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Historical Romance Novel in Not-So-Merry England

RESTORATION: A NOVEL OF SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND, By Rose Tremain. New York: Viking. 371 pp. $19.95 BY all accounts - and there are a lot of accounts - King Charles II was a magnetic personality. A dilettante in the arts and sciences, he was endowed with charm and physical courage, faithful to loyal servants, affable, and self-controlled.

In her new novel, Rose Tremain assumes we have fallen under Charles's charm, as has her hero, or anti-hero, Robert Merivel. Merivel is the son of glovemakers to the king. He studied medicine before he fell under the spell of the king, who appointed him special physician to his dogs. Merivel plays the fool. ``The truth is,'' Robert says, ``that when the king returned, it was as if self-discipline and drudgery had exploded in a clap of laughter.''

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``Restoration'' is a historical romance with a difference. We see the impact of the personality cult of Charles on a weak but winning man. The novel fulfills the expectations of romance in a subversive way by exploring the romance of monarchy.

The king is off stage most of the time. The story is told from Robert's point of view. Unlike the monarch, Robert is without a trace of cynicism. He is made aware of his vices, fights them, and eventually wins a qualified victory.

The first part of the novel describes his life away from the court. In the second part, Robert follows an old school chum, a Quaker, to an asylum for the insane.

In the third part, two historical events come to life: the drought and plague of 1665, and the great London fire of 1666.

Robert describes himself throughout as ``earthbound, gross, ignorant'' and once addresses ``his snivelling self.'' The reader will agree. Yet Tremain salvages his humanity. The age is one of self-promotion, of possibility not honor, his father explained to him as a child. Robert does what he can to advance himself.

This romance novel toys with our expectations by revealing that the great romance of Robert's life is with King Charles. Platonic love is inadequate to explain the attraction. As a man, the king towers over Merivel. He takes his measure, and uses him, and gives him his just deserts in the end.

This is a devastating self-portrait and a marvelous use of a much-abused genre, the historical romance. The voice of Merivel blends nicely with real voices from the age - those of Samuel Pepys and the poet Dryden - and that is high praise.

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