Book of the month: Restoration

July seems like a good time to bring in a new idea, being as far as possible from January and therefore a Midyear Resolution. From now on I will be attempting to write about a historical novel every month.

No promises of topicality - I will just include whatever I happen to have read and liked. I won't review books I hate (and there are a few of these). Which means I won't be attempting anything worthy of the Hatchet Job of the Year Award In my experience, it is easier to enjoy a frisson of schadenfreude when reading terrible reviews if you aren't yourself in the business of producing work that could be given similar treatment.

My first review will look at Restoration, by Rose Tremain. It has been on my radar for years, asking to be read. I resisted because - like many people - I thought that historical fiction was a bit National Trusty, politely retrograde, irrelevant. I thought that characters in historical fiction were like pretty puppets, prancing about having bogus emotions. I can't stand clunking wish-fulfilment hist-fic, in which fancy dress and fancy stuff rules. I'm deliberately seeking out historical novels which offer something different.

But the best historical novels are filled with complex, believable characters. Restoration is one of these. Robert Merivel, the protagonist, is as eccentric and vividly realised any character in Dickens. He is an unheroic hero, absurdly comic and often wracked with emotion. At the start of the story he is an ambitious but slipshod physician who accidentally cures Charles II favourite spaniel. Overjoyed, the king makes him surgeon to all the royal dogs. When Merivel is established at Court, Charles arranges a marriage of convenience between Merivel and Celia Clemence, one of the royal mistresses. Celia's dowry includes Bidnold, a splendid house and estate in Norfolk. Part of the deal is that Merivel lives there alone, while Celia is installed in a house in Kew, where the king visits her secretly.

All this is fine, and enables Merivel to play at being a painter and great landowner. (Appearance, superficiality and deception are recurring themes in the book.) But everything unravels when Celia comes to live at Bidnold after irritating the king. Merivel is increasingly smitten by her and makes a drunken advance to her one night, with disastrous results.

Though Merivel is dazzled by Celia, his true love object is Charles II. Not that there is anything sexual in this - Merivel is rampantly heterosexual, like his rakish monarch. But it is Charles who inspires his truest and most painful devotion, and the highs and lows of his relationship with Charles provide the tension and plot structure for the novel. The counter-weight to his rather undignified devotion to the king is his close friendship with Pearce, a dour Quaker who is loyal to Merivel but highly critical of his foolishness.

Tremain has more interest in her male characters than her female creations -  the same is true of her later novel, Music and Silence. Merivel is flawed but endearing: vain, childish, excitable and selfish. But he is also sensitive, loyal, passionate (about people, his horse and Bidnold) and has a powerful sense of his own weakness and absurdity. (The word which most readily comes to mind is 'hapless'.)

Charles is also a complex, beguiling character - he is capricious, easily bored, impulsive and ultimately ruthless and distant. He seems to take delight in Merivel's company, but spies on him to make sure that Merivel is not sleeping with Celia, and treats him with cold disdain when he tries to seduce her. He has absolute belief in his dominance and preeminence as monarch, and his superiority to other human beings.

Celia is a cypher in comparison, cool and pretty and a continuing mystery to Merivel. Most of the other women are variously needy or raunchy sex interests, a bawdy backdrop. But this is Merivel's story, and on that basis the novel works brilliantly.

Tremain also evokes the seventeenth century setting with tremendous style and energy, from the bustling London streets to the quiet haven of a Quaker community, and from the elegance of Bidnold to Merivel's parents' little house, which is consumed by fire.

The novel's main flaw, I think, is that time is handled awkwardly. It's a first-person narrative which is not a journal, and not written in Merivel's old age, but close to the action; a day later, two days later, maybe more than this. The way this shifts around can make the tense and our relation to the action confusing and disorientating. It may be that Tremain intended to disorientate and unsettle the reader, but I found the device distracted me from the story.

However, this is a small issue in such a dramatic and emotionally satisfying novel. It's also a tremendous entertainment, a tour de force: a seventeenth century bromance with wigs and feather hats.


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