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Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II

Though excellent recent work has refigured our understanding of late 17th-century politics the court culture of Restoration England has remained neglected or been dismissed as frivolous, indulgent and debauched. Matthew Jenkinson’s book is to be welcomed not only because it studies the politics of Restoration court culture (and the culture of Restoration politics) but because it ranges widely over trials and executions, poems and plays, sermons and songs. Jenkinson rejects the clichés about the age and argues that Restoration court culture revealed the ambiguities, tensions and anxieties of a society and polity in which old values and languages had become dislocated and destabilised. Building on studies that have emphasised the complexities of courtly modes, Jenkinson shows how there was a ‘competition for representation’and how even loyalists counselled, pressured and criticised the king.

In two fine chapters, on court sermons and on Thomas Crowne’s masque-like entertainment, Calisto, Jenkinson reveals how Charles II proved willing to tolerate, and even licence for publication, texts that contained criticisms of his libidinous behaviour and exercise of rule. The book rightly insists on the complexities of libertinism and offers valuable insights into the court wits, notably the Earl of Rochester (who needs a good critical study) and Thomas D’Urfey, whose politics defy easy categories.

In part because the book is a series of essays some important subjects remain undeveloped or neglected. The few pages on honour, on history and memory, most of all on love and sex cannot do justice to some of the crucial preoccupations of postbellum English monarchical and aristocratic culture. Though Jenkinson reads many literary texts well he needs to be more sensitive to the politics of genre in elucidating the meanings authors intended and audiences received. The chapter on Dryden is too brief to be persuasive. Some big questions at the heart of the study remain unanswered. Why did this period everywhere witness a culture of dissimulation? And why did even panegyrists seem at times to acknowledge and help to advance a demystification of monarchy?

Answers to such questions require more attention to the figure somewhat on the margins of the study: Charles II. Jenkinson is interesting on aspects of this ‘most cynical and elusive of kings’, who often appears as uninvolved in orchestrating his image as he was unconcerned about criticism. While an analysis of Charles’ speeches and declarations, portraits and rituals might have refined this picture, it remains true that the king seemed far more ready than his predecessor to embrace the ambiguities of a changed political culture in which it was essential both to remember and yet forgive revolution and regicide, to be mystical and yet familiar, to speak plainly and yet feign and dissimulate, to tolerate criticism as well as to be sceptical about praise. Not least because he understood his circumstances Charles died peacefully in his bed.

Jenkinson rightly highlights the contemporary sense of instability from the apparent euphoria of Restoration, through the crisis of Exclusion to the Tory reaction. But his argument that dissenting voices within court culture further destabilised monarchy may not take sufficient account of the fact that they had always existed and often helped to contain opposition.

While Charles II merits a larger role, Jenkinson’s book demonstrates beyond doubt that any future political history that dismisses court culture will no longer constitute a satisfactory performance.

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