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.