It wasn't what I was expecting!
I thought in terms of straight history explaining the Cavalier but this was more a multiple biography, meandering from character to character.
It starts during the civil war when Captain Chudleigh, a messenger from the Royalist army at York, meets Davenant, Jermyn and Suckling in London.
We then reverse to the days of James I to someone called Carew, a young man who finds it difficult to settle into a career but enjoys writing poetry (and who during the Civil War rests in Wrest Park). We learn about Prince Charles trip to Spain to woo the Infanta da Castille (unsuccessfully) in the company of three other friends including the soon-to-be Duke of Buckingham. And we learn of Buckingham's subsequent career and assassination. Someone called Herrick who later becomes a country parson is working for the Duke. And so we start discovering that all these characters are known to the future because of their literary connections.
The two key characters are aristocratic gambler and petty poet Sir John Suckling (who is a known coward but soldier and cavalier and roue about town) and William Davenant, son of an Oxford innkeeper (and sometime Mayor) but godson (and illegitimate son?) of William Shakespeare who became a friend of Ben Jonson, a poet and playwright, a cavalier and courtier, famed for inhaling Mercury as a cure for syphilis which caused his nose to drop off, a fixer and smuggler during the Civil War, a failed coloniser of New Jersey, and the man who restored the Theatre during the restoration. But these two weave in and out of a huge cast. As well as Herrick we meet Milton, Marvell and Dryden, we meet Aubrey and Lovelace ("Stone Walls do not a Prison make nor Iron Bars a Cage") and Archbishop Usher of Armagh who calculated the age of the Earth, Izaak Walton (who as well as being a keen angler was part of the chain who smuggled Charles II's father's garter medal away from the failed Battle of Worcester, when Charles had to hide in the Oak, back to London to be reunited with its owner in exile abroad).
We find out about the English Olympics on Cotswold Hill and about Edward King who drowned on the way to Ireland and is famous for nothing else than the fact this his tragedy inspired Milton's Lycidas. We discover that near the start of the Civil War Queen Henrietta Marie spends a night with Shakespeare's daughter at New Place in Stratford. We learn about the great Viscount Falkland, England's first atheist, whose philosophical circle at Great Tew was destroyed by the Civil War; and how his legacy lived on when the Earl of Newcastle, a Cavendish, married a philosophical lady whose tutor was Thomas Hobbes and who spawned the scientific Cavendishes.
One whom I was ashamed never to have heard of was a neurotic Calvinist in Edinburgh named Archibald Johnston who practised law and, through chance as much as anything, became a co-author of the Scottish Covenant and thus one of the Scots whose interventions tipped the crown from Charles' head.
In short this is a ragbag of a book, full of strange characters. It reminded me of God's Philosophers. It hangs together through an extraordinary narrative. People come and go, they wander in and out, like some chaotic play. And in the final analysis they gave birth to so much English poetry and so much of the modern world.
March 2012; 470 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57