Book Review: Lucy Worsley’s Cavalier

I wanted to like this book.

The 17th century is a fascinating stretch of history, one that I’ve been interested in ever since I watched that Disney version of The Three Musketeers when I was a little kid. Big hats! Rapiers! Swashbuckling! Ladies with abundant decolletage!

So, when I stumbed across Lucy Worsley’s Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy in a dollar bin, I scooped that book right up. A non-fiction biography of a dude with a big hat and a sword? It’s entertaining and educational! Score! And, uh … Lucy manages to get the second part down, at least.

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Cavalier centers around the eventful life of William Cavendish, The Duke of Newcastle. Cavendish was a man with many interests: fencing, horsemanship, architecture, poetry, and so on. Those last two are of particular note. Cavendish’s Worsley quotes Cavendish’s writings directly several times. The most entertaining bit describes the average Italian gentleman’s eating habits: “their diet being salads and frogs.” The architecture bit is important too, as Cavendish had several lavish houses built on his lands, like Bolsover Castle and Welbeck Abbey. I can see why Worsley picked him to write about, no doubt due to the abundance of materials available on the guy.

But … the problem is, while Cavalier is certainly well researched, it’s boring. Worsley certainly did her homework in her writing, but her structure is really, really weird. Honestly, it’s downright schizophrenic. Instead of laying out a linear account of Cavendish’s life and adventures, Worsley takes a more detailed, circuitous route. In the most damning example, Chapter 3 starts with an important message being delivered to Cavendish’s firs wife, Elizabeth, at Welbeck Abbey. For the next fifteen pages, Worsley digresses into descriptions of the house, how disreputable Cavendish’s porter is, the kind of bread that servants eat, the difference between a page and a footman, and a couple of other random tangents before we get to Elizabeth actually reading the letter. Worsley does this again in the next chapter, meticulously following the path of one of Cavendish’s housemaids as she winds through the castle to empty his chamber pot. I am not making this up.

That’s when I decided to start skipping ahead.

I can see what Worsley is going for with this structure, laying out the nitty-gritty details of 17th century manor life … but at the same time, the book is called Cavalier. I came for the romance and the swordfights, dangit. The incessant tangents just get frustrating after awhile. The funny thing is, Cavalier doesn’t work well as an academic history book either, simply because it keeps swerving from one topic to another without warning or coherency. Each chapter details some important event in Cavendish’s life, with gaps of years or even decades between.

The other thing that struck me about the book is that Worsley has a far, far more charitable view of Cavendish than I took away. William Cavendish was on the Royalist side during the English Civil War, which, if you remember your history classes, was the losing side. Fair enough. And, in the chapter about the battle of Marston Moor, it becomes pretty clear why they lost. Cavendish turns out to be an incompetent officer, unable to control (or even pay) his battalion, who show up drunk and late to the big battle. Things go badly for the Royalists, and so, after this single defeat, Cavendish and his sons flee England the next day. Which wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t leave his daughters behind in the process.

Worsley paints Cavendish as a tragic victim here, lamenting how he fell from having an enormous manor house and lands to … renting Reubens’ old workshop in Antwerp. With money sent to him from his kids. Who he abandoned in the middle of a war. I dunno, maybe it’s just the American in me, but I have little sympathy for a guy who literally had everything in his life handed to him upon a silver platter.

And y’know what? The tension of children having to support a distant father who abandoned him is perfect for drama (especially considering the fact that Cavendish remarried while he was on the continent, falling in love with a much younger woman). But again, Worsley never really grabs onto this concept, instead giving us a couple of paragraphs on how laundry was done in the 17th century.

To be honest, if Worsley had just titled the book Dinner at Welbeck: Everyday Life in 17th Century England, I would’ve been fine. But, with the whole Cavalier title, it gives the false impression that we’re going to read about a dashing swordsman, rather than a dumpy, twice-married aristocrat who flees at his first ever failure and is forced to mooch off his kids for several years afterward.

Then again, if the book had spent more time on showing Cavendish to be an interesting guy, and less on telling us how much he paid his servants, I’d probably have a better opinion of the guy.

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