Not long ago I was telling you about Rose Tremain's 1988 novel Restoration, which I read with great delight and admiration. I'd been sad to finish it, as you always are when you've really loved a book, so imagine how I felt when I discovered that Tremain had published this, a sequel, in 2008. You can't help worrying about sequels -- could they possibly live up to the original? In this case, a resounding yes. In fact finishing Merivel yesterday has left me feeling bereft, and it's going to be a really really hard act to follow.
For anyone not familiar with these novels, both are set during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685). Fifteen years separate them, the second one taking place in the last couple of years before Charles's death. Sir Robert Merivel is now fifty-seven, and feeling his age. Since the end of the previous novel, he has been living quietly at Bidnold, the Norfolk manor house given him by the king, practicing locally as a physician, and bringing up his beloved daughter Margaret. But as the novel starts, Margaret is beginning to move away -- she has been invited to join a neighbouring family on a long visit to Cornwall, and Merivel is overcome with loneliness and depression, frequently weeping (something he has always been prone to do) as he sits by the fire. So he gratefully seizes on a suggestion from the king, who he continues to idolise as much as ever, that he should pay a visit to Versailles and see if he can get Louis XIVth to take him on as a court physician.
And so begins a series of adventures at least as strange and varied as any he had in his youth. Versailles turns out to be not at all as he had imagined it, and even though he is armed with a letter from Charles recommending him to Louis, his cousin, he never gets near the king, instead spending his days cooped up in a tiny, more or less empty room shared with a Dutch clockmaker, existing on milk and salted peas bought from vendors at the chateau gates. But while in this curious limbo, he encounters a beautiful Swiss woman, Louise de Flamanville, with whom he quickly starts a passionate affair. Unfortunately her husband, a gay six-foot four Swiss Guard, threatens to kill him, so he returns to Norfolk, taking with him a bear he has managed to rescue along the way. Back at Bidnold, he finds Margaret has developed typhus, and despite his careful nursing, she remains on the brink of death for a long time. He also, in an agonising passage, operates on his neighbour and former mistress, who has breast cancer. Margaret recovers, possibly as a result of being touched by the king, who reputedly has this ability. Charles then decides to stay on at Bidnold for a prolonged holiday, a mixed blessing for Merivel, who, much as he adores him, starts to worry that he will seduce his newly recovered and increasingly beautiful daughter.
There's more -- much more -- including a long visit to Louise and her father in Switzerland, and a long and ultimately tragic period at Whitehall Palace, where Charles's health is deteriorating fast. As usual, Merivel finds himself on a switchback though all this, alternating between pleasure and pain, with the pain generally more predominant. He worries about Margaret, he worries about himself and whether he should marry Louise, he worries terribly about his servant Will Gates, who he has left in charge of Bidnold but who has not written for a long time. And of course he is in despair about the evidently coming demise of Charles.
Ultimately, then, though there's still wit and fun in this novel, it's charged with more sadness than Restoration. This is inevitable, because it deals with ageing, with loss, and with the death of those we love the most. Merivel has always been given to self-examination, and his honesty about himself and his compulsions has always been one of his most attractive characteristics. The honesty is still there, and so are the compulsions -- but so too is his wonderful humanity, his great heart, his desire to be a better man than he knows himself to be. I cried a couple of times during this novel, and the ending -- wonderfully apt and beautifully conceived -- left me grieving as if at the loss of an old and dear friend, which indeed Merivel had become. Profound and thought-provoking in so many ways, this is a brilliant novel, and one I'm very glad indeed to have read.