The theme for this week’s post came upon me quite suddenly this week, and turned out, most unpredictably, to be the English Civil War. Firstly, a friend told me this was her new obsession, so we discussed books that she was reading. Then on Friday night Ben Wheatley’s latest film, A Field in England, premiered simultaneously in cinemas, on TV and on DVD, and so in watching it I ensured the latter half of my week was one concerned with seventeenth century politics. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a hallucinatory, yet somehow simultaneously earthy, tale of deserters during the English Civil War. It’s original and disturbing, yet also funny, with comedy stalwarts such as Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt amongst the cast, the latter of whom gets to deliver one of the best lines of the film: “your privy parts are doomed, homunculus!” The black and white cinematography by Laurie Rose is stunning, all combining to make a truly memorable film.
But back to books. I’ve chosen two texts (one’s a play) that reflect my ambivalence towards this time in history. On the one hand, I’m a republican (small “r”, and nothing against our current Royal Family, it’s the institution I object to, not the people) but on the other hand, Cromwell is difficult to side with and I love Charles II. Known as the Merry Monarch, his court was criticised for its excesses of all kinds, but I think it always sounds like quite a fun place to be (which undoubtedly says more about my lax morals than my politics). He re-opened the theatres (that’s enough for me), allowed women on the stage for the first time, commissioned Christopher Wren to build some of our most beautiful buildings, and supported the war veterans. He also remembered his favourite mistress on his deathbed (“let not poor Nelly starve”) when he could have easily disregarded her, and endorsed religious tolerance. Sometimes portrayed as dim, I think he was actually quite witty. When John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester wrote “We have a pretty witty king,/And whose word no man relies on,/He never said a foolish thing,/And never did a wise one” Charles II apparently responded: “that’s true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers”. Far from perfect, I’d still pick him over the Puritan any day. So to reflect this I’ve chosen a novel that is set during the Civil War, and a play that was written during the reign of Charles II and concerns a libertine follower of the King. All together now: “Oliver’s army’s here to staaaay, Oliver’s army’s on its waaaay…”
Firstly, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann (2001, Flamingo). This was McCann’s first novel and is written with great confidence, particularly as the narrator and protagonist, Jacob Cullen, is despicable. But McCann’s writing so vividly evokes the era and the characters that you keep reading, despite being embroiled with a character you cannot sympathise with. Jacob is a servant in a Royalist household. The novel opens with a pond being dragged for a body, and the man who Jacob has murdered being pulled from the weeds. He flees the estate with his new bride and brother, but his violent nature rises to the fore and he attacks his wife, raping her. He then runs to join Cromwell’s army, where he meets Christopher Ferris, the love of his life:
“”Leave him, Ferris.”
“We cannot leave him like this.” Warm fingers wiped my mouth and chin. I looked up to see a young man gazing perplexed into the distance, his profile lean and pensive, but full-lipped and long-nosed. He knelt at my side as if watching for someone, his hand still absently stroking my lips so I breathed its scent of sweat and gunmetal.
I coughed against his palm, and he turned on me a pair of eyes as grey as my own. Pale hair hung thick on his collar; I saw he had shaved some days before. As I met his eyes they darkened, the pupils opening out like drops of black ink fallen into the grey, then he looked away, and his fingers slid from my face.
“Let me drink,” I creaked out.”
Jacob becomes obsessed by his idealistic lover, and follows him as he leaves the army for London, and then to a Diggers commune. Throughout the novel Jacob never becomes likeable, but if you can cope with that, then I really do recommend this book, as it is perfectly paced, visceral and evocative:
“Men were screaming, “For God and Parliament!” I saw the first of ours run up the breach and fling himself on the defenders. There were flashes, followed by the sound of musket fire, and screams. I struggled to run with my weapon upright and not fall over it. At the front I could see a great mass of men packed and heaving together. A little further forward and we were pressing into the breach, those inside jabbing at us with bills. Slashing back, I laid a face open. Muskets fired on us from the upper storeys, hand grenades rained down and I saw a man shot to bits in front of me…”
If all that sounds a bit heavy and grim, then may I recommend a Restoration comedy by way of light relief? The Rover by Aphra Behn (1677) was a hugely popular play in its time, and the protagonist, Willmore, thought to be modelled on either Charles II or John Wilmot. Aphra Behn was the first woman to make a living as a professional writer, which prompted Virginia Woolf to proclaim “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” She’s certainly an interesting woman, who worked as a Royalist spy, but when Charles II refused to pay her expenses (told you he wasn’t perfect) she earned her living through her pen. The Rover follows a group of Cavaliers who arrive in Naples for carnival, and their romantic embroilments. There is disguise, women avoiding nunneries, mistaken identities, beautiful courtesans, trapdoors, robberies, cross-dressing… its hugely entertaining and witty. When Willmore first meets his love interest Hellena, she is disguised as a gypsy (obviously):
Hellena. Sister, there’s your Englishman, and with him a handsom proper Fellow—I’ll to him, and instead of telling him his Fortune, try my own.
Wilmore. Gipsies, on my Life—Sure these will prattle if a Man cross their Hands.[Goes to Hellena] —Dear pretty (and I hope) young Devil, will you tell an amorous Stranger what Luck he’s like to have?
Hell. Have a care how you venture with me, Sir, lest I pick your Pocket, which will more vex your English Humour, than an Italian Fortune will please you.
Will. How the Devil cam’st thou to know my Country and Humour?
Hell. The first I guess by a certain forward Impudence, which does not displease me at this time; and the Loss of your Money will vex you, because I hope you have but very little to lose.
Will. Egad Child, thou’rt i’th’ right; it is so little, I dare not offer it thee for a Kindness—But cannot you divine what other things of more value I have about me, that I would more willingly part with?
Hell. Indeed no, that’s the Business of a Witch, and I am but a Gipsy yet—Yet, without looking in your Hand, I have a parlous Guess, ’tis some foolish Heart you mean, an inconstant English Heart, as little worth stealing as your Purse.
Will. Nay, then thou dost deal with the Devil, that’s certain—Thou hast guess’d as right as if thou hadst been one of that Number it has languisht for—I find you’ll be better acquainted with it; nor can you take it in a better time, for I am come from Sea, Child; and Venus not being propitious to me in her own Element, I have a world of Love in store—Wou’d you would be good-natur’d, and take some on’t off my Hands.
Hell. Why—I could be inclin’d that way—but for a foolish Vow I am going to make—to die a Maid.
Will. Then thou art damn’d without Redemption; and as I am a good Christian, I ought in charity to divert so wicked a design—therefore prithee, dear Creature, let me know quickly when and where I shall begin to set a helping hand to so good a Work.
Hell. If you should prevail with my tender Heart (as I begin to fear you will, for you have horrible loving Eyes) there will be difficulty in’t that you’ll hardly undergo for my sake.
Will. Faith, Child, I have been bred in Dangers, and wear a Sword that has been employ’d in a worse Cause, than for a handsom kind Woman—Name the Danger—let it be any thing but a long Siege, and I’ll undertake it.
Hell. Can you storm?
Will. Oh, most furiously.
Hell. What think you of a Nunnery-wall? for he that wins me, must gain that first.
Will. A Nun! Oh how I love thee for’t! there’s no Sinner like a young Saint—
As the scene above shows, sex is very much at the forefront and the libertinism makes the play saucy but not crude. The play has been noted for its threats of violence and rape against women, but I think the fact that Hellena is as witty a match for Willmore, and (slight SPOILER) that he gives up his roving ways for marriage at the end of play (well, it is a comedy) means that power lies with the women as far as possible in the misogynistic cavalier society, and this means the play can still be enjoyed today. If the excerpt above made you roll your eyes at the sight of seventeenth century language, I’d still recommend you see it performed. It’s fast-paced, fun, verbally witty, physically ridiculous, dramatic comedy at its very best.
Here are the books with some oranges, in honour of Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II, theatre actress and orange seller: