Rose Tremain’s Restoration is possibly my favourite historical novel of all time, putting the endearingly flawed Robert Merivel at the centre of an era we all think we know a lot about and teaching us so much more about it. If there was an image that stayed with me it was of Merivel in his plague doctor’s garb, showing us how it was to practise medicine and live through events like the Great Fire of London. In terms of story arc the book is also perfect, with Merivel making every error a man can make before accepting his fate and working towards redemption and ultimately his own restoration.
Merivel, a Man of his Time, (nice discussion here) is very different as a book. Merivel’s later life is comfortable but he wearies of it. To stave off fears of a lonely old age he sets off to search for glamour in the court of King Louis at Versaille, only to find himself in an endless queue of supplicants with nothing to live on. From here Merivel ends up in Paris, back in Norfolk and later Switzerland in a plot that is funny, dramatic, sad and largely picaresque. But that is the nature of Merivel’s later years. The past, recorded in his own writing, is behind him, his loyal servants are barely able to serve him, an old love dies of cancer and even his beloved King is growing old. But this is not a sombre book. It’s full of Merivel’s inimitable curiosity and ability to see the comical side of life. It’s a very fitting sequel to Restoration and one which does justice to its hero. Reaching the end was like losing a friend I expected would live forever.
As someone who’s been wrestling with writing historical fiction for quite a while, it’s salutary to remember that however fascinating the times in which he lived, it’s Merivel’s character and unique voice ( a work of genius in itself) that defines these books. As a result I’ve decided that for a historical novelist, history serves fiction. Trying to make fiction serve history won’t really work.