A couple of weeks ago I started writing a review of Rose Tremain’s Merivel and got sidetracked into writing about how I discovered Tremain as an author. I’ve since been distracted by a variety of other events, as the kind regular readers of this blog will appreciate, but I was determined to get back to Merivel eventually and today I have finally managed it.
Merivel is subtitled ‘A Man of His Time’. The significance and the poignancy of this gradually dawns on the reader as the book goes on, because Merivel is the sequel to Restoration, the stellar novel that made me one of Tremain’s undying admirers. Restoration is about Charles II in his heyday and how Merivel, also in his prime, acts as the King’s physician and performs other, more private, services that bind them together in a not altogether comfortable but mutually affectionate relationship. In Merivel, by contrast, both the protagonist and the king are ageing. Merivel might be ‘man of his time’, but the question is, which time? His old bones creak. He suffers various bereavements, some of them tragic almost beyond endurance; he has the opportunity to embark upon one last turbulent full-blown love affair, with Louise, a beautiful, poised and aristocratic woman twenty years his junior, and discovers that when it comes to it he does not have the stomach to reciprocate her own hot-blooded desires. He continues to practise as a physician, and with some skill, Tremain implies, but still he can work only with the primitive methods known to doctors of his day. It is a measure of Tremain’s expertise that she can immerse her reader in the late seventeenth century and yet still offer a perspective based on modern knowledge. The account of Merivel’s operation on Violet Bathurst’s tumour is both horrific and beautifully written.
Yet Merivel is much more than a pensive account of the decline of two elderly men, one an eminent monarch, the other an obscure doctor, and their contemporaries. It is also a brilliant satire, not just on the Caroline age, but also about humanity in any age – though perhaps satire is too strong a word: Tremain can be hard-hitting, but to say that Merivel is a comedy of manners might convey better what I mean, as long as this does not imply that the novel is not ‘serious’.
But perhaps ‘serious’ is not the right word either! Some of the scenes are absurdly comic, some pathetically so. The account of the abortive sojourn of both Merivel and Jan Hollers, the clock-making Dutchman, at the court of Louis XIV, demonstrates both their absurdity (each is out to make a fast buck if he can) and the pathos of their situation (Hollers is a skilled craftsman whose precision-made clocks are rejected by the King’s dour mistress, Madame de Maintenon, simply because they don’t keep the same time as the no doubt faulty clock over the palace coach-house in whose accuracy she invests all her faith; Merivel, despite the letters of introduction with which he is armed and the intervention of his new mistress, never manages to meet the King.). Sometimes Tremain writes with Rabelaisian gusto, as in the scene that takes place with the ‘drab’ in the carriage when Merivel is at last on his way to Switzerland to be reunited with Louise (this woman, the sole female fellow-traveller in a full coach, despite her grotesque proportions and shameless habits, succeeds in inflaming lust in all of her companions, and persuades each of them in turn to pay for sex while the others look on). The drab scene is pivotal to the novel, because it represents Merivel’s last act of bawdy – and it is a tawdry parody of all the hilarious and unrepentant romps that took place in Restoration. Significantly, it unmans him, so that coitus, even with a woman as lovely and willing as Louise, no longer holds sufficient attraction for him.
The narrative of Merivel glints and morphs like coloured squares of glass in a kaleidoscope. As I have illustrated, it is difficult, if not impossible, to pin this book down, to attempt to corral it into a single genre or style, and it would probably be impertinent to try. I hope, however, that I have managed to convey enough of its flavour to entice others to its pages.
Discovering Rose Tremain
I remember exactly when I first discovered Rose Tremain. I had very recently joined Dillons (destined to merge with Waterstones within a year, though none of us knew that then) and had been invited to attend a party at Hatchard’s (a fine old bookselling business that had been acquired by Dillons some years previously) to celebrate its 200th birthday. Along with many colleagues, I accepted. As Dillons HQ was in Solihull, Teresa, one of our administrative assistants, was asked to find hotel accommodation in London overnight for those of us who requested it. Teresa had been supplied with a directory of hotels ‘approved’ by the company for use by its staff and, as I was to discover, had an unerring knack for picking out those that were most dismal and unwelcoming. Most of my colleagues made alternative arrangements. New to the company, I put my trust in Teresa’s mercy.
The party was the most glittering book trade bash I’ve ever attended. Princess Margaret was there, resplendent in elbow-length gloves and drinking something from a tall glass wrapped around with a linen napkin. Salman Rushdie had dared to attend, even though it was only a year or so after the fatwa against him had been issued. The other guests included dozens of well-known writers and publishers. As you can imagine, security was very tight.
The evening was ‘elegant’. I use the term in a way that was new to me then, but in which I’ve had other occasion to use it since. As I’ve previously mentioned, the first bookselling company that I worked for was in Yorkshire and the second in Scotland. Both hosted many literary events and all of these shared a single prominent common feature: we ensured that our guests were served a plentiful repast of excellent food. We believed in feeding the body just as much as the mind. In Yorkshire, we favoured sides of salmon, roast hams, salads, pizzas and quiches and generally included a selection of gooey puddings; in Scotland the food was usually hot and hearty: soups, pies, lasagnes, stews and curries. But always food, ‘proper’ food, and plenty of it. And drinks, too, of course, though the food was paramount.
At the party at Hatchard’s, on the other hand, the wine flowed but the food was sparse. Exquisite, but sparse. It consisted of tiny canapés that were delivered individually at long intervals by uniformed waiters and waitresses who bore them aloft on circular trays. There were miniature salmon rolls, morsels of pastry stuffed with even smaller slivers of meat and cheese, the babiest of baby sausages skewered with eighths of tomato and Lilliputian biscuits bearing deftly-placed dots of pâté, each one garnished with a parsley feather. The waiting staff weren’t particularly keen to distribute these fairy victuals, either: sometimes it was impossible to snatch one before it continued on its airborne journey through the crowd.
The upshot of this was that, when eventually I arrived by taxi at my hotel, which belatedly I had discovered was situated in the further reaches of Camden, at around 10 p.m., slightly tipsy and completely famished, I found that not only did the establishment serve no food (it would not even be providing breakfast on the following day), but that there was no restaurant or even a takeaway within a radius of at least a mile. I took one look at the dark and dingy street beyond its none-too-hospitable doors, and decided that I would be foolish to risk venturing forth in quest of sustenance now. I therefore toiled up the three flights of stairs to my room (it wasn’t the sort of hotel that offered to help with luggage) where I found a narrow single bed in a cheerless room with no bedside lamp and an ‘en suite’ shower behind a plastic curtain in an alcove. The lavatory was outside, shared with the occupants of the other rooms on the same floor.
Mercifully, my room did contain a kettle and some sachets of coffee and tea (the brand-names of both were unfamiliar) and two or three of those little bucket-shaped plastic containers of UHT milk. Too cold and hungry to go straight to bed, I made myself a cup of indifferent but scalding coffee, groped in my bag in the hope that I hadn’t absent-mindedly eaten the cereal bar that I’d placed there some weeks before (I hadn’t) and fished in it again for the book that I’d snatched from a stash at Dillons HQ for staff to help themselves to before I’d caught the train to London many hours earlier. It was Restoration, by Rose Tremain. Immediately, I was enthralled. I drank my coffee, ate my cereal bar and read. And read. I went to bed some hours later, my hunger forgotten, and slept soundly until the following morning, when I rose early in order to find breakfast and get another quick fix of Restoration before the day’s work started. I had become a Rose Tremain addict.
I had intended this post to be a review of Merivel: a man of his time, by Rose Tremain, which I have just completed, but I’ve probably written as much as you want to read for now, so will save that for another day.