A Novel of Universal Times
In the final article in our series of features on the novels shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, we explore how Rose Tremain creates a novel – and a character – of the Restoration.
Reading Restoration and Merivel in quick succession, I was interested to see how the language of the novel had evolved during the 20 year pause both in the narrative and the writing of the two novels. The answer is apparently very little: the two novels share a cohesion of expression and emotion that is raw, brutal in its apparent honesty and self-knowledge, but infused with wit and colour.
They are still convinced that this beribboned Englishman has taken leave of his senses, which, looked at in one way, is true, but it would not be for the first time, nor for the last.
The immediately apparent difference in Merivel is that the text is now sprinkled with Capital Letters. This small but very noticeable change immediately places the style of writing with that of contemporary authors: Milton, Marvell, Herrick and so on, and there are strong stylistic allusions to the metaphysical poets and cavalier poets of the 17th century in particular. Merivel describes his thoughts on reading his previous memoirs as,
It was a time of marvels and glories, crammed with sorrows. And now, to read my own words and see this Life again unfold before me, brought to my heart an almost unbearable overload of Feeling.
While poets such as Donne and Milton had a strong sense of the divine order, which is in constant tension with human frailty, Merivel has lost his faith, and his moral “compass” is his friend Pearce, who he refers to regularly despite Pearce having passed away many years before. This lack of religious zeal makes Tremain’s allusions and vocabulary more accessible to a modern secular reader,
The best I can set down is to say that the whole seemed, almost to flow in its wondrous horizontal order, and its colours of pink brick and cream stone to rise up in one harmonious chord, as though it had been conjured there, not by any architect but by a composer of Music. Even the sun colluded with this Song of Magnificence and Beauty by breaking through the grey clouds and etching the buildings with soft winter light, so that the slate roofs gleamed like pewter and the glass of a thousand windows.
Like contemporary poets, however, Merivel battles with human, particularly sexual frailty. The two novels span the reign of Charles II precisely, and the hedonism, sexual vice and scandal of the age, although counterpoised with a genuine kind-heartedness and the wish to avoid conflict, are reflected strongly in the character of Merivel. In few novels is the protagonist so consistently larger-than-life and self-obsessed, although entirely without malice or arrogance. This perhaps gives Merivel his grudging likability,
….in it I always and ever saw reflected by own Inadequacy.
‘I see you have not lost the habit of turning all Things towards yourself’ he said with a sniff.
Towards the end of the novel, Merivel reflects on what he has previously written about his life,
When I wrote it I believed it to be honest. But now I see that it is full of lies and self-delusions.
In fact, we are left with a sense that few characters we have encountered are so lacking in self-delusion than Merivel.