Merivel: A man of his time, by Rose Tremain

What better way to break a blogging hiatus than with Rose Tremain’s newest, wonderfully rich and gloriously intelligent novel – Merivel: A Man of his Time (Chatto & Windus).

Tremain returns to the characters, setting and time period of Restoration, her Booker-Short-listed novel of 1989. Having survived the Great Fire, Sir Robert Merivel lives in ease and relative luxury at Bidnold Manor in Norfolk, the estate gifted to him by King Charles II. It is now 1683 and he is provoked into activity with news that his daughter Margaret is leaving. He realises that life is passing him by.

The novel is shot through with self-deprecating irony and is Bunyanesque in style and structure: the action moves from “The Great Enormity” into “Captivity”, strengthened by the “Great Consolation” and through the “Great Transition”. The discovery of “The Wedge”, Merivel’s autobiography, forgotten beneath his mattress for nearly twenty years, usefully introduces his back story, as well as providing a link to his soul quest. He uses it to reflect on his earlier life of debauchery and deceit and to reveal his self-delusion. He travels to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles in an attempt to bring vitality and interest to his life but ends up living like a pauper within the Royal household. His journey is fraught with real and metaphorical dangers and he returns to London transporting a bear he names Clarendon. He reads Montaigne and Descartes and discusses Newtonian physics, William Harvey, and bemoans his “tendency to hypothesise” with amateur chemist, Madame Louise de Flamanville.

He plans to move to Switzerland but Merivel is drawn back to London to the dying King’s bedside where Time catches up with him. Can he change? The Wheel of Fortune turns full circle. He is older and wiser – Bidnold and the wider social and political climate have changed too.

Funny and wise; humane, Tremain pricks our social conscience as she did in Restoration. Merivel is a joy to read. It’s rich with intelligent insight into seventeenth-century history that gives it a texture beyond mere storytelling.