King Charles II by Antonia Fraser - review by Ragnhild Hatton

Ragnhild Hatton

Charles II

King Charles II


Weidenfeld 524pp £8.95 order from our bookshop

It is a tribute to Lady Antonia Fraser as an international best-seller in the genre labelled ‘historical biographies’ that her publishers have been able to produce, at so reasonable a price, a book of this length, with 66 illustrations logically divided into four sections and not lumped together in the middle or at any other place dictated by the need to minimise costs. These well illustrations are – naturally enough the present economic climate – in black and white but for two colour reproductions on the front and the back of the dust jacket. They cannot therefore measure up to the lavish pictorial material, a good deal of it in colour, provided by Christopher Hibbert in his Charles I, published in 1968 by the same firm. Ah, those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end! Incidentally, Hibbert’s book is missing from the Fraser bibliography, surprisingly view of the space she devotes to the childhood of her subject, and of the partial overlap therefore both in documentation and pictures. Of the two jacket illustrations of the book under review, the one of Charles as Prince of Wales at the age of 13 is no improvement (rather the reverse) on the black and white version in the picture section between pages 48 and 49. But the front jacket reproduction of Samuel Cooper’s miniature of Charles II in 1665, half-length, in Garter robes, is so exquisite that historians convinced of the insight which illustrations afford, can only grieve that present financial stringencies deny us its repeat as a frontispiece: the black and white reproduction in the section between pages 272 and 273 is tame, and even dull, by contrast. Publishers ought to consider the fact that university and public libraries tend to discard the jacket at once, and that even in private libraries the jacket usually ‘disappears’ as soon as it shows signs of wear. Would that publishers could give longer life to fine colour illustrations within their books as frontispieces, or by any other stratagem. Be that as it may, the Charles II jacket design, the endpapers, and indeed the whole production, are all pleasing.

Pleasing is also the right word to apply to the text, which – at least until the Restoration of 1660 – carries conviction. No historian would agree with the blurb that the author ‘ offers important judgements and reassessments on the central questions of the reign’. On the contrary, there

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