David Wootton

The pursuit of happiness | 16 June 2016

... and his obsession with his dead wife

The pursuit of happiness | 16 June 2016
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A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby

Joe Moshenska

Heinemann, pp. 576, £

There is a wonderful portrait of Kenelm Digby by Van Dyke. He is dressed in black. His hand is on his heart. Behind him is a vast, wilting sunflower. The sunflower is a symbol of constancy — it follows the sun. When his wife Venetia died in 1633, when Kenelm was 29, he went into a profound mourning that lasted for the rest of his life — another 30 years. The sun had gone out of his life.

From the moment he discovered her dead body, seemingly asleep in her bed, his behaviour was, to say the least, a little odd. He took plaster casts of her hands, feet and face. He had Van Dyke paint a portrait of her in death. He commissioned a phalanx of poets, led by Ben Jonson (who was summoned to the deathbed so that he would be inspired by the sight), to write poems in her praise. He insisted on attending the dissection which sought to find the cause of her death, and discovered that her brain had turned to mush. He built a vast, black mausoleum for her body: it was surmounted by a golden bust. He abandoned his career at court. He never married again, not even to provide a stepmother for his infant children. This is the man in the portrait.

Kenelm apparently attributed his wife’s death to the drinking of viper wine, which was supposed to preserve indefinitely the beauties of youth. Kenelm was the cook, the apothecary, the alchemist; Venetia, who had once had a reputation as a courtesan, was now a pious Catholic and had given herself over to a life of religious contemplation and mortification. Had Kenelm fed the viper poison to her, as some suspected? Had she taken it in the hope that he would stop chasing after other women, as he had been doing? We do not know, and never will. Rumours circulated, but we only have Kenelm’s side of the story, and Joe Moshenska always takes Kenelm’s side — fortunately for him, Kenelm left plenty of versions of his own story.

Moshenska tells the story of Kenelm’s life up until Venetia’s death, and above all of his privateering voyage in the Mediterranean, which lasted through 1628 and during which Kenelm wrote a roman à clef, Loose Fantasies, about his love for Venetia. Despite being a landlubber (he does not know the meaning of the phrase ‘weigh anchor’, though Kenelm’s own correct usage is part of the OED definition), Moshenska recounts the voyage, which involves naval battles, the ransoming of English slaves from their ‘Turkish’ captors (some of whom were actually English ‘renegades’), and the looting of antiquities from Delos, with gusto, and his book is a delight.

It is not, of course, in the same league as Noel Malcolm’s heavyweight Agents of Empire, which tells the story of the Mediterranean in this period from the point of view of the local participants, not from that of a swashbuckling Englishman who was, as far as the Turkish and Venetian governments were concerned, nothing but a pirate. Kenelm had letters of marque from England authorising him to seize or sink French and Spanish shipping, an authority he interpreted in the widest possible manner. A Catholic, he had no qualms in throwing himself wholeheartedly into a war against England’s Catholic enemies, but then he was desperate to live down the ‘stain’ in his blood, the fact that his father had been executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

And, because he sees the world through Kenelm’s eyes, something of Kenelm’s own astonishing peculiarity escapes Moshen-ska’s gaze. In Loose Fantasies Kenelm says that since the philosophers can’t agree on the good life, he will do ‘what pleaseth him most’, ignoring the censures of others, ‘and thus I shall be free from the servitude that most men live in’. His sole goal is his own ‘happiness and content’; what matters is not what others think but only ‘what I truly enjoy and feel in myself’. Who else before Kenelm had written like this, casting aside shame, guilt and the life of virtue, and dedicating himself entirely to the pursuit of happiness?

Hobbes would later be Kenelm’s friend, but this passage dates to 1628, not 1651. Kenelm had voyaged not only far from home, but into the future. His Loose Fantasies (first published, with perfect timing, in 1968) marks a revolution in ideas —  soon the word ‘selfish’ would be invented to describe people who thought like this. Kenelm in 1628 had the makings of a great man; by the end of his life he was widely dismissed as, in John Evelyn’s words, an arrant mountebank, a teller of tall tales and unreliable histories.

Moshenska’s story ends exactly where Kenelm would have wanted it to end: with the search for Venetia’s tomb, destroyed in the fire of London of 1666 (John Aubrey later caught a glimpse of the looted bust of Venetia for sale in a market, but when he turned back for it it had disappeared). Kenelm’s body lay beside Venetia’s, but the inscription made no mention of his presence there. It read (in Latin, of course): ‘It is a delight (voluptas) to love one’s wife when she is alive; a sacred duty (religio) to do so when she is dead.’ Venetia had become Kenelm’s true religion, his only object of devotion. In this book the two lovers are joined once again in life, as they were in death.