Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Merivel – A Man of his Time

“A smile spreads across the King’s countenance. It is a familiar smile, one that says ‘this is why I like you, Merivel, why I love you, even, because you lighten what is heavy and make laughter from sorrow’.”


Rose Tremain’s 1989 novel Restoration has been, and remains one of my all time favourite novels. It introduced the character of Robert Merivel, courtier and physician to King Charles II  spaniels and followed his rise to a position at court, his fall from grace and his restoration to the King’s favour during the heady early years of Charles II reign. 

Robert Merivel is one of the most compelling and endearing literary characters ever created.  His voice is unique – self deprecatory, alternately comic and wise. He leaps from the pages of  Restoration from the first sentence, introducing himself to the reader with the following words:

“I am, I discover, a very untidy man.
Look at me. Without my periwig, I am an affront to neatness. My hair (what is left of it) is the colour of sand and wiry as hogs’ bristles; my ears are of uneven size; my forehead is splattered with freckles; my nose. which of course my wig can’t conceal however low I wear it, is unceremoniously flat, as if I had been hit at birth.”

The novel, needless to say, is wonderfully written and the character of Merivel is complex and credible.  You smile with him as he relates the folly of his existence, wince in sympathy when he all too humanly errs in judgement, mourn with him when tragedy strikes and laugh with him when fortune shines once more.

He is a great character, so it was with delight that I discovered that Rose Tremain had decided to continue his story in Merivel: A Man of his Time. I pre-ordered the novel as soon as I learned of its publication and have subsequently read it.

I read it slowly, wanting to savour the rare pleasure of reacquainting myself with one of my favourite characters in literature.  It is set 15 years after the events related in Restoration. Merivel is now middle aged and living at Bidnold, his beloved estate in Norfolk, restored to him by the King during the intervening time.  His daughter Margaret is now 17 years of age and unaware of her origins; that her mother, who died at her birth, was a former inhabitant of a Bedlam where Merivel was obliged to work after his fall from grace in Restoration.

Merivel is still assessing his life and lamenting the lack of meaning it has for him. The discovery of his old memoir – hidden under the mattress of his bed – which he promptly nicknames “the wedge’ owing to it being a prop at the base of the bed, undiscovered over the years, prompts him to review his present circumstances. His daughter, now grown into a delightful young lady loved by all, is due to travel to Cornwall  with family friends, leaving her father bereft of her company for several months. Merivel decides to expand his horizons with a visit to the court of Louis XIV.

And so he sets out on a new adventure, and many are the pitfalls and follies that appear to dog his path, brightened by his encounter with the intelligent Louise, unhappily married to a member of the Swiss Guard whom Merivel, as is his way, nicknames “The Giraffe” .

The new novel is just as good as Restoration, but perhaps is darker and more melancholy than the earlier book. There is humour aplenty, but also sadness and poignancy as well.  I found  it engrossing and highly enjoyable to read. It made me smile, just as Merivel smiles at the oddities of his life.

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