………..There’s a great Guinness ad line “Good things come to those who wait!’. And though it’s true that a beautiful pint of Guiness is worth the wait for it to be poured, settled and then finished – it’s not half as worth waiting for as the return of Rose Tremain’s wonderful fictional creation Robert Merivel. It’s been a 25 year wait for me to finally read this sequel to Tremain’s great 1989 novel “Restoration” but Merivel’s return is as engaging, and as loveable as his beginning.
Robert Merivel is a 17th century physician at the court of Charles II – he’s part-dandy, part-jester and part fall-guy for the moods, whims and of course sexual appetite of King Charles in that first brilliant novel. This follow up sees him greyer, older and maybe, even for Merivel, dare I say just a little bit wiser? But only a little – for the love of drink, an excuse to drink more, and the inclination to revel in sex and the female form at even the slightest opportunity is still there in abundance in Merivel – this is a man with a lot of vices and he’s still not afraid to use them!.
The story picks Merivel’s life up many years after he has left Charles’ inner sanctum for the seemingly quieter and certainly less debauched surroundings of his Norfolk estate. His sham marriage to Charles mistress is a thing of distant memory though his regret that the marriage failed is neither distant nor forgotten. He seems to be moving towards his old age with a slightly gentler and slightly less frenetic lifestyle – and in some respects he’s moving to older age with a degree of thanks that he’s actually survived this long! He’s slightly more financially secure than before and his daughter, on the verge of moving from a girl to a woman, is the apple of his eye. He’s got much to be contented with, but if Merivel is anything, he’s a man of defects – and he wears them on his tailored, ruffled sleeve! There’s a fragility to that financial security for example for it’s still dependent on the grace and favour of Charles, he’s less than easy about his daughter’s future, and he’s still a man in search of something – he’s just never quite sure what.
With the kings blessing, he heads for the court of Louis XIV at Versailles where he hopes to find favour and fulfilment with the Sun King. Being Merivel what he actually finds is a new mistress and so he embarks of this wonderfully gaudy, almost comic romp through France and back to England. It’s just as terrifically entertaining a charge through his confused morality and his sexual proclivities as the first book was. But this time there’s also a sense of sadness and pathos – there’s a growing sense of decay and things coming to an end for Merivel and alongside him a similar feeling of the beginning of the end for Merivel’s most trusted manservant Will, for his lovers old and new, for Charles and even for England as a society. It’s a novel which captures a man at the heart of a monumental change – and it’s as much a change to what’s going on inside him as it is a change to what’s going on around him.
As ever Rose Tremain’s writing ranges brilliantly. At times it is almost farcically light and funny, such as Merivel conquering the heart and hemline of Madame de Flamanville at Versailles, who brings with her a publicly-suppressed but privately insatiable gay husband in charge of Louis’ Swiss Guards!!!!! At other times it is the dark and brooding detail of Merivel performing emergency surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from a woman’s breast. But whatever she describes, she does it with such style and a terrific eye for detail and mood.
The sequel also gives Merivel much more depth to his emotions – the man who can’t resist the chance for quick and easy sex is still there – he just doesn’t come to terms with it quite as easily as he once did. That’s perhaps what makes Merivel so irresistible as a
character – he’s deeply flawed but he knows it – and he’s not without his redeeming features either. Merivel isn’t just a man of his time but in many ways is a man of any time and his struggles and worries, his problem in coming to terms with death, decay and what he sees of his life as he looks back would be as true of my generation in the 21st century as they are of Merivel and his generation in the 17th century – though fortunately the exception is that with my generation of ageing men in our 50’s in 2014, we don’t fornicate quite as openly on public transport as Merivel does!!!!!!!!!!! – at least it doesn’t happen on the Tube trains and buses I use!
At times as I read Merivel, I was reminded of the lyrics to Man Of Our Times by Genesis on the Duke album -
I’m one of many, I speak for the rest but I don’t understand / Tonight, tonight, oh tonight, tonight / He brings another day, another night, another fight / Well there’s another day done and there’s another gone by / He’s a man of our times, a man of our times / Tonight, tonight, oh he’s burning bright / He’s a man of our times, he’s a man of our times / And in the beating of your heart there is another beating heart
And that’s what makes Rose Tremain’s writing in Merivel so great – in the beating of his heart is a sense that if you’d be born in a different time and place it might just have been the beating of your own heart! And it would have been a blast!