Older but not much wiser

Merivel: A Man of His Time, by Rose Tremain, Chatto & Windus, RRP£18.99, 341 pages

A 17th-century engraving showing Charles II in his court

This is a happy moment for aficionados of pedigree historical fiction: first Hilary Mantel’s high-definition Thomas Cromwell returns in Bring Up the Bodies and now Rose Tremain’s most endearing character, Robert Merivel, is back too. It is 23 years since the Booker-nominated Restoration, and it is very good to see him again.

Merivel is the low-born physician who, by saving the life of one of the royal spaniels, catches Charles II’s eye and favour only to forfeit it by trying to woo one of the king’s mistresses. Merivel’s fall from grace is deep – having won everything, he loses it all and more, finding himself impoverished and disgraced, working in a Quaker madhouse and fathering a daughter by one of the inmates.

By the end of Restoration, the rapid revolutions of the wheel of fortune have left him a chastened man who has regained a measure of peace and is restored to the king’s good graces.

Tremain has always had the gift of making her characters matter to the reader and she endowed Merivel with the winning combination of a tender heart and an inability to see temptation without giving in to it. In the new novel, he may be 16 years older but he is little wiser. As he notes, looking back at the intervening years: “I believed myself to be moving towards some kind of wisdom, I cannot now recall that I ever arrived there.”

Merivel is now 56 and living with his daughter Margaret and a retinue of ageing domestics in Bidnold Manor, the Norfolk house that was the gift of the king. His character is “a composite of yearning appetite and sullen hypochondria” as well as melancholy (he wears out handkerchiefs with his blubbing). His major concerns are his troublesome servants and the lack of any “Great Work” in his life. It seems to him that the sole achievement of the past years is that: “I had persevered.”

It is not long, however, before his Tristram Shandy-ish adventures start again. He takes himself off to Versailles to win an appointment under Louis XIV, hoping that a change of scenery will shake him out of his ennui. Although well schooled in the glitter of court life, Merivel is never more than a step away from the grime that lies just behind it. And so it is in France where, as he waits for an audience with the Sun King, he finds himself committed to the shadows, reduced to eating peas and jam in a garret with a Dutch clockmaker.

Tremain’s picaresque sensibility is a restless one, however, and Merivel is saved from his humiliation by the attentions of Louise de Flamanville, an amorous botanist mired in a loveless marriage with a gay colonel in the Swiss Guards. Their entanglement, a mixture of comedy and seriousness, is given added bizarreness when Merivel rescues a captive bear from the Jardin du Roi and takes the it back to his estate in Norfolk.

Merivel cannot unravel his reasons for saving the bear: “All my life I have been surprised by what moved me ... I still do not comprehend my own Nature.” His whole life, and this book, is driven by what moves him, whether it be his sick daughter, his “very obstinate love” for the king, or the creaking bones and shaking hands of his manservant Will, the object of his tender, if infuriated, concern. He is moved, too, by his own plight as the king’s ageing fool, “haunted by the terrifying prospect that life will pay me no attention”.

For all Merivel’s self-mockery and quips there is an elegiac mood to the book. The king too is feeling his age and the cares of the throne, and underlying their double act there is now real pathos. The riotousness of Charles’s restoration has died away and neither monarch nor Merivel are as merry as once they were. Many of the most memorable scenes in the book deal with illness and the transience of life.

Indeed, Tremain’s skill as a descriptive writer is never more in evidence than in a harrowing scene where Merivel cuts out a cancerous lump from his former lover Violet Bathurst. The heat, nausea and fug of laudanum are horribly palpable as he slices into the flesh he once squeezed and carves out the tumour “mottled purple and white in its colour ... like some Sea Creature clinging to a rock pool”.

In this elegant and poignant novel, Tremain shows that Merivel’s concerns are entirely contemporary: how to find a cause to follow, how to amount to something, and how to ward off the fear that malign fate is just over your shoulder.

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