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The name Dreyfus came to designate so much more than its rather unremarkable owner that when the actual man appeared for his second trial at the Rennes lycée, he was something of a disappointment. This was not the case with Charles II of England, a man who, Jenny Uglow shows in her new biography, A GAMBLING MAN: CHARLES II’S RESTORATION GAME (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35), knew how to make an entrance. Born to all the luxury appropriate to one who expected to inherit a kingdom, he found himself, in his early teens, caught up in England’s terrible civil war, which resulted in his father’s execution and his own exile, in poverty and disgrace, on the Continent.
After the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the nation threatened to descend into anarchy, and the royal heir was summoned from Holland, reaching London at last on his thirtieth birthday, in 1660. His years as a beggar had turned him into a consummate performer whose true personality, if he had such a thing, was impossible to discern. “It is hard to find the secret, non-performative self,” Uglow writes. “Our modern obsession with the inner self was alien to the people of the Restoration, except in terms of the soul’s relationship with God, something that Charles does not discuss.”
Rather than undertake a (doubtless futile) search for that self, Uglow concentrates instead on the modes of Charles’s performance, his virtuoso way of being everything to everyone. In a time when it was hard to dissemble on matters religious, no one could really tell where his sympathies lay, and he “rather encouraged the view that he took his faith lightly: that he slept for the sermon, but woke for the music.” Charles produced at least twelve children with his various mistresses but none with his wife, Catherine of Braganza, whose dowry included Tangier and Bombay; and was devoted to the theater, which blossomed in the Restoration era after decades of prohibition under the Puritan Commonwealth.
If the king himself seemed flippant, Uglow thinks his slippery personality served him well when faced with the relentless crises that marked the 1660s: the Great Plague of 1665, which killed tens of thousands of people across England, including an estimated 20 percent of the population of London; the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed almost the entire capital; a devastating war with the Dutch that resulted in the invasion of the Thames and the loss of almost all the country’s navy. Despite these setbacks, Charles managed to continue British expansion abroad (New York was one acquisition) and re-establish the monarchy that nearly died with his father.
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