Return of the King
Maybe there’s no need to ask why a biographer of Jenny Uglow’s caliber and aesthetic interests — George Eliot, William Hogarth and Elizabeth Gaskell are just a few of her fortunate subjects — would take up the oft-told tale of Charles II’s restoration to the British throne. It’s a great story: The boy king, in exile after his father’s execution in a populist uprising, grows up to return as monarch, only to face epochal disasters like the plague and the Great Fire of London. Throw in the handsome king’s wandering eye (poor barren Queen Catherine had to put up with Charles’s bankrolling of one mistress after another, as well as the welcoming to court of his illegitimate children); an ABC of conniving ministers (Arlington, Buckingham, Clarendon); and a cluster of brilliant minds (Hobbes and Locke, Milton and Marvell, Newton, Dryden and the inveterate diarist Pepys), and it’s clear why chronicling this vital era became irresistible. But Uglow does more than narrate the dramatic events of the Restoration, a period known, not coincidentally, for its theater, which often parodied royal affairs.
Uglow has, it seems, recast Charles’s restoration as a fable for our times. She sets the scene this way: “A young, charismatic man is called to power, greeted in his capital by vast cheering crowds. But what happens when the fireworks fade and the euphoria cools? Can he unite the divided nation, or will he be defeated by vested interests, entrenched institutions and long-held prejudices?”
Uglow shows proper restraint in barely mentioning Charles II’s nickname, “the Black Boy,” derived from his lush dark locks and Mediterranean complexion (his maternal grandmother was a Medici) and used freely in histories of the period before the 1960s. To be sure, her tale is one of a country far across the sea, ruled by a king a very long time ago. But how different is the mood of that distant time — the century when the American colonies were established — from ours? Uglow allows this question to hover, deliciously, on the periphery of a narrative that regularly departs from strict biography to delineate the conflicts brewing in Restoration England, leaving us to ponder the ways they still inform civic life today.
In an entertaining set piece, she traces the establishment of the Royal Society, whose fellows were inspired by the recent inventions of the telescope (or “tube”) and microscope to “collect knowledge in all spheres.” “The whole universe, their secretary, Henry Oldenburg, claimed, would be ‘taken to taske.’ ” Royal Society fellows “discussed barnacles and snowflakes, the reproduction of vipers and the nature of gravity. . . . They puzzled over poisons, watched plants flash like gunpowder in a fire and tried to capture a spider within a circle of ‘ground unicorn’s horn.’ ” Quirky as some of the society’s initiatives seemed, the fellows were trying out the new principle of experimental verification of natural phenomena — a method vigorously opposed both by religious proponents of divine mystery and by adherents of the precepts of alchemy, with its “philosophy of transformation, regeneration and purification.”
Wary of stirring up too much controversy, Charles granted the society its charter in 1662 — “for the Improvement of naturall knowledge by Experiment” — but offered little financing. He did, however, permit the group to license its own publications, thereby preventing censorship by the Church of England, which in the coming decade would succeed in suppressing the work of the “anticlerical” Thomas Hobbes and banning even the smallest gatherings of religious dissenters.
Not surprisingly, it was the more practical elements of the new science — those with public policy implications — that attracted the attention of the king. A treatise on London smog by John Evelyn, called “Fumifugium,” found favor with Charles, Uglow writes, because “this touched on his own dreams of rebuilding London as a city to rival Paris, free from the smoke that belched from lime kilns and breweries, tanneries and soap boilers, coating everything with soot, indoors as well as out, making tapestries yellow and oil-paintings brown and choking the flowers and fruit.” Yet Evelyn’s plan for relocating the trades downriver and surrounding the city “with a belt of greenery, with flowering shrubs and herbs” seemed about as fanciful then as ending global warming with space mirrors seems today.
Then the natural devastation descended. The first deaths from flea-borne bubonic plague came in late 1664. By the summer of 1665, the toll in London reached 3,000 a week, then 4,000, then 5,000, finally peaking at 7,165 in mid-September. Anyone who could afford to had left the city long before, and that included the king. But a year later Charles made a different choice when fire broke out in central London. Fanned by high winds, the flames spread in all directions, early on consuming the great waterwheel at London Bridge, thus “ending hopes of pumping water from the river.” Charles had previously warned of just such a disaster, and had attempted unsuccessfully to enforce regulations against building the cheap timber structures that jutted out over London’s narrow streets. As he’d foreseen, the flimsy houses burned like kindling until “a great arc of flame, a mile wide, curved like a bow over the whole of the city.” Londoners huddled for safety in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where booksellers had stashed their stock, but it too went up in a “smoke-cloud . . . so dense that it caused a local thunderstorm, with jagged lightning forking down to the burning buildings around.”
While others fled, Charles stayed in London to direct the relief efforts, “handling buckets of water,” one witness noted, “with as much diligence as the poorest man that did assist.” Still, when the winds died down, vast stretches of the city had succumbed to the flames. Although the prohibitive cost prevented Charles from taking this opportunity to embark on the rebuilding project Evelyn had proposed, the disaster made possible Christopher Wren’s redesign of St. Paul’s and enabled the king to gain the support of Parliament for strict new building codes. Charles may not have performed quite as admirably in the crisis as Dryden claimed in his verse epic “Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders,” but the good will he gained by working alongside commoners to save the city helped carry him through the next several anni horribiles, when war at sea and scandal at court threatened, for a time, his ability to govern.
While her literary talents are everywhere evident in her exuberant prose, with “A Gambling Man” Jenny Uglow proves she is as much historian as biographer. She writes here in the grand tradition of historical pageant, albeit with a 21st-century canniness, and as an heir of much-admired popularizers like Barbara Tuchman and Antonia Fraser — whose own 1979 volume, “Royal Charles,” still stands up, companionably, to Uglow’s thoroughly engaging Restoration drama.