Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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The Girl on the Golden Coin by Marci Jefferson

The Restoration is a fascinating period of English history, the huge religious upheavals, bigotry, fears, debates, philosophical breakthroughs and scientific discoveries are, however, often overlooked in favour of focussing on the fascinating and debauched court of Charles II and his personal sexual proclivities.

19690862As the father of between 13-18 illegitimate children (depending which account you read), Charles made up for his long period of exile and deprivation when he returned to England with great fanfare and promises – one of the main ones he made was the Declaration of Breda (before he set sail for England to take the crown) – a promise that swore religious toleration providing the religion didn’t threaten the peace of the kingdom. This was important to the English who, despite having made the decision to restore the monarchy and (mostly) enjoying throwing off the shackles of Interregnum Puritanism, were also incredibly cautious and suspicious of Popery and France.

During Cromwell’s reign, Protestantism in various guises had prospered and while the Church of England was set to return as the dominant religion along with Charles, the Parliament didn’t like what “liberty to tender consciences” implied and didn’t accept this. This was due to the fact they didn’t want Catholicism to take root in their soil ever again. Not only was Charles II’s mother a staunch Catholic, but Louis XIV, the Catholic King of France, was his cousin, so it was incumbent upon Charles to prove he had England’s best religious interests at heart. But, he also had to keep his cousin (whom he later came to depend on for financial support) happy, so the balancing act between public Protestantism and private beliefs began.

Enter, according to Marci Jefferson in her terrific novel, The Girl on the Golden Coin, Frances Stuart who, rather than simply being an object of Charles’s desires and affections, is dragged from the relative margins of history to play a central role in court and transnational politics.

Beautiful, charming and by all accounts very sweet (but according to contemporary accounts – albeit by men – not very bright), Frances was raised out of poverty by the French Court and King Louis who, like any man who came into her orbit, fell for her charms and then, at the whim of Charles’s sister who also had feelings for Louis and was jealous of the attention he was showing Frances, sent to England to remind Charles of his obligations to his cousin among other things – at least, that’s the story the way Jefferson spins it.

I’ve written before about the way women are so often elided from history, or presented as little more than ornamental, despite evidence to the contrary. Even this period – governed by the bold and large presence of King Charles who loved and, according to some historians, deeply respected women – where women took to the stage for the first time, were writing books, plays (Aphra Behn), treatises and challenging men even in the realm of science, it’s still a time that celebrates women most for their beauty, ability to seize male attention (especially the king and court) and the sensual pleasures and scandals they offered. The women we most hear and read about are the various mistresses of Charles II and his much-put-upon queen, Catherine of Braganza, as well as some of the leading actresses of the day, such as Nell Gwynne.1687-frances-stuart-1647_med

While Jefferson plunges her heroine into this male-dominated society, she foregrounds these various women as well – the quiet pious but kind queen, the brash, manipulative Barbara Castlemaine and, of course, the beautiful and sought after, Frances Stuart – a relative of the royal family – as well as some female theatre luminaries. Whereas many accounts, non-fiction and fiction discuss the fact Frances avoided the King’s overtures to make her his mistress, remaining a “virgin”, resisted his professed love and admiration for her, Jefferson turns this on its head and has Frances as an able and willing participant in an affair that almost undoes the monarchy.

While history will contest much of what Jefferson creates in this novel, I love her spin on history and the role she gives Frances. The woman cannot have been as stupid as records suggest. She made a good marriage, kept the friendship of the monarch, even after refusing him (or not if you believe the novel), befriended the queen and other women vying for Charles’s attention, and was immortalised by the king by being made the model for Britannia for a newly minted golden coin.

Rather than being side-lined by history, in this novel, Frances, like the actresses the king loved, takes centre stage and directs many a production, even if those cast don’t know it. Surviving the plague and Great Fire, through Frances’s eyes and ears, we’re given access to many bedrooms and boudoirs of the Restoration, and see many of the feminine (and male) machinations first hand. While sometimes the wider political repercussions are not made evident, this story is about Frances first and foremost and certainly, in that regard, her personal politics and decisions are the most important.

A really good read for lovers of history, the women at its heart, and this specific period as well.

 

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A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration by Jenny Uglow.

imgres-5A Gambling Man, is a scholarly work by Jenny Uglow that covers the first ten years of Charles II’s return to the throne after the interregnum – but don’t let the fact it is rigorous and meticulous in its research put you off. This book is a simply marvellous read. Uglow is a wrier with a light touch and this is written in such a style it’s as if you’re reading an exciting novel. Uglow uses the motif of gambling, of hedging bets, risk-taking and the sort of nature required to succeed as a gambler to explore the impact the return of the king had on English society – specifically London – in the 1660s. It also explores the changes Charles’ return wrought upon English allies and enemies on the continent.

Greeted

with effusiveness by a repressed populace, who welcomed their thirty-year-old monarch with bonfires and dancing in the streets the day he arrived in London after 12 years absence, the city and, indeed, country (with few exceptions, of course) were filled with hope. Restoring the king meant that, surely, those who were secretly royalists or at least prepared to welcome the king, could be restored to their former lives, wealth, trades etc. Even Catholics and other non-conformists, clung to the promises Charles made while at Breda, that he would tolerate all religions providing it didn’t conflict with loyalty to the throne and so too welcomed him with prayers and blessings.

Ready to embrace his new life, gamble with the hearts and souls of his people, Charles’ good intentions were swiftly put to the test.

While Charles’ desire to welcome different religions in the realm was no doubt sincere (in his mind at least, just because one was Catholic or Quaker, these beliefs didn’t exclude loyalty to him), his parliament and the Commons had other ideas. Toleration was swiftly replaced by prejudice and non-conformists suffered.

Though the parliament were initially generous to the king, even before he stepped upon English shores they lavished him with the sort of things he’d been denied in exile: beautiful clothes, objects, food and anything his heart desired, it quickly became apparent that the treasury was broke. This didn’t stop Charles luxuriating in his new status. Women, jewels, ships, furniture, object d’ art, courtiers, games, sexual licence, debauchery, all of these became the hallmark of Charles and the Restoration court.

But this was also a time for fresh ideas in the sciences, innovations in the arts, with music and the theatre (and women players being permitted upon the stage) as well as painting all being patronised and enjoyed by the king. Trade was opened up, new lands discovered and conquered and exotic foodstuffs and people poured into London, bringing ideas that challenged the status quo.

Striding daily among his subjects in St James’ Park, bestowing his touch and “curing” scrofula, dining before them in the Banqueting House, Charles never seemed to forget what he owed his people and how quickly his status could alter. The people loved him for that at the same time they loathed him and those he surrounded himself with for “playing” while the country and city of London suffered: through wars, financial depression, plague and the Great Fire.

It was really the latter that went some way to salvaging Charles’ rapidly diminishing reputation as he worked side by side, along with his brother, James, the Duke of York, and the exhausted citizens of London, to contain the fire that threatened to level the entire city.

(c) Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Barbara Castlemaine. Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Unfortunately, the restored love of the people didn’t last long. All too soon gossip about the king and his reckless spending on his many mistresses and bastard children (whom he gifted titles like one does flowers) dominated, at the same time, the Dutch declared war and even sailed into the Thames, sailors were being suborned to serve and people were going hungry, wages unpaid. And all the while, the religious balance and the power the king held over those he governed hung in the balance.

But, as Uglow argues, for all that Charles is remembered as a bit of a wastrel, he was also a clever and astute man who managed those around him carefully. While attention was focussed on his sexual escapades and his spending, and the gossip in the coffee houses and on the streets was about this, his power remained mostly in tact. Gambling on his ability to control his people, Charles’ managed to continually prorogue parliament and (mostly) any attempts to seriously curtail his power. The face he presented to the world was one of loyalty and assuredness, yet behind the scenes, he negotiated with England’s enemy and his cousin, Louis XIV in France, making promises in exchange for much-needed coin, removing the dependency he had on parliament to extend him cash.

Alternately bold and sneaky, loving and cold, rash and contained, succumbing to his base desires, refusing to acknowledge them, Charles was, according to Uglow (and her argument is persuasive) a gambler par excellence, able to conceal his hand and play, despite what people thought, with a poker face, one that left very few prepared when he finally played his cards.

This is a simply marvellous book, full of wonderful and quirky facts, splendid descriptions of the leading and colourful figures of the time, from General Monck and the Earl of Clarendon, to Barbara Castlemaine, Frances Stuart and of course, the tall, swarthy skin, dark-eyed and lustful king himself, Charles II.

For lovers of history, the royal families of Britain, politics, and insights into what make people tick, this is the book for you.

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Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

I’ve always been fascinated by Samuel Pepys, a man who virtually on a whim, decided to keep a detailed account of his daily life in London for almost ten years, starting, auspiciously, in the year 1660, the same year Charles the II was crowned and the English monarchy restored. In this biography of the ambitious, observant, egotistic but also incredibly forthright (often at his own expense) man, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Claire Tomalin offers the reader incredible insights into not just Pepys, who rose from very humble beginnings to wine and dine with as well as earn the trust of powerful men who appreciated his intellect and cunning, but the King and court as well. It was Samuel Pepys who not only sailed with Charles when he returned to English shores after his exile, but in September, 1666, took it upon himself to warn King Charles that London was burning.

333295From his marriage to the much put upon and very young Elizabeth, to his rise up the ranks as an efficient and knowledgeable navy administrator and, later, parliamentarian, we follow Pepys’s footsteps up the ladder of bureaucracy and social life but also through some of the great events of that century – from the civil wars to the execution of Charles I and the Interregnum, followed by the Restoration. Against the backdrop of war, religious turmoil, plague, fire and the rebuilding of London, Pepys records his thoughts, desires, actions and those of others he observes in delightful (coded) detail, using French (or a version thereof) when the specificities are a little too saucy. Pepys was a staunch supporter of Cromwell until practicality made him switch loyalties to first Charles and, later, his brother, King James, proving himself over and over as man worth having by your side.

Throughout the decade that the diary records and the fuller, rich life on either side of the volumes into which Tomalin gives us incredible insights, we learn of Pepys’ patronage of various people, his pleasure in good food, clothing, books, theatre and women – from barmaids, to actresses, to his maidservants – and even his obsession with the King’s mistress, Barbara Palmer, about whom he dreams. Proud, clever, and incredibly hardworking, Pepys was also brave and endured much, especially in terms of his physical health. He survived an early kidney stones operation and his recording and Tomalin’s recreation of the surgery (if you can call it that), is not for the feint of heart.

With an eye for scandal, a love of gossip and the ability to place the reader in the moment by recording the most intimate of moments – Pepys’ diary and the life Tomalin introduces us too are really quite exceptional. I felt a cease of bereavement when I finished the book because I so enjoyed getting to know Pepys. While there were times I felt a little repelled by some of what he shares (eg. when he masturbates and how readily he touches up other women and lusts after them – he is a lecherous soul), the man, for all his faults (which we only know of because he so readily reveals them), grew on me. Mellowing in old age, allowing his ready compassion for fellow humans to come to the fore, Tomalin continues to give us the same type of depth of understanding that Pepys’ own words did, and this is testimony to her fine research, ability to analyse her discoveries and effortless prose, that she keeps Pepys alive not just socially, but also emotionally and psychologically.

The final words in the book sum up both Pepys and, indeed, this wonderful book beautifully. Tomalin writes of the diary: “The achievement is astounding, but there is no show or pretension; and when you turn over the last page of the Diary you know you have been in the company of both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet.”

Tomalin is extraordinary rather than ordinary and her book on Pepys is a marvel. That we have the diaries at all (and thus, Tomalin’s work) is more accident than design and the story of how they were found after years languishing on dusty shelves, unread and unknown, is a terrific way to end Pepys’s tale.

Whether you’re a lover of history, are curious about this well-known figure who was, in essence, just another London gent, or enjoy the period about which Pepys and Tomalin write, or are a fan of biographies, then I can’t recommend this highly enough.

 

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Restoration by Rose Tremain

imgres-1I only discovered the existence of Rose Tremain’s Booker Prize shortlisted (in 1989), Restoration, after watching the sumptuous film of the same name starring Robert Downey Jnr, Sam Neil, Meg Ryan, Ian McKellen, Hugh Grant and a host of other famous faces which was made in 1995, and sought information about what inspired it. Lo and behold, it was an award-winning novel – and what a novel it is.

imgres-2Set during the early years of Charles II’s reign, it follows the rather hedonistic pursuits of the middle-aged doctor, Robert Merivel. At first it was hard to reconcile the rather chubby, unattractive Merivel in the novel with the young and gorgeous Downey on film. Once I was able to cast his image aside, I could imagine the spoiled, well-fed and self-indulgent Merivel who, eternally curious finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the decadent court of his king.

Told from Merivel’s perspective, the book follows his introduction to court life, his “rise” to becoming a seemingly indispensible part of the king’s retinue, the order he receives to wed and the calumnies that follow. From London, to the countryside, to the fens, through plague, fire and war, from favourite to disgraced, the novel follows Merivel’s attempts to restore himself to the life he knew and loved – but which one exactly?

Beautifully written, what’s strange and compelling about this book is Merivel himself. Usually, most readers would be repelled by a narrator who is so determined to satisfy his every whim, want and base desire, regardless of who he might con, hurt or inconvenience in the process. Yet, it’s testimony to Tremain’s fantastic portrayal, the insights she gives Merivel into his own short-comings and the fact he so rarely makes excuses for his lapses in judgement or undoubtedly selfish choices, that he nonetheless is so endearing. A rogue, a drunkard, a fornicator, liar and procrastinator, Merivel revels in his body and urges in a Bacchanalian fashion that’s both appalling and utterly fascinating.imgres

A clever man, Merivel is also fundamentally kind and, in a strange way, loyal and with an ability to accept the circumstances he finds or places himself in with reluctant equanimity, and these qualities really do shine. Philosophical and insatiably inquisitive about people, we experience the micro events of his life and the greater macro ones of his liege and kingdom, as well as the characters he encounters and who help to shape his life through his eyes – and what an original and wonderful set they are.

It’s hard to do justice to this book and the quality of the prose. It is outstanding and I found it difficult to tear myself away from the time, the events and, in the end, Merivel himself.

More sumptuous than the film with its lavish descriptions that fire the mind, and with a plot that owes as much to the picaresque as it does to the diaries of Samuel Pepys (there is something very Pepysian in Merival’s revelations and the honesty with which he explores his own faults and flaws and both revels in them and acknowledges the limitations they set), if you’re looking for a terrific novel in which to lose yourself, an accurate but exciting and thoughtful rendition of a period (it’s as much about the 1980s as it is the 1660s), and an original and beguiling protagonist to take you on the journey, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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