originally written 06/09/2010
Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy by Lucy Worsley was another impulse book-borrow from the library; I wanted to read something nonfiction and I was attracted by its cover. Plus, ever since I did my Milton research I have been more attracted than ever to 17th century history. Despite the sexed-up title and the rather modernistic approach to narrative history (Worsley is Chief Curator for the Historic Royal Palaces), I was surprised at the rather lumbering pace at which this book began. However, as things heated up during the Civil War, the pacing, too, quickened and thundered to its eventual end.
It is not surprising that this is an extremely well-researched book which is at pains to present as clear and as wide-ranging a portrait of the 17th century as possible. It is also lavishly illustrated both in color and black and white. The book’s subject is William Cavendish, arguably a living depiction of the typical English Cavalier. However, Worsley’s affection for her subject quickly makes Cavendish much more human than any mere collection of artifice, manners, and Van Dyck portrait ever could. Worsley is quick to point out Cavendish’s flaws, which she is in fact at pains to hide during his rather ignominious conduct after the Battle of Marston Moor. His collection of contradictions makes him an inverted image of Milton, in fact, who is more or less Cavendish’s contemporary. It’s very interesting to approach the Cavendish history from the Miltonian viewpoint as their lives intersected in surprising ways even though they never met.
Cavendish’s passions were four-fold: architecture, which he inherited from his father and from his grandmother Bess Hardwick ; horse-riding and the manège, which was his greatest talent and helped to keep him going during his exile from England in Antwerp between the Civil War and the Restoration; women, as an inveterate seducer of all the female members of his household despite the rather unusual and romantic story of his second marriage; and poetry. His poetry really makes the man himself accessible, and I think it would be worth bringing out an annotated collection of his chronologically-arranged poetry, which covers all aspects of his life in rather quaint and plodding verse.
The book begins at Welbeck Abbey at Cavendish’s father’s deathbed in 1617 and forms a good introduction to the period as well as to the temperament of the family (and presents background for the mournful about-face experienced at William Cavendish’s own deathbed). It then goes backward to highlight the processes of building another of the Cavendishes’ seats, Bolsover Castle, in 1613. This is fascinating as it examines the somewhat communal quality of servants/architects and how at this stage gentlemen architects had not quite arisen; craftsmen with no formal training were still considered architects. A visit to Cavendish’s first wife Elizabeth’s closet in 1625 gave us more information on their social/private life. I was beginning to get turned off by the 17th century at this point because Elizabeth, even as a noblewoman, would have had such a limited life. She had a lucky break when she married William because her first husband was a beast, and before that she had been sold to the highest bidder as an heiress; it’s a stereotypical view of women of the period and in this case, it is, depressingly, completely true. Even though she and William fell in love after their marriage and seem to have raised a content household, she could do nothing about his constant infidelities nor was she expected to feel anything about it. She met very few people aside from her gentlewomen, and her whole existence was one of maintaining dignity at all times and encouraging her husband to make good at court.
The next section, the masque presented for King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria in 1634 , underlines this curious state of affairs perfectly. As rather a newer branch of the aristocracy, the Cavendishes, although wealthy and powerful, were still stuck in the Midlands and much of William’s life was spent in trying to climb ever higher in the King’s estimation. This chapter is perhaps my favorite as it brings the early 17th century to life with extreme vividness.
Things go a bit downhill after this, as Cavendish’s performance as a military man in defense of the King throughout the Civil War is a bit lacking. You feel a bit sorry for him as he does seem to try his best but lacks leadership abilities, and his naturally short temper and bluff character get in the way. His flight to Antwerp does seem cowardly on the surface, as he has left his servants and daughters in England to fend for themselves against the Roundheads, something I think the daughters never forgive him for. It causes a lifelong rupture with his sons as well. The only good thing, I think, that comes out of all of this is meeting his second wife “Peg” in Paris. Theirs is a whirlwind romance which probably deserves its own book. Unfortunately, her strength of character and unconventional attitude (she believes in equality for the sexes, writes and publishes—including a biography of her husband) make them both the subject of some scorn after they return to England during the Restoration .
After the Restoration, Cavendish is made a Duke but still feels Charles II (who was in fact his young pupil) has never shown him proper gratitude for his loyalty. There are severe problems between the new household (Peg’s servants) and the old one (including Cavendish’s daughters from his first marriage). Peg eventually precedes William in death, but the whole ending of the story has a bittersweet feel, underlined by the fact that the once-proud and progressive architectural projects of the Cavendish family lie in ruins. As an appropriate postscript, Worsley makes known that Bolsover Castle remains accessible for the tourist, but the rest of the haunts of William Cavendish are either obliterated or in private hands.
Reading this book has highlighted my own need for a better understanding of the English Civil War but has definitely reinforced my interest in the period. It has certainly made me want to visit Bolsover Castle!