Book review: “The Familiar Epistles of Coll. Henry Martin, Found in His Misses Cabinet”

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Book review: “The Familiar Epistles of Coll. Henry Martin, Found in His Misses Cabinet”

She wasn’t his wife, but Henry Marten loved Mary Ward, the mother of their three young daughters whom he called endearingly his “pretty brats,” his “biddies” and, after a bout of illness, his “pocky rogues.”

Ward, as he told her over and over again in dozens of letters, was “my own sweet Love and Heart, and Dear and Soul.”

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Theirs was a love story that took place more than three and a half centuries ago, and, like most love stories in human history, it would have been lost forever following their deaths — but for two quirks, one historical and one technological.

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Familiar LETTERS

In the mid-17th century, during the English Civil Wars, Marten, whose name was also spelled Martin, was a Member of Parliament who sided with the Roundheads against King Charles I and his Cavaliers, raising a regiment of soldiers and earning the title of Colonel. Along with Oliver Cromwell and about 80 other leading Parliamentarians, he took part in the conviction and execution of the King in 1649.

The tables of political power in the nation turned, however, and, just a decade later, when the king’s son Charles II was restored to power, Marten found himself branded a regicide and targeted for revenge. Although many of the regicides were assassinated or legally executed, Marten was allowed to live, but spent his final 20 years in relatively comfortable circumstances in various prisons.

During that time, he wrote scores of letters to Ward, and, in 1663, three years after his death, about 90 of the letters, apparently discovered stored in Ward’s dresser, were published in a book of under the title Coll. HENRY MARTEN’s Familiar LETTERS. TO HIS LADY OF DELIGHT. Several other editions, some with the title The Familiar EPISTLES of COLL. HENRY MARTIN, Found in His MISSES CABINET, saw print over the next quarter century.

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It’s hard to know, from this distance, the reason for publication. To a modern-day reader, it doesn’t appear that there was much in the missives that would cater to political prejudices, either Cavalier or Roundhead.

Maybe it was simply the love story. That’s my guess.

 

The magic of digitization

Very few of those original books still exist and aren’t likely to be found outside of English libraries specializing in antiquities. But, just this month, I was able to read Marten’s letters, thanks to the magic of digitization.

Among the great changes in the book field in recent decades has been a quiet effort across the world to create digital copies of hundreds of thousands of books never copyrighted or out of copyright. These copies often include a PDF of each of the work’s pages to see how it looked to readers who actually held the book in their hands, and a plain-text version in which the test is digitized through a scan. Yet another kind of copy of the original is a facsimile printing of an actual, hold-it-in-your-hands paperback, employing still another modern innovation, print-on-demand technology.

spencer....killersThese electronic versions have been a boon to scholars who no longer have to travel to distant libraries to consult an antique source. Historian Charles Spencer, for instance, used Marten’s letters in his 2014 book on the regicides Killers of the King.

Yet the collection of Marten’s letters is an example of an old book that can still be vibrant today for the general reader.

Tipped off by Spencer’s reference to the book in his bibliography, I found it available online.. But, because I prefer to read a physical book, I ordered one of at least four print-on-demand versions available at amazon.com. (One caution: The original, reproduced in the print-on-demand books, uses the letter “f” in place of “s” in certain circumstances, as was the custom when it was published. The online version eliminates that distraction.)

 

“My sweet Soul”

From Spencer, I knew that Marten lost his first wife in childbirth and had not lived with his second wife since around 1650 when he took up with Ward who stuck with him until his death.

Much space in his letters is taken up with recounting visits he’s received from friends and listing the various food and gifts he is sending to Ward, apparently so that the delivery person doesn’t keep any back. Occasionally, he passes along news or rumors about what the King might do with him.

What makes every page a delight, though, is his abundant and abiding love for his unorthodox family — Ward and his young girls Peggy, Sarah and Henrietta, “my sweet Soul, and her Soul-kins.” As he writes at the end of one letter, “Now I care for nothing but knowing how my three biddies do, and the barren hen that clocks ‘um all about her.”

At times, at least, Marten’s imprisonment wasn’t terribly onerous and he apparently had enough room for one of his older daughters to stay with him for a time. That’s the case in one letter in which he writes that “Sarah and I could hardly forbear laughing” that Ward had misunderstood their joke in an earlier note — their jest that Sarah cried at being “left with her Father.”

After that gentle gibe, Marten, dutiful father, adds that “some things [Sarah] wants though in earnest, especially a clean frock, and head-clothes, and her Comb.” And he closes the letter with kisses for his other daughters, “my busses to the two maids.”

 

Peggy, Poppet and Bacon-Hog

Marten enjoyed nicknames. Sarah, he called Poppet. Henrietta, a toddler, he called with great affection Bacon-Hog.

Ward wasn’t immune. In his letters to her, he playfully referred to her as Hussy (a synonym at the time for “housewife”) and Monkey-face. He ends one letter “my duty to the Ladies, and not a bit of love to thee, for thou hast got it all already, greedy-gut.”

It was an era when death in the form of disease was always lurking. At one point, the three girls have been ill, and Marten writes, “Bear up a little longer, and arm thy self for the worst. If God will not let thee keep all three, thank him for two: if though canst not have a sight of thy own [Marten], make much of a piece of paper from him.”

He calls Ward “my naughty Dear” for failing to tell him how she is doing, and adds, “Remember how thou didst make a rogue of me in my three brats sickness, that were not to be known to their poor father till they were almost quite well.”

 

“My own own”

The love that Marten and Ward share shines from the letters. Except for visits, they are separated. Even worse, a gruesome death — being hanged, drawn and quartered — is a constant threat to Marten.

In one of the most touching letters, Marten writes, “My sweet Dear, brave gallant Soul, Now stand thy ground,” and he goes on to tell her the news that he is to be tried with the other regicides. He urges Ward, “Pluck up thy strength, my good Heart.”

And, in what might be the best summary of the correspondence, he tells her, “Look upon my little brats, and see if thy Dear be not among them; has not one of ‘um his face, another his brains, another his mirth?”

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He ends the letter: “My dearest Dear, thy own own, Henry Marten.”

Patrick T. Reardon
3.16.16

This essay first appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row book section on 2.14.2016.

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