Monday, June 17, 2013

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.

“THE ORDEAL OF RICHARD FEVEREL” by George Meredith (first published 1859)

I had occasion to mention George Meredith (1828-1909) once before on this blog [look up Beauchamp’s Career on the index at right] and I noted that he was a writer who has basically slipped out of the canon, for all the efforts of a few academics to keep him there. Not only is he too intellectual (and too dated in his intellectual concerns). He is also addicted to a rather recherch√© vocabulary which tends to repulse even intelligent readers. But, said I, among his fourteen odd novels there are some that reward a reading, and the best of them is his first The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (it was preceded by the freakish Arabian Nights fantasy The Shaving of Shagpat which I’d be hard pressed to call a novel). I even nominated The Ordeal of Richard Feverel as Most Underrated Novel of the Nineteenth Century.

More than anything, this is a moral fable that has somehow got crossed with a Victorian novel. With neat antitheses, it sets out to chart the battle between Reason and Passion.

At Raynham Abbey in the country, Sir Austin Feverel strives to bring up his son Richard according to “the System”, a plan of strict Rationality, which involves segregating Richard from women until such time as he can form rational relationships with them.

Sir Austin had this gift. He spoke as if he saw the truth and, persisting in it so long, he was accredited by those who did not understand him, and silenced them that did.” (Chapter 12)

Sir Austin scorns Passion and Feeling since his lady, years before, ran away with a caddish romantic poet. Young Richard is a scamp who has to be rebuked, in the early chapters, for poaching from honest Farmer Blaize and later for setting fire to Farmer Blaize’s ricks when he is found out. He learns humility when he has to apologize to the peasant farmer, and Sir Austin congratulates himself that Richard’s animal instincts have been contained by Reason.

But a much stronger test to Sir Austin’s system follows. In the passage that gives the novel its title, Sir Austin warns Richard what a man’s real ordeal is:

There are women in the world, my son! .... it is when you encounter them that you are thoroughly on trial. It is when you know them that life is either a mockery to you or, as some find, a gift of blessedness. They are our ordeal. Love of any human object is the soul’s ordeal; and they are ours, loving them or not.” (Chapter 21)

At the age of 18 or so, Richard falls passionately in love with Farmer Blaize’s niece Lucy Desborough. By Sir Austin’s standards, Lucy is not a suitable match for Richard. She is not only a peasant, but also a Catholic. Sir Austin tries every stratagem to break the couple up, including getting his butler Benson to spy on them (Richard thrashes the butler for his pains). When Lucy leaves the area, Sir Austen imagines that Richard will naturally get over his love madness and he starts thinking of more rational and advantageous matches for the boy. Richard agrees to go to London. But – by chance – he happens to see Lucy at a railway station and it is all on again. Their love blazes up with renewed vigour. They elope. Almost exactly halfway through the novel they are married.

Love and Passion appear to have triumphed over Reason. Yet we are only halfway through the novel. How will Richard react to the fact that his cousin Clare was going to marry him, that Clare was genuinely in love with him, and that he knows that (by spurning her for Lucy) he has condemned her to a boring arranged marriage? And how well will his marriage to Lucy endure when his aristocratic relatives contrive to give her the cold shoulder? And, susceptible young man that he is, how will Richard fare when he is separated from Lucy, wandering in Germany or in the company of the experienced demi-mondaine Mrs Bella Mount (what a name!), who is set on seducing him? Yes, dear reader, in this Victorian novel the word “seduce” is actually used and the novel was indeed considered ground-breaking and sexually-daring when it was first published. By marrying the ardent young lovers at mid-point, Meredith nullifies the expectations of a romantic novel and warns us that love will not necessarily run smooth.

I refrain from synopsising the rest of the plot and naming all the significant characters. Suffice it to say that there is much irony and some tragedy in what follows – and you will enjoy it much more if you find it out for yourself. By implication, the prudential rationality of Sir Austin Feverel’s pedagogical system has been found wanting in the face of Love and real human emotional needs. But, as later developments in the plot show us, romantic sentimentality and a prideful sense of honour also prove destructive. A balance between Reason and Passion is advocated in a novel that takes healthy marital love and parenthood as ideal goods.

All the way through my delighted reading of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, one bon mot kept occurring to me, which I hereby copyright – this is an 18th century novel which happens to have been written in the 19th century. This impression is partly a function of the novel’s sylvan and rural setting, which often seems pre-industrial. It is like an intrusion when, for example, a railway train is mentioned. More to the point, the novel has many of the characteristics of a conte philosophique of the French Enlightenment. Sir Austin’s philosophical system is overtly on trial and overtly discussed. The people who surround Sir Austin at Raynham Abbey are basically types and “humours” (the cynic, the man of good sense etc.) of the sort that you might find in one of the short novels of Thomas Love Peacock. Yet it is, after all, a novel of the 19th century, as it is reacting to two things that had already had their impact on European thought by the middle of the 19th century – Enlightenment rationalism (Sir Austen’s “System”) and Romantic emotionalism (Richard’s impulsiveness and readiness to be led by his passions).

What can I say of the sheer lushness of the prose in many of the romantic passages? Sometimes it is almost too gorgeous, as in the “Ferdinand and Miranda” sections, where Richard and Lucy’s young love is blooming and nature thoughtfully joins in their joy in the time-honoured pathetic fallacy.

The sun is coming down to earth, and the fields and the waters shout to him golden shouts.” (Chapter 19)

Nature again gives Meredith his stylistic head in later passages where Richard, travelling in Germany, is caught in a downpour of torrential life-giving rain.

Prolonged and louder it sounded, as deeper and heavier the deluge pressed. A mighty force of water satisfied the earth.” (Chapter 42 – sexual connotation purely intentional).

How ironical is Meredith being in such passages? How much a conscious spinner of purple prose? I think he has it both ways. Such passages genuinely express the young man’s love and turbulent passions and are genuinely felt. But they take on an ironical quality in the context of the whole fable and especially in the light of the many faults of Richard as they are gradually revealed (his fickleness, his gullibility etc.) This is not the urbane man-of-the-world irony of, say, Thackeray. It is almost regretful for the purity of the young man’s vision and its inevitable passing.

There are 19th century novelistic conventions here – complications and coincidences laid over what is essentially a simple fable-like “chiselled” plot. Suspense (Will Richard be able to marry Lucy when the ring is lost? Will Richard die in a duel?). Surprise (one old comic character turns out to have a familial relationship with Richard). Frankly Dickensian characters and situations which take Meredith into a type of comedy that is not his own (the old house-keeper Mrs Barry is as garrulous as Mrs Gamp). And there are some jarring strokes of melodrama in the conclusion.

But the novel is young Meredith (just over 30 when The Ordeal of Richard Feverel was published) at his most earnest and engaged, before the tedious intellectualising overwhelmed him. Compare the brisk intellectual chatter of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel with the prolonged discussions on dated issues in Diana of the Crossways. Compare the deft handling of a fable-like plot with the heavy machinery of fable in his most famous novel The Egoist. Often The Egoist and Diana of the Crossways are cited in literary surveys as Meredith’s best and most representative work. Representative they may be, but they are not his best. It was his worst qualities that possessed Meredith him in them, while The Ordeal of Richard Feverel remains deft and readable.

I refrain from mentioning the “scandal” that apparently greeted the novel’s first appearance (given Sir Austin’s situation, readers detected in its plot elements relating to the break-up of Meredith’s first marriage). Remember the basic literary aesthetic – you judge a novel by the novel, not by the chitter-chatter surrounding it. On this basis The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is a gem.

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