Book Review: Reprobates
by John Stubbs
When John Stubbs wrote his biography of John Donne back in 2007, it ran afoul of a pompous and imperious reviewer who asked one question before all others: what could a 25-year-old author possibly have to say about the life and especially the poetry of John Donne? The critic’s answer to his own question was “Nothing much,” and the review that followed is not the type publishers lovingly excerpt on the dust jackets of subsequent editions. John Donne: The Reformed Soul was a patchy and sloppily sentimentalized piece of over-reaching on the part of an author who should have allowed his inexperience to rein in his ambition. But it proved a very popular book and no doubt got some people reading about John Donne who might otherwise not. And in this age of tenured history professors writing books about the color green or the salad fork or the good old penis, perhaps there’s more to be said for ambition than that dyspeptic original review allowed. It’s possible that the art of history is better for John Stubbs trying big and falling short than it would be for John Stubbs writing an annotated account of his own Twitter feed. After all, Jack Donne had been known to swagger a bit himself, before he started cashing holy paychecks.
What might have been true for Donne is true ten times over for the so-called Cavalier Poets who form the subject of Stubbs’ new book Reprobates. Years have passed, some literary journals have left their infancy behind, and even our preternaturally young author can now grow facial hair (decidedly wispy, but still). He still looks like he should be playing the quiet, sensible British boyfriend Amy Adams leaves for the brawny attentions of Kellan Lutz in some new rom-com, but in Reprobates far more than in his earlier book, he has belied his own larval appearance and produced a work of real energy and strength.
It’s the story of the loose and heterogeneous group of politicians, historians, soldiers, courtiers, and yes, poets who congregated around a monarchy that deserved their loyalty perhaps less than any other monarchy in England’s history. In the mid-seventeenth century Charles I grew more clueless and autocratic every year, and Parliament and the forces arrayed behind it began to think they’d be better off without him. At first jeeringly and then later in earnest, the King’s faction began to be known as “Cavaliers,” and men such as spindly dandy Sir John Suckling or syphilis-ravaged Sir William Davenant (and the decidedly non-Cavalier-like Lord Chancellor of England, Edward Hyde) became their exemplars.
Stubbs takes all the vivid imagination that so plagued the pages of his Donne book and here sharpens it to a fine edge. When he comes to the thousand-page Histriomastix written in 1633 by young lawyer William Prynne, Stubbs first disarmingly asserts that “The book requires at least a week of day-long reading,” then perfectly and vibrantly sums it up: “Histriomastix is a colossally unendable piece of writing, insane in its reading, astonishing in its stamina, hurling verbiage and citation from an abyss of loathing.” That’s openly dramatic in a way that aims for a popular readership, and it’s hard to argue with any young scholar who wants to talk about something like the Histriomastix to a popular audience.
Despite the massively complex economic and social forces involved in his story of a king being supplanted, Stubbs keeps his account deeply person-oriented, which is refreshing for all that it sometimes leads him into temptation. When he talks about the friendship between John Aubrey (who gets a very satisfying amount of attention in this book) and Anthony a Wood, he’s able to broaden his comments steadily without misstep – and with impressive assurance:
Aubrey had first met Wood at Oxford in August 1667. Wood was grieving for his mother at the time, and was more open to Aubrey’s frank and warm character than he might normally have been. Aubrey, meanwhile, was enchanted and excited by their comradeship. Recent events gave their work an urgency unusual to antiquarian studies. The previous three years had seen the English defeated at sea by the Dutch (only two months earlier), London eaten to the bones by plague, and the old city consumed by fire. Such events felt to many like the overture to apocalypse. That feeling drove different people to different extremes. It gave extra abandon to the hedonists at the court of Charles II, yet raised Puritans to new pitches of fearful expectancy. Its effect on men such as Aubrey and Wood was to make them work all the harder at putting their age on record.
In fact, some of the best parts of Reprobates are the almost unplanned-seeming ruminations on the nature of the age in which his researches have submerged him, as when he tells us – accurately, I sometimes think: “From King Charles downward, this was a generation which defined itself by failing to meet paternal expectations – the demands of both natural and symbolic fathers, authorities ranging from James I to the old poet Ben Jonson.”Of course, such smooth phrasings can’t last forever – the next line of that passage is the curious, “To speak of how that happened, it is necessary to visit decades that were turbulent enough before civil war resulted,” which reads like it was poorly translated from some other language.
(Reprobates has far fewer of these head-scratchers than John Donne did, but even so, lines like “The former age was passing; but its memorials would take many years to bring to perfection” crop up regularly)
It’s possible to excuse these semi-malapropisms as the product of – dare one say it? – youthful enthusiasm, especially when readers get such ample compensations. Although Stubbs’ political renderings are at times disappointingly shallow (and, on certain aspects of the Crown’s Ireland policies, sometimes surprisingly unperceptive), his literary asides, as noted, are this time around uniformly superb, even on such often-trod round as The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton:
But with The Compleat Angler, he offered like-minded readers a guide to living through the difficult present. He rewrote the book almost entirely during the next thirty years, but throughout its subsequent editions it remained both a detailed and authoritative fishing manual and a work of practical philosophy.
Andrew Marvell, John Herrick, John Milton, Inigo Jones, the aforementioned Ben Jonson – all these and many more are given fresh new life in these pages, summarized and appreciated and analyzed with a zest that’s too infectious not to be commended. There’s a searching quality to Reprobates that’s ultimately quite fascinating (it makes me think Stubbs – who appears to be oddly publicity-shy – would be a riveting speaker on all of this), and it extends easily to the visual arts, typified by the great portraits of Van Dyck:
A portrait can be set forth as a snapshot in paint of a moment, or as the functional imprint, passport-style, of basic physiognomy. Van Dyck’s pictures of Caroline gentry and nobles compress everything the subjects wished to see about themselves into the stilled drama of a single image. The division between natural, relaxed posture and artificial pose collapses. They ride, they sit in gently wild landscapes as if in their drawing rooms; their hands pat static yet still strokably real lordly pets. They are not staring blankly, as their forebears did in family portraits, square-set on the canvas, framed by murky oak panels. We do not see only what they looked like, or evidence of their wealth and status, we see what it means to be them.
That closing note – the urge to find out what it means to be these people – is the animus that drives this book and makes it a solid success in a way some critics were unwilling to grant to the author’s first book. Hell, some critics are unwilling to grant it to this book either – and maybe I was wrong about publishers not printing pans on subsequent editions. Kirkus had this to say about Reprobates: “Part history, part gossip, vastly erudite and mostly tedious work dealing with the heirs of Shakespeare and their part in fostering the English Civil War….A highly detailed, scholarly work—not for general readers” – and that’s up for all the world to see on Norton’s own website!
As heretical as it might be to say so, that Kirkus jab is wrong in two respects: first, there isn’t one single page of Reprobates that’s tedious. And second – and much more important – this is most certainly a book to be read and loved by general readers. Here’s hoping Stubbs has read enough about poor Edward Hyde to take consolation even in the face of carping reviews – after all, even the best of critics can be grumpy now and then.