Studying to be a physician, Robert Merivel wins the favour of King Charles II when he accidentally cures one of the King’s spaniels. Merivel is employed at court as a veterinarian; but with his flamboyant behavior, rambunctious appetite and habit of spilling food all over himself, he ends up playing the part of court fool more naturally than anything else. Merivel loves his King, but Charles marries him off to one of his mistresses (that he might continue to see her without incurring the jealousy of his other mistress), and sends Merivel to live at Bidnold, a large estate in Norfolk. Merivel is told explicitly not to ever touch her or feel for her any more than as a friend – though of course he cannot help but fall in love with her, causing the King to scorn him and cast him out from court; losing his house and of course his wife too.
With nowhere else to go Merivel travels to Whittlesea to see his old friend Pearce, who is a Quaker working at a small mental asylum. Merivel joins the Quakers in their work and for a time, fits in there and feels as though maybe he has found where he belongs. Unfortunately Merivel breaks their rules too, and is once again cast out back to London where the Great Plague has begun.
I love stories in which people’s lives undergo many transformations, and this is such a story. Robert Merivel goes from court fool to Lord of his manor to penniless Quaker warden to physician and father, and Tremain explores his internal journey with as much finesse, focus and sensitivity as she does his external. I’m not usually a reader of historical fiction, but Tremain’s 17th Century England was a joy to discover, especially through the eyes of such a gaudy, ostentatious character as Robert Merivel, who one cannot help but find endearing. Tremain has perfected the difficult art of writing an historical novel that is totally relatable to a reader today. Merivel is a materialist, and we are definitely still living in a material world. When he comes to Whittlesea and sees the contrast of the peace and meager living of the Quakers, Merviel begins to realise an internal struggle between his selfish impulses and his conscience, and his desire to be good and do good things for others. In rich and diverse settings, Tremain highlights for us our own struggles and flaws, but shows us that restoration to joy is possible, too.