I really enjoyed Rose Tremain’s Restoration, which an excellent friend promptly posted to me when I needed a bit of cheering up. (Everyone should have a friend like that!) Not that Restoration is very cheerful, but a good novel is always a tonic, isn’t it? And Restoration is awfully good. Like Wolf Hall, it’s a historical novel that is less about history than about character — which is not to say that these aren’t books steeped in research and full of marvelously tactile historical details, but that the detail never seems decorative (or pedantic) because it is so integral to the lives into which we enter. In both novels, also, those lives are not just individual characters but embody the character of their age.
Restoration‘s structuring idea is right there in its title, which is both the familiar name of the era during which the novel is set (the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II) and the encapsulated story of its protagonist, Robert Merivel. Merivel’s personal flourishing, fall, and reinvention represent (on Tremain’s telling) the larger struggles of an age marked by both gaudy materialism and earnest moral striving (embodied in Restoration by Merivel’s Quaker friend Pearce). The vacuousness of a life with no aim but luxury, and with no occupation but idle amateurism, brings Merivel little substantial happiness — and no reconciliation between his literal heart and his true heart, a dichotomy literalized for us early on when, as a student, Merivel has the opportunity to hold a living heart in his hand:
My hand entered the cavity. I opened my fingers and, with the same care I had applied, as a boy, to the stealing of eggs from birds’ nests, took hold of the heart, Still, the man showed no sign of pain. Fractionally, I tightened my grip. The beat remained strong and regular. I was about to withdraw my hand when the stranger said: ‘Are you touching the organ, Sir?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘don’t you feel the pressure of my fingers?’
‘No. I feel nothing at all.’ . . .
Ergo, the organ we call the human heart and which is defined, in our human consciousness, as the seat – or even deified as the throne – of all powerful emotion, from unbearable sorrow to ecstatic love, is in itself utterly without feeling.
A selfish lout — a buffoon, even — for most of the early action of the novel, Merivel is brought low only to be restored — not to riches but to human dignity.
It’s not a euphoric redemption story, however, but something more difficult and uneasy: Merivel’s progress is halting, his character imperfect, his actions often despicable. Merivel says it best himself: “I am erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad.”
His account of his own life hides none of these unattractive characteristics: aptly for the period, it’s a ‘warts and all‘ portrait. Tremain neatly incorporates this theme into the novel itself through the painter Finn, who begins by training Merivel in artistic idealization and ends a successful painter of “merchants, barristers, schoolmasters, drapers, cabinet-makers, clerks.” Finn’s new method is actually Merivel’s idea: “do not paint me as a rich man, dressed up in satin or with a sea battle going on behind my head; paint me as I am, in my old wig and in my shirtsleeves and in this simple room.” This idea, which “had only that second entered [his] mind,” is a sign of how far Merivel has come from his earlier ostentatious luxury and preening self-indulgence.
Merivel’s medical training is his one truly useful skill. He tries to dissociate himself from it because it interferes with his pleasures – on his wedding night, for instance (a vexed occasion anyway, as his new wife is the king’s mistress and the marriage designed to be a sham) he is overcome with horror during a musical performance:
I stare at Sir Joshua’s face, looking down towards his viola, and, layer by layer, in my anatomist’s sadness, I peel back skin and muscle and nerve and tendons, until I can see only the white bone of his skull, the empty sockets of the eyes . . .
All my anatomical studies seem to have brought me to a great sadness. When a man plays a viola da gamba, I want to share in his joy, not see his skull. For where will such visions end? . . . Such a perpetual and visible awareness of mortality would, I am certain, bring me to despair in a very short time. . . .
I must avoid, then, coming to despair and madness. I must try to forget anatomy. Forget it utterly.
But though he doesn’t understand this for some time, it’s precisely this attempt to forget what is real that sends Merivel close to madness and despair: close in both senses, as he ends up, at his lowest ebb, assisting Pearce and a group of other Friends at a hospital for the insane, and also ends up himself on the verge of what might be madness — seeing things and hearing sounds that aren’t really there, lost in “a colossal epidemic of dreaming.”
Tremain is too wise to make medicine a simple cure for Merivel: he does not, for instance, discover a miraculous cure for the plague and rise up heroically sure in his vocation — instead he ends up peddling what he himself considers a quack remedy for it. He doesn’t save anybody with a brilliant surgery — instead, he sits by largely helpless while two people very close to him die. There’s no inspirational turning point or epiphany. But his experiences strip away the pretense in his life as surely as they strip away his excess body fat:
I had grown most peculiarly thin. The waist of the breeches was too large for me by more than two inches, so that the wretched things would not stay up, and, when I put the coat on my back, it hung out from my body like a cape. . . .
For the whole of my life I had never been thin. . . . Now, all the flesh was falling away and every bone in me being slowly unsheathed and made visible.
“I began,” he concludes, “to consider the possibility that I was dying.” This moment seems to me to bring us back to his horror at the viola player’s skull: in acknowledging his own mortality, Merivel is finally ready to begin living a life in which his body and his spirit work together. And so he returns to the home he once prized (and over-decorated) so greedily and is given a chance to start again.