As Charles Dickens’s Child’s History of England makes plain, Charles II was not an upstanding individual: “Whenever you see his portrait, with his swarthy, ill-looking face and great nose, you may fancy him at his court in Whitehall surrounded by the worst vagabonds in the kingdom (though they were lords and ladies), drinking, gambling, indulging in vicious conversation and committing every kind of profligate excess.”
Precisely what the “debauched men” and “shameless women” of Charles’s entourage were up to may not have been immediately apparent to Dickens’s young audience, but a certain curiosity as to the nature of these shameless women cannot be ruled out. And not only did Charles surround himself with the aforesaid shameless women, he was vengeful, too: Mercilessly repeating Charles’s sobriquet as “The Merry Monarch” throughout, Dickens details how, on the anniversary of his father’s execution, the Merry Monarch had the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and two other regicides disinterred, hanged from the gallows at Tyburn, beheaded, and their heads stuck on poles. Further evidence of Charles’s character defects was provided by Victorian painters such as Edward Matthew Ward, whose Interview between Charles II and Nell Gwynne (1848) shows a suitably swarthy king leering at the delectable Miss Gwynne—onetime orange girl turned actress turned royal mistress—while the diarist John Evelyn looks on in mighty disapproval.
Inspired by Roy Strong’s classic And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1977), which rescued Victorian history painting from oblivion, Andrew Sanders’s lavishly illustrated In the Olden Time explores how the Victorians responded to key figures in their political and cultural tradition, and how they cheerfully molded the past to conform to the needs of the present. As laid out by the leading historian of the day, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the Victorian interpretation of history was Whiggish, with clearly defined heroes and villains and yielding useful lessons. Embracing the notion of progress, it presented history as a steady movement towards a balanced constitution and the representative government of the Victorian era, an object of envy for the less fortunate folk living on the Continent.
The challenge of making the past come alive was eagerly accepted by novelists and artists, says Sanders. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly (1824), set during the Jacobite rising in 1745, pioneered the genre by plunging fictional characters into the middle of momentous events. Said Thomas Carlyle of Scott and his imitators: “The historical novel taught us that the bygone ages of the land were actually filled with living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men.”
In their efforts, novelists and painters took pains to get the physical details right, relying on antiquarian handbooks on dress and armor. Scott thus provided meticulous descriptions of clothing and interiors while painters fussed endlessly over costumes. Occasionally, the result looked a little too stiff: Thackeray once complained that Sir Edwin Landseer’s “gentlemen and ladies do not look as if they were accustomed to their dresses, for all their correctness, but had put them on for the first time.”
Who, then, were the heroes, and who were the villains? Having united the Anglo-Saxons against the Vikings, King Alfred was assured his place as the founder of the monarchy, while Queen Elizabeth was much too headstrong and Machiavellian to fit into the Victorian ideal of womanhood. Vain, too: The book shows Augustus Egg’s Queen Elizabeth Discovers She Is No Longer Young (1848), in which a haggard-looking Elizabeth consults her mirror and hates what she sees. Much more in tune with Victorian ideals of demure womanhood were figures such as Lady Jane Grey, who, after having first turned down the offer of the crown, was queen for nine days before Mary Tudor’s accession and was painted by Paul Delaroche helpless and blindfolded on the scaffold. Not to mention Mary Queen of Scots, the very queen of suffering, subjected to all manner of degradation before losing her head. That the Victorian Mary had little to do with the real Mary is neither here nor there: Regard for the past only extended to its outward forms.