Animal Spirits and the Editor – Bryant’s Charles II

I recently vowed to get through my reading on Charles II, having built up a collection of books on his reign. I decided to begin with words from the Kings mouth himself, or more accurately his pen, and as such I’ve been reading ‘The Letters of King Charles II” edited by Sir Arthur Bryant.

Edited collections of primary sources always have to be handled with caution. There are simply so many ways in which the hand of the editor can influence, intentionally or otherwise, the reading of the sources; the actual sources selected, the written introductions, the order in which they are laid out, the transcription or translation, even the style of presentation can influence the reader. Unless the editor simply digs out all the available source material and recreates it raw and bloody on the page this is always going to be an issue. However, to be readable by anyone other than an expert in the field there needs to be context and some degree of narrative to make the material convey a coherent message, indeed that is what the editor is there to do. But, at what point does exposition and contextualisation step from making the text coherent in its historical setting to distorting the original message and unduly manipulating the reader?

At the point of commencing my reading I wasn’t familiar with Sir Arthur Bryant, aside from knowing he had also written a biography of Charles, but it was clear straight off through his narrative and the selection of letters that there was a tale being told. Bryant’s editorial interjections weave in and out of the letters providing explanation, biography and a coherent narrative. They are often highly enjoyable to read in themselves, but are not shy in making sweeping statements and giving leading summaries of the beliefs of the man in question:

The nineteen-year-old King was by nature sanguine, and possessed of splendid health and animal spirits.


One of Madame’s greatest hopes was that her beloved brother should be reclaimed from the Protestant heresy in which he had been brought up and in which his subjects still imprisoned him. And though Charles was only received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed, his religious inclinations, so far as he had any, were all towards the ancient faith, whose practitioners had proved his staunchest friends during his early troubles, and whose doctrines suited monarchy so much better than Protestantism… P.226

The statement ‘His religious inclinations… where all towards the ancient faith’ is typically sweeping and not backed up by any of the specific letters set out in the book.

Reading up on Bryant confirms that, when writing this work in the mid 1930s, he held conservative and distinctly right wing opinions and there is no doubt that these come out in the narrative elements of the book. A picture of Charles’ majesty, innate regality and conservative caution sits centre stage. Also, stating that Charles had ‘splendid health’ and ‘animal spirits’ is clearly Bryant’s way of drawing a discreet veil over the less salubrious aspects of Charles’ court life i.e. his many mistresses and excesses. Now, perhaps these aspects do not survive in the unpublished letters, but I doubt it.

Bryant displays a varied collection of Charles’ writings and the character he weaves for us from his own word is exceptionally compelling and illuminating. Though the surviving letters from Charles’ reign may indeed be limited (I can’t honestly say I am familiar enough with the area yet) there is a sense in which they are further limited by Bryant’s ideology. It’s undeniable that the letters in Bryant’s books helps the King come to life, but is it the real Charles or is it Bryant’s Charles? I think there is enough of the monarch himself here to give the careful reader a feel for the man, but caution is required and I personally need to delve a lot further and more carefully to find more of mine, and not Sir Arthur’s, Charles.


8 thoughts on “Animal Spirits and the Editor – Bryant’s Charles II

  1. DaintyBallerina

    This penchant editors have for ‘flavouring’ primary sources has been a constant thorn in my side. The early biographers of James I do such a coherent job in condemning him, that it has become quite the task so separate out James the King from James the Crippled Homosexual Monster. The only wholly objective publication of Royal letters I have so far found is Leah Marcus’s Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Which presents each letter without comment, allowing the texts to speak for themselves. The only footnotes present are grammatical explanations.

    1. thegentlemanadministrator Post author

      Yes, our favourite sex pest does get a raw deal from most of the collections I remember reading at the old Academy. I’ve got an as yet unread copy of ‘Constitutional Documents of the reign of James I A.D. 1603 – 1625. With an Historical Commentary’ by J.R. Tanner’ from 1930 on my desk, I’ll have to delve and see how the sources are treated. However, even a cursory look at the preface shows that in some respects Tanner is upfront about editorial interference, listing three of the general omissions within each source, the first is quite a biggie though:

      1) whole passages have been omitted which refer only to matters of secondary constitutional importance

      Hmm, enough scope for some interesting editorial decisions there I think.

  2. Lucy

    There are so many uncritical and borderline spurious works from that period (the worst is 1880-1939, in my humble opinion). Most of them have ‘Pompous Old Buffer – Newly Retired’ written all over them. What I do find helpful is that they often reference further reading that might otherwise slip past in the modern stampede for primary sources.

    1. thegentlemanadministrator Post author

      There is something about them that lure you in with a false sense of paternal authority. You’re right about the further reading though. I also think that there is a sense in which these authors are superseded in the last quarter of the century, but I think it’s foolish to ignore historians from early in the 20th century completely, if only to ensure you understand what later historians are kicking against. But I’m biased, i was always the last one in the library after reading lists were distributed, which generally meant the only books left where the crusty old ones from 1930…

      1. DaintyBallerina

        In reply to Lucy too. I agree that in many older, secondary sources there can be some snippets which would have vanished by the 20th C, and these are always worth chasing. I also find many older historians quite charming in the way they retrospectively apply their Victorian or Georgian moral & religious codes to historical events. But often alas, it just seems to lead me off down a different rabbit hole, pursuing my interest in their own position on and in history.

        ‘refer only to matters of secondary constitutional importance’. But that’s all the good stuff!

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  4. Nick

    “distinctly right wing opinions”

    If Andrew Roberts is criticising you then you must be further right than Attilla the Hun…

    1. thegentlemanadministrator Post author

      Yes, I may have understated that point somewhat. While his prose style is quite lovely perhaps it doesn’t quite make up for his support for appeasement…


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