Thursday, 24 January 2013

GEORGE MEREDITH The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859)

Random House 'Modern Library', c. 1940

'In our House, my son, there is peculiar blood.  We go to wreck very easily.  It sounds like superstition, –– I cannot but think we are tried as most men are not.  I see it in us all.  And you, my son, are compounded of two races.  Your passions are violent.  You have had a taste of Revenge: You have seen, in a small way, that the Pound of Flesh draws rivers of Blood.  But there is now in you another power.  You are mounting to the Table-land of Life, where mimic battles are changed to real ones.  And you come upon it laden equally with force to create and to destroy.'  He deliberated to announce the intelligence, with deep meaning:  'There are women in the world, my son!'

The NovelSir Austin Feverel, Baronet, is the owner of Raynham Abbey, a stately manor 'in a certain Western County folding Thames: a man of wealth, and honour, and a somewhat lamentable history.'  His wife has left him, run off with his best friend, the poet Diaper Sandoe.  His only consolations are his infant son, Richard, and the book of witty aphorisms he's recently had published under the pseudo-religious title of The Pilgrim's Scrip –– a philosophical work intended to illuminate the System of 'scientific humanism' he's invented with the aim of preventing other men from falling into the trap of allowing their emotions to overwhelm their reason.

Sir Austin's book makes him famous, especially among the creatures –– women – he neither understands nor can ever fully bring himself to trust again.  Determined that Richard should not grow up to repeat his mistakes, he diligently applies his System to the boy's education, deliberately keeping his son separated from the mass of humanity in the belief this will make him a creature of reason and morality and prevent him falling victim to the treacherous female of the species.  He's particularly determined to keep Richard away from girls his own age, believing that the only 'sure' way to protect him from his inherited male 'weaknesses' is to raise him in a completely male-dominated environment, with each phase of his social, physical and emotional development planned for in advance and overseen exclusively by himself. 

The System proves to be effective until Richard reaches adolescence, making him strong-willed if rather arrogant boy who's blessed (or should that be cursed?) with an infallible sense of right and wrong.  Cracks begin to show when he meets Lucy Desborough, the beautiful niece of the irascible Farmer Blaize whose hayrick he deliberately set fire to as a child after being chastised (and rightly so) for shooting at game birds on his land.  Richard falls deeply in love with Lucy and declares his intention to marry her –– a plan, needless to say, Sir Austin finds disappointing if not downright abominable.  Richard is so respectful of his father, so much in awe of his status as the universally adored author of The Pilgrim's Scrip, that he agrees to give Lucy up and move to London to gain some experience of the world beyond the socially limited confines of Raynham.  By sending him away, Sir Austin hopes to train him to forget Lucy and marry someone more suitable to his own lofty position in life.  Again, Sir Austin's plan succeeds, but only until Richard receives word that Lucy –– who in the meantime has been sent off to a French convent to complete her education has been betrothed to her boorish cousin and is set to marry him as soon as she returns from France.

Richard acts upon this information and, in doing so, reveals the hypocritical self-absorption that underpins the ridiculous System Sir Austin has created and just as foolishly expects the boy to live by.  With the help of his childhood friend Ripton and his former nurse, now turned London landlady, Mrs Berry, Richard is reunited with Lucy and marries her in secret, fleeing to the Isle of Wight with her before their marriage can be legally annulled.  His father is predictably shattered by this news and refuses to see him or have anything to do with his new daughter-in-law.  Yet Richard still craves his approval and, with the help of his uncles and Sir Austin's most devoted female admirer, Mrs Blandish, returns to London hoping to arrange a reconciliation, leaving his young bride to fend for herself until he sends word that it's safe to rejoin him.  

Sir Austin stands firm in his refusals to see Richard, driving his confused and penitent son into the arms of another woman –– the same type of beautiful society 'enchantress' whose clutches the System was specifically designed to shield him from.  Meanwhile, the innocent Lucy, alone and missing her husband dreadfully, nearly succumbs to a failed seduction attempt from which she's rescued, in the nick of time, by the ever-faithful Mrs Berry.  Husband and wife are reunited, while father and son are eventually reconciled when Sir Austin learns he's soon to become a grandfather.  But there are clouds on the horizon.  Richard's guilt at what he perceives to be his unforgivable betrayal of Lucy leads him to confess his infidelity to her.  Lucy forgives him, but is forced to say goodbye to him again so he can go off and fight a duel with the man, Sir Austin's old friend Lord Mountfalcon, whose plan to seduce her was foiled by Mrs Berry.

Penguin Classics, 1998
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is a classic three volume Victorian novel, filled with surprising (some might even call them ludicrous) plot twists and larger-than-life characters whose exploits grab you by the throat and refuse to let  go for close to six hundred rivetting, action-packed pages.  It's also one of the funniest and most ironic explorations of the parent-child relationship ever written and marks the birth, according to JB Priestley and many other major Western writers, of the modern English novel.  

Unlike his more famous contemporary Charles Dickens, Meredith never allows his characters –– even the relatively minor ones like Richard's hypochondriac uncle Hippias, Sir Austin's gloomy butler Heavy Benson or the loyal but brokenhearted Mrs Berry –– to descend to the level of caricature.  He's careful to make their behaviour –– whether it be loyal, ardent, humorous, parasitic, misogynistic or wilfully blind –– truthful and realistic, ensuring that it remains psychologically credible even when the twists and turns of the plot suggest he may be pushing the boundaries of novelistic verisimilitude a little bit too far.  The 'ordeal' Richard undergoes is not so much the System his father subjects him to (which is bad enough in itself), but rather his father's thinly-disguised paranoia, misanthropy and misogyny.  In seeking to prevent Richard from being 'controlled' by his emotions, Sir Austin makes himself his son's controller, placing the boy in an untenable position which threatens to destroy not only his happiness but also that of Lucy and their newborn child.  Richard becomes the scapegoat for Lady Feverel's reckless desertion of her husband, a guinea-pig used to test theories which are the product of an event he played no role in and had no means of foreseeing or preventing.  He's watched and studied by Sir Austin, his behaviour endlessly probed and analyzed for any signs of weakness or dissent, but he doesn't really live until he begins to make his own decisions and, inevitably, his own mistakes.  Are we the property of our parents, Meredith asks, or should our first duty be to ourselves and, by extension, to those we in turn choose to make the objects of our heart's devotion?  

It's no surprise the book was banned for obscenity by Mudie's Circulating Library, then the most powerful book distribution organization in England and one upon which every novelist, good or bad, was utterly dependent if he or she expected to earn a living, meagre though it may have been, from their work.  Few things would have seemed more 'obscene' to the Victorian male mind than the notion that a man's wife and children were not his personal property to be exploited, abused, tormented and oppressed as he saw fit.  Today we'd probably call the ordeal Richard Feverel is forced to undergo a subtle but irreparably damaging form of child abuse, a System of denial and repression that's as impractical as it is misguided and morally bankrupt

The Writer:  The defining moment of George Meredith's life came in 1858, when his wife Mary ran off with his friend, the painter Henry Wallis.  The marriage, which had been faltering for some time, had never been a particularly happy or rewarding one, with neither partner feeling they had received enough love or support from the other.  While Meredith never forgave his wife for deserting him –– she only lived for another three years, having been abandoned by Wallis in the meantime – the pain her actions caused him was something he was able to use quite effectively in his work, particularly in the best-known of his poems, the devastatingly honest sonnet cycle published in 1862 under the irony laden title of Modern Love. 

Meredith was born in the English city of Portsmouth on 12 February 1828.  His mother died when he was five and his father, a tailor who had inherited nothing from his own father except a failing naval outfitter's shop (which Lord Nelson allegedly once patronized), was forced to move to London to earn his living, sending George to the country to be cared for by relatives until he was fourteen, when he was sent to boarding school in Germany.  The two years Meredith spent at the Moravian school at Neuwied-am-Rhein – the only formal education he would ever receive – were probably the happiest of his life, instilling in him a love of rationality, self-respect and all things Teutonic.

On his return to London, Meredith was apprenticed to a solicitor, Richard Charnock.  Charnock was more interested in literature than the law and encouraged his young apprentice in his desire to become a published poet.  He also introduced Meredith to his own literary friends like Edward 'Ned' Peacock, son of eccentric poet and novelist (and friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley) Thomas Love Peacock.  Ned Peacock and Meredith founded a self-published magazine together called The Monthly Observer.  It was in this magazine that Meredith's earliest poems appeared.  His friendship with Ned Peacock also resulted in him meeting his future bride – Peacock's beautiful, witty, recently-widowed sister Mary.  

The couple married in 1849, when Meredith was twenty-one and Mary was twenty-nine. Despite producing a child together – his name was Arthur and he was born in 1853 –– the Merediths found themselves frequently at odds with each other as their equally demanding personalities, Mary's many miscarriages and their unpromising financial circumstances combined to gradually but irrevocably extinguish whatever faint spark of love might once have burned between them.  During this period, Meredith struggled to support his family (Mary had a previous child, a daughter, by her first husband) by publishing the occasional poem, essay and article in literary magazines.  He also wrote translations of German literature which likewise failed to earn him much in the way of ready cash.

His first self-published book of poetry, Poems, appeared in 1851 and four years later he published his first novel, the satirical fantasy The Shaving of Shagpat.  Although it was generally well-reviewed, the novel was not popular – a situation that repeated itself with his second novel, Farina, published in 1857 and with his third, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, its subsequent banning by Mudie's only helping to ensure it would not be widely read.  It was only with the publication of his fourth novel, Evan Harrington, that Meredith was able to earn anything like a steady income from his writing.

In 1860 he was offered the job of reader for the London publishing firm of Chapman and Hall.  He kept the job for the next thirty-four years, personally reading and evaluating every new fiction manuscript submitted to the company, which in time would include the first novels of Samuel Butler, George Gissing and his most famous 'discovery,' fellow poet turned novelist Thomas Hardy.  He advised Hardy to destroy his first novel and write one with a stronger plot –– advice, Hardy couldn't resist pointing out towards the end of his own life, which Meredith himself had blithely and consistently ignored throughout his career, writing novels – including his masterpieces The Egotist (1879) and Diana of the Crossways (1885) –– in which the plot was often held to be secondary to his interest in exploring the finer points of philosophy, psychology and the controversial (and highly unpopular) cause of female emancipation.  It was one of the great ironies of Meredith's character that, while he was genuinely fond of women and wrote sympathetically of their plight as a repressed underclass in a male-dominated world, he remained, outwardly at least, a typical Victorian male in his everyday treatment of them.  It was only in his work, it seems, that he was able to confront and express his true feelings about women and the socially, politically and morally compromised positions England's patriarchal society continued to place them in.

Meredith remarried in 1864 and settled at Box Hill, near Dorking, which was to remain his home for the rest of his life.  Unlike his first marriage, his second marriage was successful, perhaps because he chose –– in the thoroughly domesticated Marie Vuillamy –– a wife who was willing to put his needs first and meekly accept his desire to be in charge of every aspect of their lives.  The success of Diana of the Crossways brought him financial independence, while his job at Chapman and Hall continued to bring him into contact with many of the leading writers of the late Victorian period, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf) and Robert Louis Stevenson.  While his later novels aren't considered to be the equal of earlier novels like The Egotist in terms of their comedic tone and biting social satire, he nevertheless found himself cast in the role of the 'Grand Old Man of English Letters' as both critics and the English reading public began to appreciate his message that ego does more to harm humanity than war, disease and our collective stupidity combined.

Marie Meredith died in 1886, followed in 1890 by Arthur, the writer's son by his first wife.  Increasingly crippled by the degenerative spinal disease locomotor ataxia in his later years, Meredith nevertheless continued to entertain a steady stream of visitors who dutifully made the journey to Box Hill each year in order to pay homage to him.  Nor did the declining state of his health prevent him from receiving the Order of Merit, succeeding Tennyson as President of the Society of Authors or overseeing a new collected edition of his work prior to his death, at the age of eighty-one, on 18 May 1909.  His last book was a new collection of poems titled, fittingly enough, Last Poems.  One of the more interesting comments on his work came from Oscar Wilde, another Victorian poet (and occasional novelist) whose unorthodox social views were similarly far ahead of their time.  'Who can define him?' Wilde asked in his famous 1891 essay The Decay of Lying.  'His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning.'   

Click HERE to read a free online selection of poems by GEORGE MEREDITH at PoemHunter.comYou can also click HERE to read The Ordeal of Richard Feverel in its entirety as a free online eBook.  If you'd prefer to download a copy (for your Kindle etc) from Project Gutenberg, please click HERE.  The standard biography is The Ordeal of George Meredith by LIONEL STEVENSON, published in 1953.  An interesting (and controversial in its time) critical biography by a young JB PRIESTLEY, titled simply George Meredith, appeared in 1926.

You might also enjoy:
IVAN GONCHAROV Oblomov (1859)
LEONARD MERRICK The Actor-Manager (1898)
LEONARD MERRICK The Position of Peggy Harper (1911)

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