Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Greate flakes of yce," or, Snow on snow on snow



In this winter of strange and abundant snows--multiple feet in DC, a whole island's worth in Britain--our snowfall here Chicago yesterday was nothing special: a foot or so, drifting down, gently but constantly, throughout the day. Still, it was a pleasure, its charm bringing to mind this account of wintry pursuits from Jenny Uglow's A Gambling Man: Charles II's Restoration Game:
Towards the end of November [1662], Londoners woke to find their rooftops covered with snow, the first for three years. It was the start of weeks of icy cold. Charles took Catherine to St James's Park to watch people skating on the new canal. This was a novel diversion, learnt in Holland by many exiles who had brought back their iron and steel skates. The watchers were entranced, among them John Evelyn who waxed lyrical about the "strange and wonderful dexterity of the sliders," how fast they sped by, "how sudainly they stop in full carriere upon the Ice, before their Majesties." Evelyn went home by water, "but not without exceeding difficultie, the Thames being froze, greate flakes of yce incompassing our boate."
I love the casual reminder in that episode of the vagaries of cultural change: Charles spent much of his exile in Holland, home of skating, so when his supporters returned to London, they took their first chance to show off their new toys, and their new skills. I also love the specificity of that whole scene--the flakes of ice described by Evelyn (to whom we lovers of British history owe so much)--and the sense of license and the carnival-like atmosphere that an unusual snow still brings with it today. The one winter I lived in London, we certainly could have done with some snow--anything to break up the grimy gray monotony.

I had intended to close this post there, but on looking at the book again just now, I realized that the very next paragraph features too much great detail not to share, especially given my recent return to Tolstoy. The snow happened to coincide with the arrival of a trio of envoys from Tsar Alexis, who had supported Charles in his exile. Uglow describes the impression they made on the London crowds:
The tall Russians in their great fur hats were dashing figures as they rode in their coaches through the crowded streets, their attendants following with hawks on their wrists to present to the King. At their audience in the Banqueting House the gallery was so packed that people feared it might fall. They wore tunics embroidered with gold and pearls and bore gifts of furs--sable, black fox and ermine--Persian carpets, cloths of gold and velvet and even "sea-horse teeth." Charles was given a gold glove, on which he held three hawks, while the chief envoy raised the letters from the Tsar ceremoniously on high and then prostrated himself full length at the king's feet.
After telling us all about the trappings of the visit, Uglow explains the more down-to-earth reasons behind it:
The envoys had come to bring congratulations and to ask for a loan. They did not get one, but Charles did repay the money that the Tsar had lent him twelve years before, when he was at his lowest ebb.
Good of him, that.

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