Chaotic, disaster-struck, booming

Don Jordan, The King's City: London under Charles II: A city that transformed a nation – and created modern Britain

Little, Brown, 544pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781408707296

reviewed by Minoo Dinshaw

Charles II’s charm is perilous powerful stuff; even his nightmare incarnation as JM Barrie’s Captain Hook is an endearing sort of villain. ‘The Merry Monarch’’s human approachability, witty phlegm and liberal reputation are heirlooms passed down into the assumed knowledge of the general reader; academic authorities on the Restoration have striven in vain to substitute a nastier piece of work, a would-be tyrant and essay-crisis king. Don Jordan, until recently working with a collaborator, Mike Walsh, has for some years been bravely attempting the democratisation of the sceptical approach. The case for the prosecution possesses a body of fact so weighty as to be scarcely wieldy, ill suited, perhaps, to holding to account a carefully elusive man at the head of a cynical and sophisticated society.

Jordan and Walsh previously authored The King’s Revenge (2012), a pacy gangster thriller featuring Charles as ruthless mobster boss, and The King’s Bed (2015), a diagnosis of royal sex addiction whose breathlessness scarcely convinced as censure. As Jordan writes in this latest instalment (referring to a 17th-century best-seller, The Whore’s Rhetorick), it was ‘a salacious tale masquerading as an instruction manual.’ This time Jordan has mastered any such urge to prurience, seeking to combine scrupulous fairness to the king with thorough scrutiny of a more genuinely discomfiting underside to his reign.

To do so Jordan has now concentrated on Charles’s chaotic, disaster-struck, booming, amoral bedlam of a capital. He traces the uneven course of how London came, against considerable self- and king-inflicted odds, to surpass Paris and Amsterdam. In his passages on the Royal Society Jordan offers a consistent and heartfelt reappraisal of Hooke, in particular, vis a vis the louring genius of Newton. He admires Wren as a man as well as architect, while vaguely associating him with ‘unEnglish’ absolutism and Catholic aesthetics. The maintenance of the Navy, and therefore the future British Empire, is attributed almost entirely to ‘London’s greatest diarist’, Pepys.

Politics and literature – and the effect of sexual licence upon both – are probably the most familiar spheres of Restoration society to the interested lay reader. Operating in a field crowded with pungent primary evidence, ambiguous and complex talents, and tightly contested secondary expertise, Jordan cannot reliably command confidence. His assessment of the poetic calibre of Lord Rochester, ‘occasionally capable of excellent versifying’, is one to set the exorcists of Oxfordshire at work. He calls Lord Shaftesbury ‘probably the ablest politician of the reign’, but scarcely mentions his nephew, George Savile, Marquess of Halifax, the ‘Trimmer’ who bested him in oratory and blocked the Exclusion Bill. He identifies several ‘unwitting bull’s-eyes’ or ‘inadvertent fingers’ in sources from Edward Hyde to Titus Oates more ironically modulated or better informed than he imagines.

In general Jordan is too credulous about some of his sources’ capabilities and significance; Aphra Behn, called ‘an efficient agent and seducer’, seems more talented as a self-publicist than a spook, given that the prologue to her first play proclaimed her previous career: ‘The poetess, too, they say, has spies abroad.’ No Kit Marlowe she, in either field. Jordan rightly points out that Behn’s increasingly over-lauded novella Oroonoko is pioneering not in literary merit or anti-slaving activism (it objects to its hero’s enslavement on the grounds of his beauty and lineage, not to the economic institution of slavery itself) but as pornography aimed for almost the first time at ‘an openly female point of view’.

Slavery – laudably identified by Jordan as a crucial subject, still more often than not left out of books on the Restoration altogether – becomes this book’s most original and best understood territory. Jordan and Walsh have also produced a work on white indentured labour in the Americas, and the statistics Jordan cites on the ‘human attrition’ of West African lives seem as solid as they are shocking. Such evidence is, however, contentiously and partially applied, with the slave trade throughout portrayed as a particular excrescence and pet project of the malevolently corporate entity Jordan calls, through Whiggishly gnashed teeth, ‘the House of Stuart’. By this he means the ‘absolutist Stuart brothers’, counting ‘the constitutionalist William III’ as an enlightened Dutchman, though married to a Stuart and himself one on his mother’s side. Jordan is forced to admit belatedly and grudgingly that slavery only took off spectacularly after the Glorious Revolution, if only because Charles and James II’s royal monopolies had been so haphazardly run.

Jordan thus goes down the traditional path of judging the Stuarts both wicked and incompetent, with only their dubious implementation standing in the way of their dastardly intention. But at the same time he is both too taken with Charles and too fair-minded to his readers not to let another possibility, that of humane and light-touch rule, relative to a grim context, at times emerge. He quotes Charles criticising the conduct of a governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, who had put down a slave revolt with severity: ‘The old fool has taken more lives in his naked country than I have for my father’s murder.’

When the first definite critic of the slave trade, Thomas Tryon, enters the scene in 1684, he is a familiar figure, also exercised by vegetarianism and animal rights. Doubtless today he would concentrate on climate change and factory farming. The city thrives and changes and consumes whoever may reign, but the noble cranks always have a prescient point.