Restoration ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
From 1649 to 1658 was the period in English history known as the English Interregnum or the English Commonwealth. The country during this period was a de facto republic with Oliver Cromwell as virtual dictator. A political crisis resulting from Cromwell’s death in 1658 led to the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II as king. The period that followed is known as the “Restoration.” It was a time of fashion (plumes, powdered wigs, knee britches with stockings, high-heeled shoes with polished buckles—all for the men), relaxed moral values, hedonism, excesses of every kind, greed and materialism. The historical novel Restoration by Rose Tremain is about this period in English history and about one man in particular, the fictional Sir Robert Merivel.
Merivel is very much a man of his times. He comes from humble beginnings, begins studying to be a doctor as a young man, and is soon caught up in the pursuit of fulfillment of his appetites. He abandons his study of medicine, becomes a sort of courtier in the court of King Charles and, for a brief period, is a favorite of the king. The king, however, is known for his mercurial personality and for his whims, for taking up one person one day and throwing him down the next. Merivel makes the king laugh but the king finds for him another purpose: the king will marry Merivel to the king’s mistress, Lady Celia, a marriage in name only. In return for marrying Celia, the king sets Merivel up in a magnificent country estate called Bidnold, which has everything an English country gentleman could ask for: lots of servants, a park filled with abundant wildlife, and lots of room to pursue a life of idleness and pleasure. (Merivel takes up painting and playing the oboe but finds he has little talent for either pursuit.) Like Adam and Eve in Paradise, however, Merivel does the one thing he is absolutely not supposed to do: he falls in love with Lady Celia. When the king finds out, he dispossesses Merivel, telling him he needs to go find himself, to “restore” himself to the kind of man he was always meant to be. Suddenly without money or a home, Merivel must embark on a quest to find out who he really is and to fulfill his purpose in life. Fate takes him to a mental hospital run by Quakers in a rural part of England (where he inadvertently finds himself a father) and back to London again where he deals with a plague epidemic and the Great Fire of 1666.
Restoration is not the potboiler one might expect it to be. It elevates the “historical fiction” genre into the realm of “good literature.” It’s beautifully written and contains not a dull or extraneous word. It illuminates a fascinating period in English history without ever being academic or seeming like a history lesson. It brings a remote period of history alive and makes it somehow relevant.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp