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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

X. Memoir and Letter Writers

§ 20. Memoirs of Sir John Reresby

The Memoirs of Sir John Reresby are the work of an accomplished man who united in himself the qualities of a courtier and those of a country squire. The book contains a pleasing record of the chief events, some of them of very great importance, which came under his notice, as well as of other matters founded on the mere gossip of court circles. The author writes with distinction, and the reader cannot well follow his adventures without a feeling of esteem and sympathy, although it must be confessed that he was somewhat of a self-seeker—indeed, he has been styled “a cautious time-serving politician.” To those who read his pleasant narrative with interest, this must, however, appear a hard saying. He lived in a difficult period, and, although he was whole-heartedly loyal to Charles II, he does not appear to have approved of the next sovereign, and his protestant feelings prevented him from being troubled with much regret when the revolution was completed; so that he had not any difficulty in deciding to swear allegiance to William III.

Reresby had really small reason for gratitude to Charles II, since, although the king was glad to enjoy his agreeable conversation, and to make use of him generally, all that the courtier obtained from his long attendance at court was

  • an appointment to be high sheriff of his county, to which his rank alone entitled him, the government of a city that had no garrison, and the command of a fort, which never appears to have been built.
  • Reresby was only 55 years of age when he died in 1689; and it was not until 1734 that his Memoirs were first published, the manuscript having, in the interval, passed through several hands. The book was popular, and several editions of it were called for; among which, that of 1813 for the first time printed the author’s Travels, while that of 1875 printed some of his letters, together with passages of the diary previously omitted. It is well that the diary and the travels—both of them short works—should be united, as, together, they form a connected whole, and the chronology of Reresby’s life is thus completed. The scheme of his writings has a certain likeness to that of Evelyn’s diary. The same circumstances in the history of the country caused these two men to begin their lives with the experience of foreign travel. Reresby, like Evelyn, felt that to live at home was worse than banishment, and begins his journeyings with these words:
  • I left England in that unhappy time when honesty was reputed a crime, religion superstition, loyalty treason; when subjects were governors, servants masters, and no gentleman assured of anything he possessed; the least jealousy of disaffection to the late erected commonwealth being offence sufficient to endanger the forfeiture of his estate, the only laws in force being those of the sword.
  • He took his departure in 1654, and made an extensive tour through Europe. His descriptions of France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands are valuable, and contain much information of interest as to the state of these countries in the seventeenth century. Reresby spent some time at Saumur (in Anjou), where there was a protestant university. Here, he was able to study the French language, which he found “the great resort of my countrymen to Paris prevented me from doing satisfactorily there.” After staying again in Paris, which he considered the finest city of Europe (not excepting London), he returned to England, in May, 1658, after four years’ absence.

    He opens his memoirs with a notice of the death of Crom-well, which, he thought, paved the way for the return of the king. This was on 23 September, 1658, and, in October of the same year, he was back in Paris, where he made himself known to the queen mother, who kept her court at the Palais Royal. He was well received and became very friendly with the charming princess Henrietta (then fifteen years of age), who was the queen’s only child living with her. In 1660, hopes arose of the restoration of Charles II, and we are told that now there was a greater resort to the Palais Royal than to the French court. On 2 August, Reresby returned to England, and he took with him a particular recommendation of the queen mother to the king. On 10 August, 1669, the queen died, and Reresby describes her as “a great princess and my very good mistress.” It is interesting to learn that, at one time, he was attracted by la belle Hamilton, and there was a chance of his marrying her, although she was a catholic; but, after he had seen mistress Frances Browne (to whom he was married in 1665), he had no inclination for any other choice. He had probably a fortunate escape; but, on the other hand, one feels that, as Lady Reresby, Elizabeth Hamilton would have had a happier life than she was fated to live as the partner of Philibert de Gramont.

    Reresby was not a man of letters; but there is a distinction about his writings, which give us pleasure from their liveliness and freshness, indicating the insight and impartiality of a man of the world. By a careful selection of subjects, he manages to furnish a good idea of the period from the restoration to the revolution. He allots much space to his notes on the popish plot, which shows his appreciation of the dangers to be apprehended from the rapid progress of the supposed design, although we see that he was early convinced of the villainy of Oates.

    The author carefully narrates the transactions which preceded the revolution; but he saw little of the new régime, for he died on 12 May, 1689.