“The Melody in the Heart of the Universe”: Rose Tremain, Music & Silence

I have heard the melody in the heart of the universe and then lost it.

tremainLike Restoration, Rose Tremain’s Music & Silence confounds clichéd expectations about historical fiction. In its own way it has an epic sweep, but there’s nothing of the heroic saga about it. It’s drama under a blanket, a story of kings and queens and true love muffled by darkness and uncertainty. It has the extremity of fairy tales: Kirsten Munk, for instance, consort to King Christian and thus “Almost Queen” of Denmark, is a temperamentally oversized creature of voracious, noisy demands: her first-person portions of the narrative would be wholly comical if they weren’t also so sad, and if she weren’t also so destructive in her relentlessly selfish desires. Kirsten has a near counterpart in Magdalena, the wicked stepmother who forces  the Cinderella-like heroine Emilia out of the family and then, insatiably needy, seduces her step-sons.

In contrast to their hot, vociferous passions, there’s Emilia, quiet, grave, nurturing — and otherworldly, drawn, nearly out of life itself, to her dead mother’s memory. And there’s the beautiful Countess O’Fingal, beautiful, loving, but trapped by her husband’s tragedy, which is like an evil curse disguised as a blessing:

Johnnie O’Fingal had dreamed that he could compose music. In this miraculous reverie, he had gone down to the hall, where resided a pair of virginals . . . and had sat down in front of them and taken up a piece of my father’s cream paper and a newly cut quill. In frantic haste, he had ruled the lines of the treble and bass clef, and begun immediately upon a complicated musical notation, corresponding to sounds and harmonies that flowed effortlessly from his mind onto the page. And when he began to play the music he had written it was a lament of such grace and beauty that he did not think he had ever heard in his life anything to match it.

Urged by his wife to recapture the music of his dreams, he declares prophetically, “what we can achieve in our dreams seldom corresponds to what we are veritably capable of.” He does try, playing “a melody of strange and haunting sweetness,” but goes mad in grief and despair when he is never able to complete it. His desperate quest (and its painfully ironic ending) echoes that of King Christian, who has all the music he desires but is unable to bring order and prosperity to his kingdom, or to find lasting love and comfort for himself.

Yoking their stories together is the figure of Peter Claire, a lutenist so beautiful Christian calls him his angel. It seems as if Peter’s music should be the salvation both other men seek — throughout the novel music is at once the greatest mystery and the greatest joy anyone experiences. Christian tells Peter about a conversation he had with the great musician John Dowland:

He said that man spends days and nights and years of his life asking the question “How may I be brought to the divine?”, yet all musicians instinctively know the answer: they are brought to the divine through their music – for this is its sole purpose. Its sole purpose! What do you say to that, Mr Claire?

But though Peter cherishes the “rich and faultless harmony” he and the rest of King Christian’s orchestra create from their strange subterranean quarters — the King has contrived it so that the sound is carried up into the castle for the pleasure but also mystification of his guests, who cannot detect its source — his own “transcendent state of happiness” comes from his love for Emilia. The novel is in part the story of their romance, fragile, insubstantial, thwarted by Kirsten’s greed and Christian’s need. The interplay of these characters is much more complex than simple antagonism, though: Peter and Emilia are hampered by their kindness and empathy as much as by any external constraints. The price of goodness, in their world, is as likely to be loss as reward.

There are other characters and story-lines in the novel; I found their interweaving equal parts engaging and annoying, as the result is somewhat fragmented but also invites us — as literary juxtapositions always do  — to think about connections and comparisons, themes and variations. It isn’t entirely obvious to me what unifies the different elements. In the end I wonder if it’s primarily a mood or an attitude that we’re supposed to take away from our reading — a sense of what the world might be like rather than a coherent idea about what it is or should be like. The atmosphere of the book is slightly surreal, and the tone walks a fine line between being poetic and being portentous, or even pretentious. Tremain’s language falls into rhythmic cadences that shift us from the prosaic to the visionary:

Now, Emilia lies in her old bed in her old room and listens to the old familiar crying of the wind.

By her bed is the clock she found in the forest, with time stopped at ten minutes past seven.

She does not know why Magdalena was locked in the attic.

She does not know why Ingmar was sent to Copenhagen.

She cannot predict what world Marcus will enter now.

What she does know is that time itself has performed a loop and returned her to the one place she thought she had left for ever. It has stopped here and will not let her go. . . . She will grow old in the house of her childhood, without her mother, without her father’s love. She will die here and one of her brothers will bury her in the shadow of the church, and the strawberry plants, which creep further and wider each year, gobbling up the land, even to the church door, will one day cover everything that remains of her, including her name, Emilia.

 I wouldn’t want to read a lot of books written this way, or any at all written this way without the other qualities Tremain brings to it: intensely tactile historical specificity, for one thing, and an unswerving commitment to the flawed humanity of even her most grotesque characters. If Music & Silence is a fairy tale in style, I think it is, paradoxically, still a realist novel in spirit. If it has a message for us about music and silence, also, it is not that they are opposites but that (like imagination and reality) they are somehow inextricably linked, two aspects of the same attempt to express something important about life. This is something the characters are always experiencing, one way or another — that the actual sounds they can make do not quite convey the ideas and feelings they have, that their longings and loves and fears and hatreds shape their lives but are hard to give shape to in sound:

As they part, both men reflect on all that might have been said in this recent conversation and yet was not said; and this knowledge of what so often exists in the silences between words both haunts them and makes them marvel at the teasing complexity of all human discourse.

Rose Tremain, Restoration


I really enjoyed Rose Tremain’s Restoration, which an excellent friend promptly posted to me when I needed a bit of cheering up. (Everyone should have a friend like that!) Not that Restoration is very cheerful, but a good novel is always a tonic, isn’t it? And Restoration is awfully good. Like Wolf Hall, it’s a historical novel that is less about history than about character — which is not to say that these aren’t books steeped in research and full of marvelously tactile historical details, but that the detail never seems decorative (or pedantic) because it is so integral to the lives into which we enter. In both novels, also, those lives are not just individual characters but embody the character of their age.

Restoration‘s structuring idea is right there in its title, which is both the familiar name of the era during which the novel is set (the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II) and the encapsulated story of its protagonist, Robert Merivel. Merivel’s personal flourishing, fall, and reinvention represent (on Tremain’s telling) the larger struggles of an age marked by both gaudy materialism and earnest moral striving (embodied in Restoration by Merivel’s Quaker friend Pearce). The vacuousness of a life with no aim but luxury, and with no occupation but idle amateurism, brings Merivel little substantial happiness — and no reconciliation between his literal heart and his true heart, a dichotomy literalized for us early on when, as a student, Merivel has the opportunity to hold a living heart in his hand:

My hand entered the cavity. I opened my fingers and, with the same care I had applied, as a boy, to the stealing of eggs from birds’ nests, took hold of the heart, Still, the man showed no sign of pain. Fractionally, I tightened my grip. The beat remained strong and regular. I was about to withdraw my hand when the stranger said: ‘Are you touching the organ, Sir?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘don’t you feel the pressure of my fingers?’

‘No. I feel nothing at all.’ . . .

Ergo, the organ we call the human heart and which is defined, in our human consciousness, as the seat – or even deified as the throne – of all powerful emotion, from unbearable sorrow to ecstatic love, is in itself utterly without feeling.

A selfish lout — a buffoon, even — for most of the early action of the novel, Merivel is brought low only to be restored — not to riches but to human dignity.

It’s not a euphoric redemption story, however, but something more difficult and uneasy: Merivel’s progress is halting, his character imperfect, his actions often despicable. Merivel says it best himself: “I am erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad.”


His account of his own life hides none of these unattractive characteristics: aptly for the period, it’s a ‘warts and all‘ portrait. Tremain neatly incorporates this theme into the novel itself through the painter Finn, who begins by training Merivel in artistic idealization and ends a successful painter of “merchants, barristers, schoolmasters, drapers, cabinet-makers, clerks.” Finn’s new method is actually Merivel’s idea: “do not paint me as a rich man, dressed up in satin or with a sea battle going on behind my head; paint me as I am, in my old wig and in my shirtsleeves and in this simple room.” This idea, which “had only that second entered [his] mind,” is a sign of how far Merivel has come from his earlier ostentatious luxury and preening self-indulgence.

Merivel’s medical training is his one truly useful skill. He tries to dissociate himself from it because it interferes with his pleasures – on his wedding night, for instance (a vexed occasion anyway, as his new wife is the king’s mistress and the marriage designed to be a sham) he is overcome with horror during a musical performance:

I stare at Sir Joshua’s face, looking down towards his viola, and, layer by layer, in my anatomist’s sadness, I peel back skin and muscle and nerve and tendons, until I can see only the white bone of his skull, the empty sockets of the eyes . . .

All my anatomical studies seem to have brought me to a great sadness. When a man plays a viola da gamba, I want to share in his joy, not see his skull. For where will such visions end? . . . Such a perpetual and visible awareness of mortality would, I am certain, bring me to despair in a very short time. . . .

I must avoid, then, coming to despair and madness. I must try to forget anatomy. Forget it utterly.

But though he doesn’t understand this for some time, it’s precisely this attempt to forget what is real that sends Merivel close to madness and despair: close in both senses, as he ends up, at his lowest ebb, assisting Pearce and a group of other Friends at a hospital for the insane, and also ends up himself on the verge of what might be madness — seeing things and hearing sounds that aren’t really there, lost in “a colossal epidemic of dreaming.”

Tremain is too wise to make medicine a simple cure for Merivel: he does not, for instance, discover a miraculous cure for the plague and rise up heroically sure in his vocation — instead he ends up peddling what he himself considers a quack remedy for it. He doesn’t save anybody with a brilliant surgery — instead, he sits by largely helpless while two people very close to him die. There’s no inspirational turning point or epiphany. But his experiences strip away the pretense in his life as surely as they strip away his excess body fat:

I had grown most peculiarly thin. The waist of the breeches was too large for me by more than two inches, so that the wretched things would not stay up, and, when I put the coat on my back, it hung out from my body like a cape. . . .

For the whole of my life I had never been thin. . . . Now, all the flesh was falling away and every bone in me being slowly unsheathed and made visible.

“I began,” he concludes, “to consider the possibility that I was dying.” This moment seems to me to bring us back to his horror at the viola player’s skull: in acknowledging his own mortality, Merivel is finally ready to begin living a life in which his body and his spirit work together. And so he returns to the home he once prized (and over-decorated) so greedily and is given a chance to start again.