ROYAL CHARLES: Charles II and the Restoration by Antonia Fraser
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ROYAL CHARLES: Charles II and the Restoration

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In 1660, Charles Stuart the second was suddenly and tumultously restored to the English throne, ten years after the beheading of his father Charles I by order of a Commonwealth court; and though the amiable, cynical, pleasure-loving Charles II remained a popular favorite in afteryears (see Ollard, below), history's harsher, doctrinaire judgment has only recently eased--a process capped by Fraser's big, benevolent biography. She has rooted through the sources, contemporary and modern; and she takes up the contested points. More important, she has a post-Sixties empathy for Restoration liberality combined with a post-Holocaust (and, perhaps, personal) abhorrence for the persecution of Catholics which followed deviously in its train. With Charles' every shortcoming or misdeed justified on pragmatic grounds, he cuts an attractive, purposeful figure--he is the orphaned heir, steeled in exile, who is determined to maintain the kingship his father lost. Were ""extravagance and mismanagement"" the cause of his ""perpetual financial straits?"" To appear the king, to uphold ""the very prestige of the nation,"" he needed ""all the traditional trappings."" Did he callously sacrifice the aging, long-indispensable Clarendon? A strong, wise move: Clarendon could not win Parliamentary support for Charles' policies. And it is in fact after Clarendon's fall, when Charles, at 40, comes into his own, that Fraser's account is at its most winningly unorthodox. Right along, she writes in amusing, uncensorious detail of the celebrated royal mistresses; now, the royal bastards turn up as Charles' freely-acknowledged, much cossetted children. She's a delight on Charles' penchant for ""yachting,"" for hunting and racing, for garden- and park-planning, and for the theater--enthusiasms which ""united him with. . . his humbler subjects."" Hence the freewheeling Restoration spirit, which ""took its cue from the free, enquiring and of course hedonistic spirit of the King himself."" But the account, distinctly sluggish at the start, takes on real urgency and bite only with the emergence of the spurious ""Popish Plot,"" its exploitation to bar Charles' Catholic brother James from the throne, and the wholesale persecution of Catholics--a crisis which Charles met with calm loyalty to his brother and his oft-slighted Catholic wife. Fraser is at pains throughout to demonstrate what reputable historians have long accepted--that Charles was formally converted to Catholicism only on his deathbed. And to her general defensiveness she adds a near-total obliviousness to economic conditions, intellectual currents, and the country's social fabric--most critically, the social composition of Parliament. Politics is thus reduced to Machiavellian strategems and personalities. But on a personal level she gives Charles and his court a resounding latter-day fanfare.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1979
Publisher: Knopf