Saturday, March 01, 2014

Merivel: A Man of his Time

Returning some twenty plus years from  Restoration (1989) novelist Rose Tremain continues her tale of Sir Robert Merivel's life with an equally spellbinding sequel,  Merivel: A Man of his Time (2013).

Set primarily in 17th century Norfolk, with excursions to the glamour of the Court of Versailles and the French Alps,  the cares of the world now crowd around both King Charles II and his friend, the courtier and reluctant physician, Sir Robert Merivel, who is once more resident at the Norfolk manor of Bidnold.  Merivel's daughter Margaret, is now a young woman and securing her future is a primary concern of her at turns, frivolous and pleasure-seeking, self-analytical and serious-minded father. When King Charles leaves London and unexpectedly visits the Norfolk manor of Bidnold, consequences develop for both Sir Robert and his daughter Margaret.

Robert Merivel is at times a kind of 17th century Bertie Wooster figure whose primary preoccupations are fine food and wine and pleasure in general. Through the discovery under his mattress of  'the wedge' a long forgotten and crumbling autobiography, Merivel recounts past events in which he lived a life of pleasure before falling from grace with King Charles II. Eventually Merivel restores himself in the eyes of his royal friend through application of his medical skills in service to humanity in the crucible of horrors, the Plague and Great Fire of London.

There's almost an element of Fawlty Towers farce in some of the antics engaged upon by the two longest serving servants of Sir Robert's Bignold Manor, the temperamental and wall-eyed cook, Cattlebury and the doddery but loyal and devoted butler Will Gates, However, the dominant tone throughout Merivel is one of a muted valedictory farewell to life and its pleasures. Prone to melancholy and inexplicable weeping at the beauty of life, Sir Robert now in his maturity, muses upon life’s sadness, not only discovering he enjoys pleasures such as wine, food and sex less, but also reconciling himself to life’s inevitabilities, growing older, illness, and reconciling oneself to seeing those one loves departing from life. Loving life, often directionless, and paying heavily for the consequences of his follies, Robert Merivel is not without a serious and self-analytical side to his complex nature.

'And then I thought how Life itself is the greatest Theft of Time, and how all we can do is to watch as the days and months and years slip away from us and make off into the Darkness'.

Not wanting to post spoilers, suffice to say events in Merivel include Sir Robert's acquiring of a bear named Clarendon who has an influence upon him when later writing a philosophical treatise on whether or not animals possess souls, and Merivel's finding true love for the first time in the unhappily married Frenchwoman Louise, a serious student of the new science of chemistry.

With its medical theme (Merivel possesses a set of surgical instruments, a gift from King Charles II with the words, Merivel, Do not Sleep inscribed upon them) its location of Norfolk, and seventeenth century setting, Rose Tremain, in my humble view, may have let slip an opportunity to join literary figures such as Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, Jorge Luis Borges and W.G. Sebald, to express admiration, albeit through a casual nod, to one of the foremost literary figures of seventeenth century England, the Norwich-based physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82).

Several other leading figures of seventeenth century intellectual history are however alluded to in Merivel. Sir Robert fondly recalls his attending lectures by the famous anatomist Fabrius with rowdy German students and his close friend, the austere Quaker John Pearce cherishs a book by William Harvey. Self-analysis, not unlike that of the popular essayist Montaigne runs through Merivel's narrative. Although its regrettable that Sir Robert doesn't allude to either Browne's best-selling Religio Medici or his vanguard promotion of the English scientific revolution, Pseudodoxia Epidemica one likes to imagine these titles were once in the library of Merivel's Norfolk manor.

It has been said that "the single best adjective to describe Western Civilization at the opening of the seventeenth century was the word “Christian.” By the century’s end the single word that rightly characterized the West was “scientific.” Merivel attributes his own loss of religious Faith from the death of his parents through house-fire. Increasingly, as his life progresses, he places greater faith in his surgical instruments than in prayer when facing matters of life and death. The one and only time Merivel does speak with any semblance of religious conviction occurs in Restoration when addressing his Quaker fellow-workers at an asylum for the insane, when he advocates on the healing properties of music upon the minds of its inmates.

Digressing slightly, no small mention of Opium occurs in Merivel. First introduced into western medicine by Paracelsus as a pain-killer and anaesthetic, by the seventeenth century Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) the ‘father of English medicine' declared, "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium". Throughout the seventeenth century opium became increasingly used in medicine. Sir Robert when performing a surgical operation on a cancer patient resorts to using the drug. In despondent mood, he also attempts to escape his miseries by repeatedly sending his servant to a Norwich apothecary for its purchase.

Opium is invariably associated with Oblivion in the densely-packed symbolism of Browne's Urn-Burial. A succinct and perceptive observation of its psychological effects in a typical fusion of philosophical stoicism, medical imagery and empirical observation can be found in the Discourse -

'There is no antidote against the Opium of Time, which temporally considereth all things'.

Browne’s commonplace notebooks includes observations upon dosage and effects of opium, while a fuller knowledge of the drug and even its recreational usage with sex can be found in Pseudodoxia Epidemica -

 '.....since Poppy hath obtained the Epithet of fruitful, and that fertility was Hieroglyphically described by Venus with an head of Poppy in her hand; the reason hereof was the multitude of seed within it self, and no such multiplying in human generation. And lastly, whereas they may seem to have this quality, since Opium it self is conceived to extimulate unto venery, and for that intent is sometimes used by Turks, Persians, and most oriental Nations; although Winclerus doth seem to favour the conceit, yet Amatus Lustanus, and Rodericus a Castro are against it; Garcias ab Horto refutes it from experiment; and they speak probably who affirm the intent and effect of eating Opium, is not so much to invigorate themselves in coition, as to prolong the Act, and spin out the motions of carnality'.

Its even been proposed that one reason why Browne’s prose reads unlike any other may have been due to an empirical familiarity with opium. During the decade of the Protectorate of Cromwell and the highly uncertain days which engendered an Endzeit Psychosis upon much of English society, it may have been tempting for Royalist supporters such as Browne to reach into the medicine cabinet.  Its also a curious coincidence that two of the leading figures of English Romanticism, the essayist De Quincey and the poet Coleridge, both of whom were great admirers of Browne’s baroque and labyrinthine literary style were also notorious for their recreational usage of opium.

Sir Thomas Browne’s literary diptych Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus - each of which consists of five chapters, are respectively- a philosophical meditation upon a descending into darkness and death and a coming into light and life. They are intriguingly echoed in theme to the opening chapter of Restoration in which Merivel considers five differing ways his story can be said to begin, while the opening of Merivel-A Man of his Time has Sir Robert meditating upon five differing possibilities of how his life may leave the world.

Like Restoration, the first-person narrative throughout Merivel is fluid and utterly engaging. Rose Tremain has created a character who will be well-loved with a familiarity of his life and times. I won't be alone in discovering myself to identify with Sir Robert's all-too-human faults or having an empathy with him, reinforced in my case by Merivel's birthday falling on the 27th of January, mine also. Merivel muses upon the Zodiac sign of Aquarius thus -

'I was born under the constellation of Aquarius, the eleventh sign of the Zodiac, the sign of the water-butler, that humble but indispensable slave who fetches from wells and rivers the elements so vital to the human tissue. I imagine this Aquarius as an old, stooped man, his spine warped by the weight of a wooden yoke from which hang a pair of briming pails. On he staggers, day after day, year after year, with his precious burden, but as his strength is waning, he totters and stumbles and, as he moves through time, more and more water is spilled, thereby engendering in the bellies of the ancient gods an irritation stronger than thirst'.

I cannot recommend this novel enough, but to get the most out of Merivel its best to read the early life of Sir Robert Merivel in Rose Tremain’s Restoration first.

The novel Restoration was made into a film in 1995 with the one-time Hollywood bad-boy Robert Downey Jr. acting to the Manor born the role of Sir Robert Merivel (top and bottom photo). Rose Tremain however said of the film that while it had a beautiful texture to it she was disappointed with the film's storytelling. She also said that the film had no logic and so fails to move the audience. Her disappointment led her to take up scriptwriting. One can’t help thinking a more sensitive filming of the novel could have been made by a British direction and production, perhaps of the calibre of Merchant and Ivory. Rose Tremain herself has recently been appointed Chancellor of the University of East Anglia. She was among the University's earliest students in the 60's, reading English literature.

Finally, and I may be among the first to notice this - Sir Robert Merivel resides at the fictitiously named Bidnold Manor, he occasionally romps in the bed of a Lady Bathurst and has a bear named Clarendon. Those familiar with the geography of the so-called ‘golden Triangle' area of Norwich will know that near to Bignold school and adjacent to each other there is a Clarendon and a Bathurst road.

See Also

Rose Tremain

Restoration (novel)

Restoration (1995 film)

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