Sunday March 10, 2013
Review by MARTIN SPICE
Merivel, A Man Of His Time
Author: Rose Tremain
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 341 pages
SEQUELS are tricky things for the very reason, as Rose Tremain herself has said, that “unless you feel fairly confident it can be equal to, or potentially better than, the original, then you shouldn’t do them.”
As a general guideline, it could not be better said – Hollywood and TV producers, please note! And in this case, Merivel, A Man Of His Time is the sequel to one of the best loved historical novels (though Tremain hates the term) of the last 30 years. Restoration was the book that finally brought to general attention one of the finest novelists writing in Britain today.
It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 1989, it was turned into a film in 1995 – but most importantly, it sold well and stole its way into the hearts of its readers as only exceptional novels can.
With Restoration, Tremain moved into the heavy-weight category.
There were a number of reasons for this but the chief one was the character of Merivel himself, a man of no great birth but a competent and caring physician in an age – the 17th century – when bungling and conservative physicians ruled.
It fell to Merivel to cure one of the King’s spaniels and to earn his affection and trust, so much so in fact that Charles II asked Merivel to marry his favourite mistress so that the King might enjoy better access to her.
It was a condition of this arrangement, of course, that Merivel would not touch her and it was equally inevitable that he should fall for her.
So in Merivel, Tremain’s sequel to Restoration after 23 years, we find Merivel himself living in a somewhat remote and crumbling country house with his daughter and his faithful but tottering servants, back in favour with the King and much given to ruminating on the past and the condition of mankind.
Merivel is a reflective and backward-looking novel. Now in his mid to late 50s, Merivel is at a stage in his life when he questions what it has all been for. There is a real sense that the good times have gone but there may yet be time left to do something worthwhile. Merivel determines to visit the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, convinced that whatever is to be found will be found there. It isn’t.
He finds instead a court crammed with petitioners and laced with back-biting vanity. The novel has a number of scenes which stand out and this is one of them. You would not wish the court of the Sun King on a dog.
But its compensation, for Merivel, is his meeting with Louise de Flamanville whose task it will be to whisk Merivel on the last of the great erotic ventures that have marked his life.
For Merivel lacks discrimination and restraint when it comes to his sexual partners – it is both one of his most obvious failings and one of his more endearing “human” weaknesses. Louise is married to an army officer besotted with his gay lover and for a time it looks as though Merivel will settle into a life of uncomplicated bliss with Louise in her father’s house. Alas, nothing is that simple.
An older Merivel retains much of his appeal as a character. Impulsive, foolish, vain but deeply compassionate and full of self-doubt, he is a man approaching an age, 60, described by Tremain in a Daily Telegraph interview as “a Rubicon ... (an age) that probably suggests that there is more to be done, things to be resolved. Vanities to be cast off. Things that you have neglected to be remedied. People to be brought back, maybe....” In short, it offers a last roll of the dice.
What makes Merivel work is the quality of the writing. It would take a great deal more space than I have here to determine what an authentic 17th century authorial voice sounds like but it is easy to recognise it when it feels right. And in Merivel, it does. Tremain’s ear is obviously well attuned to the period and her eye for detail is equally assured.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the medical scenes, whether it is Merivel nursing back to health his daughter, removing a cancer from the breast of his former lover or, most barbarous of all, the court physicians unsuccessful attempts to minister to the dying king.
I was uneasy about some of the earlier stages of the novel when I confess to a slightly irritable feeling of “where is this going and why?” I suppose, on reflection, that this coincides precisely with Merivel’s state of mind.
But any reservations I initially harboured were swept away by the end. The final section of the book is both powerful and beautifully realised.
The epilogue leaves Merivel struggling for life on a heap of dirty laundry. It is an apt image for his times – and perhaps also for ours.