Ian Mortimer’s “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain” is a nonfiction guide about what to expect if you were unexpectedly plunked down in England in the latter half of the 17th century.
“The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain: A Handbook for Visitors to the Seventeenth Century: 1660-1699”
by Ian Mortimer
Pegasus Books, 440 pp., $28.95
Oh, a time-travel book. How quaint, you may think.
Ian Mortimer’s books are not clichéd “Connecticut Yankee”-styled stories, with a protagonist who lumbers around messing up the time-space continuum with an iPhone. “Restoration,” like his others, is a heavily researched, minutely detailed nonfiction guide about what to expect if you were unexpectedly plunked down in a featherbed in the late 17th century, getting ready to face a day in one of the most exciting, if not the most compassionate, times the English-speaking world has ever experienced.
The Restoration brought back the monarchy but ushered in with it an explosion of creativity, of hope and — in a boon to all of us who came after — the serving of coffee, tea and chocolate and the playing of card games. This is the personality-packed era in which architect Christopher Wren and the scientists Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley walked the same streets, John Milton and Edward Dryden were well-known writers, William Congreve’s comedies were on the stage and diarist Samuel Pepys wrote down everything. The plague was on its way out, as was burning people for witchcraft, and soap became cheap enough for everyday use.
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Mortimer addresses all the surprises and challenges of daily life, from conditions most likely to kill you (ague and fever, smallpox/measles, bad teeth, childbirth) to diabolical justice (pressing between heavy plates, death for bigamy, workhouses) to the joyful burst of music-making and theater all over the city, thanks to the end of Puritan rule. For example, if you were around in 1672, you might attend England’s first public concert, in rooms next to the George Tavern. You might also hear music in church, while visiting a private home or even at court, played by the king’s own Italian band.
Mortimer has the gift of imparting a lot of information in a conversational, even breezy, style, making a quick read of nearly 500 pages. Of the practice of using the skull from a man “that has been dead but one year” and making it into a tonic, he writes, “Frankly, the (once-popular) idea that smoking tobacco is good for your health is looking increasingly attractive.” And, “Of all the public executions that you really want to avoid, being burnt at the stake is surely the worst.” We get the lowdown on the ubiquitous Pepys, who may be one heck of a diarist but “his jokes are either very poor and or in very poor taste.”
That, fellow time travelers, is another virtue of this book: The transformation of historical, two-dimensional figures into easily imagined people — people a lot like us. Restoration Londoners had their share of hardship and grief, thanks to infant mortality, contagious disease, bitterly cold weather and famine, and religious intolerance. They also liked a cup of coffee, good acting, a happy tune, a trip to a museum and a game of cribbage. It’s not so much a mirror image as one through a net curtain. There are dark shadows visible but plenty of light, too.