Almost a quarter of a century has passed since we were first introduced to Robert Merivel, “erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful, and sad,” the seventeenth-century antihero of Rose Tremain’s Restoration (just reissued in paperback and ebook for those who missed him the first time). Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989, the work helped usher in the crop of blood-sweat-and-semen infused historical novels of which Hilary Mantel’s chronicles of Thomas Cromwell are the ripest fruits. Now in Merivel: A Man of His Time, he appears again, slovenly in habits, melancholic in nature, and as much the biological organism that he ever was.
The time is the Restoration, the reign of Charles II (1660–85), which saw the Stuart king returned from exile after the Puritan Revolution and Civil War which had brought the beheading of his father, a pinched religiosity, and a world turned upside down. Now extravagance, gaiety, and display have revisited England and with them an insistence on hierarchy and order. These principles, however, have been made almost impossible to realize, given flux and uncertainty in every sphere: estates changing hands, papists and French persons creeping into high places, and the very foundations of knowledge, of ethics and nature, dissolving under the advance of empiricism.
Merivel is in the midst of it. Physician, natural historian, and questioner of received wisdom in both science and life, he is as hard to get straight as anything in his society. Even the story of his life has five beginnings, as we learn right off in the first book. There too we saw him, the son of a mere glove maker, come into an imposing manor and country estate. This was his reward for marrying one of the king’s mistresses, an expedient devised to salve the jealousy of yet another of Charles’s women, the formidable Countess of Castlemaine. Merivel is forbidden to exercise his conjugal rights — those belong to the king — and the whole arrangement, a richly compensated cuckoldry, is humiliating and dishonorable. This is only part of the story told in Restoration of which I will say no more lest I spoil it for readers who have not yet enjoyed its unseemly pleasures.
Opening the present novel we find that 15 years have passed. It is 1683 and Merivel’s servants have become old, cranky, and incompetent; his daughter has grown into a beautiful young woman; and Merivel, himself, is poring over a Book in which is contained the story of his Former Life. (For some reason, he has taken up capitalizing a lot of Words). He is, as is his wont, down in the dumps, feeling his life has no direction. Stung by his daughter’s reproach that he is idle and that he should embark on some studious enterprise, he decides instead to seek glory. To this end, he travels to London to visit the king and procure from him a written introduction to Louis XIV of France. This accomplished, he travels to the great court of Versailles to offer the Sun King his services as a physician.
Here we are treated to the insalubrious underpinnings of glory. Life at Versailles is a gift to the novelist of history’s material necessities, human foulness, and cruelty. Tremain wonderfully conjures the palace, still under construction, as a malicious and odiferous melange. The halls and corridors are jostling scenes of sneering, rivalrous courtiers and desperate petitioners. There too we meet another of the book’s important characters, a caged bear, neglected, tormented by thirst, and “sitting in a puddle of its own excrement, staring out at the world.” Accommodations for most people — and there are thousands there — are makeshift and fetid. Merivel shares a tiny space (and “pisspot”) with a Dutchman who hopes to interest Madame Maintenon in his clock, thus gaining her patronage and, with it, fame and fortune. The two men subsist chiefly on meager (and laxative) rations of oatmeal, beans, and jam.
As is the case with most things in Merivel’s life, the trip does not work out as he hoped, though he does fall in love, an attachment which leads to sojourns in both a French chateau and a Swiss one, a duel, the promise of material ease, and the gradual disintegration of his ever-scrutinized feelings into competing elements of appetite, emotion, and prudential reason. Merivel, though exceedingly rich in material detail, is a novel whose theater of action lies equally within its main actor. He wonders whether he, who cannot believe in God or in Resurrection, has “a soul at all, or whether… [he is] merely an Amalgam of vain Longings and Appetites, no better than a morning cockerel strutting about his yard, waking all the world with his inharmonious voice.” Merivel’s description, analysis and questioning of his own nature reflect a central preoccupation which arose in the West in the seventeenth century and which continues into the present with its bootless enthrallment with neuroscience.
Meanwhile, back in the outside world, Merivel’s daughter has caught the eye of King Charles, who invites her to court to become a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Portsmouth, another one of the concupiscent monarch’s bevy of mistresses. Whether her virtue can remain intact in this wicked arena is one question, but larger issues are also afoot. Look at the date! It is coming up to 1685 — which brings the death of Charles II, Merivel’s patron and protector, and the subsequent, abbreviated reign of James II, that most unpopular servant of Rome. What happens then is not mine to reveal; suffice it to say that this novel, like its processor of 1989, is a fine amalgam of political and intellectual history that is still, for all that, character driven, exuberantly written and leavened throughout with humor.