Book review: Merivel by Rose Tremain

What has made Rose Tremain revisit the site of her 1989 success, the Booker-nominated Restoration?

What has made Rose Tremain revisit the site of her 1989 success, the Booker-nominated Restoration?

Merivel

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by Rose Tremain

Chatto and Windus, 352pp, £18.99

Clearly, she felt there was unfinished business with her hero, the young physician Robert Merivel, who was singled out and raised by his fond employer, Charles II, to the position of courtier. But what kind of unfinished business exactly? And is it ever wise for writers to revisit their earlier successes with sequels? Can the glitter of the past ever be recaptured?

That last question is a rather pertinent one as regards her latest novel. In 
Restoration, Merivel had agreed to a sham marriage to Celia, the king’s mistress, so that Charles could more discreetly carry on an affair with a woman who was now safely married.

Unfortunately for Merivel, however, he fell in love with Celia and made his own play for her, incurring both the king’s disfavour and banishment from court.

In this new novel, Merivel is 56, and at home in his beloved Bidnold Manor that the king, after their reconciliation, had restored to him. His life is calmer now, so far from court; his main concerns are the frailty of his ageing manservant, Will, and his daughter Margaret’s approaching adulthood.

Soon, he knows, she will marry and leave him alone. Thoughts of an impending old age depress him enough for his daughter to encourage him to start a project, a recollection of his life thus far.

He approaches the king, who is ageing just as he is, to ask for a recommendation to the court of Louis at Versailles. On his visit, he is taken to see Celia, kept in separate apartments and who has long since lost her mind. It’s an interesting step from this loss of sense to a court in France that seems to have lost its sense, too: Merivel is shocked by the filth, the crowds, the ignorance of life at Versailles, but it offers him one thing: a last chance at love. He meets Louise de Flamanville in the grounds of the palace; they travel into Paris the next day so that Merivel, whose British costume has been the source of much mockery, can be kitted out in something more suitable for the French court.

Louise is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a colonel of the Swiss Guards, who prefers men to women. They fall in love, but her husband, on discovery of the affair, sends him fleeing for home with threats in his ear.

Once home, in the depths of a frozen winter and with a bear he has rescued from captivity, and its death sentence, in the Jardins du Roi, he discovers that Margaret is dangerously ill with typhoid, and he approaches the king for help.

There is a strange lack of urgency about all this so far. Tremain is clearly interested in what a man does when, in the later stages of his life, when he is no longer needed as much, or he has reached the pinnacle of his career and there is little left to do. Much of this feels trivial – from the sights at Versailles, to the bear rescue, to Will’s shaky hands when he is serving his master at dinner. Even the love affair with Louise, who has her own ambitions as a botanist in a scientific world dominated by men, feels lightly drawn and begging the question, what is this for?

Margaret’s impending death, however, changes all of that, and brings both depth and urgency to Tremain’s story. There is nothing so moving as the sight of a parent struggling to keep his only child alive and prepared to do almost anything to save her.

The novel enters a darker period, and Merivel ponders that “I know not what time holds for me. At present it appears to contain Nothing at all. I lie above a Precipice. The depths below me are black and silent. I listen for the sound of the wind, or for the calling of a human voice, but nothing is heard.”

Tremain is also chronicling the passing of one order into the next here: the king is in the final stages of his reign, and the country is suitably sombre, dark, itself pitched on the edge of a precipice, not knowing what will happen next when Charles dies. Tremain wears this historical knowledge lightly – there are mentions of James, Charles’s brother, who will inherit and, of course, ultimately lose his throne to William of Orange and his own daughter, Mary. The anti-Catholicism of Parliament is also more muted – Charles will ask on his deathbed to convert, but no word of this must be repeated.

Her other great theme is that of the outcast – there are many who are “cast out” in this novel, not least Merivel himself, and his king who “never forgets” that for 11 years, he, too, was cast out before being restored to his throne.

Merivel is not allowed, however, to simply disappear into that good night: he visits Louise at her father’s home in Switzerland and they rekindle their affair. But Merivel has grown up somewhat in these last months – he is unsure about sharing his remaining days with a passionate woman who makes demands of him, and besides, he has his project, his great memoir, to complete.

Tremain’s novel experiments continually with light and shade – from the bawdy episode with a large woman free with her favours on his journey to Louise in 
Switzerland and the absurdity of the court at Versailles, to the sense of a day drawing to its close and a fruitless search for meaning and a sense of purpose, she expertly paints a picture with three dimensions and real feeling. It turns out that, yes, there was more to say about Merivel after his reconciliation with the king; that late middle age did not simply lead to stagnation and isolation.

Those who admired Restoration may lament that lack of urgency in the first half of the novel, but the deeper themes and greater sensitivity of the latter half should win them round sufficiently.

LESLEY MCDOWELL