Appropriating the Restoration: Fictional Place and Time in Rose Tremain’s Restoration: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century England

King Charles II by John Michael Wright. oil on canvas, circa 1660-1665 NPG 531 © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Charles II by John Michael Wright. oil on canvas, circa 1660-1665 NPG 531
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The historical proliferation of authors “borrowing” the works of other authors has led to numerous critical studies in appropriation, what Christy Desmet characterizes as “literary influence . . . grounded in metaphors of conflict.”  The concept may also be defined as taking possession of a text for one’s own, often cultural, purpose.  In doing so, the author creates a “dynamic intertext:  the works reflect the cultural charge that produced them, but the works may go on to affect the culture once they are re-produced.”[1]  But while authors have appropriated literary works for centuries, they have also appropriated historical settings and places well outside their own realities, creating new works in historical settings that reflect a new cultural purpose.  “Both the Elizabethan age and the Restoration,” explains Martha Rozett, “are frequent subjects of popular formula-fiction romances due to their distinctive, easily replicated atmospheres; both also have inspired a great deal of serious, traditional historical fiction and fictionalized biography as well.”[2]  However, comparisons between historical fiction and actual history, contends Alan Marshall, often reveal that the two have little in common, “yet both genres possibly still have much to learn from one another.  Indeed if popular and just occasionally academic history has become more novelistic in tone at times, then sometimes historical novels have become more academically serious.”

Certainly, scholars have long had a love/hate relationship with Restoration England’s excesses as well as with its political heavy-handedness.  Alexander Pope’s rather unflattering reference in Imitations of Horace to “Days of Ease, when now the weary Sword / Was sheath’d, and Luxury with Charles restor’d” plays on those excesses as well as on the fickle masses, as Dryden says, “Now Whig, now Tory.”  The restoration of Charles II, however, was a momentous occasion, celebrated certainly by a large majority for bringing order—a prerequisite for eighteenth-century political and cultural stability.  This “spirit of order” was essential to a cultural harmony following years of Civil War and its absence of a controlling monarchy—whether good or bad.  This harmony, however, argues Gerald Marshall, was bought at the price of personal identity, making the Restoration not unlike the Protectorate in some ways.[3]

Nevertheless, whatever its political and social flaws, the Restoration presented authors who had distance from it a picture of relief—a tyrant removed and his right-wing religious conservatism with it.  It was the sixties—albeit the 1660s—a time for tricksters, rakes, subversive women and sexual energy on the stage.  It was a time of fun for those with the means to partake of it.  The “good old days” are, of course, always better from a distance, but writers on through the twentieth century found the Restoration an apt setting for their fictions about prostitution, political intrigue, and tragic or comic historical events, especially for the cinema.

restorationcoverRose Tremain’s 1989 bestselling novel Restoration; A Novel of Seventeenth-Century England, made into an Oscar-winning film for Best Art-Direction/Set Decoration and Best Costume Design in 1995, embraces both the excess and the tragedy of Restoration England.  As Marshall concludes, Tremain’s Restoration

. . . is not Scott by any means; it is very readable for one thing, has engaging characters and is not that improbable in its story. . . .  Instead it is really a novel about ideas, which happens to be set in the past, and it can lead us to ponder and then go on to explore many of these ideas in a genuine historical context, which is perhaps what the really good historical novel should do.  (2)

Wedding Scene, Restoration, 1995; Sam Neill, Robert Downey, Jr., Polly Walker

Wedding Scene, Restoration, 1995; Sam Neill, Robert Downey, Jr., Polly Walker.

Restoration follows characters such as the rakish Robert Merivel and Quaker John Pearce through life-forming events as a paradoxical Charles II exudes an omniscient presence over them and the nation.  The King replaces God in his consuming power, sensitive to all things, and he demands order in his kingdom and a particular skill from his subjects, stressing that no man should rise above his own talents.  Tremain’s novel capitalizes on the plague and the fire to move the story as well, but she relies particularly on the opulence of the court and on stories about Charles II’s personality for particular scenes.  When the King arranges a loveless marriage between Merivel and Celia, one of the King’s mistresses, in order to have her close by, he also presides over the lavish arrangements.  “For the King,” Merivel tells us, “moves like God in our world, like Faith itself.”[1]  Merivel relates, “How shall I describe my wedding?  It was like a tolerably good play, a play of which, long after the thing was over, certain lines, certain scenes, certain arrangements of people and costume and light return vividly to your mind, while the rest remains dark” (25).

Theatre images like this one abound in the novel.  Once he becomes a ward of the King, Merivel becomes an actor in an elaborate scheme, abandoning his love for and skill in medicine for the pleasures at court, also ignoring the King’s warning that no man should rise above his own talents.  Merivel fails at learning to play the oboe, at painting, etc.; but the King accepts Merivel’s exploits, at least for a while, because, as he says, “You are utterly of our times.”  When the King gives Merivel and Celia his house at Bidnold, Merivel delights in this newfound wealth—wealth that will prove to have many strings attached:

Now, I had thirty rooms in which to spread myself.  In one almost circular room in the West Tower, I let out an involuntary yelp of delirium, so perfect did the space seem—for what, I didn’t know or care. . . .  I had come at last to . . . ‘the divine banquet of the brain’.  And the banquet was mine!  I sat down and took off my wig and scratched my hogshair and wept for joy.  (27)

Finally, Tremain’s novel appropriates time and place for a story that depends on the political climate, the social hierarchy, the scene at court and the many eccentricities prevalent in Restoration London.

So why “romanticize” the Restoration, a time rife with crime, disease, poverty, and discrimination, and a period with no antibiotics, no human rights, and no social mobility?  Maybe we are nostalgic because it was a new beginning, a move away from civil war and religious oppression.  It introduced women on the stage and a savvy, if not sexy, King.  After the Puritans, opulence was fun again, sex was fun again.  It was, after all, the 60s.

Notes

[1] Robert Sawyer, Victorian Appropriations of Shakespeare:  George Eliot, A. C. Swinburne, Robert Browning, and Charles Dickens (Madison:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003):  16-17.  Sawyer quotes Desmet from their earlier co-authored study.

[2] Martha Tuck Rozett, “Constructing a World:  How Postmodern Historical Fiction Reimagines the Past.”  CLIO 25 (1996).

[3] W. Gerald Marshall, ed., Introduction to The Restoration Mind (Newark:  University of Delaware Press, 1997):  8-9; 11.

Cultivating Philosophy in the Epicurean Garden

Denham Place, Buckinghamshire.  Unknown artist, 17th century, British.  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Denham Place, Buckinghamshire. Unknown artist, 17th century, British. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

In the late seventeenth century, the philosopher Epicurus and his garden made a comeback in England. Natural philosophers looked to his arguments about atomic swerve to understand the cosmos, and translations of Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe, the primary classical source for dissemination of Epicurus’s ideas, went through multiple English translations by a diverse group of enthusiasts, including, among others, the Puritan, Lucy Hutchinson; the Restoration court writer and poet laureate, John Dryden; the diarist, John Evelyn; and the most prolific of the translators, Thomas Creech, praised by Aphra Behn for making Lucretius available to English readers.

At the center of Epicurean philosophy lies the garden, a symbol for Epicurus’s philosophical ideal of ataraxia, or tranquil pleasure. It is perhaps not surprising that the tumultuous years of civil war and regicide (1640s); the Restoration (1660); plague (1665); fire (1666); and several wars with the Dutch (1650s-70s) would have produced renewed interest among the English in Epicurean philosophy, which argued for retreat from chaos and politics, always unstable, whether in ancient Rome or late Stuart London. The seventeenth century was perhaps a good time to stay in one’s English countryside garden and tend the roses.

Sir William Temple’s essay, “Upon the gardens of Epicurus, or, of gardening in the year 1685,” offers practical advice and best practices for growing plants in England and describes other gardens around the world. In Temple’s world, virtuous philosophy cultivates virtuous vegetation, and Temple is most interested in the nutritious and sweetest fruits with the greatest health benefit. He takes particular interest in the natural plants that counter poisons. The perfect garden provides the simplest nourishment, which Temple advises is the best diet, cautioning the reader against too much meat and wine. We might do well to follow some of his advice today.

The physical garden was to Temple and other Epicureans a reflection of  one’s mental landscape, and in the best of all possible worlds, one would stay in the garden–a position that Voltaire would later and more famously endorse in Candide. That is, if duty–a Stoic ideal of virtue–didn’t intervene. An important statesman, Temple negotiated the Triple Alliance, taking an active role in Charles II’s government until he followed Epicurus’s advice and retired to his own garden. He praises retirement as a philosophical mode in his “Upon the gardens,” and he defends Lucretius from detractors who attacked him for atheism. One of the ancients, Lucretius rightfully belongs among the ranks of Homer, Virgil, and Horace, classical writers revered in the period. Lucretius, Temple argues, was no more or less pagan than they were and deserves equal admiration.

Members of the Royal Society took Epicureanism seriously in their investigations of the body and soul. Temple, however, disliked natural philosophy. In “Upon the gardens,” he does not endorse Lucretian atomism to understand the body or the soul. The era saw tremendous advances in medicine, including Thomas Willis’s discovery of the cranial nerves, still called the “Circle of Willis,” and debates about the operation of the ‘animal spirits,’ those invisible forces thought to flow through the nerve pathways and link a higher with a lower soul. The eclectic physician and natural philosopher Walter Charleton, among others, connected the animal spirits to Lucretian atomism. Temple thought this was not the business of mankind. We might hear Alexander Pope’s Great Chain of Being swinging off in the distance.

Temple most admired Lucretius’s arguments for retreat into a natural space where even the poorest of humans might experience the noblest of tranquil virtues, thereby rivaling or surpassing kings in the simple acts of growing, weeding, planting, and reaping. Though a Royalist, Temple makes a subtle argument in his “Upon the gardens” for the equality of mankind. In other essays, he advocates for peace over conflict, lauding the virtues of a well-functioning government over the glory of war. This in a period that saw England’s greatest imperialistic expansion and many English translations of epics. Temple suggests the inferiority of Homer and Virgil, who depict epic deities with the worst human qualities enacting the basest schemes against mortals, to Lucretius, who argues against their existence. Though at other times sounding strongly Christian, Temple here seems to endorse Lucretius’s ideas, which led some critics to accuse him of atheism.

The idea of Epicureanism as a state of virtuous tranquility or simple living has not survived in popular understandings of the word “Epicurean.” It became associated with a pleasure ideal followed by Charles II’s court libertines, who misused the term in writing about their sensory pleasures. It was precisely these sorts of pleasures that Epicurus and Lucretius discouraged their followers from pursuing. They argued that it disrupted the mind and caused unhappiness, frustration, and depression. Lucretius spends an entire book (Book 4)–which Dryden translates in Sylvae–in On the Nature of the Universe in dissuading humans from sexual promiscuity along with other excesses, including gluttony. Ironically, a Google search of the term “Epicurean” will yield more results for food, wine, and kitchen products than it will for anything Epicurus or Lucretius valued–friendship, moderation, and gardening–all pursuits cultivating virtue and the life of the active body and mind.

That is not to say that Epicurus or Lucretius disavow all sensory pleasures, and the garden Temple describes is abundant with procreative purpose. He genders certain plants as strong and masculine and describes the eroticism of the plants, redefining the idea of sensuous experience in an age when debauchery still ruled the court. In Temple’s garden, all sorts of pleasures await the senses. Birdsong ravishes the ears; fruits tantalize the eyes and noses; the texture of plants and fruits roughen, nuzzle, or prick the skin; and exotic oranges, ripe cherries, and perfect apples sweeten the tongue. Temple’s Eden is an erotic space where Adam and Eve once played and “worked” happily together. These organic pleasures are subtle and require finely tuned senses rather than the baser ones the notorious rake, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, refines in his poetry.

The film The Serpent’s Kiss (1997, directed by Philippe Rousselot), is set during the reign of William III in 1699 and dramatizes some of Temple’s ideas. A Dutch landscape gardener, Meneer Chrome (actor Ewan MacGregor) arrives to the English countryside to design a garden for a pretentious would-be gentleman, Thomas Smithers (actor Pete Postelthwaite), who desires a garden for his vain and adulterous wife, Juliana (actress Greta Scacchi). The daughter of the house, Anna, who renames herself Thea (actress Carmen Chaplin), opposes the planned garden and seems to command the wind to destroy it. She filters her world through the lens of Andrew Marvell’s poetry, wanting only the wild natural world to fill her senses. Her parents’ lifestyle seems to drive her mad, and her father nearly has her committed, treating her “unnatural” obsession for the outdoors as a form of madness requiring several tortuous treatments. She eventually elopes with the gardener, literally throwing out her poetry book. Both Meneer and Thea/Anna embrace the idea of a natural Edenic world and an uncontrived life.

Though Temple rejects the vanity that Smithers and Juliana represent, he saw the patterned garden as an expression of reason, anticipating the magnificently complex gardens of the eighteenth century. Like seventeenth-century definitions of wit, Temple’s philosophy of the garden expresses a balance of judgment and fancy, those gendered faculties of the mind, and an appropriate blend of reason and passion. The act of gardening for Temple was the practice of freeing the self from the disordered passions, unavoidable but capable of being subdued like wild weeds. One needs only a patch of earth, a shovel, and a life of the mind.