A Man of His Time
The last time we saw Sir Robert Merivel, in the closing pages of Rose Tremain’s Restoration, he had achieved everything he had once desired: a comfortable home of his own; his infant daughter Margaret in his arms; and an assurance of King Charles II’s favour. Twenty five years after the publication of that novel, Tremain invites us to once again join forces with her neurotic, gifted but all-too-easily-distracted physician (for whom only sixteen years have passed) and to take a glimpse at what his life has become in the year 1683.
Reading this book was another joint enterprise with Heloise: we were both keen to find out what fate had in store for Merivel and so I had the pleasure of again working through a novel with her, debating Puffins and Penguins, the possibility of Enlightenment and whether or not Merivel has become less self-obsessed since our first rambunctious introduction to him in Restoration. As ever, it’s been fun.
I paid the Coachman and thanked him. As he turned the horses and made to drive away, I put up my hand and waved to him sadly as though I might have been a Pauper’s child deposited on the steps of an orphanage. And when he had quite gone, I felt all around me the great World of Versailles pressing upon me, as though to sweep me up and lead me on into its thousand wonders, but then pushing past me and buffeting me and showing me a very vast Indifference.
If Restoration was about Merivel finding his place in the world, then this sequel is more about his quest to find himself. As it opens, he has lived happily at Bidnold for years with Margaret and his faithful servant Will, but as he notes the marks of age on those around him – Will’s increasing debility and Margaret’s growing eagerness for the world beyond the park – Merivel is brought to reflect on the progress of his own life, and to wonder how he can improve himself in the time he has left. Being Merivel, he decides that self-improvement can be best brought about through external means: first he tries the benefits of travel, which carry him to the swarming heart of Versailles; and next he attempts to better himself through a love affair with a charming, intelligent woman. But neither of these things provide any discernible improvement in his own contentment; and so he wonders if he might find happiness through some intellectual work that brings him the public acclaim of those he loves.
Like all good Enlightenment gentlemen, he begins to plan a Treatise, hoping to make his name through the Affinity that he feels with animals, on account of his occasionally ‘bestial’ and lustful nature. But it never once occurs to Merivel that his lack of contentment might come from the fact that he doesn’t judge himself fairly: he always evaluates the success of his endeavours based on the likely reactions of two other people: his late friend Pearce, and the King. As the book proceeds, he will find that sometimes we come closest to understanding ourselves not by accumulating more, but by stripping away extraneous things until we begin to understand what is outward show and what is truly ourselves.
This all makes it sound rather serious, but if you’ve read Restoration you’ll know that Tremain’s writing is light and playful and full of gentle irony. As ever, the language sounds absolutely convincing and she adds to its air of authenticity by throwing in capitalised nouns here and there, which often serve to subtly reinforce the humour as much as anything. And Merivel himself remains delightfully endearing, despite his sins and lapses. Endearing to me, anyway – my fondness for him has led Heloise to diagnose me, with unnerving accuracy, with a Weakness for Doomed Heroes (I fear she might have a point). And yet; and yet. For all his efforts to appear suave, Merivel knows he’s a fool at heart and his conception of himself is often informed by his awareness of his own absurdity. At one point he watches himself ‘strut about like a fat pigeon (I am wearing grey)‘ and at other times he indulges himself with odd little attachments to items of clothing. As familiar things in an unfamiliar world, he regards these with great affection. While cooling his heels at Versailles, cast adrift in the chaos and clamour, he gives his wig ‘a sincere and tender brushing (as though it might have been a pet Spaniel returning from a truffling expedition in Bidnold park)‘ and at another moment he likens a ‘Lively Hat‘ of his to a ‘tame nesting Pheasant I had reared in Norfolk‘.
Like so many of us, Merivel is a child playing at being a grown-up, hoping that no one will find him out. He tries to hide his sense of wonder beneath the sheen of a courtier, without realising that his honest naivete is precisely the reason why his friends love him. He may still be rather self-centred, but I believe that his selfish self-obsession from the first book has mellowed into a more commendable desire to make himself the best of all possible selves: a very creditable Enlightenment desire, and something that makes Merivel very much A Man of His Time.
But what does ‘A Man of His Time’ really mean? We had a lot of discussion about the significance of the book’s headings – both this main subtitle and those of the four parts. Merivel consciously aims to be a man of his time, certainly: he busies himself with estates, parks, gardens, menageries and treatises, as a rich 17th-century gentleman should do. But perhaps he is also, unintentionally, a man of his time in a less flattering sense: absorbed by the pursuit of his own success and pleasure to the detriment of those less fortunate than him. He seeks to impose artificial order on the world through knowledge, while failing to see the social disorder growing up around him; and, increasingly unable to find comfort in religious faith or folk beliefs, he is tormented by a constant craving to fill that gap with some form of scientific truth. Bidnold (with the merry Merivel at its head) can be persuasively seen as a microcosm of the realm (with the merry Monarch at its head), and the fates of estate and country are strikingly similar. And of course there’s one final, disturbing question. If Restoration, written in the late ’80s, was an allegory of the thrusting, ambitious spirit of the Thatcher years in Britain, how far can Merivel be said to mirror the state of society today?
I was very happy to return to Merivel’s world and this sequel is yet another wonderful novel by Tremain, but for me it didn’t quite have the same brilliant sparkle as Restoration. Perhaps that’s because it’s a slightly more sombre affair, preoccupied with age and ‘the passing of time, which … left us as the mere husks of what we had once been‘. Many things are on the verge of coming to an end, and the overall flavour is distinctly bittersweet. However, if you’ve read the earlier book then you must read this too, as a thoughtful and moving continuation of Merivel’s picaresque career.