Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

This long awaited sequel to the simply marvellous Restoration, picks up the story of the highly flawed and extremely personable, Robert Merivel, physician to King Charles II, only this time, it’s 25 years or thereabouts since we last met him.

18970894Well into his twilight years, Merivel, who in the first book enjoyed then lost the patronage of his king and went on a journey of self-discovery which saw him survive the Plague, the Great Fire and life in metal asylum run by a kind group of Quakers, is this time far more settled. His beloved daughter is now a woman; he has his well-managed estate to run and his ageing servants to consider and a life well-lived to reflect upon. Ever trying to find meaning in his life, Merivel, like the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, keeps a record of his daily activities, thoughts, mishaps, sexual encounters and triumphs, sparing the reader nothing. This is part of the joy of the man and the book.

Emulating the erratic syntax of the era, in that Tremain capitalises words mid-sentence, she also manages to plunge the reader into this wonderfully decadent and politically fraught time – stylistically, but also ideologically and emotionally. Whether it’s food, fashion, habits, religion, medical procedures or class structure, she recreates the late 1600s and the turmoil of monarchy and government as well as international relations and places masterfully.

Merivel may be older, but he doesn’t feel wiser. A sense that life is slipping him by pervades and so he makes the decision to travel to the court of Louis XIV, the King’s cousin, and see the great Versailles for himself. Always afraid of what he might be missing out on, Merivel embarks on a number of other adventures, and makes some rather interesting and, on reflection poor choices, in this book. In doing so, he learns his place in the greater world and the smaller one that is his estate and family. He discovers the real meaning of love and friendship and what’s important in life. The reader champions him on this erratic journey and our affection for this volatile but kind and very philosophical man deepens.

Including Merivel, a fictional character in real historical events and having him encounter actual personages of the time imbue the book with such immediacy and Merivel himself more relevance than he already has. He becomes our touchstone for both the macrocosmic historic events and the microcosmic ones we can all identify with.

As much as it evokes the period so beautifully, the novel is also contemporary in that the questions it poses about ageing and life are timeless.

Superbly written, with humour, pathos and such understanding, this is a gorgeous book and a fitting conclusion to Merivel’s marvellous life.


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The King’s Touch by Jude Morgan

The K222771ing’s Touch by Jude Morgan is a beautifully written book. Ostensibly the story of James, the eldest illegitimate child of Charles II, who later becomes the Duke of Monmouth, it’s also about an indulgent and indulged king who was more politicallycanny than he is often given credit. It’s also about personal and public sacrifice and its hefty cost.

Through young James, or Jemmy’s, eyes, the reader is invited to live through the fraught years of Charles Stuart’s’ exile on the continent. We’re also drawn into Jemmy’s early peripatetic years, as his mother, the fallen woman, Lucy Walter, drags her son from city to city in a desperate effort to reclaim the one man she says she loves but who appears to have discarded her – the throneless, Charles. Lucy’s descent into poverty as well as the poor decisions she makes regarding men and actions, naturally affects her son and daughter and it’s only when Charles “rescues” his child, young Jemmy, depositing him with his exiled mother and younger sister, that Jemmy’s life begins to transform.

When Charles is invited to return to England in 1660 and is crowned monarch, it’s not long before his family, including Jemmy, follow. From poor urchin to indulged bastard son of the “merry monarch” we follow Jemmy’s life and travails as he learns just what it means to be a part of this newly formed court. Yearning for his father’s affection, and attention, he is slow to grasp an understanding of his place in this new, decadent world. Morgan is at pains to portray this as an almost deliberate naivety, a stubborn refusal to abandon the dreams of childhood and a belief in good. She also juxtaposes Jemmy’s faith in others, in the world, against Charles’ more cynical one – a view born of his experiences.

As much a pawn as a beloved child who becomes a needy but loving man, Jemmy’s relationship with is father is wonderfully explored, as are the complexities of the emotional baggage both men carry.

Against the backdrop of political and religious strife and intrigue, endless wars and the scheming of ambitious women and men, never mind the sensual hedonism of the Restoration court with all its bawdy affectations and superficial promises, this is a marvellous story of familial love, passion, loathing, forgiveness, repentance and revenge.

The dialogue is rich and laden with meaning; the language so beautifully and readably crafted – I could not only imagine those involved (most often, Charles and his son) but relished the turns of phrase (some plucked straight from history) and the feelings they evoked. The settings are gorgeously and accurately drawn – as is the history – and the psychological and political games carefully constructed. It’s easy to see how those involved with the Stuart dynasty rose or fell according to their ability to aid, counter or manipulate the plots and cunning of others.

But at the heart of this novel is one needy man and the father who, though he alternately embraces his son and in doing so hints at a destiny not his to bestow, also rejects him and what he represents. It’s a tale of how family and even love must be sacrificed at the altar of politics and a greater good while also questioning why this must be so.

A magnificent read for anyone fascinated with the Stuart dynasty and the major players throughout the turbulent years of the Restoration or for those interested in a portrait of fathers, sons and families who aren’t free to love where and when they please.


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