Restoration, by Alexander Larman


Restoration, by Alexander Larman

My first concerted experience of writing about the Restoration period came when I was researching Blazing Star, my biography of John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester. Rochester’s life – to understate, a tumultuous affair – was gripping material for any biographer, but the strange, beautiful and damaged age that he inhabited was every bit as compelling. Over and over again I was frustrated at having to jettison a fascinating story, or not being able to follow a compelling character to prevent the book becoming a slippery morass of sub-plots and background detail. When I finished writing Blazing Star it was with a sense of unfinished business. I had more stories left to tell, and wanted to carry on exploring them, in an overview of an age and a minute glimpse into the lives of those who inhabited that age.

Restoration is the result of my attempt to finish what I had started. After a research and writing process that has been at once tortuous, fascinating and liberating, I feel like a time traveller from an antique land, ready to tell tales from the past that are, by turns, amusing, horrifying and utterly unexpected. There were many other years in the Restoration period that could have made – and no doubt will make – fascinating books, but it seems appropriate, on the 350th anniversary of one of the most turbulent years in English history, to have visited 1666 and to have tried, through the stories of the people involved in it, to make sense of what happened there.

The year itself began with the concluding months of the Plague, which killed more than 100,000 people across England, and climaxed with the destruction and chaos of the Great Fire in September, which meant that London had to shake off centuries of history and rebuild itself as a modern and outward-facing world city. And yet this was a year when many English people believed that the end of the world was nigh, because of the devil’s number that it contained. A solar eclipse in July struck panic into the hearts of many, who muttered darkly about this new, licentious age. England’s relations with her European neighbours continued to be troubled. The disastrous Second Anglo-Dutch War was fought in vain pursuit of mercantile advantage, and nearly ruined the court.

Pleasure, despite or because of the constant sense of mortality, dominated the age. From gaudy, figure-enhancing and expensive new clothes to rich imported wine, this was a time when people were no longer under the repressive shackles of the Commonwealth. Lavish new theatres were built for Londoners of all classes to go to see the witty and suggestive new comedies that had become de rigueur, not least because their authors often seemed to live the same hard-living, hard-loving lives of their rake-hero protagonists.

But this was not an age purely of indulgence and excess. Literature flourished, helped by the rise in mass printing and affordable books and pamphlets. People could buy witty and sometimes obscene poems written by a louche group of young aristocrats, many of who had royal favour, and also appreciate the emergence of politically and religiously engaged writers.  Beyond the clichés of orange-selling wenches and bewigged dandies lay a changing world that was as frightening and uncertain as it was seductive and exciting.

In Restoration, we will meet a cross-section of individuals from royalty to labourers, prostitutes to poets (with scant difference between them in some cases) and will tarry awhile with the outwardly respectable and the flamboyantly wicked. We will visit the decadent court, and glimpse inside the humblest houses, to say nothing of the fearsomely filthy prisons in which some of our main protagonists spend time, deservedly or otherwise. We will patronize the theatre and the fairs, but also spend time at home while admiring the fashions of the day. We will sail with the English fleet to battle against the Dutch, and we will take care to avoid the ravages of the plague. And, finally, we will stand and watch the awesome spectacle of the Great Fire, the moment at which it seemed London might be destroyed forever.

I hope that 1666 will prove to be as exciting a world to explore as a reader as it has been to research and write about.

Restoration is published on April 7th 2016. Pre-order your copy here.