It wasn’t until I started reading Merivel for my Walter Scott prize project that I realized it was a sequel to Rose Tremain’s better-known novel Restoration. I hadn’t read Restoration in 20 years, but I decided not to reread it first. I only remembered that it was about a doctor who got caught up in the debaucheries of the court of Charles II.
Merivel is a picaresque novel, like its predecessor. In its bawdy exuberance, it reminds me a bit of Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy. It begins in 1683, when Robert Merivel is living alone on his estate, an older man suffering from melancholy. His young daughter Margaret spends much of her time with the neighbors, who have four daughters. He is lonely and feels his life has had little purpose. He discovers his original manuscript (presumably the text of Restoration), which he refers to as the Wedge, but he doesn’t have the energy to read it.
On a whim, he decides that since Margaret is going on a trip with her friends to Cornwall, he will journey to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and offer his services as a physician. To do this, he gets a letter of introduction from Charles II.
It is difficult to describe the plot of this novel. It doesn’t have a central concern except the feeling of its hero of having accomplished nothing. Merivel has many adventures, including falling in love with a woman he meets at Versailles and dueling with her husband, but they are all related in a semi-comic, mocking manner. Merivel, who seems ready to fall into every folly, is a sort of hapless anti-hero who hasn’t grown up much from the first novel.
Behind the scenes, we see that England is faltering. The poor are getting poorer as the court indulges itself. Merivel, who remains aware of the plight of others, can’t help observing that Charles II seems to feel no responsibility for this. Although this novel is not one of my favorites on the Walter Scott Prize short list, it certainly seems to reflect the time period in which it is set.