Merivel by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus – September, 2012)
Merivel is the sequel to Rose Tremain’s 1989, Booker-shortlisted novel Restoration. The first book introduced a captivating hero—Robert Merivel—physician and courtier to King Charles II. Merivel is a loveable rake with an uncomfortable self-awareness that drives him to chronicle his own weakness as he desperately strives for greater things. He seems to possess the luck to be in the right place at the right time on many historic occasions—sort of a Forrest Gump of the Restoration period—but he also manages to sabotage his own good fortune just as frequently. Fortunately he is also blessed with a self-deprecating sense of humour to make the most of his situation, whatever it may be. It is this sense of humour that recommends him to the King. He is pompous, vain, frivolous, self-absorbed, foolish but yet still somehow likeable.
In Merivel we meet Robert in the latter years of his life. The book opens with the discovery of ‘The Wedge’ hidden under his mattress—the autobiographical manuscript that he wrote many years ago and serves to summarise the events of Restoration for those who may not have read it or who read in 1989 and have since forgotten it. Merivel has lived in relative ease and comfort at Bidnold Manor in Norfolk during the intervening years but we soon realised that he is no less, foolish and self-absorbed than he was before. (He still has a habit of Capitalising the start of his Important Thoughts.)
These two books are not purely sequential—they are bookends at either extreme of Merivel’s life. In Restoration Merivel speculates that life may have more than one beginning and he identifies five beginnings. In Merivel he has a more melancholy thought:
And now I see with equal clarity that a man’s life may have more than one Ending. But alas, the endings I may have ending I may have earned present themselves to me, each and every one, in a sombre light.
The ending that is foremost in his mind is An Ending through Loneliness. Merivel’s daughter Margaret is grown and will likely marry and leave Bidnold sometime soon and he dreads it:
She it is who stands between Myself and a very paramount feeling of the Void round about me.
Merivel departs from Bidnold in search of distraction—with the recommendation of the King he sets sail for the splendour of Versailles and the court of Louis XIV. His Versailles debut is not as dramatic as he had hoped; he ends up half-starved, bunking with a Dutch clockmaker desperately waiting for his opportunity for an audience. He is briefly distracted by an illicit liaison with a beautiful botanist Louise de Flamanville—wife of one of the Swiss Guardsman—and then he rescues a bear and transports it home to Bidnold with him where he finds his daughter dangerously ill with typhus. The King keeps him company during her recovery. He becomes obsessed with the idea of writing a treatise on whether animals have souls, but as with everything, it is more inspired by his uncomfortable recognition of the triumph of his own animal nature over wisdom and moral fortitude. The King asks Merivel why he saved the bear:
‘I believe I thought it might play a part…’
‘In my future understanding of my own Nature.’
The King turned and looked at me. It was a look of unconcealed Disdain, that I remembered from long ago and which caused me sudden pain, for in it I always and ever saw reflected my own Inadequacy.
‘I see you have not lost the habit of turning all Things towards yourself,’ he said with a sniff.
Beautifully and confidently written, the period is not merely evoked but resolutely and vivaciously summoned. The tone, however—despite the humour, is nostalgic and sad—it is a novel about endings. Merivel is confronted by human frailty and looming mortality at every stage. The country is also in a sorry state; riddled with poverty, disease and unrest. Merivel’s last prospective ending is An Ending through Meaninglessness:
I arrive very frequently at the suspicion that my life is a trifling thing, ill-lived, full of Misjudgement, Indulgence and Sloth, leading me only deeper into an abyss of Confusion and Emptiness, in which I no longer recall why I am alive.
If this all sounds rather depressing, the King has a realisation about the value of narrative:
‘All is in the story, Merivel. No artefact can come to its full significance without the telling of the tale.’
And here is an insight into why an author might resurrect a much-loved character; just for the sake of hounding him to an inauspicious death—it’s a great story.