Restoration : the return

Portrait of King Charles II by John Michael Wright
Whilst re-reading Rose Tremain's Restoration earlier this year, I discovered that she had written a sequel to it - Merivel : a man of his time. This was a delight, finding a sequel to one of my all-time favourite books. So, how does Merivel measure up to his predecessor?

Robert Merivel, the hero, of Restoration, is older, but not a lot wiser. His beloved daughter, Margaret, is on the threshold of independence, and is spending less and less time at Bidnold, his Norfolk estate gifted to him by the King. It's a long time since he's been invited to the Court, and he's missing it, though relieved that this means that his daughter will have little contact with the King (he may love Charles II, but he knows far too much about His Majesty to trust him with his daughter). Lonely and at a loose end, he travels to France to the court of Louis XIV in the hope of finding his destiny; a near miss of a duel (yes, we're back to duels again) has him fleeing the country only to find the peace of his country home interrupted by the arrival of an ailing Charles II. As Margaret finds love, and Merivel fails to find peace, he goes on a tortured search to try to find his purpose in life. But as England changes, Merivel and his servants age, and his beloved King approaches death, what is there left in life for Merivel?

I loved Merivel. Ironically it turned out to be a rather more appropriate read than I had realised as I started to read it on the eve of a journey to Switzerland, only to discover that a chunk of the action was set in Switzerland. It was also a particularly good read for me as a distant ancestor of mine worked at the court of Louis XIV before moving to Switzerland, so curiously aping the actions of Merivel as he moves from court to court trying to find the place he belongs,

There was much that delighted me about Merivel, it is every bit as witty as its predecessor, Restoration. And the character of Merivel is as adorable as ever. But...I found this a much sadder tale than the original. There's redemption at the end of Restoration, but Merivel is firmly set in the Autumn of its hero's life, and has a sad feel to it, somewhat akin to Elgar's Cello concerto. The dying days of Charles II's reign are brought to life brilliantly well by Rose Tremain, and her depiction of a court in turmoil as it moves between monarchs is unforgettable.

Tremain, like Hilary Mantel, is expert at bringing a tumultuous period to life. She is especially good at depicting the minutiae of daily life - the horrific description of a surgery for breast cancer pre-general anaesthetic will remind long in my mind.

I loved this novel, I enjoyed it, I often found it very funny; but a weight of years and sadness seemed to rest on it, making it at times almost unbearably poignant. A must-read especially for lovers of Tremain's earlier novel, but not a novel for a gloomy day.


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