Restoration by Rose Tremain
A young man, son of the king's glove maker and trained as a physician, gets a post at court and becomes completely enamored of the life of the times (self indulgence, luxury, profligacy—it's interesting that in an interview Tremain said she had fundamental objections to the ethos of Thatcher's Britain but didn't want to confront it directly so picked another period with similar values). Because he actually touched a human heart (in a man who, after an accident, had a hole in his chest that didn't heal—Tremain took that from a real incident) and found that it felt nothing, the King decided Merviel—that's his name—would be immune to real love and marries him to one of his mistresses. Gives him an estate and riches. Of course Merivel promptly falls in love with the forbidden wife and is banished, taking refuge in an insane asylum (a New Bedlam) run by a Quaker physician with whom he want to school. Merivel narrates the story and he's intelligent, sensitive, and basically honest about his own flaws. He made me laugh. Tremain’s primary accomplishment in this novel is Merivel’s voice which she handles beautifully.
Because Merivel is not a Quaker and because he can think for himself he has some new ideas about treating the insane, namely that one should look at what lead up to madness, as one looks at the symptoms leading to physical disease. Tremain has been accused of anachronism in making Merivel have somewhat modern ideas about insanity, but I have always thought that new ideas have been “brewing” for a long time in many different people before finally finding a time and a place and a spokesperson for them. It’s not inconceivable to me that there was a Merivel in the 18th century.
I think Tremain is a novelist whose other work I’ll investigate. She seems to tackle a wide variety of projects and to try new fictional experiences. I also like her sense of history in this novel. She’s obviously researched the period very carefully and rendered its ethos expertly, but like all really good fiction it’s written for her own contemporaries and addresses contemporary concerns.
By the way, I'd skip the film made from this book, though I rather liked Robert Downey Jr. as Merivel. But the script sentimentalized the theme and lost it in the process.