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Part 2: Contemporary Forms of Satire

Satire Revised in Light of Thatcherism in Rose Tremain’s Restoration

La satire revue et corrigée à la lumière du Thatchérisme dans Restoration de Rose Tremain
Emilie Walezak


Vingt ans après la publication de son roman Restoration, Rose Tremain revient, dans une préface de 2009, sur le choix de la période qu’elle a conçue comme un miroir des années Thatcher. Avec la Restauration, Tremain se réapproprie les traditions littéraires de la comédie de l’époque et de la satire pour dresser le portrait de son truculent narrateur, le royaliste Merivel. Etudiant en anatomie devenu courtisan et mari cocufié de la maîtresse du roi, Merivel incarne à la fois le stéréotype du « fop » de la comédie de la Restauration et l’alazon satirique. Représentant de la tradition littéraire britannique, Merivel est un homme de son temps tandis que sa carrière avortée et ses nombreux vices reflètent les idéaux et travers thatchéristes. Son énonciation naïve traduisant sa dévotion aveugle envers Charles II met également en lumière, pour le lecteur contemporain, la crise de l’autorité dont Thatcher reste l’emblème. Ainsi, le roman combine le conservatisme du genre satirique et le soupçon postmoderne envers les figures d’autorité, posant la question de l’intention comique.

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  • 1 See Mick Brown.
  • 2 See Slavoj Žižek 1997.

1Restoration, published in 1989, was a turning point in Rose Tremain’s career as it was short-listed for the Booker Prise and won the Sunday Express Book of the Year. The exposure provided by the Booker enabled Tremain to rise to bestselling status with the book sold in twenty five countries. Although she had already written five novels, Restoration was her first historical fiction. The critical and public acclaim of the book has meant that she has since been identified primarily as a historical novelist, a fact she has repeatedly deplored.1 She disputes in particular the alleged escapism of the genre and insists that she aims at confronting contemporary issues even in her historical novels: ‘I’ve resisted the term “historical novelist” because it implies a shallow kind of fiction, in which the reader can escape completely any obligation to think about the modern world. I believe/hope that, although (some of) my fictions transport the reader to a different time, the human dilemmas we face today are present in the story’ (Dedukhina). Thus, although Restoration, a first-person narrative set at the court of Charles II, has been rightfully celebrated by David Lodge as a ‘virtuoso feat of writing’ (Lodge, 10) for its foray into history, it is also ‘a serious story […] about a man who trades honour for material reward’ (Tremain, Guardian 2012). Tremain further explained, in the 2009 preface to the novel, how she meant the choice of the Restoration period as an oblique criticism of Thatcherism: ‘Restoration, written over twenty years ago in 1988, was my fictional response to the climate of selfishness and material greed that began to prevail in our society during the Thatcher years, from which we have never recovered and for which we are now beginning to pay a terrifying price’ (Tremain, 2009, xi). The title of the novel itself echoes ambiguously invoking both the reinstatement of the King’s power and the shadow threat of his deposition, which cannot but evoke the contemporary leadership crisis embodied by Thatcher and her attempt at restoring state authority. The blind devotion of Merivel, the first-person royalist narrator, reflects both the period’s loyalty to monarchy and the postmodern demise of symbolic authority.2 His candid enunciation marks him as a satirical alazon, the bragging buffoon whose gullible utterance induces mockery while his sartorial extravagance and his indecorous behaviour at court characterise him as the fop from Restoration comedy. The novel makes use of the period’s central preoccupation with ridicule manifest in the two dominant genres: the theatrical representation of the court’s codes and rules (as evidenced in the choice of locations like Whitehall and the King’s gardens and tennis playground) and its semblances and the satirical purpose of disclosing impostures. At the same time, the characterisation of Merivel along the lines of the seventeenth-century British literary tradition also serves a postmodern interrogation of subjectivity: ‘Tremain’s Robert Merivel is a similarly marginal figure, de-masculinised by his position as a buffoon at court. Like Winterson’s Henri, he is traumatised and fragmented by his powerless position within history’ (Wallace, 196). The choice of the period serves a double purpose of paying homage to the British literary tradition of the time, the golden age of satire, and using the genre’s vindictive intent to comment on contemporary times.

Merivel: A Man of His Time

2Merivel is a representative of the seventeenth century, ‘a man of his time’ as the title of the 2012 sequel reads. The main inspiration for the character were the diaries of Samuel Pepys. The work of the diarist provided Tremain with historical material for her narrative, including the core subject of the novel with Pepys describing Charles II’s routine of finding husbands for his mistresses to conceal his affairs while offering them titles and lands as a compensation. Merivel’s story is that of a student of anatomy turned professional cuckold through marriage to the King’s favourite, Celia, in exchange for his Bidnold manor and his status as Sir Robert. Choosing material comfort over his vocation, Merivel’s path hints at the pervading atmosphere of greed of the 1980s. His social advancement also reads as a mockery of the social mobility advocated by Thatcher. Indeed, he enters the King’s entourage by betraying his medical vocation when asked to cure the King’s favourite dog, Lou-Lou, which he achieves through neglect, by sleeping through the night in an inebriated state to find the dog recovered come morning. Merivel then becomes the King’s pet and is himself compared to a dog (78). His social upgrading is thus achieved through willing self-abasement and he then indulges in the parasitic life of an idle courtier. If Pepys with his ‘self-mockery and touching honesty about his worldly strivings’ (Tremain 2013) served as a historical reference for the characterisation of Merivel, his comic demeaning self-portrait as an ugly, greedy and vain courtier combined with the recurrent jocular animal comparisons clearly affiliate him with the satirical tradition which aims at disclosing the imposture of the parvenu figure. He is one of ‘the alazons [who] behave in a distorted way because they are incompetent impostors who pretend, out of folly or knavery, to be other than they are’ (Eden 589). The first lines of the novel forewarn the reader about the ‘Paper Bridegroom’ (30) anticipating the ludicrousness of his marriage to the pretty mistress of the king:

I am an affront to neatness. My hair (what is left of it) is the colour of sand and wiry as hog’s bristles; my ears are of uneven size; my forehead is plattered with freckles; my nose, which of course my wig can’t conceal, however low I wear it, is unceremoniously flat, as if I had been hit at birth. (3)

  • 3 See Duval and Martinez 190–211.

3He is both the fop from Restoration comedy whose sartorial antics delight the reader and the facetious fool targeted by satire whom the reader enjoys laughing at. Every time Merivel endeavours to dress the part, his attempts turn to ridicule and reveal the clumsy deception of the upstart. The stereotypical idle nobleman, he tries to occupy his days by learning to paint and has a costume designed especially with ‘a floppy hat in the manner of the great Rembrandt and a hessian smock’ but ‘I admit, I looked more like a swine feeder than a Renaissance man’ (38). After reading about Russia, he decides to have fur tabards made from badger pelts for the whole household, making him a close relation to Sir Fopling Flutter who claimed, in Etherege’s The Man of Mode, ‘my clothes are my creatures’ (Etherege, Act IV, scene 1, line 285, 99). He is so delighted with his idea that he imagines himself actually becoming a badger (126), parades in his coat and is silly enough to make a gift of it to the King, thereby demonstrating his inaptitude. When the Plague hits London, he puts on the Plague-doctor costume through which he is revealed as a knave, as he has appropriated the remedy invented by his dead Quaker friend, Pearce: ‘I did not even look like a man but like a duck, and I thought how fitting this was, for in peddling Pearce’s prophylactic, the efficacy of which had never been proven, I was about to become no better than a quack’ (329). These examples offer prime instances of the workings of satirical metaphors which aim at debasing, reducing Merivel to his animality and disclosing his imposture.3

4His conversationalist tone and his status as an endearing fool whom the reader looks upon with benevolence and amusement further connect him to the Horatian satirical tradition theorised at the time by Dryden who distinguished folly and foolery as the typical target of Horace as opposed to the vices attacked by Juvenal: ‘Folly was the proper Quarry of Horace, and not Vice: And, as there are but few Notoriously Wicked Men, in comparison with a Shoal of Fools, and Fops’ (Dryden xxxvii). While Juvenalian satire aims at chastisement, Horatian satire assumes a corrective purpose on which Dryden insists by repeatedly comparing Horace’s writing to a cure. Accordingly the novel, whose protagonist is a failed physician, is structured around the repeated lapses in his career and the failure of the various remedies forced on him by the other characters to cure him of his folly. The King exiles him from Bidnold after Merivel breaks the rule of their contract and foolishly falls in love with Celia. Merivel needs to be cured of his idleness and his foolish pretentions by becoming useful again to society. By having him work at the Quaker asylum, his friend Pearce hopes to cure Merivel of his unreasonable fascination with the King and the court. But Merivel escapes with one of the patients to become a quack. The anti-hero by excellence, Merivel freely confesses to his failings and weaknesses, arousing the sympathy of the reader, and repeatedly promises to amend himself while invariably succumbing to debauchery. Interestingly enough, Tremain originally planned for her character to reform himself through retrieval of his medical vocation, in accordance with the Horatian purpose:

But what I initially envisaged in my plan for the novel’s development was that Merivel, guided by his Quaker friend, Pearce, would, by the end of the book, find the strength to free himself from his obsession with the King and the luxurious world that entraps him and return to his first vocation, medicine, without ever pining for the glitzy life that he’s lost. He would, in fact, be ‘restored’ to his former self. (Tremain 2009, xii–xiii)

5The novel makes use of the conventional satirical tropes of medicine and anatomy which traditionally serve as metaphors for the satirical purpose: the dissection of the social body and the body politic is meant to provide cures for their diseases. It is the purpose, for instance, of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to which the novel alludes. A student of anatomy afflicted with bouts of melancholy who turns to fashion and decoration to avoid the depressive contemplation of mortality engendered by his medical knowledge, Merivel recalls Democritus Junior who writes ‘of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy’ (Burton 16).

  • 4 On the enthronement/dethronement process characteristic of carnivalesque literature, see Bakhtin 18 (...)

6However the narrative displays a typically postmodern metafictionality that posits Merivel as the anatomist of his own self. Thus his Bidnold manor with its many-coloured rooms and extravagant furniture ‘is Merivel anatomised’ (196). The many costumes he dons are also meant to reflect the instability of his identity. He is in turn Sir Robert at Bidnold, fool Merivel at court, plain Robert at the Quaker asylum where he goes to work after losing the King’s favour, and a melancholy self he calls Fogg. The fragmentation of his identity is furthered by a number of twin figures, including the King, whom Merivel tries to emulate dreaming the carnivalesque fool’s dream of toppling the King,4 his Quaker friend Pearce with his similar pedantic tone and doctrinaire pronouncements, and mad Katharine whom he meets at the asylum and marries, whose madness is the dark correlate of his own folly. Such fragmentation is present from the start of the novel where Merivel provides five possible beginnings for his story, thus affirming a postmodern metafictional distrust of metanarratives and the relativity of truth. While the narrative displays a score of twin figures, it lacks the traditional oppositional figure found in classic satire. Merivel is an alazon without an eiron, a humourist without a man of humour. Thus the postmodern split subject modifies the archetypal Horatian fool as Merivel himself becomes the detractor of his own credibility as a narrator. Throughout the novel, he repeatedly warns the reader about his appetite for foolery: ‘I am a glutton for foolishness’ (23) and his many vices, among which his unreliability: ‘I am boiling with lust, immoderate in my consumption of wine, irreverent in my speech and a self-deceiver’ (61). Torn between his melancholy self and his fool persona, Merivel emblematises a postmodern concern with troubled identity born of waning authority: ‘Merivel is neither coherent nor continuous. […] His identity fluctuates according to the recognition of the King’ (Wallace 197). The metafictional comments on his volatility as a narrator, of which his blind devotion to the King is a prime instance, combined with the intertextual references to the seventeenth-century satirical tradition make of the novel an example

of what Brian McHale calls ‘the creative anachronism,’ since the psychology of the characters (identity crisis reinforced by role-play and the double perspective created by various assumptions of debatable mental states, as well as the contemporary-minded, self-aware narrative voices) is problematised at the interface between the present of the novel’s writing and the historical ages where the action is situated. (Draga-Alexandru 127)

A man of his time, Merivel also turns out to be an embodiment of the 1980s.

A Double Historical Novel: Restoration and the Thatcher Years

7It is Tremain’s claim that Restoration has become ‘a historical novel twice over’ (Brown) with its first-person narrator standing for both a literary archetype of the seventeenth-century and a figurehead for the late 1980s. Merivel, the fool and the melancholy philosopher, is a locus of tension with his narrative voice as a meeting point between past and present accommodating the contradictory satiric impulses of chaos and order. The dubious narrative voice is what enables parallels between the two ages. Tremain clearly distinguishes her brand of historical fiction from ventriloquist practices such as Peter Ackroyd’s, affirming the subjective stance of fictional Merivel despite the intertextual debt to his literary forebears:

But there is one crucial difference: Merivel never existed, so I’m not, with him, trying to 'make the dead speak’. In these novels, the dead only speak as Merivel hears them speak. Thus, King Charles II is brought to life, not as a speaking shade, confined by historical accuracy, but as the surrogate father, friend and god Merivel perceives him to be. (Tremain 2013)

8The portrayal of Charles II is instrumental in the underhand criticism of Thatcherism. While the depiction of the court with its loose manners and unrestrained revelry matches the commonly-held view of the period, the portrait of the King does not correspond to the usual perception of Charles II as the merry monarch. Instead, Merivel paints a stern figure who praises skills and individual merit as the characteristic traits which should determine a person’s place in society: ‘He repeated his theory that no man should get above himself, but know his own talents and his own degree’ (14). Thus the King endorses a set of values which closely resemble the so-called Victorian values of self-reliance Thatcher advocated to engineer social changes through economic policies.

  • 5 ‘I never felt uneasy about praising “Victorian values” […] The Victorians had a way of talking whic (...)
  • 6 See TV Interview with Brian Walden for London Weekend Television Weekend World 6 January 1980.
  • 7 Harold Macmillan, speech to the Tory reform group, 8 November 1985.

9Although Thatcherism is notoriously hard to define, the novel especially refers to its liberal economic agenda entailing a reduction of the welfare state justified by the Prime Minister’s moral stance sponsoring individual initiative. Thatcher’s distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor5 which helped justify the cuts in public spending is mirrored in the classification explained to Merivel once he becomes overseer of the poor and is advised to correctly categorise ‘your Impotent Poor, your Able Poor and your Idle Poor’ (134). Similarly, Thatcher’s background as a grocer’s daughter and the ensuing mythologizing of her climbing the social ladder by her sole merit combined to her understanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan to justify social inequality6 is echoed in King Charles’ indifference to the destitute born of his forced exile after the execution of his father: ‘I know that this King is not moved by supplication; it merely irritates him. And, as for the dispossessed, he has no sympathy for them, for he was once one of them and had to wait years for his restoration’ (197–98). The subsequent Thatcherite belief in the survival of the fittest is enunciated by Charles when he reproaches Merivel with his idleness born of his fear of death: ‘this age is stern, Merivel, and those who are afraid will not survive. Those who are weak will not survive it. You, if you remain as you are, will not survive it’ (197). Charles II was faced with financial troubles and the First Anglo-Dutch War. When he expels Merivel from Bidnold, the manor is sold to a French nobleman to replenish the coffers of the realm, which may read as a parallel with Thatcher’s privatisations, ‘selling off the family silver’ in Harold Macmillan’s words,7 as well as a possible hint at the Falklands War: ‘Bidnold would thus ‘become useful’ again. Land would be translated into ships by the King’s arithmetic and those ships would be ships of war’ (195).

10Thus Merivel’s portrayal of the King relays Thatcherite values and allows for historical parallels between the two periods. His reverence and fascination with Charles II could also be said to mirror the appeal of Thatcher at the time: while the King defines the age as stern, Merivel describes it as ‘the Age of Possibility’ (4), mirroring the feelings in the 80s that opportunities were ripe for the taking. Once Merivel becomes a favourite courtier, he takes advantage of his position to demand bribes from his painting tutor for an introduction at court. In his estimation, money talks and buys celebrity: ‘we live in commercial times. Take it or leave it, this is the world we inhabit. And he who takes no account of this is likely to die poor and unknown’ (51). Thus the novel contrasts the Thatcherite values endorsed by the King of self-discipline and hard work and the impact of Thatcherism on society emblematised by Merivel’s career path and personality based on self-indulgence and materialistic greed: ‘The Victorian values that Thatcher sought to foster fell afoul of the unrestrained celebration of material wealth that her rule brought about. The moral society, based on decent self-interest, that Thatcher hoped to establish became the greedy society, based on coarse self-regard’ (Skidelsky).

  • 8 On conservative satire and revolutionary satire, see Michael Rosenblum.

11Although Thatcher herself liked to refer to the nineteenth-century and the Victorians in keeping with her liberal ideas, the choice of the Restoration period offers the appropriate background of a divided society undergoing radical social and cultural changes. Tremain explains how ‘the coronation of the King in April 1661 changed everything more or less overnight’ (xi), in particular the mindset of people who turned from ‘civic duty, modesty, hard work and self-sacrifice’ (xi) to ‘the new mania for personal gain’ (xi) and ‘the stampede for personal advancement’ (xii). Thus the novel opposes the dissolute life at court and the stark equalitarian Quaker principles at the asylum. The satirical nature of narrator Merivel helped to embody the paradoxes of the Thatcher era: a discourse bent on law and order and the restoration of authority combined with deregulatory policies and laissez-faire economics. Merivel is both a conservative loyalist figure, the champion of the King’s authority, and a riotous troublemaker fostering chaos. He combines two brands of satire: conservative satire and revolutionary satire whose difference relies on the imposition of order vs the celebration of creative disorder.8 Thus while the two oppositional poles which structure the book, monarchy vs. Quakerism, contrast antagonistic views of hierarchy and equality, they have the same fondness for rules and order which Merivel comes to perturb. They correspond to the two sides of his personality that Merivel can’t reconcile: the fool who celebrates the King’s mastery and the melancholic who perceives the vanity of worldly hierarchies. The creative anachronism of his utterance combined to his unreliability account for the ambiguity of the intent behind the comic impulse of the novel, hovering between a celebration of the restoration (in all senses of the word) and the postmodern suspicion of authority, furthering the critique of Thatcherism by questioning the notion of leadership.

The Leadership Crisis

  • 9 ‘I would like the Governments I led to be seen as those which decisively broke with a debilitating (...)
  • 10 For a comparison of the two novels, see Wallace 194–201.
  • 11 On the interpretation of the Dog Woman as a Thatcher-like figure, see Walezak.

12Although Thatcher attacked the welfare state on the grounds of its paternalism,9 she did defend state authority to fight the British decline with an authoritarian approach to leadership, which Marxist sociologist Stuart Hall labelled ‘authoritarian populism’ to describe ‘a highly contradictory strategy […] simultaneously, dismantling the welfare state, ‘anti-statist’ in its ideological self-representation and highly state-centralist and dirigiste in many of its strategic operations’ (Hall 117). The choice of the Restoration period also addresses the leadership crisis of the 1980s and possibly of our own contemporary times as Tremain wrote a sequel to the novel in 2012. Jeanette Winterson made a similar choice of period in Sexing the Cherry, published the exact same year as Restoration,10 depicting the fall of rulers with the successive collapse of Charles I, Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II while using the Juvenalian satiric tradition to portray a Thatcher-like ogress and mass-murderess Dog Woman.11 Embodying the contradictions of Thatcherism, Merivel is both a liberal capitalist and a supporter of the King.

13His life story follows the conventional oedipal scenario of the paternal debt. In one of the five beginnings, Merivel narrates the death of his parents in a fire, after which Charles II becomes a father figure for Merivel who strives for his approbation. As Tremain herself pointed out, the portrait of Charles II is entirely dependent on Merivel’s own perception and, as such, the King is made to impersonate a symbolic father figure: ‘He has to represent three things to Merivel: he has to represent the father, who dies very early, and that’s a very important moment in the book, the father who dies in the fire, then the King himself, and all that the King represents at that time, which is so new for people. […] So the King for him becomes a kind of God-like figure’ (Menegaldo 115). Charles II in Restoration fits Freud’s mythical narrative of the Oedipal complex in Totem and Taboo with the symbolic instance of the father (the totem) emerging from the dead figure of the omnipotent primitive father (the taboo of parricide that develops after the first fundamental murder). Thus the father is all the more powerful, symbolically speaking, as he is dead—which is why a king was said to have two bodies, his physical body/his personality and the symbolic mandate he incarnated, or else why the proclamation of accession said: ‘The King is dead. Long live the King’. It is highly significant then when Merivel declares that his love for the King ‘is like the love for a dead man’ (R 304). It also accounts for the King’s predominant role in the novel in absentia. The distinction between the two bodies of the King finally explains why the personality of the King, however flawed, does not undermine his authority. The novel hinges around Merivel’s debt to the father. His rescue act at the end of the novel when he saves a woman from the Great Fire counterbalances the death of his parents at the beginning of the book. Through it, he symbolically repays the debt to his father and to the King and finds himself restored. He reintegrates Bidnold where, having become a father himself, he will raise his daughter. His path is thus emblematic of the restoration of the patriarchal order. It fits the carnivalesque atmosphere of the novel which turns the historical event of the Great Fire of London into the conventional bonfire marking the end of the celebrations and the return to order after the cleansing ritual that allows the Fool to temporarily become the King. It accounts for the feeling readers may have that the novel endorses patriarchal values and possibly Thatcherite values, which would lead to a conception of humour as conservative: a temporary reprieve that serves to consolidate power.

  • 12 See Sarah Sceats.
  • 13 On the current decline of symbolic fictions, see, for example, part I of Less than Nothing. Hegel a (...)

14Merivel’s loose credibility as a narrator, however, combined with Tremain’s overall criticism of patriarchy in her work,12 means that the reader cannot but question Merivel’s judgement along with laughing with him and at him: ‘At first sight Tremain’s novel might seem to glorify Charles II—and Thatcher. […] But the inaptness of the only narrator makes his admiration doubtful to the reader. Merivel so completely admires the king that no explicit criticism is allowed to enter’ (Fendler and Wittlinger 47-48). His nature as an alazon naively endorsing the King’s view serves to underline the postmodern mistrust of authority and the subsequent leadership crisis, which Žižek theorises as the demise of symbolic authority in contemporary society:13

Thus Merivel, the 1st person narrator and protagonist in Restoration, repeatedly calls himself ‘the King’s fool,’ in an absolute veneration of authority that is meant to describe the state of mind of the English people when monarchy was restored after Cromwell, but which, in its excessiveness, describes rather the postmodern despair at the loss of authorities and the need to artificially create alternative ones […] his narrative discourse, willingly constructed as unreliable, constantly inviting the reader not to take it too seriously, seems rather to suggest his self-awareness that this is never going to happen, his postmodern knowledge of the fact that authority is inaccessible, simply because it doesn’t exist as absolute truth. (Draga-Alexandru 128).

  • 14 See Matthew Sharpe and Geoff Boucher.
  • 15 See Sophie Duval and Marc Martinez’s recap of the ethics and aesthetics of satire (249–56).
  • 16 See chapter six of For They Know Not What They Do, London: Verso Books, 2002.

15The novel combines nostalgia for paternal authority embodied in the wish to see order restored–in psychoanalytical terms, a unifying Ego Ideal–and a postmodern fragmentation of identity and identification resulting from Capitalism being posited as the symbolic Other.14 Satire, which has been both criticised for its moral stance based on a nostalgic yearning for lost standards of behavior as well as celebrated for its dialogic quality engendering the superimposition and consequently the subversion of discourses,15 is thus perfectly suited to embody the paradoxes of the age. The demise of previous instances of symbolic authority (of which royalty is emblematic) has led to an age of generalised suspicion vis à vis governing bodies with self-reflexivity as the rule of thumb. Žižek takes the example of the Emperor’s New Clothes to define the postmodern subject’s attitude to symbolic mandates: it is like the child in the tale exclaiming over the emperor’s nakedness (Žižek 2012, 92). The unmasking of the core emptiness of symbolic authority, however, does not lead to any concrete political gesture, only cynicism and political apathy. Žižek characterises today’s generalised perverted attitude towards symbolic authority along the lines of Octave Mannoni’s formula: ‘I know very well, but […]’.16 Thus, when Merivel discovers he has been duped when receiving the gift of an Indian Nightingale which turns out to be really an ordinary blackbird, he cannot help but mourn the fiction he was sold:

It is a fact about Merivel—and about many in this age–that they do not always wish to know the truth about a thing. And when the truth is at last revealed to them they cannot entirely dismantle all fiction from it. Thus, the blackbird, will for ever in my mind have about it the aura of an Indian nightingale which species itself does not exist in all the world, but is an imaginary thing. (247)

  • 17 Jonathan Swift, Preface to The Battle of the Books, eds. Angus Ross and David Wooley, A Tale of a T (...)

16The reflexive subject of postmodernity likes to think of itself as nobody’s fool. Merivel’s claim to his own foolishness works both as a eulogy of classic satire and a satirical exposition of the postmodern subject. With Capitalism assuming the function of the Other, transgression has become the norm (the superego injunction to enjoy replacing the symbolic enforcement of the law) with advertising appropriating cultural forms of subversion to better meet consumerist demand. In that perspective, it is not surprising that humour and self-reflexivity should echo ambiguously as but another means to assert capitalist ideology. The novel itself displaying the parallel ambiguities of its narrator revives the traditional metaphor of satire as a mirror. The transposition of Thatcherite society in seventeenth-century England serves the double purpose of contextualising satire as a literary British tradition and diagnosing contemporary society through the exposure of its capitalist dynamics. Tremain said: ‘Restoration has become “a historical novel twice over. But I don't think it matters if readers don't see that”’ (Brown), thus summarizing the paradox of satire and its supposedly corrective purpose. In the words of Swift: ‘satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it’.17

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1 See Mick Brown.

2 See Slavoj Žižek 1997.

3 See Duval and Martinez 190–211.

4 On the enthronement/dethronement process characteristic of carnivalesque literature, see Bakhtin 182.

5 ‘I never felt uneasy about praising “Victorian values” […] The Victorians had a way of talking which summed up what we are now rediscovering—they distinguished between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. Both groups should be given help: but it must be help of very different kinds of public spending is not just going to reinforce the dependency culture.’ (Thatcher 1995, 627).

6 See TV Interview with Brian Walden for London Weekend Television Weekend World 6 January 1980.

7 Harold Macmillan, speech to the Tory reform group, 8 November 1985.

8 On conservative satire and revolutionary satire, see Michael Rosenblum.

9 ‘I would like the Governments I led to be seen as those which decisively broke with a debilitating consensus of a paternalistic Government and a dependent people; which rejected the notion that the State is all powerful and the citizen is merely its beneficiary; which shattered the illusion that Government could somehow be a substitute for individual performance’ (Thatcher 18 January 1984).

10 For a comparison of the two novels, see Wallace 194–201.

11 On the interpretation of the Dog Woman as a Thatcher-like figure, see Walezak.

12 See Sarah Sceats.

13 On the current decline of symbolic fictions, see, for example, part I of Less than Nothing. Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso, 2012.

14 See Matthew Sharpe and Geoff Boucher.

15 See Sophie Duval and Marc Martinez’s recap of the ethics and aesthetics of satire (249–56).

16 See chapter six of For They Know Not What They Do, London: Verso Books, 2002.

17 Jonathan Swift, Preface to The Battle of the Books, eds. Angus Ross and David Wooley, A Tale of a Tub and Other Works, Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1999, 105.

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Emilie Walezak, « Satire Revised in Light of Thatcherism in Rose Tremain’s Restoration »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 01 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Emilie Walezak

Emilie Walezak is a lecturer (MCF) at Université Lumière Lyon 2. A specialist of contemporary British literature, she has devoted several articles to the processes of rewriting in the works of A. S. Byatt, Jeanette Winterson and Rose Tremain. She is the co-editor of A Myriad of Literary Impressions : L’intertextualité dans le roman contemporain de langue anglaise, dir. Jocelyn Dupont et Emilie Walezak, Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, 2010 and Au nom du Père : les réécritures contemporaines de la Passion, dir. Maxime Decout et Emilie Walezak, to be published by Classiques Garnier, coll. « Rencontres ».

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