I have always been fascinated by the 17th century. I suppose initially I was entranced by the glamour of the Civil War (I remember as a child reading books like The Children of the New Forest), but later it was the complex politics of Charles I’s reign, or the social and scientific changes of Charles II’s reign that drew me in. Now I have, by coincidence I suppose, read two novels set in that turbulent century, two novels whose periods almost overlap, but whose pictures of the time could not be more different.
John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk is the earlier of the two. Set in the West Country, it takes us from the 1630s until just after the Restoration in 1660, though there is a postscript in the early 1670s and a final brief passage dated 1680. Merivel, A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain is a sequel to her earlier novel, Restoration. It is set primarily in Norfolk, and all occurs within the last year or so of Charles II’s life, 1684-5. Both centre on the estate of a titled man, but we see those estates from very different perspectives and therefore the estates themselves seem different.
At the heart of John Saturnall’s Feast is Buckland Manor, ancestral home of Sir William Freemantle. Although Freemantle is never seen to spend time at Court, he is clearly a man of consequence, since Charles I and his entourage visit on one notable occasion. But although we occasionally look through the eyes of Freemantle’s daughter, Lady Lucretia, our main point of view is that of John Sandall, who calls himself John Saturnall, an orphaned boy taken on to work in the kitchens of Buckland Manor and who rises to become the Master Cook. Our perspective, therefore, is very much from the bottom up, we see the frantic paddling below the surface rather than the stately glide. It is a place of maze-like kitchens where huge numbers of people are all rushing about in order to fulfil their ordained role, while beyond them we glimpse equally vast armies of people intent on maintaining the house and the estates. The Manor, therefore, at least as we initially come to know it, is a place of crowds and bustle, of noise and smells, of endless repetitious labour and discomfort, of rigid hierarchies.
In contrast, Bignold Manor, the Norfolk estate of Sir Robert Merivel, is seen exclusively from the top down. The story, except for a very brief finale, is the first person narrative of Merivel himself. In Restoration we saw how Merivel, a doctor of some skill and a man of cheerful temperament who has the ability of endear himself to those around him, received Bignold as a gift from Charles II. This was for services rendered, those services being mainly allowing himself to be cuckolded by the king; but of course he then displeased the king, had the estate confiscated, and went through all sorts of misadventures before the Manor was restored to him (although the novel is set immediately after Charles II’s return from exile, with splendid set pieces including the Great Plague and the Fire of London, but the Restoration of the title is Merivel’s restoration to his beloved Bignold). But now, twenty years later, the house seems deserted. We encounter Merivel in his library or in any of a number of other splendid chambers, mostly described in terms of whether Charles would or would not like the colour scheme, but apart from his faithful aged retainer, Will, and occasional glimpses of an obstreperous chef, we see nothing of the staff required to keep the place running. Because, of course, Merivel does not see them. When Charles himself comes to visit, we see no great entourage just a couple of retainers who immediately disappear from the scene.
There would be, I suspect, very little to differentiate Buckland Manor from Bignold Manor, but they appear as immeasureably different places because of how we see them.
Merivel is a very modern man, or at least Tremain allows our modern eyes to comprehend and share what he sees. His medicine is of the time (as we saw during the plague), but he is still modern in comparison to other doctors of his day. Two of the most powerful passages in the book come when he has to treat his daughter for typhus, and when he has to cut out a cancer from a former lover (the daughter survives, the lover doesn’t); and there is a very affecting scene when he has to stand by helpless as he watches lesser doctors treat the dying Charles II by bloodletting so incompetent that they resort to cutting his jugular to get blood out. What we get, therefore, is a character who is in his time but not fully of it, so that as we float behind his eyes we get to witness the 17th century without quite inhabiting it. This is particularly true when he witnesses poverty. In the earlier novel he suffered genuine hardship after being ousted from Bignold, working for a time in a hospital for the insane run by a Quaker friend. With that history, he is far more conscious of poverty than a gentleman of his class and time would likely have been, all too aware that Charles scattering coins during an unlikely visit to an apothecary is going to make no real difference. This is a modern, not a contemporary, sensibility speaking. But then, Tremain’s novel is a comic picaresque that turns steadily into a tragedy; it is the lightness of Merivel’s character and the web of circumstance that enwraps him that is important, far more than the absolute veracity of the setting.
In contrast, John Saturnall is fully of his time. Our encounters with poverty, for example, are constant, brutal and unsentimental. People starve, people freeze, the workhouse engenders dread but a child with no other alternative will be sent there without a second thought. Poverty is not something encountered intermittently, something over which you might worry whether a few coins will help; poverty is constant, painful, and no-one has coins to worry about. Moreover, poverty is not something to be encountered in isolation. The boys who work in the kitchen at Buckland Manor sleep on the floor where they work, and labour from the moment they wake until they collapse in exhaustion at the end of the day. There is violence, to which the only response is more violence. There is all the religious extremism of the age, which mostly plays out a way to righteously and piously exert power over others. And, of course, there is hierarchy, played out in countless different ways throughout the novel. All of which is presented without question, without the moral qualms that are a symptom of a modern view.
But then, John Saturnall’s Feast is neither comic nor picaresque, nor is it a tragedy. Indeed, it is a novel that ends on a note of hope. It is, rather, a novel that attempts to come to terms with the simple reality of survival at that time.
Except that where Merivel is a novel of the 17th century that looks forward, a novel that allows our 21st century readers to see themselves in the reign of Charles II; John Saturnall’s Feast is a novel that looks backwards from the 17th century. It is a story in which central relationships are shaped by issues that stretch back as far as Roman times, and in which the circumstances within Buckland Manor seem almost medieval. In part, this feels wrong, it turns the book from a novel into an exercise in myth-making; but then, there’s also the sense that looking backwards is all that is possible. Characters truly of the 17th century could not display 21st century sensibilities, but they could all too easily display medieval sensibilities.
The end result is that Merivel is an entertaining novel, but John Saturnall’s Feast feels richer and darker.