Review: Merivel: A Man of His Time, by Rose Tremain
Norton, 2012. 373 pp. $27
In his own words, Sir Robert Merivel is “the son of a humble Glovemaker from Vauxhall, and I had prospered in life only because I had a talent to amuse the King of England.” But if Merivel, as even his lovers call him, owes his success to the self-deprecating wit with which he makes Charles II laugh, no reader will hold that against him. Indeed, Merivel appeared in Restoration, where he received such good notices that Tremain brought him back for an encore.
Merivel’s appeal lies partly in adventures that go awry, often in funny ways, so that he’s a picaresque figure, a sadder-but-wiser, seventeenth-century Tom Jones facing up to late middle age. Merivel wonders whether he’s been a good father, a good master to his servants, and the king’s friend or his slave. To ponder these, he sets out for Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, probably the worst place on earth for introspection. If this sounds thin as a premise, consider what King Charles says: “All is in the story, Merivel. No artefact can come to its full significance without the telling of the tale.”
And an engaging tale it is, often in ways I didn’t expect. Merivel’s a seventeenth-century thinker who believes in the then-infant scientific method, which means he’s curious about everything and willing to ask questions. An atheist in all but name, he has plainly read Ecclesiastes, which happens to be my favorite book in the Bible (and to which Tremain has put able use). Merivel practically quotes that perceptive text on the folly of placing all desires in great undertakings, which, like life, are transitory:
But such are our days. Such are the days and times of Every Man and, no matter how hard we work and strive, we can never know when something shall be given to us and when it will be taken away.
However, Merivel has trouble living up to this creed and being satisfied with what he has. He has a sweet, loving daughter, to whom he’s very close; his profession as a doctor, which he practices with a clarity and honesty seldom seen among his colleagues; and the chance at a love more profound and satisfying than any he’s ever experienced. But whether he can be content with these most human of riches forms the core of the novel. And since, as Ecclesiastes says, there’s nothing new under the sun, Merivel’s story is as old, and yet as topical, as can be.
Likewise, I think that artifice, foppery, and pretension plague our age much as they did Merivel’s, so he seems familiar there as well. He wrestles mightily with his worst tendencies, which include self-pity, impulsiveness, and skirt-chasing. Yet if he often fails to master them, he has a good heart and can draw people to him simply by being himself. Much of this great gift comes from his empathy for self-delusion, and his grasp of the particularly sharp pain that comes when you think you’ve “held Wonder in your hands,” as the king puts it, only to lose it when knowledge strips the illusion away. This is one quality that makes Merivel such good company.
Another is the prose, which captures the time and place. Tremain gives you the seventeenth century, unvarnished, filthy, and invigorating, whether she’s describing the lice in the wig or the sublime country air or the witty conversation of intelligent people trying to grasp the science of their age. I’ve never read a description of Versailles like hers, both funny and appalling, or the grisly aspects of hospitals or inns, with quite that edge. Finally, she’s drawn a delicate, often moving portrait of a friendship between king and commoner, which ends in just the way it should–I dare not say more.
Merivel is the first novel of Tremain’s I’ve ever read. It won’t be the last.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.