This tale is set in the latter years of the reign of Charles II. Sir Robert Merivel was ennobled by Charles II for agreeing to marry a woman Charles wanted as a mistress; his estate of Bidnold is funded by the King but must be ready at all times for the King's visits.
The book starts with Sir Robert, or Merivel as he prefers his friends to call him, in the company of his most faithful servant Will, who is now unsteady. Merivel knows that he can never discard loyal Will, for where would he go but the workhouse, although Will is becoming more and more a liability, and Merivel foresees that one day the tables will be turned and he will begin to nurse Will.
And so we begin to explore the character of the remarkable Merivel. His haberdasher parents died in a fire. He became a surgeon and then found favour with the King first by amusing him and then by becoming a professional cuckold. After incurring the displeasure of the King for trying to bed his own wife, Merivel fled to work with a group of Quakers who were administering to lunatics. Now he is restored to Bidnold but when his daughter announces her plans for going to Cornwall on a holiday with their neighbours, Merivel decides to travel to Versailles.
The plot is picaresque, meandering from episode to episode. Perhaps this is the point. It is like life: without purpose or direction but only a continuous muddle. He pays a treasured ring to rescue a captive bear from death but in the end the bear must still die after living in captivity. Perhaps this is a metaphor for Sir Robert's own life.
But what all the episodes reveal is the wonderful character of Sir Robert Merivel. For he is a weak mortal, marvellous in his frailty. He tries to do his best but is all too aware how often his good intentions are not enough. He is afraid of marriage because he is only too aware that he lets people down.
I have never read Rose Tremain before but I must find another book by her because I loved the way she portrayed a character and the readability of even such a wandering plot.
Packed with episodes, not all coherent, and dedicated to the study of a genuine man. December 2013; 341 pages
Books by Tremain reviewed in this blog include:
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57