This very fine novel was first published in 1989. Writing some twenty years later about this book, the author states that this story was her 'fictional response to the climate of selfishness and material greed that began to prevail in our society during the Thatcher years, from which we have never recovered and for which we are now beginning to pay a terrifying price'. Four years on from making this statement of course, society is no better off. Which ensures that a story such as as this has as much relevance now as it did 25 years ago, and 325 years before that when it is set in the equally greedy time of the reign of Charles II.
When the story begins, in 1664, Robert Merivel is a 37 year old physician. Since he was a child he has been fascinated by how the body works, over the years developing his knowledge and an enormous respect for the human condition. The restoration of a king to the throne of England in 1661 awakens a frenzy of celebration and hedonism in the population at large which Robert is desperate to become a part of. Fortunately for Robert, his father is a glove maker to the King, which does improve his chances of getting close to the King. In a peculiar piece of good luck he cures one of the royal spaniels and finds himself firmly in place at the royal court. But he is really no more than a plaything of the King, a pawn to be used as the King sees fit, and in the process Robert loses some of himself. He finds himself married to one of the King's mistresses, ostensibly to keep another mistress happy. As a reward for this service he is knighted, given lands and a house miles away in Norfolk and forbidden from falling in love with his wife. Naturally he does fall in love, and in a single kingly stroke, all his good fortune is taken away from him.
What follows is Robert's rediscovery of himself and his own personal restoration to the man that was always there, but had been temporarily waylaid by the madness and greed around him. Destitute and homeless, he makes his way to where John Pearce, his oldest friend, a Quaker who had been a fellow medical student with him, now lives - an establishment that cares for mentally disturbed people. All the way through the novel John Pearce acts a bit like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio - that little conscience just sitting out of sight on Robert's shoulder. Robert always knows that John's way is the right way; he just has some trouble getting on the right path!
The journey of restoring body and soul is long and fraught with the crazy house not being the end of the road for Robert by any means. But slowly and surely, Robert Merivel, Physician and Surgeon, finds happiness and peace and his own self. Robert is a fully rounded character, with his fair share of human failings and strengths. He encourages us all to look into ourselves and find the goodness within, as well as the moral courage to make a stand.
This is a long book, not a light summer read, but one to be savoured and lingered over. The research into 17th century life, in the country, the hideous cities, the court life, treatment of the sick, the Plague, the Great Fire of London, dress, diet, transport, is outstanding. As is the writing. The author is a very classy writer, and I am very much looking forward to reading the recently published sequel called simply 'Merivel'.