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The Book Prize Blog: Merivel A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain

23 Oct, 2012

In the second of our 2012 Wellcome Trust Book Prize posts, Nancy Wilkinson reads Rose Tremain’s Merivel: A Man of his Time. A sequel to Tremain’s previous hit Restoration, physician, father and friend to the King, Sir Robert Merivel tells us of his romp through life in the 17th century. 

 Turning the first pages of the book, I found the main character himself doing the same. Doctor Sir Robert Merivel describes his astonishment at the peculiar package presented to him by his manservant, something that had been under Merivel’s mattress for 16 years. It is his old journal, ‘The Wedge’, and thus he looks back on the events of Restoration, bringing him to the conclusion that for his 56 years of life, he has little to show.

Since we last met Sir Robert Merivel in Restoration, 16 years have passed, which makes it ‘the Ninth day of November 1683’. The Merivel of A Man of His Time is a more contemplative soul, now with a grown up daughter and more time on his hands. Although he remains a close friend of the King, and a noted physician, he is still disappointed with ‘The Wedge’, so he sets off to Versailles to pursue a new chapter of his life. And while his guilt at neglecting his patients occasionally takes him back home, he has a busy couple of years in Paris, Switzerland and London, and even acquires a pet bear.

Although Rose Tremain is known as a historical writer, there are definite links between today and her characters’ lives over 300 years ago. The backdrop of anguish for the most vulnerable, and for Merivel himself, relates to austerity Britain, and his feelings towards his daughter’s coming of age certainly still ring true.

What struck me was that as a reader you are immediately transported into the mind of this man, and completely succumb to his thoughts and feelings. Not for one moment did the language or topic feel old fashioned, partly due to the comedic style Tremain gives Merivel’s thoughts.

‘…because all [the patient’s] thoughts turned, day by day, upon the making of a good stool to relieve the pain in his bowel, his wool business was neglected.’

Merivel’s journey details every aspect of his life, but always coming back to his relationship with medicine. Tremain transports us to a time where there was little certainty over medical practice; the soul and religion still playing an immense role. However, she details some mysteries that remain unsolved today. On the nature of cancer, Merivel describes how “… strange and terrible it was that the body, in its darkness and secrecy, produces Additions that can bring it to the grave.” The accurate depiction of many ailments, some still present in the modern world, is fascinating, and the descriptive style is present through all aspects of the novel (in particular during some of Merivel’s more unusual sexual encounters).

The book leaves you with a real sense of the period and the characters. The intensity of Merivel’s feelings towards the King, the haphazard medical practices and the complex relationships between friends, family and lovers paint a colourful picture of life in the 17th Century. And with the story told through the eyes of a loveable rogue, it’s difficult not to feel part of it.

Below is a short film featuring an extract from the novel. It was produced by the Wellcome Trust as part of a series of shorts about the shortlisted titles. To view the full playlist visit the Wellcome Trust YouTube channel.

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