Restoration by Rose Tremain
I am, I discover, a very untidy man.
Look at me. Without my periwig, I am an affront to neatness.
Robert Merival, the narrator of Rose Tremain’s Restoration, is, at the start of this book, a 37 year old doctor. He is one of the king’s favourites, and is utterly devoted to Charles II himself. So much so that he agrees to marry the king’s mistress, Celia, in order to persuade another of the royal mistresses that she is out of the picture. In reality though Charles will continue to see her, and Merival must never fall in love with her. She may be married to Merival, but she is the king’s.
Throughout the book Merival constantly puts himself down, he begins by describing how untidy he must appear. How ugly he is. How absurd he must appear. He knows that he is the king’s Fool, that others must laugh at him. He has agreed to let the king make him appear an even greater fool by marrying a woman he must never touch. He is deeply flawed. He is a glutton, both for food and for women, and is deeply immature.
But as the book progresses we get to know him better, and despite those obvious flaws he is quite an endearing character. He may also be too harsh with himself, for he has little trouble in finding women to enjoy. He has given up the life of a doctor in preference for an easy life at Court, but now is exiled from the king’s presence, in reward for his marriage he is given a house and land. But eventually Celia makes the mistake of asking too much from the king and he sends her away, to Merival. She is still untouchable, still the king’s mistress, but Merival finds himself falling in love with her. A mistake that earns him yet further banishment as his house and property are taken away and he is left to fend for himself. He finds himself returning to his profession, working alongside his Quaker friend at a madhouse. But again he makes mistakes and errors and although each time he appears to learn from them, it is a long process.
Despite all his flaws I found Merival to be a very likeable character. Of course he might be more insufferable were he not a fictional character, but in the book he is usually full of good humour, and although he is immature and selfish, he is also, in a strange way, thoughtful and interested in all those around him.
The title of this novel refers not only to the Restoration of Charles to the crown, but also to Merival’s restoration. His finding a path in life and coming to know himself.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, it mixes comic touches with more darker aspects, Mervial himself is an entertaining narrator, and Tremain really makes the historical era come to life. And her characters are realistic and well-drawn.