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Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Temptation of the Restoration

The seventeenth century in England had a lot going on. First there was the English Civil Wars where brother fought brother over the division between King and Parliament. Secondly, there was the Plague. And then there was the Great Fire of London. All of these events took a massive toll on human life. 84,830 men were killed in the Civil Wars, 70,000 more died in the Plague. The Great Fire of London destroyed most of the familiar old Tudor streets. What’s more, the beheading of King Charles I had a huge impact on England’s psyche. There was a sense that the governance of England hung in the balance – that the old order was subject to change, and that nothing could be relied upon. It is hardly surprising that at this time, astrologers predicted doom and destruction to come.

Yet the period just after King Charles II was restored to the throne, known as the Restoration period, was one of unrestrained celebration and entertainment. There was a mere five years between 1660, when Charles arrived back in London to fanfares and jubilation, until June 1665 when the first impact of the Plague deaths hit London. I was fascinated to write about this period, a time eclipsed by the bigger events of the century, sandwiched in between the dark days of Cromwell and his Puritan rule, and the dread disease that ravaged the country.

This was the time in which I set The Gilded Lily – a time of surface optimism, but with undertones of unease beneath. The two sisters, Ella and Sadie Appleby, on the run from the Law, escape their rural village hoping for a new and better life in London. This was a quite different City of London from Tudor London where the Queen aimed for political expansion and gripped the nation with a firm hand - looser and more reactionary.

Lely - Nell Gwyn
Very much as London in the 1960’s was known as the “Swinging Sixties” and heralded a new era of sexual exploration, 1660’s London was a city of new fashions, of theatres, entertainment, lavish food and a renewed moral freedom. The King gathered his “Merry Gang” around him, the wits, the rakes, the young bloods, such as Buckingham and Rochester. Their sexual exploits fuelled the gossip of the nation, as Charles went through no less than thirteen royal mistresses, and probably a few more undocumented liaisons besides. Men dressed like peacocks in ribbons and bows, women’s d├ęcolletage drifted ever lower. An actress like Nell Gwynn could come from nothing yet make her fortune at court.

In The Gilded Lily, Ella, the bolder sister, has her sights set firmly upward on handsome Jay Whitgift, the son of a pawnbroker, who in turn is fixed on moving upwards to enter the coterie at Court and buying himself a baronetcy. If you have seen the film, The Libertine, with Johnny Depp, this is the sort of society in which Jay Whitgift moves, and to which Ella aspires.  I modelled Ella partly on paintings by Gerrrit Von Honthorst, a 17th century Dutch artist, who painted Courtesans and women of the lower classes with clarity and detail.

 Sadie, the more timid sister, finds the size of London terrifying. London in these times is owned by the young – many older people lost their lives in the Wars, there is a feeling that life is short. Death by burning is the penalty for those, who like Sadie and Ella, have stolen from their employer. Writing the story through Ella and Sadie’s viewpoints was eye-opening. In an age of conspicuous wealth there is always the flip-side, and Restoration London is no exception. Poverty and the accompanying criminal underworld lurk just beneath the surface, and I enjoyed researching these. London is well-documented at this time, and I spent much time poring over old maps to find where they might have lived. Blackraven Alley, where I placed their lodgings, was later destroyed by the Great Fire of London.

I encourage anyone interested in this period to explore a little further by reading: The Daling Strumpet by Gillan Bagwell – a lovely account of the life of Nell Gwyn, The Apothecary’s Daughter by Charlotte Betts or Year of Wonders by Geraldine Green, two very different books about the Plague, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann about the English Civil Wars, and Restoration by Rose Tremain - insights into Charles II and his court. Please feel free to add to my list!

Today there are reviews up for The Gilded Lily at One Book at a Time and at The Eclectic Reader. Giveaways are running at both. 
This post first appeared on The True Book Addict Blog.- A great blog with the feature 'this Day in History.'

1 comment:

  1. When I was in high school, I read Forever Amber, so naturally when I looked in my university course catalog, I signed up for "Stuart England" and spent the next four years studying early-modern Britain. I definitely found the Restoration tempting!

    I'm excited to find your blog--I just put The Gilded Lily on my to-read list.