Robert Merivel made his first appearance in 1989, in Restoration, Rose Tremain’s popular and acclaimed Carolingian novel. The passage of time has left the Everyman doctor sadder and theoretically wiser, but still in thrall to his master, Charles II, still priapic, still governed by ‘uncontainable appetites’. He sits in his chilly library at Bidnold, his Norfolk estate, contemplating life — will his own end through Loneliness, Poverty, Poisoning, Suicide or Meaninglessness?
His decrepit manservant, Will, brings him a manuscript found hidden beneath his mattress; it is Merivel’s own account of his earlier years. It looked, to the chambermaid, ‘a mere Wedge, to hold fast the corner of the bedstead’. Will Merivel allow the story of his life to remain ‘a mere Wedge’, or will he summon the energy to write his final chapter?
The desire to be once more ‘dazzled by Wonders’ possesses him, and he sets off to seek late-onset fortune at the court of Versailles. Here he finds a scrabbling mass of supplicants like himself, living vermin-like behind the scenes while the great ones parade their gorgeousness centre-stage. Merivel is mocked because he does not have the right kind of ribbons on his coat. He is rescued by Louise, the kind, intelligent, lonely wife of a homosexual Parisian colonel. Louise, a prototype bluestocking, offers Merivel love, money and intellectual stimulation, but the jealous colonel wants to have his guts for garters, and Merivel, never a heroic hero, retreats to England, accompanied by a bear he has rescued from its captivity in the Jardin du Roi.
Back at Bidnold, Merivel finds his beloved only child Margaret dangerously ill. Enter King Charles, plus spaniels; is his concern for Margaret just a thin disguise for lecherous intent? Merivel adores his master; but is he man enough to protect Margaret from the all-conquering royal charisma? Racked by conflicting emotions, he is called upon, as a doctor, to cut the cancer from the breast of Violet Bathurst, an ageing beauty with whom he and the King both frolicked in less melancholy days. Meanwhile, the ‘rescued’ bear does not find life easier in Norfolk than in Paris, but lives on miserably as a reproach to our hero’s ineffectiveness.
Merivel is set in 1683-5, when the English novel was barely in its infancy. Tremain relishes the freedom allowed by the Defoe-like, picaresque form. The ‘plot’ is little more than a series of episodes. Characters can disappear without trace. The Dutch clock-maker with whom Merivel shares a pisspot at Versailles, the toothless but vicious sister of the cuckolded French colonel, even Louise herself, who together with her kindly, cultured baron of a father seem to offer Merivel a solution to his difficulties — all these only matter when they are active participants in Merivel’s adventures.
The only fully fleshed-out character, apart from Merivel himself, is the King, for whom the reader feels a subtle mixture of attraction and revulsion. On Charles’s deathbed, Merivel performs an action for him — I won’t reveal what — which could be of the utmost historical importance. Most writers would make the entire novel pivot round this, but Tremain, in Merivel’s own spirit, allows its significance to evaporate; the reader moves on.
The intellectual debates of the late 17th century are worked into the bouncy, bawdy romping with great skill. Merivel is a close reader of Montaigne, for instance, and questions the universal acceptance of man as the lord of animal creation. (The animal characters, or rather the animals as characterised by Merivel, are an attractive feature of the novel.) Occasionally, Tremain slips up with an anachronism — mentions of orang utans, magnolias, cherries in spring — and such details jar; but overall her feeling for the spirit of the times is triumphant.