A Gambling Man, by Jenny Uglow
Jenny Uglow’s A Gambling Man is a book with a very specific focus. It chronicles Charles II’s return to rule Britain and the ten years that follow: full of women, science, and the forceful personality and vision of the man who restored the monarchy and finessed his way through a series of crises that required this changeable, flexible monarch to rise to the occasion and define the role that the monarchy would inhabit for future generations.
We begin with Charles’ return. Jenny Uglow’s prose places her readers on the deck with Charles as:
All afternoon Charles paced the deck in his new clothes. As he walked with long, fast strides, the sailors examined their king. At twenty-nine, he was tall and dark, his face strong, with a long nose, heavy jaw and brown eyes slanting under thick, arched brows. He wore his own dark hair, and bore a hint of a moustache above full lips. His mouth could curl in amusement, purse in though, tighten in anger. A mobile, sensual face. Today he smiled and cracked jokes to the audience that scuttled behind him, weaving between barrels, tripping over ropes.
His arrival is met with a sense of relief and festivity by his subjects, wearied of Cromwell‘s (and the Puritan’s) rule, and, on the 29th of May, 1660, his 30th birthday, Charles makes a triumphant return to London. Although the monarchy was officially back, Charles still had extensive work ahead of him to balance the monarchy, the church, science, and the meddling and influence of the nations around him. Uglow does an excellent job outlining the complexity of the situations, and alliances, that Charles encounters and carefully guides the reader through the decisions that kept Charles in power and helped Britain to thrive.
Uglow does a particularly fine job with the women in Charles’ life. Although he remains quite an elusive character, Charles’ wife, mistresses, sister and the other women he encounters are dealt with sensitively and their skills and influence are clearly and carefully drawn. Of especial interest is Barbara Castlemaine, a woman who bore five of Charles’ twelve acknowledged illegitimate children. She, the equally famous Nell Gwyn, and his long suffering wife Catherine, all come to life under Uglow’s careful attention.
Charles II remains an enigma, even in the final chapters of the book. His ability to compromise and work with others separates Charles from many of the leaders of his day, and his help with the creation of the Hudson Bay Company and the Royal Society showed Charles’ commitment to increasing Britain’s power and influence:
Like Boyle, Charles was convinced that the way to create a consensus, a platform for agreement and inclusion, was to create a forum where men of all persuasions could come to discuss new ideas without rancour.
Uglow’s book characterizes Charles II through his actions and his reactions to those around him. Although we may not leave the book knowing exactly the motivations behind all of the decisions and machinations that Charles went through in his life, A Gambling Man does leave its readers with a sense of the time in which the monarchy was restored and a new path for Britain was laid.