In some ways, in choosing to step back into 17th century England, I feel I’m entering a quieter calmer place. Not that the time period is dull, with civil war, bawdy Restoration theatre, the plague and the Great Fire in London, that is hardly a worry! Perhaps it’s more that the internet chatter seems to cease in my mind when I enter these books. The competition to read this that and the rest, all immediately, seems to have stopped. I feel safe in a way, that I am pursuing my own interests in this little half forgotten corner of history, that isn’t as popular as the Tudors or the Victorians. Usually I feel like I have to rush through everything at once, but suddenly I find myself willing to settle down, to take my time. To be at peace with myself and my finite choices. This has not happened in a long time. The other interesting thing about the 17th century is the rise of the novel really didn’t happen until the 18th century, so finally I feel I can indulge in reading more historical novels (I’ve usually held the view that what’s actually written during the time period is better, but here there’s nothing to compare historical novels to and plenty to explore), as well as eventually reading some Restoration plays (shorter and I think funnier than a Victorian novel!) and other literary forms like poems, diaries and essays.
So I finished Restoration by Rose Tremain this evening, after quietly taking my time with it all week and although a little slow at parts, it paid off in the end with a rich epic feel and a variety of characters I came to care about. Robert Merivel begins the book as something of a fool, physician to King Charles II’s spaniels and later married (only on paper) to one of the King’s mistresses, he is happy to joke, drink, fuck and daydream his way through life, until his long fall from grace begins. And that is where the book becomes fascinating. For a while he works with mad people in a Quaker hospital and I unexpectedly really enjoyed that part, I found it compassionate and insightful about how the mentally ill were seen and treated and about how Merivel tries to change to become a better person. Later he returns to London and gets in on all the plague and fire action and I loved the sense of community in the crowded old city. It’s also very colourfully written and rich not only in detail, but also in some of the ideas of the times.
I walk on between the neat hedges of box, smelling those herbs that outlast the winter, bay, rosemary, sage, lemon balm, thyme, and there, in the very middle of the garden, setting his watch by the sundial, I see him…
The great front of fire was still many streets away. But some burning thing — a sheet of music, a plumed hat, or I know not what — had come out of the sky and fallen on this one house, and all around me I imagined the fire traveling thus, carried on the wind, on pieces of silk, on love letters, on lace collars, swirling and leaping and floating down at random and immediately catching hold.
And after this night, what took hold of me was not any illness or sliding towards death, but a colossal epidemic of dreaming, so that night after night I floated into Bidnold and landed light as a plume and brushed the surfaces of things — the polished tops of tables, the stretched brocade of scarlet sofas, the milky satin of cushions, the tooled leather spines of books, the dented pewter handle of the coal scuttle — and then was carried by the wind out into the sky and hung like a ghost above the park, filling myself with colour so that I became fat with it, with the purple of the beeches and the lush green of the grass. There were no people in these dreams, yet they were dreams of the most sensual kind from which, when the morning came, I did not want to be parted. So I began to prolong them into the day, rising later and later, long after the lute-maker had begun work and the noise on the river had reached to its morning crescendo. I was addicted to them, as to an opiate, and went about my physician’s round drugged by the memory of them and by the great quantity of sleep I was inflicting upon myself. I knew that I should be trying to shake off this sickness of dreaming, but I did not seem to have the will to do it.
I’m eager to start the biography of Charles II I picked up the other day, A Gambling Man by Jenny Uglow, and have also started An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, a mystery set in 1660s Oxford. I’m making a list of more books about the 17th century (I’ll have to start making space for them on my bookshelf soon!) and feeling contented.