Among the Victorian novelists, George Meredith occupies a place apart. Unlike Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot, he appeals to a select few. Those who appreciate him are folk of his own temper—cultivated, intellectual, urbane. They are persons of taste and discernment. They are generally the middle-aged rather than the young. They are those who, aloof and contemplative, relish the comedy of life, rather than those who throw themselves whole-heartedly into the game. It is not to be marvelled at, therefore, that Meredith should have won his way slowly, or that recognition, when it came, should have rendered his position unique and secure.
Meredith’s career as a writer of prose was opened, in 1856, with The Shaving of Shagpat, an experiment in fantastic Oriental romance. In the following year, he exploited German romance less successfully in Farina, a Legend of Cologne. Having thus trained his ‘prentice hand, he passed to mastery of his craft in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, published in 1859. This was his first modern novel, and probably his best. It showed him, not only expert in the use of language and original in literary technic, but distinguished, also, as an observer of the world and an analyst of character. The psychological novel of George Eliot, just emerging, found here a rival even more subtle. Adam Bede, a twin-birth with Feverel, although detailed in its exploration of motive and feeling, demanded less mental effort on the part of its readers; it accordingly attracted much greater attention. Whereas it was often reprinted, no second edition of Feverel came from the press for nearly two decades.
In the meantime, Meredith had continued his course undeterred by lack of popular approval, writing six other novels before the appearance, in 1879, of The Egoist—most characteristic of all. Two novels in particular reflected his experience of Italy, gained while acting there as war correspondent in 1866. The first was Emilia in England (1864), later rechristened Sandra Belloni. The second was its sequel Vittoria (1867). The other works of the period comprise the semi-farcical Evan Harrington (1861); the serious Rhoda Fleming (1865); the clever Harry Richmond (1870–71); and Meredith’s favorite—Beauchamp’s Career (1874–75). It is The Egoist, however, that most completely illustrates its author’s conception of the novel of types. In this work, with rare skill and comic élan, if with a persistency a little wearisome, he lays bare the secrets of a heart and intellect thoroughly self-centered, proceeding so obviously from the desire to make out a case that he is likely to displease those who value story, yet satisfying those who enjoy brilliant comment on character and a study of its intricacies.
In his later novels, Meredith never forgot the typical in attending to the particular, even though The Tragic Comedians (1880) reflected incidents in the life of the socialist leader Lassalle, and Diana of the Crossways (1885) certain traits of Sheridan’s granddaughter, Mrs. Norton. One of Our Conquerors (1891), Lord Ormont and his Aminta (1894), and The Amazing Marriage (1895) bring to a close the catalogue of Meredith’s fiction, except for the unfinished Celt and Saxon published after his death.
Of Meredith as a poet this is not the place to speak. Suffice it to say that he did his first writing in verse, issuing a volume when twenty-three, and several others later in life, the best known being his sequence of irregular sonnets entitled Modern Love (1867). His poetry, like his prose, is rich in content but difficult at times by reason of its crabbed and meticulous expression—a trait due to no obscurity of thought or lack of feeling, but rather to the desire to compress much meaning within a cryptic phrase. As a playwright, Meredith attempted comedy in The Sentimentalists, which was acted posthumously. As an essayist, he fathered a memorable discussion of the comic spirit and its uses, made concrete in his novels.
Meredith’s life was comparatively uneventful. He was born in 1828 at Portsmouth, the son of a naval outfitter. Early left an orphan, he was educated in Germany, and, returning to England, studied law, experimented in journalism, and fell in with a group of intellectuals led by Frederic Harrison and John Morley. He became literary adviser to the publishers Chapman and Hall; he edited for a short period The Fortnightly Review, and served abroad as correspondent for The Morning Post. But most of his maturity was passed in rural retirement in Surrey. He was twice married, at first unhappily to a daughter of the novelist, Thomas Love Peacock, and then more fortunately to a Miss Vulliamy, who bore him two children. His fame grew very slowly. Not until the age of sixty was he recognized as among the chief English novelists. But at the time of his death, in 1909, he was admittedly the foremost man of letters in Great Britain.
Meredith is first and last an intellectualist. Hence his preference for the psychological novel, for the novel of types, for the novel that is half essay, for the novel of distinctive style. Hence, also, his conception of the importance for the novelist of comedy and the comic spirit. Comedy, according to Meredith, is embodied mind, and its function is to expose violations of rational law. It is common sense chastising with the laughter of reason aberrations from the sensible. Comedy measures individual shortcomings by the social norm. It results from “the broad Alpine survey of the spirit born of our united social intelligence.” It is “a game played to throw reflections upon social life, and it deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilized men and women, where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent crashes, to make the correctness of the representation convincing.” Comedy is thus refined rather than Rabelaisian; it is impartial rather than sentimental. It relies upon creating ideal figures that epitomize mankind in certain follies. It is typical and general in character, whereas tragedy is concerned primarily with the individual.
“The comic spirit conceives a definite situation for a number of characters, and rejects all accessories in the exclusive pursuit of them and their speech.” On the stage, the great master of such comedy is Molière, and in the novel, we might add, Meredith. Meredith’s confession of faith in the efficacy of the comic spirit is given in the prelude to The Egoist, and in these words of his famous Essay: “If you believe that our civilization is founded in common-sense, you will, when contemplating men, discern a Spirit overhead. . . . It has the sage’s brows, and the sunny malice of a faun lurks at the corners of the half-closed lips. . . . Its common aspect is one of unsolicitous observation. . . . Men’s future upon earth does not attract it; their honesty and shapeliness in the present does; and whenever they wax out of proportion, overblown . . .; whenever they offend sound reason, fair justice; are false in humility or mined with conceit, . . . the Spirit overhead will look humanly malign and cast an oblique light on them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter. That is the Comic Spirit.”
Unquestionably it is by the aid of this spirit that Meredith writes his novels, even including such a tragedy from the victim’s point of view as Richard Feverel. For Meredith is theoretic or nothing. Conceiving of a folly to be displayed and made ridiculous, he invents persons and situations best to accomplish his purpose. He is, therefore, no mere realist examining the confused detail of actual life “by the watchmaker’s eye in luminous rings eruptive of the infinitesimal.” He is rather an idealist, who holds it to be the business of art to render life in quintessence. The artist must both simplify and elaborate. First, he must simplify experience into typical deeds and persons, eliminating from his scheme the merely accidental and particular. Second, he must elaborate his simplification, presenting it through representative concrete instances that it may lose the aspect of an abstract formula and acquire emotional significance. Meredith is thus an intellectualist engaged in playing a game of literary chess. He has made the pattern on his board and designed the pieces, and he moves them according to a prearranged plan. Just as his Sir Austin seeks to enact the rôle of Providence in determining the career of Richard Feverel, so Meredith plays Providence to his personages, and, more than most novelists, he visibly controls their fate.
Since Meredith’s folk are etherealized specimens of humanity set and kept in motion by their creator, it is his attitude toward them that interests us quite as much as their actions. Meredith’s attitude is determined by his comic outlook upon life. Unswayed by the petty prejudices of his people, he surveys them with Olympian serenity, aware of a hundred impulses and errors in their conduct that will lead to conclusions undreamt of by themselves but clearly foreseen by the novelist and his readers. From a rarer atmosphere than that in which his people move, Meredith looks down upon their whimsies and their deeds with a smile of calm omniscience.
Moreover, he separates himself from them by a wall of clever comment, sometimes sparkling and ironical, sometimes soberly extended to the proportions of an essay. Indeed, his novels are sometimes one-third narrative and two-thirds essay, with the dissertational manner infecting the narrative parts incurably. No one, I suppose, would continue reading The Egoist merely from interest in its plot. To enjoy it one must relish inspecting at leisure the artificial attitudes of artificial people and listening, not merely to their smart chatter, but to the smarter discourse of the master of the puppets, who, while making them dance, lectures for the edification of the elect. Thus Meredith, having shown his hero touched by jealousy, lapses into a little essay on the theme. “Remember the poets upon Jealousy,” he writes. “It is to be haunted in the heaven of two by a Third; preceded or succeeded, therefore surrounded, embraced, hugged by this infernal Third; it is love’s bed of burning marl; to see and taste the withering Third in the bosom of sweetness; to be dragged through the past and find the fair Eden of it sulphurous; to be dragged to the gates of the future and glory to behold them blood; to adore the bitter creature trebly and with treble power to clutch her by the windpipe; it is to be cheated, derided, shamed, and abject and supplicating, and consciously demoniacal in treacherousness, and victoriously self-justified in revenge.” Needless to say, generalizations of this sort, intruding upon the narrative at every turn, choke its progress and prove distracting.
Almost equally distracting is Meredith’s predilection for resorting to the methods of comedy while writing fiction. As W. C. Brownell has put it; “The necessities of comedy, the irruption of new characters, their disappearance after they have done their turn, expectation balked by shifting situations, the frequent postponement of the dénouement when it particularly impends, and the alleviation of impatience by a succession of subordinate climaxes—all the machinery of the stage, in fact—impair the narrative.”
But if the tricks of the essayist and the playwright are freely borrowed by Meredith, sometimes to his disadvantage and to ours, they are nevertheless in a measure appropriate to the kind of fiction he affects. For Meredith is a psychological novelist. He is bent upon displaying the inward process of the mind. As Richard Le Galliene has said of him: “The passion of his genius is . . . the tracing of the elemental in the complex; the registration of the infinitesimal vibrations of first causes, the tracking in human life of the shadowiest trail of primal instinct, the hairbreadth measurement of subtle psychological tangents: and the embodiment of these results in artistic form.” Meredith, in Richard Feverel, declares that for the novel “An audience will come to whom it will be given to see the elementary machinery at work. . . . To them nothing will be trivial. . . . They will see the links of things as they pass, and wonder not, as foolish people now do, that this great matter came out of that small one.” Certainly Meredith’s efforts have tended to realize that time. But the psychology of his characters is general rather than individual. You are conscious that these minds are typical, or even symbolic. They belong to an imaginary and rational world treated as though it were real.
An incidental passage in Beauchamp’s Career shows that Meredith has understood both his limitations and his peculiar ability. “My way,” he writes, “is like a Rhone island in the summer drought, stony, unattractive, and difficult between the two forceful streams of the unreal and the over-real which delight mankind—honour to the conjurors! My people conquer nothing, win none! they are actual yet uncommon. It is the clockwork of the brain that they are directed to set in motion, and—poor troop of actors to vacant benches!—the conscience residing in thoughtfulness which they would appeal to; and if you are there impervious to them we are lost.”
In Meredith’s novels, which indeed reveal in operation “the clockwork of the brain,” the author has taken care still further to intellectualize his appeal by means of his style. His technic holds attention; he is an artificer of style, and, as such, he writes a style of artifice. He seeks to express himself with novelty and distinction. If a boy runs, Meredith speaks of him as being seen to bound “and taking a lift of arms, fly aloft, clapping heels.” If a woman runs, Meredith writes: “She was fleet; she ran as though a hundred little feet were bearing her onward smooth as water over the lawn and the sweeps of grass of the park, so swiftly did the hidden pair multiply one another to speed her. . . . Suddenly her flight wound to an end in a dozen twittering steps, and she sank.” If a heroine of eighteen would take leave of her admirer, she says: “We have met. It is more than I have merited. We part. In mercy let it be forever. Oh, terrible word! Coined by the passions of our youth, it comes to us for our sole riches when we are bankrupt of earthly treasures, and is the passport given by Abnegation unto Woe that prays to quit this probationary sphere.”
Fancy any human being—least of all a girl—discoursing thus! But, no matter how simple a thought or action, Meredith sends it forth arrayed in finer gear than Solomon in all his glory. It is beribboned with metaphor and personification; it is beflounced with epigram and allegory. It is truth rendered more precious, as the medieval critics advised, by being wrapped in sayings not to be lightly understood by the vulgar. So, when a lover admires the chasteness of his lady, Meredith remarks: “He saw the Goddess Modesty guarding Purity; and one would be bold to say that he did not hear the precepts, Purity’s aged grannams maternal and paternal, cawing approval of her over their munching gums.”
But Meredith’s gift of phrase and his knack of knocking out epigrams, and his mastery over metaphor and lyrical description cannot be too highly commended. Diana is “wind-blown but ascending.” When Redworth sees her kindling a fire, “a little mouse of a thought scampered out of one of the chambers of his head and darted along the passages, fetching a sweat to his brows.” After Sandra’s singing, the stillness settled back again “like one folding up a precious jewel.” A dull professor “pores over a little inexactitude in phrases and pecks at it like a domestic fowl.” Of one who has ceased to love we hear that “the passion in her was like a place of waves evaporated to a crust of salt.” Of a lady’s letter we learn that it “flourished with light strokes all over, like a field of the bearded barley.” Of a heroine we are told that: “She was not of the creatures who are excited by an atmosphere of excitement; she took it as the nymph of the stream her native wave, and swam on the flood with expansive languor, happy to have the master passions about her; one or two of which her dainty hand caressed fearless of a sting; the lady patted them as her swans.” There is brilliant illumination in such comparisons, a light shed instantaneously upon traits and mental experiences otherwise not to be revealed. When the Egoist would affectionately approach his shrinking Clara, nothing could better deliver the situation than Meredith’s simile: “The gulf of a caress hove in view like an enormous billow hollowing under the curled ridge. She stooped to a buttercup; the monster swept by.”
It is felicity in the use of rhetorical figure that enables Meredith to characterize the style of a Carlyle as, “resembling either early architecture or utter dilapidation, so loose and rough it seemed; a wind-inthe-orchard style, that tumbled down here and there an appreciable fruit with uncouth bluster; sentences without commencement running to abrupt endings and smoke, like waves against a sea wall, learned dictionary words giving a hand to street slang, and accents falling on them haphazard, like slant rays from driving clouds; all the pages in a breeze, the whole book producing a kind of electrical agitation in the mind and the joints.” It is Meredith’s gift for phrase that enables him to paint those wonderful backgrounds for action which are the despair of common writers. Sometimes the scenes are sketched in with but a touch or two of suggestion. So, when Richard Feverel and Lucy spend an evening afloat, Meredith writes: “Hanging between two heavens on the lake: floating to her voice: the moon stepping over and through white shoals of soft high clouds above and below: floating to her voice—no other breath abroad! His soul went out of his body as he listened.” Or, when Richard, in gay company, passes a night at Richmond, Meredith says simply: “Silver was seen far out on Thames. The wine ebbed, and the laughter. Sentiment and cigars took up the wondrous tale.”
Sometimes the description is long and minute, but always it is beautifully fresh. Thus the coming of dawn is pictured in The Amazing Marriage: “The smell of rock-waters and roots of herb and moss grew keen; air became a wine that raised the breast high to drink it; an uplifting coolness pervaded the heights. . . . The plumes of cloud now slowly entered into the lofty arch of dawn and melted from brown to purple black. . . . The armies of the young sunrise in mountain-lands neighbouring the plains, vast shadows, were marching over woods and meads, black against the edge of golden; and great heights were cut with them, and bounding waters took the leap in a silvery radiance to gloom; the bright and dark-banded valleys were like night and morning taking hands down the sweep of their rivers.”
Meredith’s style receives its final and distinctive flavor, however, from the liberal dash of aphorism with which his books are sprinkled. Often an epigram will turn upon some metaphor. Such is the statement that: “A bone in a boy’s mind for him to gnaw and worry corrects the vagrancies and promotes the healthy activities, whether there be marrow in it or not,” or the exclamation: “Who are not fools to be set spinning, if we choose to whip them with their vanity! It is the consolation of the great to watch them spin.” Such, too, is the reflection that: “Most of the people one has at table are drums. A rub-a-dub-dub on them is the only way to get a sound. When they can be persuaded to do it upon one another, they call it conversation.” More frequently, the epigram is a neat generalization left abstract, as for example: “Who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer is answered”; “Cynics are only happy in making the world as barren to others as they have made it for themselves”; “Fools run jabbering of the irony of fate to escape the annoyance of tracing the causes”; “Expediency is man’s wisdom; doing right is God’s”; “Women cannot repose on a man who is not positive; nor have they much gratification in confounding him”; “Convictions are generally first impressions sealed with later prejudices”; “The hero of two women must die and be wept over in common before they can appreciate one another.”
A thousand such jewels glitter in the richly wrought tapestry of Meredith’s style. That he painstakingly inserted them and wove this fabric to attract attention by its singularity and beauty, he cheerfully admits in a passage of Emilia in England. “The point to be considered,” he there remarks, “is whether fiction demands a perfectly smooth surface. Undoubtedly a scientific work does, and a philosophical work should. When we ask for facts simply we feel the intrusion of style. Of fiction it is a part. In the one case the classical robe, in the other any medieval phantasy of clothing.”
The difficulty with a style so artificial and intellectualized is obvious. Meredith, according to Brownell, “flatters one’s cleverness at first, but in the end he fatigues it.” The perpetual crackle of aphorism and metaphor surprises, gratifies, and then wearies; for a writer who will never say a plain thing plainly, not only keeps his readers under strain, but soon seems himself to be straining. Nowhere is this more evident than in Meredith’s predilection for repeating a single happy phrase such as the epithet “rogue in porcelain” applied to a heroine. Since the phrase tickles his fancy, he plays with it, drops it, picks it up, mumbles it over and over as a dog might a bone, and through chapter after chapter is ready at any pretext to run round and round with it barking. Despite his assiduous striving for novelty, therefore, Meredith is often tedious, an effect induced, not merely by his style (whether repetitious or gasping after eccentricity), but also by his method. He is so intent upon weaving his commentary upon every speech and action that the occasion of the commentary is smothered. A phrase becomes the text of a sermon, a gesture the excuse for paragraphs of oblique reflection. Thus he forfeits the advantage of downright sincerity and of forthright progress, and teases interest out of all patience.
Since Meredith is an intellectualist, we naturally ask what may be his philosophy. Unlike Ibsen or Browning, he preaches no doctrine. He offers no explicit theory of life. Nor does he, like Dickens or Reade or Brieux, advocate any special reform. He is never a propagandist. Some have lamented this fact; more have seen in it an argument for his universality and permanence. Though he fight no battles for specific causes, his influence is arrayed in general against certain tendencies that he disapproves and would laugh to defeat. Egoism, sentimentalism, hypocrisy, are fair game for his comedy. As an intellectualist he dislikes and distrusts excess of emotion—feeling indulged for its own sake. “Sentimentalists,” he declares, “are they who seek to enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.”
Well might Mrs. Carlyle complain that Meredith’s work lacked tears. That it does so he would be the first to admit, for he questions the worth of pathos for any true captain of his soul. “Pathos is a tide; often it carries the awakener of it off his feet,” Meredith writes. “We cannot quite preserve our dignity when we stoop to the work of calling forth tears. Moses had probably to take a nimble jump away from the rock after that venerable lawgiver had knocked the water out of it.” So Meredith sacrifices passion to analysis. His heroes and heroines rarely love so simply and so ardently as do Richard and Lucy; but the affection of even this delectable pair is modified in presentation by the playful cynicism of the narrator of their story. On the other hand, it is futile to cavil at Meredith or any other artist for lacking such qualities as are incompatible with those he most notably possesses. You cannot expect abandon of passion in the characters of a novelist whose forte is detachment and sublimated common sense. Your intellectualist is not to be blamed if he fails to write as a sentimentalist.
Meredith’s positive philosophy has been formulated by Elmer J. Bailey in terms that may be briefly paraphrased: Meredith thinks of man as torn between Nature and Circumstance. By Nature is meant the world of instinct, of healthy normal impulse. By Circumstance is meant the world of artificial laws erected by society as the machinery for its conduct and control. Nature is spontaneous; Circumstance is traditional. Man may err by allowing to either undue dominance. His only safety lies in the use of his reason which will enable him to keep both Nature and Circumstance in proper equipoise. And the most serviceable instrument of reason for detecting the follies of convention or of feeling is the comic spirit. Without this spirit we are not truly intellectual, for, as Meredith has said: “Not to have a sympathy with the playful mind is not to have a mind.” Let us possess mind, he seems to urge, and through mind cultivate the soul. In The Tragic Comedians he remarks: “It is the soul which does things in life—the rest is vapor. . . . Action means life to the soul as to the body. . . . Compromise is virtual death; it is the pact between cowardice and comfort, under the title of expediency. So do we gather dead matter about us. So are we gradually self-stifled, corrupt. The war with evil in every form must be incessant; we cannot have peace.” The serious note here sounded may be heard again in his letter to a friend, Mrs. Gilman. There Meredith says: “I have written always with the perception that there is no life but of the spirit; that the concrete is the shadowy; yet that the way to spiritual life lies in the complete unfolding of the creature, not in the nipping of his passions. An outrage to nature helps to extinguish his light.”
Just such an outrage to nature perpetrated with the best intentions, but in blind folly, is the subject of Meredith’s novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. A dogmatic and conventional father endeavors to determine his son’s life according to an infallible system of parental dictation. Instead of allowing the boy to develop naturally from within, Sir Austin seeks to mould him absolutely from without. The failure of this experiment makes the story. The first eleven chapters are in a sense introductory. They present to the reader the members of the Feverel family and describe with gusto a poaching escapade of Richard’s youth. From this first ordeal he emerges triumphant by obeying the impulse of his heart to make frank confession, despite his father’s endeavor to patch up the matter by plotting. Then, in the next twenty chapters, follows the account of Richard’s passion for the lovely Lucy and of the machinations of those who would nip it in the bud. All these checks are for the moment overcome when Richard, after having suffered separation from Lucy, is again thrown with her by chance and impulsively marries her.
In the chapters next ensuing Sir Austin, instead of gracefully accepting defeat, masks and crushes his emotions and permits his Mephistophelian nephew, the cynical Adrian, to scheme for Richard’s alienation from his bride. Richard is lured away and succumbs to the spell of a wicked enchantress whom at first he has thought to reform; and then, shamed and distraught, he wanders abroad, seeking a purge for his sin. Meanwhile, the deserted wife, at Adrian’s instigation, has been assailed by a villain, the husband of Richard’s enchantress. Issuing unscathed from her ordeal, Lucy is tardily accepted by the complacent Sir Austin and received, with her child, at his house. Since Richard has at length achieved self-mastery and has resolved to return and confess to his wife, and plead for her grace, a general reconciliation seems imminent. But the novelist will not allow his tale to end happily lest its moral be frustrate. Accordingly, although Richard returns for an hour to be freely forgiven by Lucy, he dashes away forthwith, despite her entreaties, to duel with her persecutor. Joy, even yet, might emerge from disaster, since Richard escapes from the duel with only a wound, but the author continues implacable. His heroine, in nursing her husband, succumbs to a strain long protracted, and Richard, though recovered in body, is left but a wreck of his former self. Such is the desolating outcome of attempting to regulate healthy human loves by a worldly system.
What is tragic for hero and heroine is gravely comic to the eye of the intellectualist surveying the folly of men from a height far above the troubled waves of their passion. For Meredith, Sir Austin incarnates a comic error. His story is the comedy of one who theorizes at length upon life, but utterly fails to deal with it practically. Of course Sir Austin takes no blame to himself. It is useless, he reflects, “to base any system on a human being,” even though this is precisely what he has done. And when Richard is to return to his wife, and Sir Austin has at last grown kind to her, we hear that: “He could now admit that instinct had so far beaten science; for, as Richard was coming, as all were to be happy, his wisdom embraced them all paternally as the author of their happiness.” Of Sir Austin, Meredith remarks: “He had experimented on humanity in the person of the son he loved as his life, and at once, when the experiment appeared to have failed, all humanity’s failings fell on the shoulders of his son.” The reader’s inevitable reaction to the novel is expressed by Lady Blandish: “Oh! how sick I am of theories and systems and the pretensions of men! . . . I shall hate the name of science till the day I die. Give me nothing but commonplace, unpretending people!”
That the plot of Richard Feverel unduly tantalizes goes without saying. The author keeps his hero and heroine apart by main force. Granting that Richard is the victim of rascals, as well as of a ridiculous system, his easy desertion of the wife whom he loves and his continued separation from her seem to lie in Meredith’s will rather than in that of his hero. Richard’s yielding to Mrs. Mount, described with remarkable power, is more natural, but his mooning about Germany while Lucy is left to struggle alone is as exasperating as her failure to apprise him of the fact that she is to bear him a child. Splendid as is the last meeting of Richard and Lucy, declared by Stevenson to be “the strongest scene since Shakespeare in the English tongue,” it forfeits something of greatness because of perversity. More natural is the faint sub-plot intended to echo the central theme of the book in its story of Clare’s hopeless love for Richard, at first reciprocated, and then blocked by Sir Austin and the girl’s mother.
In characterization, this novel excels. Its folk are persons and not alone types. Chief of the Feverel clan is Richard’s father, Sir Austin, wounded by the infidelity of his wife and his friend, yet an intellectual egoist, proud of his plans for ruling the family and equally proud of his epigrams. Given less fully are Richard’s aunt, the worldly mother of Clare, and his uncles—the guardsman Algernon, who has lost a leg at cricket, and crochety Hippias, “the dyspepsy.” Of Richard’s cousins one is sympathetic, and the other is Satanic. The first, Austin Wentworth, lives in disgrace for having repaired a youthful indiscretion by marrying a housemaid. As for the second, Adrian Harley, “the Wise Youth,” he is Richard’s tutor, whose heart has dropped to his stomach, a clever worldling and the contemner of honest passion, one of the most accomplished cynics of all literature. There are minor characters, too, but equally vital, from blunt Farmer Blaize and his son, and the disgruntled farm-hand Tom Bakewell, to Sir Austin’s sentimental companion Lady Blandish, and Ripton, the faithful old dog.
Of the women three stand to the fore—Lucy, Mrs. Mount, and Mrs. Berry. The adorable Lucy is a northern Juliet brought to sudden maturity by her passion for Richard. Beneath him in birth, she is more than his equal in manner and mind and spirit. Though shown only in glimpses, she is never less than entrancing. Mrs. Mount is the dashing temptress, a little worn and half-hearted until piqued by Richard’s indifference into playing her game more earnestly, and then exerting all the fascinations of the wicked. Most original of the three is Lucy’s vulgar befriender, Mrs. Berry, a lovable “old-black-satin bunch,” as Meredith tags her, wise but irrelevant, aware of the sensual springs beneath our polite pretenses, a Juliet’s nurse grown mellow. It is to be noted, however, that none of these characters is really dynamic, unless it be Mrs. Doria Forey, who suffers a change of heart after sacrificing that of her daughter, and Richard who somewhat alters under the stress of his ordeal.
Subordinate to character, plot, and central idea, yet scarcely less effective in producing the total effect of the novel, are its setting, its style, and its author’s point of view. Already Meredith’s point of view has been defined as that of the writer of comedy. In the dinner scene at Richmond, for example, you are conscious of the author smiling apart upon callow Richard and Ripton caught in the snares of the demi-monde. It is Thackeray over again, letting us see the self-deception of Pendennis in his admiration of the Fotheringay. Sometimes, in this novel, Meredith apostrophizes his people, emitting lyrical exclamations of admiration or disgust at their conduct. More often, he remains aloof, though none the less present in spirit. Rarely does he here conform to Brownell’s statement, more applicable to his later fictions, that: “He is not merely detached, he is obliterated. All he shows us of himself is his talent; his standpoint is to be divined.”
That which especially reveals the author’s standpoint is what Professor Saintsbury, in referring to this novel, has termed its “style saturated with epigrammatic quality; and of strange ironic persiflage permeating thought, picture, and expression.” The persiflage appears, above all, in the speeches of the saturnine Adrian. As for the epigrams, their number is justified in part by supposing them to come from Sir Austin’s collection entitled “The Pilgrim’s Scrip.” They abound, however, in the speech of others and in the narrative proper. Typical spicings of style are the following: “To anchor the heart by any object ere we have half traversed the world is youth’s foolishness”; “It is difficult for those who think very earnestly for their children to know when their children are thinking on their own account”; “If immeasurable love were perfect wisdom, one human being might almost impersonate Providence to another”; “The ways of women, which are involution, and their practices, which are opposition, are generally best hit upon by guesswork and a bold word”; “The God of this world is in the machine, not out of it”; “Sentimentalism is a happy pastime and an important science to the timid, the idle, and the heartless; but a damning one to them who have anything to forfeit”; “The task of reclaiming a bad man is extremely seductive to good women. Dear to their tender hearts as old china is a bad man they are mending.” Even illiterate Mrs. Berry talks in epigram, now on checked matrimony, which she holds to be as injurious as checked perspiration, and now on the wickedness of old people, which, she affirms, is the excuse for the wildness of young ones. “I think it’s always the plan in a ‘dielemmer,’” she says, “to pray God and walk forward.” To Lucy, the bride, she gives this advice: “When the parlour fire gets low, put coals on the kitchen fire. . . . Don’t neglect your cookery. Kissing don’t last; cookery do.”
Aside from its aphorisms, the style of Feverel is essentially clever, but by no means so artificial as that of Meredith’s later novels. If a stage direction seem occasionally over-elaborate, as: “Adrian gesticulated an acquiesced withdrawal,” others are felicitous, as: “At last Hippias perspired in conviction,” or: “He set his sight hard at the blue ridges of the hills,” or, of Ripton draining a bumper at a gulp: “The farthing rushlight of his reason leapt and expired. He tumbled to the sofa and there stretched.” There are fine passages, too, of description, like those concerned with the boyish adventures of Richard and Ripton, the Ferdinand and Miranda meeting of hero and heroine, the temptation episode, and the storm in the German forest by night. “Up started the whole forest in violet fire. He saw the country at the foot of the hills to the bounding Rhine gleam, quiver, extinguished. . . . Lower down the abysses of air rolled the wrathful crash; then white thrusts of light were darted from the sky, and great curving ferns, seen steadfast in pallor a second, were supernaturally agitated and vanished. Then a shrilling song roused in the leaves and the herbage. Prolonged and louder it sounded, as deeper and heavier the deluge pressed. A mighty force of water satisfied the desire of the earth.” Admirable, also, are the mere hints of background given in a flashing phrase that conjures up the scene: “Look at those old elm branches! How they seem to mix among the stars!—glittering prints of winter.”
Taken all in all, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel may be reckoned as Meredith’s masterpiece. “My old conviction grows stronger,” writes Le Galliene, “that it will be Richard Feverel and perhaps no other of his novels . . . that will keep his name alive in English literature.” Certainly, Meredith has here allowed to his characters a charm of personality that later he tends to sacrifice in stressing their purely typical traits. He shows here a fire of sincerity rarely afterwards burning so brightly. He is less the mere essayist and more the lyric and dramatic tale-teller. He has set forth with skill the elements of a large problem, confirming the truth of Chesterton’s remark that he combines subtlety with primal energy, and criticizes life without losing his appetite for it.
Frank Wadleigh Chandler.
University of Cincinnati.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57