Monday, August 17, 2009

Old Rowley (1933)

Reflect for a moment on how confident Dennis Wheatley must have been feeling by the end of 1933!

In order to stave off bankruptcy he decides to write a novel, does so, and instantly attracts a publisher. He then writes another, has it published and sees it become an overnight bestseller, reprinted over and over again. Shortly after, the film rights are sold.
As an experiment, he writes still another novel in a mere fortnight: though somewhat guilty over the cynicism towards his readers inherent in such an exercise - a cynicism that would never be repeated - the book is another justified smash hit.
And it's still 1933...

Something of that inevitable assuredness is reflected in the fact that he chose for his next project an historical biography, though with characteristic self-deprecation he goes out of his way in the finished book to characterise it as a mere trifle, and certainly not a learned treatise.
Old Rowley would not be the only time that Wheatley turned his talents to non-fiction, but in its lightness, and the readily-conveyed pleasure the author is clearly having in the telling of it, it remains, perhaps, his most readable. Coming as it does at the end of that first extraordinary year of industry and success, it stands as one of his most justifiably confident works of all. It is still an effortless pleasure to read.
It is not, however, an uncharacteristic work, not by any means. Wheatley's voice comes through more than clearly, and the subject is obviously not arbitrarily chosen.
Wheatley is not merely interested in the reign of Charles II; he has a deep admiration for the man that gives the book a personal and polemical momentum. Charles is clearly one of Wheatley's dearest heroes, Cromwell one of his bitterest enemies - and if you happen to share those prejudices (as I do) the book is an exhilarating job of advocacy.
Wheatley argues persuasively for the identification of Charles as the key figure responsible for dragging England out of Cromwell's dark night of anti-progressive religious mania, and on to the glories of the age of Johnson:

For two hundred years his character has been belittled as a definite policy against the weak and inept Pretenders who succeeded in the Stuart line. The legend that he was nothing but an idle, dissipated Monarch dies hard. yet in the constant sifting of the sieve of time the dross of libel falls away, leaving the gold of truth revealed. The day will come when Charles will take his rightful place in history as the wise, sweet-natured King who led his people out of darkness, anarchy and persecution into the Great prosperity of the Georgian Century.

Old Rowley, sent to free his people from "the tyranny of democracy"

Actually, Wheatley has two principle aims in mind for his subject: one is rehabilitation as a statesman, the other is humanisation, as illustrated by the very title ("the sobriquet being culled from the famous stallion of that name," Wheatley informs us, "owing to the obvious similarity of their masculine vigour"), and by the tendency to depict the King's bedchamber rather than his person on the covers of the various paperback editions.
Throughout the book, Wheatley dwells on the King's amorous encounters, partly because he evidently finds them amusing in themselves, but also as a valuable corrective to what he calls "the arctic-douche of school-taught history":

Assessing Charles' women as a whole, it is doubtful if any prince in a modern, as opposed to ancient, times ever gathered together a finer seraglio. In numbers, compared to other sovereigns, they were not excessive; but Charles was a connoisseur, and each of the six great mistresses possessed some outstanding quality of wit, intellect and or passionate loveliness which made her a real personality.

In the first and more important of these two crusades, however, he is on his deadliest form, acidly rebalancing the popular record on any number of scores, not just in matters pertaining to the second Charles but to the first also:

Such men as John Hampden unquestionably did much to establish the liberties of the English people by their staunch resistance of abuses, but it should be remembered that those abuses were no personal tyrannies introduced by Charles - they were forms of government inherited from a line of sovereigns, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth, whom we have been taught to regard as great.
Yet if the more honest of the Commons had the good of the people at heart, so also had the King. Time after time we find him legislating to protect the common people from the profiteers... It was indeed very largely his anxiety to ensure a decent standard of living to the masses which gained him the bitter enmity of the capitalist classes and lost him his throne.
His kindly thought for his poorer subjects is well expressed in the proclamation by which he repealed the Lord's Day Observance Act. 'If these times be taken from them, the meaner sort who labour all the weeke should have no recreation at all to refresh their spirits, and therefore we do order that after attending prayers, every man shall be allowed to amuse himself in any decent way which he may choose.' His people got their Sunday games, but the measure earned him the undying hatred of the Puritans.
The war therefore was waged by middle-class capitalists, who wished for greater opportunities to put money in their pockets and to force their stricter form of worship on the country...

Nobody upsets apple-carts with so infectious an energy as Wheatley!
Characterising the Cromwellians as "fanatics", he notes that "before they could bring the King to trial, even his old enemy the Parliament, from which all men of moderate views had long since withdrawn, had to be purged by Colonel Pride of no less than two-thirds of its remaining members. So that it was now a mockery of its former self and only consisted of some half-hundred embittered Puritans."
On the king's execution he is mesmerising - the book is always at its strongest when Wheatley forgets it's not a novel:

Where our War Office stands now, then stood the old palace of Whitehall, and from a first floor window of it, upon the winter morning of January 30th, 1649, the King stepped out into the drifting snowflakes that swirled about the black-draped scaffold. As he went so bravely to his tragic end, every blind was drawn; and strange as it may seem, although he had been condemned as tyrant - traitor - murderer, the streets were thronged - not with a howling mob thirsting for his blood - but with a silent and a weeping people.

Likewise on the future Charles II's successful escape:

Thus after forty-three days and nights, many of which had been passed in cold and hunger and the whole in an imminent risk of capture, the King was safely conveyed out of the power of his enemies... If one includes the servants in the many houses where he rested, there must have been close on a hundred persons in the secret of his identity, and to the poorer of these the reward offered for his capture would have meant ease and plenty all their lives long. Yet there is not a single instance of any one of them endeavouring to betray their King.
The epic closes with a fair wind, and the rising sun gilding the sails of the tall ship as it stands out to sea - and we may be certain that when the news of Charles' safe arrival at Fecamp was spread abroad, many a dust-encrusted bottle was opened and many a cup of good ale drawn, that stout hearts in England might drink - 'A Health unto His Majesty'.

When Charles returns and the monarchy is restored, Wheatley tells us that "the floodgates of joy were opened", all in the country certain that "the King alone was capable of restoring the good old times, when men were free and money plentiful."
Of what had taken place in the intervening years, Wheatley paints a bleak picture indeed, with Cromwell "march(ing) through the land, hanging, burning and slaughtering with an incredible ferocity." The end of this he later characterises with a telling phrase: "(the people) had suffered the tyranny of democracy too long".
His attitude towards the Whigs, then, may safely be predicted, though his appraisal, when it comes, still surprises (deliciously) in its vehemence:

Shaftesbury's efforts resulted in the formation of the Whig Party, pledged to overthrow the Tories under Danby and to exterminate the Catholics by an English Protestant Inquisition. The type of man who made up the better elements of his following may be judged by the seventeen Gloucestershire Lords who sent a remonstrance to the King. 'Among them there was not one who either to himself or to his father could lay claim to any honourable service performed either to the King or his father during the time of the great rebellion.' As to the worst elements, they were the fanatics and madmen who pester every Government - the human dock rats from Wapping, the hooligans, the jail-birds, and the very scum of the London gutters.

In one especially interesting passage he likens the immediate post-coronation period with the aftermath of World War I, bringing unmistakable echoes of his own 'roaring twenties' period in the wine trade:

Above all, the war was over, and these people who from their early youth had known danger, hardship, uncertainty and distress, had at last come home, freed from the clutches of foreign landladies, welcomed and restored, safe once more to ride the broad acres without fear of death, imprisonment or fine - and all in the glory of an English summer.
In our own day we have known the reaction that followed upon those years of horror, when every able-bodied man received the Armistice as a reprieve from certain death or mutilation. We know that as a result of the strain which the nation had undergone, there was an epidemic of free love, and a sudden uprush of talent among the younger generation. In the pyjama and bottle parties, the night clubs, and the doings of the 'bright young people' of the early 1920s we see reflected the license of the Restoration, and in the writings of Huxley, Coward, Joyce, Sassoon, Lawrence, to name but a few, a repetition of the flame that lit the 1660s.

He goes on to regale us with a number of anecdotes concerning the antics and high-spirited pranks of the new aristocracy, reminiscent of Bertie Wooster and the Drones Club stealing policemen's helmets. One is clapped in the stocks for disguising himself as a tinker, visiting a country village and destroying, rather than mending, the people's pots and pans. Others are nearly lynched by the people for getting drunk in a tavern, stripping naked, and then assembling on the balcony "adopting all the most vicious postures in the nude which they can think of."
As well as providing a fascinating parallel between two periods of history, the passage prompts another reflection.
Recalling Wheatley's centrality to the twenties scene, and reading his list of the period's typical authors, it is intriguing to ponder how his work - to say nothing of his critical reputation - might have differed if he had felt compelled to take up his pen a half-dozen or so years earlier than he did.