Writing a sequel to a novel as loved as Rose Tremain's Restoration is a precarious endeavour. It risks both critical mauling and readers' wrath. Yet a quarter of century after the first book, Tremain has taken the challenge and met it. With Merivel: A Man of His Time she has created an unadulterated delight. It's every bit the 17th-century romp that its predecessor was; rambunctious, funny and tender, with perhaps the added quality of age-worn wisdom – both of its author and protagonist – to add to all the cavorting misadventure.
Robert Merivel is one of those literary heroes, like Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, who wins one over by dint of his sheer good will, momentum and fecklessness. In Restoration he went from being a young medical student to an accidental vet to the kennels of King Charles II, from royal confidant to cuckolded husband, all the while roistering around the corridors of power like a jester on heat.
The new novel begins 15 years later. It's 1683, and he is now Sir Robert Merivel, a 56-year-old noble physician. Life has calmed down for the old rogue. Settled into Bidnold Manor, the Norfolk estate gifted to him by the King, and tending to a circuit of undemanding patients, he fortifies himself with wine, feasts on game old birds (of both varieties) and busies himself with the care of his cherished daughter Margaret.
Skimming through his memoirs from his wild years, he acknowledges that he was "driven from place to place like a hungry dog. It was a time of marvels and glories, crammed with sorrows. And now, to read my own words and see this Life again unfold before me, brought to my heart an almost unbearable overload of Feeling." The novel's authentic and amusing use of uppercasing certain nouns is particularly pertinent here: Merivel is big on Feeling, just as he is big on Blubbing and very big on Lust.
When Margaret departs for a season in Cornwall, Merivel attempts to stave off depression by calling in a favour from the King. He obtains an introduction to the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. What follows is his Jeremy Clarkson phase, in which he takes his mid-life paunch and rocks up at the famed hall of mirrors, bedecked in the latest Bourbon fashions and a look of gone-to-seed awkwardness. Although his attempts at an audience with the Sun King are dismissed, he gains the affections of Madame de Flamanville, the erotically charged wife of a gay Colonel in the Swiss Guards.
The question posed by the book is whether Merivel can wise up and embrace life after burning the wick so long and so low. The problem is that his struggle is not with his position, shaped as it is by regal whim and fluctuating fortune, but with his own character. And it is this universal struggle that makes him such a recognizable and likeable figure. "I could feel rising in me a mood of immoderate frustration and anger such as I suffered so frequently in my Former Life, " he says, "and I knew that I had to force myself to contain it, or lose all possibility of obtaining the thing I wanted above all others". He's hoist by his own petard more times than an errant engineer.
The fetid and florid details of the era are conjured up with unflinching expertise. Tremain has a cook's stomach for a banquet and meals abound, sticky and steaming, with a gluttonous array of chines of beef and rum syllabub, goblets of mead and sack. Merivel's surgical procedures and sexual mischief bring a wince and a gag: typhoid and cancer are witnessed in all their raw, hopeless despair, but a gangbang in a horse-drawn carriage is perhaps worse to endure. Likewise, the absurdities of court life and the gaping social divides, riven with cruel inequalities, are presented with empathy.
Tremain recently declared her annoyance at being labeled a "historical novelist". She has a good point. There is something demeaning about the term, implying that a writer has withdrawn from contemporary comment and that the present is intrinsically more important than time gone by. It's an extension of the modern obsession with immediacy. There is also a rather sniffy hierarchy as to who gets tarred with this feather. Atonement, On Chesil Beach and Sweet Tooth are all period pieces (set in the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s, respectively) but who calls Ian McEwan a historical novelist?
This exceptional novel illustrates that it is the standard of a storyteller's art, their vision into the human condition and deft textual delivery, which is significant, not the century in which a tale rests. Tremain is a writer at the height of her powers and she appears to be having a riot of a time with an old friend here, a party to which all those turning these pages are invited.