Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain –review

Midlife angst spurs Charles II's former physician to more picaresque adventures in Rose Tremain's absorbing sequel to Restoration

Rose Tremain made her name with Restoration, the tale of physician Robert Merivel's rise and fall at the court of Charles II. Now, 23 years and six novels on, she has returned to the same subject, taking up Merivel's story in a sequel set two decades later, in the 1680s.

When he appeared in 1989, Merivel was truly the man of the Thatcherite moment, an individualistic, hedonistic creature who held up a mirror to his audience. So does he still have something to say to us in 2012? Resoundingly, yes. Merivel is a more serious novel than Restoration, and its backdrop offers a cautionary tale for austerity Britain. The suffering of its dispossessed and ill is absolute, and the absence of any support for the most vulnerable threatens anarchy and moral chaos. Merivel himself has become older and a little wiser and personal gain is no longer enough to make him content. The health and happiness of others has become central to his existence, and his sense of his failure to meet obligations to patients, tenants and mistresses looms large.

The novel opens with its hero ensconced at his Norfolk estate of Bidnold, where he has lived peacefully for many years. Life has treated him well: he is comfortable, well fed and assured of the love of his daughter and the affection of the king, who treats Bidnold as a refuge from the cares of state. But despite all this, he is melancholy, preoccupied by his failure to achieve anything very substantial. So he seeks diversion at the court of Versailles, where he meets Louise de Flamanville, a woman of voracious intellect and sexual appetite trapped in a loveless marriage. Merivel's adventures with Louise take him to Paris and Switzerland and prompt him to adopt a caged bear who wreaks havoc among the sheep farmers back at Bidnold. Along the way, Merivel's inquiring vision reveals the details that animate his world: the squalor of the backstage areas at Versailles, the horrors of 17th-century medical treatments, and the colours of rooms, paintings, coats and landscapes.

As in his earlier outing, Merivel is a rambling, shambolic figure who is well matched by a determinedly picaresque narrative. Tremain admirers hoping for the elegant, controlled plotting of her recent Trespass may be disappointed not to find similar intricacy here, where voice, rather than dramatic precision, is allowed to dominate. But although Merivel's story is sublimely untidy, it is given an emotional coherence by the relationships at its heart.

Throughout his journeying, Merivel remains devoted to his daughter and the king, even when circumstance takes them far away from him. His relationships with two other important characters from Restoration, his Quaker friend John Pearce and his servant Will Gates, are more complicated in this instalment of his story, since Pearce speaks to him from beyond the grave only and the mutual loyalty between him and Gates is tested by age and infirmity. Nevertheless, these relationships act as a focus for Merivel's unruly feelings and run like tapestry threads through a panoramic depiction of 17th-century England.

The other thing that draws the different strands together is Merivel's constant preoccupation with himself. At the beginning of the novel, he stumbles across his manuscript autobiography, here called not Restoration but "The Wedge", because for years it has been used to hold together a creaky bedstead. Reading this account of youthful adventures is both fascinating and painful for a man so immersed in his own experience, and it forces him to focus on possible endings to his story. Tormented by a sense that "The Wedge" is a poor way to be represented to posterity, Merivel tries to become a writer of treatises. But although he wants to be Montaigne, with whom he shares a desire to anatomise all aspects of the human experience, he has more in common with Pepys, the dominant model for his fascination with bodily functions and appetites. Like Pepys, he is driven to relate his worst impulses as well as his best, so one moment he is nobly rescuing his servant's body from a pauper's grave and the next availing himself of the services of a prostitute on the floor of a crowded stagecoach. And, as with Pepys, it all amounts to a rich, glowing portrait of an individual, so that what is left to Merivel and to us at the close is his writing, his "record of existence", and his corresponding sense of self, emphatically "still there in the world".

Daisy Hay is the author of Young Romantics (Bloomsbury)


Daisy Hay

The GuardianTramp

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