Merivel: A Man of His Time

Written by Rose Tremain
Review by Doug Kemp

This is a sequel to Tremain’s 1989 novel, Restoration, which was a memoir of Sir Robert Merivel, physician, bon-viveur, friend of Charles II and a man who often had cause to reflect upon the unpredictable vicissitudes of life.

Having fallen out of favour with his monarch in this first book, Merivel has been given back his Norfolk property, Bidnold Manor. Time has advanced by 17 years to the early 1680s. His daughter Margaret is growing up to be a vivacious and attractive lady. But life is perhaps just a little too comfortable and unchallenging for Merivel. He gets Charles’s permission to go to Versailles and there seek a position as a court physician to King Louis. Although he is unsuccessful in this, he does meet an unhappily married intelligent Swiss lady, Louise, with whom he starts a passionate affair.

Back in England, though, Margaret develops typhus, and Charles II visits Bidnold to attempt the King’s Cure; he stays there for some time, and, after her recovery, invites Margaret back to his court as a lady-in-waiting to his new amour, Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth. Merivel feels bereft and goes to Switzerland to stay with his Louise, where he finds happiness and the beginnings of peace and stability, until news reaches him of Charles II’s failing health.

Merivel is a wonderfully likable man. Compassionate, impulsive, licentious but thoroughly decent, his character develops from the opening book. Although he a fun-loving man, his essential outlook is negative, often expecting the worst to happen as the essence of the human condition. The narrative is superb, and the context of late 17th-century England feels genuine and authentic.