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Romancing a Lost World

Deborah Rosario

Lucy Worsley
Faber and Faber, 2007
352 pages
ISBN 978-0571227037


Lucy Worsley’s Cavalier claims to serve up a zesty dish of “chivalry, passion and great houses” in the tale of the last great cavalier, Sir William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. The quotation, taken from the subtitle of the book, foreshadows the borderline sensationalism with which its subject is treated. As a work of popular history, the book unabashedly sells itself on the glamour of constructs associated with terms like “cavalier” and “chivalry”. Its aim is not to critically examine history so much as to steep the reader in the life of an aristocratic seventeenth century household through a novelised narration of Cavendish’s life, recounted by Worsley with infectious joy.

It is not difficult to understand why Worsley chose William Cavendish as her subject. As a specialist in architectural history, Worsley previously wrote about William’s architectural projects, particularly Bolsover Castle and the Little Castle, and was drawn to the colourful character who designed them. But her fascination is not just with William, the man, but with William, as representative of the Cavaliers, a term she loosely uses to refer to Royalists with a reputation for extravagance and fine living. William’s involvement with the worlds of art, architecture, manège (the elite practice of training horses to dance), domesticity, and the court, allows Worsely to explore these various cultural spheres of the seventeenth century. One of the pleasures of tracking William’s life, especially for the reader acquainted with the cultural history of the period, is marking its intersection with many of the chief literary and artistic stars of the time: he was friend and patron to the poets Ben Jonson, John Dryden, and Thomas Shadwell, among others; was painted by the court painter, Antony Van Dyck; and lived for a time in the ornate house of the Flemish baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens. William’s rhymes are another facet of his life that proves an invaluable asset to the book. Despite his tepid skill at poetry, these little vignettes act as lively records of domestic history. Bawdy, earthy, and sensuous, they allow us entertaining glimpses of the unsavoury porter, the burnt meat served in the Great Hall, the double-dealing bailiff, the chaos that ensued when his wife went into labour at night. Through William’s biography, Worsely is able to weave the political, biographical, social, and material into a rich tapestry.

However, Worsley is less concerned with biographical details and political history than she is with evoking an age through describing the lived practices and material culture of the aristocracy in the seventeenth century. Her special preoccupation is with the Cavendish household, which she calls “one of the very last of the extensive, medievally inspired organisations that were once the country’s primary social units”. In the microcosm of William’s household, she charts the changes that were gradually seeping into the national domestic lifestyle: the arrival of table forks, the separation of the dining room and the bedroom and the living room, the gradual demise of the medieval Great Hall, the emergence of the modern “dessert” from the medieval practice of “deserting” or clearing the table after a meal. These details deliver many satisfying “aha” moments of discovery and recognition, as the shapes of modern-day conventions emerge from the residues of medieval customs.

Rather than following a conventional dry-as-dust factual recounting of Cavendish’s life, Worsley chooses a more imaginative historiography. Each chapter is structured as an independent episode and unfolds from a single day in the life of the Duke and his household. As Worsley makes clear in her endnotes, her stories are not developed from a definitive history of events but more often from reasonable conjecture. William’s visit to the building site of Bolsover Castle on 12th June, 1613 is not a certainty, but is suggested by Cavendish family accounts that show the surveyor receiving a bonus on that day. One cannot know exactly what was served at William’s banquet for the King, but one can build a picture of it from accounts of similar banquets. Worsley’s chapters, then, are created as much from Cavendish records as from contemporaneous accounts of the period. While this method may forfeit absolute historical precision, it is an effective way of engaging with material culture and practices which would have been overlooked or taken for granted in a strictly factual rendering.

Her method is to begin with a particular event and then sketch in fine lines to make a detailed picture. Her description of the journey of a servant who is to dispose of William’s nightsoil is the most extreme instance of this method of accummulation. As we follow the servant’s circuitous route (she cannot carry out this particular errand by exiting the front door of the house), we are led on a tour of the back-staircases, the wine cellar, the pastry and bake house, and the kitchen. At each place, Worsley pauses like a tour guide to enter into involved accounts of household practices. The bake house, for instance, affords a description of baking and the different types of bread served according to status in the household. In the kitchen, on the other hand, she discusses such varied matters as the servant hierarchy, developments in chimney technology, the supply of water and the household’s patterns of eating. Finally, the servant emerges in the garden, where we eventually lose sight of her as she wends her way to the slopes of the hill just below the castle. One almost suspects Worsley of making the route more tortuous than it had to be for the express purpose of introducing her readers to the nether regions of the household.

Once one is accustomed to the digressive, anecdotal flow of the chapters, the book can be quite absorbing. Along the reader’s own circuitous journeys through the corridors of the Cavendish house, there are many toothsome details to be discovered: the menace of wig-thieves (who waylaid wealthy people in the street and stole their wigs), the ornamental uses of hair in women’s ornaments and the recycling of pre-Reformation priests’ vestments into soft furnishings. Worsley delights in accentuating the startling strangeness of long-forgotten customs such as the practices of the kitchen where “urine, umbilical cords, skulls and breast milk are casually used as ingredients”. Her fascination for her subject is evident in the way she lovingly dwells on the details.

The dense minutiae is at once the weakness and strength of the book, which has its origins in a PhD thesis and ten years of research. Weighted with these academic origins, it is no wonder that the book requires an almost academic concentration from its non-academic reader. Indeed, the centrifugal pull of detail can rend apart the reading experience. But for the patient and persistent reader, the detail can kindle the text to evoke a world one can see, touch, and smell. In the chapter “In a Closet”, Worsley displays the lady of the house cocooned in a room of sensory splendour. She evokes textures, colours, and scents with her depictions of embroidered jackets, Chinese scenes painted on lacquered panels, and the sprinkling of lemon-dew and rose-water to perfume the body. Through the gradual accretion of these lush details, she recreates the femininity and intimacy of a lady’s closet.

And despite the leisurely pace, there are passages where the narrative is spiced by a little gentle suspense. The account of the battle on Marston Moor is paced by the thrust and parry of military encounters. The narrative rhythm is altered again in the last chapter, appropriately titled “A Conspiracy”, which describes a plot to separate the Duke from his second wife, and reads like a benign, slow-moving crime story.

Worsley’s style is generally engaging. One stumbles upon inventive similes that conjure vivid pictures such as when she describes hills “liberally strewn with great houses, as if a giant hand had rolled a pocketful of dice across the land”. The narrative is almost entirely sustained in the present tense, presumably in Worsley’s attempt to woo the reader through the looking glass into a distant age. But there are times when it makes for ungainly writing as she awkwardly juggles past-tense historical events with the present-tense scene.

In the sea of historical and material description, it is the characters of William and Margaret who anchor the narrative, their resilient eccentricity saving them from being swallowed up by the flood of details. But this is not the fate of William’s first wife, Elizabeth. Due to her comparative ordinariness, descriptions of Elizabeth must perforce resort to the conventional deportment and daily routine of a gently-bred woman derived from accounts of life in England at the time. Her posture, as she sits in front of her looking glass, is evoked from a painting of a woman at her toilette. Her tooth paste is described from a servant’s manual and her perfume from William’s poem on a perfumer’s shop. She becomes an English everywoman rather than a character in her own right. Yet this strategy is felicitous, for the ordinary Elizabeth acts as a foil to the other uncommon Cavendish women.

Elizabeth apart, the Cavendish women give Worsley a subject that resonates with the modern-day reader. In them she discovers not simpering misses, but women who are decidedly strong, wilful, and unconventional. While William is in exile after the Royalist defeat in the English Civil War, his daughters manage the household more competently than his son. The infamous Margaret Cavendish, William’s second wife, writes plays, watches experiments at the Royal Society, and invents her own fashions. For the contemporary reader, Margaret is easily likeable, especially when she knowingly writes, men treat women “like Children, Fools, or Subjects, in flattering or threatening us, in alluring or forcing us to obey; and will not let us divide the World equally with them.” And William too is endearing as he unfailingly supports and encourages his wife and daughters in their admittedly less than spectacular literary endeavours.

Worsley attempts to paint William and Margaret warts and all. She describes William’s financial ineptitude and philandering, Margaret’s outlandish attire, and the unfavourable reactions to their plays. Yet Worsley’s love for her subjects is ever foremost. She is perhaps a little too ready to yield to their charm and cannot help but cast a romantic glow over their lives. William is foolish yet endearing, exasperating yet beguiling. And though Worsley quotes disparaging remarks about Margaret from the seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys, she has also definitely bought into his summation of Margaret’s character (quoted twice in the book, no less): “the whole story of this lady is a romance and all she doth is romantic.”

This romanticism is typical of the book, for Cavalier is not just about the specific household of the Cavendish family, but continuously breathes nostalgia for a lost world of Cavaliers. By constructing so much of her accounts from contemporaneous records, Worsley’s book belongs as much to the seventeenth century Cavaliers as to William Cavendish. William is individualised, but to Worsley he is also iconic. And this is perhaps indicated by the rather diffuse title “Cavalier“—a tribute to both Cavendish, the individual, and to the romantic Royalist followers to which he belonged.