BOOK REVIEW OF THE WEEK: RESTORATION
Restoration is set during 17th-century England, the ‘restoration’ era of Charles II – whether this be of the arts, science or self. The main character, Robert Merivel, embodies the contradictions of his era. He is trapped between the longings for wealth and power and the realization that the pursuit of these desires can leave life rather empty. Thus he embarks upon a restoration of his self, to find meaning in his life and discovering the joys of selflessness and a useful profession.
Merivel was so honest and open about his own misgivings, strange habits, faults and weaknesses that he is portrayed as a very human, very real character which allows the reader to relate to him and thus examine the vanity of our own lives. However, while Merivel may have been sloppy and without proper manners, one cannot help but find his antics very funny. Robert becomes a fool for King Charles II, marrying the King’s mistress but forbidden to touch her, and it is this relationship to the King that shapes his life in the story. Robert’s love for King Charles is conveyed so well that the notion of tender love for a King as a wise and mature parent illustrates the love essential to European ideas of kingship before the eighteenth century.
Merivel is by trade a physician but he rebukes this profession in preference to an easier life, one without responsibility and hard work and this laziness leads him to live in a waking sleep. This leads to his fall from grace for King Charles believes ‘the sleeper must awaken’, forcing Merivel to leave behind a life of idle luxury and face responsibility and the truths of the world through the only living he can make – through a return to his previous profession. One aspect of Robert’s restoration is his work with the patients at the Quaker asylum: in addition to the ideas and attitudes of the time, we are allowed to see Robert developing his own notions of the causes and cures of madness, which are applied with some success and some ruinous results.
Merivel finds a place among the poor insane and through their treatment gains an understanding of the acts of compassion and selflessness, although that does not mean he is rid of his desires for power and lust. Rather, he is now able to control them as his desire for self-worth has because more important to him. I believe Rose Tremain was showing that whatever age we live in, we are all plagued by desires and these are generally the same whatever century it is – money, power, vanity – and all of us fight a daily war against ourselves to overcome these desires. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail (that’s what makes us human), but as long as we make the attempt each day to fight these warring conflicts we will succeed each day in coming that little bit closer to the restoration of our childlike innocent selves.
Although the portrayal of 17th century England (particularly the medical practices) was fascinating, it was the growth of Merivel as a human being that was the pivotal part of this novel. His trials and tribulations, his evolution from a self-centered hedonistic court fop to a serious and sensitive man is poignantly portrayed. As I previously stated, Tremain’s work is a commentary on our own times, times not unlike the Restoration wherein, as Charles II describes at the novel’s end, “Even in an age in which we wisely practice the excellent art of oblivion, certain things remain”. However much we pretend certain things do not exist we have to accept that situations such as poverty and disease are very much a part of our society and turning a blind eye to them will not rectify the situation or make them go away.