I wasn’t planning to read Merivel so soon after finishing Rose Tremain’s Restoration, but when I saw a copy on the library shelf a few days later, I couldn’t resist bringing it home so I could catch up with Robert Merivel again and see how he was getting on. I didn’t expect this book to be as good as Restoration, as sequels written many years later often aren’t, so I was surprised to find that I actually preferred this one. Looking at other reviews, I can see that I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I think the reason I liked this book better was because I liked Merivel himself better.
At the beginning of Merivel, our narrator, Robert Merivel, is back at his Norfolk estate of Bidnold, where he returned at the end of Restoration. It’s 1683 and sixteen years have gone by since we last saw him; he’s now a middle-aged man, very aware that time is slipping away and bringing changes to himself and the people around him. His faithful servant, Will, is getting old and is struggling to carry out his duties, while his little girl, Margaret, is now a young lady and planning to spend Christmas in Cornwall with friends. Facing the prospect of being left at home alone, Merivel decides to make the most of the time remaining to him and sets off to Versailles – with a letter of introduction from his friend, King Charles II – in the hope of finding some excitement and intellectual stimulation.
Unfortunately, Versailles fails to live up to Merivel’s expectations; he finds little to admire at the French court and it’s not long before he’s on his way home to England. Apart from a brief romance with an attractive botanist, Louise, and an invitation to visit her at her father’s estate in Switzerland, the only thing Merivel has to show for his time in France is a large bear called Clarendon whom he has rescued from captivity and brought back to Norfolk. On arriving at Bidnold, however, Merivel discovers that he has more to worry about than Louise and his bear: his daughter, Margaret, is seriously ill and requires all of his skills as a physician if she is to survive.
Although there are some humorous scenes in this book, I found this quite a sad and sombre novel, especially in comparison to the liveliness of Restoration. The passing of time is a major theme (it’s no coincidence that Merivel shares lodgings in France with a clockmaker) and there’s always a sense that things are coming to an end, that Will, Merivel – and even the King – won’t live forever. Merivel is not so much searching for his place in the world as he was in the previous book, but trying to understand himself and come to terms with his own nature. He still gets things wrong sometimes, he still makes some poor decisions, and has a tendency to neglect the things that are most important, but he also has a good heart and I found him completely endearing! I remember thinking he was a very frustrating character in Restoration, but in this book I had more patience with him because I could see that he was doing his best.
Merivel is a book with many layers, giving the reader a lot to think about. Even the headings of the four sections – The Great Enormity, The Great Captivity, The Great Consolation and The Great Transition – have a significance which is worth considering. But this is also a very entertaining novel. The pace is quite leisurely, but there’s always something happening: a duel, an encounter with highwaymen, an illness, or a visit from the King. The mood of the late 17th century is captured beautifully; Tremain even gives some of the nouns capital letters to enhance the feeling of authenticity, something which I thought might be irritating at first but which, after a few pages, I decided I liked.
The ending, when it came, was not entirely unexpected, but I was still a bit surprised because I think a lot of authors would have chosen to end Merivel’s story in a different, happier way. Considering the themes of this novel, though, I thought it was the perfect conclusion. I loved revisiting Merivel’s world and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has read and enjoyed Restoration. It could probably be read as a standalone but I think you’ll get more out of it if you’ve been following Merivel’s story from the beginning.
This book also counts towards my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project. It was shortlisted in 2013.