Book World: Michael Dirda reviews 'A Gambling Man' by Jenny Uglow

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, December 3, 2009


Charles II's Restoration Game

By Jenny Uglow

Farrar Straus Giroux. 580 pp. $35

Jenny Uglow's previous books include a fine biography of the great wood-engraver Thomas Bewick, lives of the satirical artist William Hogarth and the novelist George Eliot, and, best of all, "The Lunar Men," an enthralling history of an English philosophical and scientific club of the late 18th century whose colorful members ranged from the naturalist Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather) to the great ceramics manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood. As well as producing these substantial works, Uglow has, astonishingly, somehow kept a day job as an editor at the publishing house of Chatto & Windus -- which may explain, at least in part, why her own prose is always clear, forceful and dynamic. For "A Gambling Man" she certainly needs all her skills just to keep up with the action-packed 1660s, the first decade of the reign of England's Charles II.

What happened during those 10 eventful years? First, a little background: In 1649, after years of civil strife, England executed Charles I and declared itself a republic under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. There succeeded a period of foreign wars, mounting debt and near-constant political and religious conflict, all of which wore down the nation's morale. Following Cromwell's death and the brief rule of his son Richard, those who favored a restoration of the monarchy finally prevailed. Charles I's son was invited to assume the throne of England, governing in conjunction with Parliament.

In 1660 Charles II was 30 years old. For much of his life he had lived on the continent, usually insolvent, fitfully wandering from capital to capital. He possessed, however, the inestimable gift of personal charisma. After he returned in triumph to England, he quickly won the favor and admiration of his new subjects. Indeed, even though the scientific revolution was in full swing, many people still believed that his royal touch could cure scrofula and other diseases -- so many, in fact, that the courteous and affable Charles set up twice-weekly sessions for the ill to come into his semi-divine presence.

But he was certainly no saint. Once installed on the throne, the new king tried and executed virtually all those who had signed his father's death warrant (and even had Cromwell's body dug up and decapitated). At the same time, "the merry monarch" -- as the brilliant and dissolute Earl of Rochester dubbed him -- was establishing a court of almost legendary glamour, wit and lasciviousness. The debonair Charles could speak French and Italian and write competent poetry; he excelled as a yachtsman, loved to play tennis and regularly gambled and caroused with his young gallants. These last often behaved like modern frat boys at Mardi Gras: Two of them once got so drunk that they went out on a balcony, took off all their clothes, pantomimed buggery and urinated on the people in the street.

Early on, Charles reopened the theaters, which had been closed for almost 20 years, thus ushering in a new drama, one that was increasingly naughty and libertine. But the king also sponsored the establishment of the scientific Royal Society, whose members -- among them chemist Robert Boyle and architect Christopher Wren -- experimented and speculated and "discussed barnacles and snowflakes, the reproduction of vipers and the nature of gravity."

During this same period, two of the greatest works of English literature were composed: The blind John Milton dictated to his daughters his epic poem justifying the ways of God to men, "Paradise Lost," and the religious dissident John Bunyan, imprisoned for 12 years, produced the supreme example of spiritual allegory and plain English prose, "The Pilgrim's Progress." In "good King Charles' golden days" -- Bernard Shaw's phrase -- women also emerged as formidable, independent intellectuals: the philosopher and scientist Margaret Cavendish; the versatile freelance writer Aphra Behn; the poet and translator Katharine Philips, a.k.a. "the matchless Orinda."

The king, however, tended to prefer another sort of woman. For many years his favorite mistress was Lady Barbara Castlemaine, possessor of "piles of dark hair . . . 'alabaster skin,' blue, near-violet eyes, and conversation-stopping sexual allure." She was succeeded by the actress Nell Gwyn, who supposedly once saved herself from an anti-Catholic mob by shouting, "Pray good people be civil; I am the Protestant whore," Castlemaine being the Catholic. The sovereign's illegitimate progeny eventually included six acknowledged sons, each of them made a duke.

But Charles's life wasn't only merry. He also faced a series of devastating crises with the coolness of a born gambler.

In the summer of 1665, bubonic plague swept through the city, killing thousands of citizens every week. This was followed in 1666 by the great fire of London, which started as a spark in a bakery and eventually destroyed five-sixths of the city and more than 13,200 houses. During the conflagration, Uglow notes, diarist Samuel Pepys observed the city's pigeons "circling, unable to land on their lofts, until they fell, with charred wings, into the smoke." And finally, England declared war on the Netherlands -- and suffered horrible losses of men and materiel.

All this, and much else, Uglow relates with clarity and gusto, and any reader will enjoy these sections of "A Gambling Man." More problematic, at least for Americans, are the great many pages devoted to Charles's complicated political machinations. For instance, Charles played off the Lord Chancellor, his gouty former mentor Clarendon, against the dashing and reckless Buckingham (characterized by John Dryden as being "always in the wrong/Was everything by starts, and nothing long"). Charles even used his beloved sister as a tool in negotiations with France, for Minette was conveniently married to Louis XIV's brother, the bisexual duc d'Orléans. Uglow's detailed accounts of this factional and international conniving gradually wearied me, but Washington political junkies may eat up every morsel. After all, toadying, secret payoffs and betrayal didn't end with "Charles II's Restoration Game."

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