British historian Uglow (Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick, 2007, etc.) attempts to organize the bemusing Stuart Restoration period into tidy compartments.
How did the son of the murdered tyrant Charles I return to England in triumph more than a decade after his father’s beheading, then stay securely in power for 25 years? The author considers the makeup of this singular historical character, a man both affable and canny, whose period in exile forced him to assume the persona of a regular nobleman, ingratiate himself in foreign capitals and open himself to new ideas. Charles was above all a performer in an age of masks, Uglow writes, a monarch on the cusp of the Enlightenment. The author divides her exploration of Charles’s kingly life into the four suits of a deck of cards—clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades—and depicts how he played each well or poorly: regulating constitutional issues, deciding the fate of the army, mollifying religious animosities, punishing the leaders of the regicide, rehabilitating Whitehall into a royal residence and juggling his new queen, the Portuguese Infanta Catherine, with his numerous mistresses. The categories grow rather messy, as plague and the London fire devastated the country during the decade. Moreover, Charles dragged the country into war with the Dutch and urged religious toleration probably out of his own Catholic sympathies, while impoverishing the country by keeping up with his cousin in France, Louis XIV. However, Charles was passionate about the theater, giving rise to the witty, ribald Restoration comedies of the period, and scientific inquiry, spurred by his childhood tutor Thomas Hobbes, thus establishing the Royal Society. Uglow provides a labored but ultimately entertaining view of the richly intricate tapestry of this era.
Occasionally slow-going, but burbles with personalities and ideas of the Restoration age.