Monday, June 11, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“BEAUCHAMP’S CAREER” by George Meredith (first published 1875)

            This week’s “Something New” has got me all hot and bothered on the subject of political liberalism, old and new, so as “Something Old” I consider a novel partly about nineteenth century liberalism.

            One day, when I have the time and energy, I will write a blog about why it is that some novelists, once considered essential reading, having fallen out of the canon.

            One of my chief exhibits will be George Meredith (1828-1909), formerly reputed to be one of the great Victorian novelists (and poets), up there with Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot. But the hard truth is that nobody much reads him now, except academics and other specialists.

            I once made it my business (and I must have had a lot of time on my hands then) to buy all his novels, in battered cheap editions, from second-hand book-shops; and then to read them in the order in which they were written.

            I soon found out why he once had such a great following among the cognoscenti. He is so intellectual. I also found out why he never established a hold among the mass of readers. He is so intellectual.

            His vocabulary is elevated and filled with recherché words. His characters talk, play with ideas that were much in vogue in the nineteenth century, read frequently and discuss what they read. They are terrific specimens of the chattering classes. They debate the ideas of Ruskin and Carlyle and other sages of their age. But what happens when their topical ideas become passé? The novels that dissect them in such detail fade and wither. Hic jacet Meredith. Those vulgar popularists Dickens and Thackeray have lasted much better, as has George Eliot, whose overt intellectualism was wrapped around more interesting plots.

            Yet I would be very dishonest if I didn’t admit that I found a lot to like in Meredith. The most esteemed of his novels in his own lifetime, The Egoist and Diana of the Crossways, are pretty deadly now. But I’d make a case for his first real novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, as one of the Most Underrated Novels of the nineteenth century, and I’ll probably write about it on this blog one day. His brisk brief novel about revolutionaries The Tragic Comedians is still highly readable.  And then there is the one that I am heartily recommending now, Beauchamp’s Career.

            It is, I think, one of the most penetrating political novels I’ve ever read, even if its frame of reference is strictly mid-Victorian.

            I will not burden you with a detailed plot summary. Suffice it to say that Nevil Beauchamp, an idealistic young naval officer with a distinguished service record from the Crimean War, decides to stand for parliament. He is fired with Radical ideas about equality and social justice, and thinks he will be able to do some good for his country. Most of the first two-thirds of the novel lead up to the election in which he stands.

            There is a detailed and complicated love story. Three separate women are interested in young Nevil. One is a naughty married Frenchwoman who toys with his affections and flirts with him outrageously. One is the daughter of a man whose political views are the diametric opposite of Nevil’s. Meredith being Meredith, the tone is often ironic and there is no way that the course of love will run true or have a happy outcome. Indeed the novel implies heavily that, in both the political and romantic parts of life, young idealists tend to get clobbered.

            What one expects to be the climax of the story occurs well before the end, and then there is a long, slow wind-down with a very downbeat conclusion. This is also typical of Meredith, as are the facts that most of the leading characters are gentry or wealthy upper-middle-class, there is an air of  cosmopolitan sophistication to it, yachting is indulged in as a favoured sport, and the action sometimes moves to France and Italy, where these sophisticated characters holiday or rest.

            Yet the English political scene is what holds it together and still makes it an interesting read.

            Carefully, as the corners are slowly knocked off Nevil, Meredith introduces us to the main forms of political life that were available in his day. The diehard old Tory squire who’s never been quite at ease since they abolished the slave trade. The cynical Tory political agents who try to discredit a Radical candidate by what would now be called a sex-scandal. (There are raised voices and a horse-whipping scene). The intelligent Tory ladies who make a reasonable case for Conservatism as it relates to the domestic virtues. The Radical ideologue whose republicanism is so completely unrealisable that it tips over into unreality. And, most interesting of all, the aged Whig who once thought of the Tory as his deadly enemy, but who now makes common cause with him as he is more afraid of young Radicals than he is of Tories. The arteries harden in old progressives and they become conservatives. Old political parties fade or become wary of their younger members. We have seen this same drama played out in our own age.

            An historian would say Beauchamp’s Career captures that moment in which the old Whig tradition was dying and the new Liberal Party was being born. That makes it sound like something of historical interest only. But many of Meredith’s observations are of enduring relevance. He is acute in showing how much entrenched conservatism relies on a defence of existing privileges, and conversely how so many social reformers are detached from “the art of the possible” that is necessary in real politics.

            He captures this distinction in a nice phrase (from Chapter 14):- “The Tory’s cry was a whistle to his pack; the Radical howled to the moon like any chained animal.”

            I see in that phrase the difference between Fox News and the Occupy Movement. Despite its specific evocation of a specific time and place, Beauchamp’s Career says many things that are still worth knowing about the people who stand for office and the people we elect. 

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