About The Author
Rose Tremain was born and raised in London, later graduating from the Sorbonne. She also studied at the University of East Anglia, where she was later to teach their world-famous MA in Creative Writing for seven years. She is married to award-winning biographer Richard Holmes.
She has published thirteen novels, the first of them Sadler's Birthday in 1976, as well as four collections of short stories and a book for children.
She is best known as a historical novelist and her most famous work is undoubtedly Restoration, which was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize. The story of Robert Merivel, a physician in the court of King Charles II, was adapted into a double Oscar-winning film starring Robert Downey Jr in 1995.
Sacred Country won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1992 and also went on to win France's prestigious Prix Femina Étranger.
1999's Music and Silence won the Whitbread Novel of the Year and went on to be crowned the overall Whitbread Book of the Year. She reached the shortlist again in 2007 for The Road Home, which explored immigrant life in contemporary London. The book did, however, go on to win the 2008 Orange Prize four years after her first appearance on that award's shortlist, for The Colour.
Tremain has also written for radio and has twice served on the jury of the Booker Prize, in 1988 and 2000.
Her latest novel is Merivel, which continues the story of Robert Merivel from Restoration (although one need not have read the first book to fully enjoy it). With the glamour of the Restoration now past, Merivel attempts to find favour at the Palace of Versailles.
On his return, he finds his loyalty and medical skills put to the test. The knowledge gained from a seductive Swiss botanist while abroad proves invaluable, although the decision to return with a dancing bear seems more questionable.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Rose talks about Robert Merivel's conflicted nature, his loyalty to the king in the face of constant mistreatment and parallels between the 1680s and today.
Author photograph © Ellen Warner
Questions & Answers
The subtitle of your book is 'A Man of his Time', but with all his anxieties, contradictions and search for meaning in life, isn't Merivel very much also a contemporary figure?
I had in mind some play on the word 'time'. Merivel's destiny is defined by the age (or 'time') that he lives in, primarily because of his emotional ties to King Charles II. He is also conscious that his own lifespan is running out, so he is constrained by time. And yes, I wanted readers to recognise themselves and our own time in him and in the dilemmas he faces. You could say that I had Everyman ambitions for him.
He is very loyal, in many cases with apparent good reason, for example, in the case of his friend Pearce, but why does Merivel remain so attached to the king despite how the king treats him?
He comments that, in common with many other of the King's subjects, he suffered from 'an old Disease and that was the Disease of loving the King'. The ghost of Pearce, no less than the observations of Cattlebury, his anarchic cook, encourage him to cast off that attachment, but his nature and habit of affection are such that he's not able to do it.
Merivel is a man in conflict with himself - he despises his neighbour for relishing the prospect of a hanging but at other times is capable of quite bestial behaviour himself. What are the challenges of writing such a conflicted character and getting the balance just right for the reader between credibility, sympathy and interest?
These were greater in Restoration than in Merivel because by the time I came to write Merivel, I knew virtually everything there is to know about this character. He has always been a walking conflict, a teasing amalgam of self-indulgence and selflessness. And I think this is why he strikes such a chord with readers: they see the best and the worst of themselves in him.
What makes Merivel unable to commit to Louise de Flamanville, who seems to have everything to offer? In other ways he seems quite happy to take the path of least resistance.
At first, Merivel wonders whether he hasn't found love with Louise de Flamanville, but he gradually understands that too much will be asked of him, both sexually and intellectually if he marries Louise. He is tiring in his life. But he also sees a terrible echo of his first marriage ( to the King's mistress, Celia in Restoration) where he was given money and possessions in return for his pledge. That his should happen to him twice makes him feel very uneasy.
There is evidence of a shocking lack of what we would call civilised behaviour, notably the scene in the coach, but has society really moved on or do we just cover our bestiality better?
The reign of Charles II, in contrast to the Interregnum that had preceded it, was an age characterised by excess of all kinds. Merivel has the appetites of his time. But I think we recognise our own celebrity-obsessed, bling-tainted world in this 17th Century one. Our bestiality is not that well covered.
You paint a very compelling portrait of life at Versailles for the petitioners. Were conditions really as grim as you describe, and did anyone ever actually achieve advancement that way or did it just become a way of life in itself?
I think it was a terrible way of life. No doubt a few people got the appointments they desired, but the will of the Sun King - even when you were able to approach him - was very capricious. He believed himself to be a god, and so acted like one.
Merivel is fascinated by the question of whether animals have souls although his enquiries are also driven by a desire to gain approval from, among others, the King and Pearce. Was this one of the day's 'hot topics' or simply his way of trying to escape the 'Terror of finding that life no longer has any meaning'?
Not a hot topic, so far as I know. But with the establishment of the Royal Society in 1661 King Charles encouraged work on the natural sciences and Merivel truly believes he might be able to make a contribution here. Because he's so acutely aware of his own 'animal nature' he feels his subject to be perfectly chosen.
The earlier part of Merivel's life is covered in Restoration, though this is very much a standalone book. Did you know at that time that you would be revisiting him? Has the process of writing this second novel made you see parts of the earlier one in a different light?
I didn't know it at the time of writing Restoration that there might be a second book. But over the last ten years, the temptation to revisit Merivel has kept returning to me. He is very good company! And now - when we're in an era with some of the same difficulties as the 1680s (the widening gap between rich and poor, the people's anxieties about historical change occurring in England) - seemed a very goodtime to embark on it.