His Majesty’s Variable Portrait: King Charles I and speculative fiction, part 1.

Charles_I_of_England
The titles I’m planning to discuss are:  Poul Anderson, A Midsummer Tempest (1984), Greer Gilman, Exit, Pursued by a Bear (novella, 2014), Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows (2017), Damian Dibben, Tomorrow (2018).  If this were a Proper Scholarly Article I’d dig in deeper and close the gap between the Anderson book — which I read as a teenager — and the more recent volumes of speculative fiction.  All of the books include glimpses, and divergent readings, of the Royal Martyr at different stages in his career.
     Anderson’s novel, which begins with the 1644 Battle of Marston Moor, styles itself “romantic[ally] reactionary,” (p. 317) and is sort of a het-up and accessible riff on Keith Roberts’s 1968 alt-hist PavaneMidsummer Tempest is very concerned to establish the gentleness and righteousness of the true monarch of England, who is furthermore associated with the virile gentleness and righteousness of Royalist men in general, and in particular the book’s main male character, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.  Relatedly: re-reading the book was a very weird experience.  When I originally encountered A Midsummer Tempest at c. 16 years old, I was susceptible to this sort of structuring, and I am SUPER NOT ANYMORE.  For instance, the novel’s denouement — which involves the militarily decisive return of Olde Magickal England, enabling a history-defying Royalist victory at (naturally) Mystickal Glastonbury Tor — now makes it SUPER EASY to peg the entire thing as a work of nationalistic essentialism.  Sigh.   In keeping with that essentialism:  traditionally-minded aristocratic men are extremely the way to go in this novel.  Like, they are sexy and correct, they have beautiful manners, they never fuck each other, and they win.  The way King Charles is depicted is part of this construction, but I’m gonna proceed to his ‘portrait’ via the first ‘portrait’ in the book, that of Prince Rupert, and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about:
Rupert stood six feet four in height, with breadth in an athlete’s proportion.  Bared, the prince’s black locks fell past a weather-beaten face to his shoulders.  He did not…follow the Cavalier fashion in beards but went clean-shaven.  That made him look older than he was, the sternness…clear to see. [note; I reflexively had to edit that sentence.]  Otherwise his countenance was brown eyes beneath level brows, straight high-bridged nose, full mouth, cleft chin.  A tinge of Dutch accent roughened his speech.  (10-11).

So dreamy, right?  As they say about cars:  check the details.  Full mouth!  “an athlete’s proportion.  Bared” ! Like, I have no idea if Poul Anderson ever made fun of romance novelists, but if he did, one of them should have taped this paragraph to his forehead.  Furthermore, observe what happens when the nubile 17-year-old niece of Rupert’s Parliamentarian captor arrives on the scene: not knowing of course that brooding full-mouthed Dutch-accent-man is waiting in wings.

[Mistress Jennifer]…ran across the gravel onto the lawn.  A lilac bush stood man-high, [Jesus, really?] still wet from the heavy dew which had followed the stormy weather of the past few days.  She seized its blossoms to her [HOLY CRAP WHAT EDITOR ALLOWS THIS?!   I SEE YOU, REGAN-ERA EDITOR], buried herself in purple and fragrance.
Her maidservant [OF COURSE], who had left the carriage more sedately, hurried after.  “Mistress Jennifer!” she called.  “Take care! You’ll drench your gown –” She stopped.  “Oh dear, the thing is done.”  (26-27.)

Okay, let’s jump in here.  There’s “the thing, done” that relates to fluid.  He’s definitely going to deflower her.  You heard it from the lilacs first.  Also, Rupert is so sexy and correct that women throw water over their torsos willy-nilly whenever he’s in the district, and assume their natural destiny as Wet-Bodice-Contest participants.  That’s what it’s like being an aristocratic man who knows the right way to do things.  Rupert can’t help it; he can only try to protect these poor women from themselves, up to a point.

     When Charles I arrives on the scene, he basically functions as a talisman; a magical object that reminds you (when you are the excellent Rupert) what you’re supposed to be about.  You can think of Charles, in Midsummer Tempest, as a cameo or a travel-size memory-stimulating image…in a way, Poul Anderson is very much in touch with the Royalist or opposition-culture of the Interregnum, which bolstered and meditated on its loyalties using heavily-glossed, portable and emblematic images of Charles I as a stimulus to thought.  (There’s an amazing book by Lois Potter called Secret Rites and Secret Writing: Royalist Literature 1641-1660 (Cambridge University Press, 1989) that will lay that all out for you if you’re interested.)  Anderson reproduces this strategy:
[Charles] stood like a miniature, or like a much larger man seen through the wrong end of a telescope, in front his captains and councilors.  They were grim and begrimed…Charles was no less gaunt and sunken-eyed.  But his little body kept erect; dust seemed almost an ornament upon combed hair, trim beard, lace and plum velvet of Cavalier garb; and the bandage across his brow might well have been a crown.  (292)

This “miniature…erect” (or correct, or straight) monarch is the household god of Rupert’s six-foot-four erect and virile correctness.  That’s Charles’s role in this book.  As I’ve said, this kind of imagery and characterization is very much in keeping with seventeenth-century pro-monarchical Interregnum propaganda: both the written material, and the iconography. In other words, Anderson’s take is not tremendously imaginative in fact, which is…surprising, in a book whose back-cover copy reads “this is not…any [world] that you know.” I guess one takeaway is that defeated seventeenth-century Royalists were bloody terrific at PR, and their product continues to sell to interested parties.  A less conservative author than Anderson would be interested in troubling everything about the circuit that runs between Rupert and his emblematic King, locking power and all acceptable moral influence into the patriarchy, and excluding useless people like women, who are probably too busy showering in their work-clothes to bother with governance anyway.  How could they refrain under the circumstances?

Next:  the 2014 Gilman novella Exit, Pursued by a Bear.  I sort of wanted to save it for last, because it is far and away the best speculative treatment of Charles I I’ve ever read.   But I suppose let’s be orderly and take things by publication-year.  I should state that Greer is a friend, and I was a late-stage ms. reader for Exit, which is set during the winter season at King James I’s court in 1611 and 1613 (and everywhere, and nowhere:  “Bohemia,” the stars.)  Heaven knows I’m not the only one to admire it.  You can read the scholar and publisher Kate MacDonald’s thoughts on this work, and Greer’s earlier Jonsonian magical murder-noir novella Cry Murder! in a Small Voice here.

 

 

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