The life of Merivel, narrator and protagonist of Rose Tremain’s novel by the same name, is told as a kind of picaresque. A picaresque often has no ending; it goes on and on. Merivel does end, though: dying, worn out from his agitated life, on a heap of dirty clothes in the establishment of Rosie, his laundress and one of many lovers. “The World is as it chooses to be,” she pronounces, “and he was one who knew it well.”
A blithe man, an enterprising man, and one whose brand of acid humor makes him a favorite of King Charles II, his patron and — insofar as a king can be — his friend, Merivel laces his account with a quiet underlying despair. His exploits, prodigally related, begin in hope but only as antechamber to no hope.
His story goes back to a previous Tremain novel. Physician to Charles, Merivel was assigned by the king as beard for a liaison with a court lady. He was to marry her, in fact, but took that too literally. When he tried to kiss her, Charles punished him by confiscating Bidnold, his prosperous country estate.
MERIVEL: A Man of His Time
Now restored to favor and Bidnold, and with Margaret, his daughter, off to spend months with friends, Merivel launches on the chain of ventures and misadventures that bump along through the book.
He obtains a letter from Charles recommending him to Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, as court physician. What follows is one of several set-scenes that are the novel’s main pleasure: Merivel’s endless wait in a squalid Versailles chamber thronged with dozens of other hopeless petitioners, jammed together on the floor, scrounging for food and drink and with no real prospect of a royal encounter. A Swiss clockmaker has been there for months hoping to show his beautiful timepiece to Madame de Maintenon, a royal mistress, for her patronage (she rejects it when it loses one minute each month).
Merivel is extricated from his futile Versailles wait by a beautiful court lady, Louise de Flamanville. She brings him to her lavish Paris mansion, has him bed her, and shows him her botanical laboratory where she devises herbal remedies, among them an underarm deodorant. Particularly useful for Versailles, Merivel observes. She is married to a high officer in Louis’s Swiss Guard — unhappily, since his only sexual interest is young men. He arrives unexpectedly and evicts Merivel; Louise flees to her father’s lavish estate in Switzerland and begs Merivel to join her.
That will happen eventually, but so will a great deal else it would be tedious to recount in detail. It is a tribute to Tremain that for the most part, on the contrary, she makes it not just pleasurable but varied, engrossing, and at times, astonishing.
To mention a few examples. Merivel rescues a chained-up bear that Louis has ordered killed. Merivel, who bumbles at times, is a man of impulsive compassion and kindness; he gives the soldiers a priceless ring to let him have the animal and takes it back to Bidnold.
There he finds his daughter dying of typhus; Tremain gives graphic life to her agony. Desperate, he entreats King Charles to ask his physicians for a cure; instead the king comes himself, lays a hand on Margaret, and she begins to recover. Charles spends weeks at Bidnold; he finds Merivel’s witty company a welcome retreat from the burdens and schemes of court life.
When he does leave he takes Margaret with him as lady-in-waiting to one of his duchess mistresses; Merivel is in agony worrying that Charles will wield his seductive powers on her.
Other ventures include Merivel’s time in Switzerland with Louise and her father, a wealthy and wise magus of a man, and his flight from their offer of marriage that would make him rich. She is too beautiful and passionate, besides. Merivel has an innate distrust of excessive good fortune; it does not suit his notion of himself. All kinds of ordeals and disasters follow to keep this notion going: a duel with Louise’s husband who, heartbroken at losing a boyfriend, contrives to lose; Merivel’s grisly attempt to cut out a fatal cancer from a former mistress, and much else.
Almost too much, were it not for Tremain’s agile inventions. The weakness of this otherwise lively and absorbing book is not its story. It is its inability to make Merivel, for all his adventures and intricate traits, much more than a displayer of such things. Compelling things, but as a character he falls just a little short of compelling.