which might accrue from his being known to dine alone with a Maid of Honour. ‘Friendship’ between the sexes in this period had so many different and potentially conflicting aspects that no one who participated in such a relationship might know exactly what they were doing or quite what they finally meant, or how their friend might read their behaviour. It was the perfect social game for a society which was preparing itself to enjoy some of the pleasures afforded by the novel, that distant descendant of the platonic romances read, written and even lived so frequently in the later 17th century. Friendship offered the delights of presenting one’s motives in various lights, and of seeing those motives misread by one’s friend, of feeding back those misreadings into one’s conduct, and of experiencing the joy of being secretly sexual while all the time feeling deliciously high-minded.
This book, then, although by no means a steamy tale of sex among the arboreta, tells a story of remarkable depth and complexity. As the definitive account of the friendship of John Evelyn and Margaret Blagge it reveals the self-deceptions, aspirations and fears of two particularly articulate 17th-century friends. It does so in a way that reveals more about the links between sociability and sexuality in that period than any other study of a single relationship could do. People who want to think about what friendship or sexuality were in the 17th century will find in this book rich layers of documentary evidence laid out with care and passion. Anyone interested in the delicate fusion of platonic romance, life-writing and letter-writing which fed into the early novel will also find going on here some of the realignments of sensibility that created a market for that genre. And anyone interested in people will find here bountiful evidence that one distinguishing characteristic of our species is our inability to recognise all the depths of our own minds or all the possible resonances of our own words. ‘Friendship’ is the perfect tool for deception and self-deception, for high-mindedness and for occluding darker motives so completely that they seem scarcely to exist. If Harris’s reluctance to draw wider conclusions about patterns of feeling in the 17th century sometimes mutes the full impact of her work, that is because this book is what it is: a first-rate documentary study of a relationship which has never before been interpreted so accurately or so conscientiously.