A Falstaffian hero – The Merry Wives of Restoration
Rose Tremain is an author I’ve long admired. She knows how to craft a story, she creates extremely interesting, well rounded, individual and realistic characters, her use of language is wonderful, fitting, often very rich, but not self-indulgent. She has a great sense of time and place. And she seems to have things to say. And, almost more than this, she writes many different books – not the same one, in a formulaic fashion, over and over.
So it was a surprise, on one level, to find her revisiting the past, producing a sequel to the richly satisfying, hugely successful, Restoration, which was published more than 20 years ago. Her central character (fictitious) a larger than life physician, Robert Merivel, later Sir Robert, and his relationship with Charles II (and some of the real cast of characters surrounding him) was a rich, inventive tragi-comic read.
Fast forward 17 years in the life of Merivel, and what we have is something slightly different. Age has intensified the nature of all the principal characters, both real and imagined. And Merivel has become Falstaffian in his ability to be deluded, often shallow, excessively driven by superficial desires, humorous, fun loving, clumsy, the butt of jokes – but loving, loyal, tender hearted. Like Falstaff, he is the jester who can break our hearts, and whose own heart is frequently broken, by his genuine love towards his king
This is a darker journey than Restoration. The subtext here is not the flowering and the crazy parties and the sweeping away of restriction of Restoration. Death is the constant character whose shadow grows larger. Merivel is now in his late 50s and we know this is set towards the end of Charles’ reign. Remembered characters from Restoration are now either dead, or inching towards death. Often raging against the dying of the light
The reader does not need to have read Restoration to appreciate this stand-alone work. Tremain, her artistry sure, finds plausible and meaningful ways to tell the back-story. She shows her craft again here – it’s a trap a lot of writers seem to stumble over – how do you give the reader information which THEY may need to know when the characters themselves will all already have that information, particularly if you are writing a first person narrative. All too often the lesser writer will have two luminaries in conversation with each other, and (for example) Albert Einstein turns to Neils Bohr and says `so let me remind you, Neils, of my Theory of Relativity’ Tremain does nothing crass. What the new reader needs to know (and the old, forgetful reader to know again) is effortlessly fed in little sippets. It felt like having memory reawakened, but through the filter of an older, darkening Merivel
If this doesn’t hit quite so many fizzy high spots as Restoration, and I had a few ‘hmm, could it really have been like this’ moments, that is in keeping with a Merivel who is more conscious of where journeys must end.
One small niggle – I was slightly surprised, given the extraordinary level of widescale rumpy pumpy encounters within these pages, that in an era before prophylactics, the characters all remained pox and baby free!