Monday, June 1, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.
“THE EGOIST” by George Meredith (first published 1879)
We are agreed, are we not, that to give a mere plot summary of a novel is no way to assess either its impact or its literary worth? For my proof-text in this week’s sermon, I take a novel that was once highly esteemed, but is now dead as mutton and read only by Eng Lit specialists and complete-ists. I refer to George Meredith’s The Egoist, a novel which strives to be a country-house comedy, but which becomes a tasteless soup of convoluted cogitations, strained irony and pompous philosophy.
As I have remarked before on this blog, George Meredith (1828-1909), novelist and poet, was once regarded as one of the greatest of Victorian novelists, but he is now little read, despite the occasional attempt by some enthusiasts to reinsert him into the canon. I speak of him with at least a little authority. About twenty years ago, and for no reason that I can now discern, I took it into my head to read my way through all his novels in the order in which he wrote them – from his Arabian nights fantasy The Shaving of Shagpat (1856) to The Amazing Marriage (1895). Among his works I found some to admire and like, such as his first real novel, the delightful The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) and his very good political novel Beauchamp’s Career (1875) [look up my views on them under “George Meredith” on the index at right]. There were also some things to like in his poetry – the sonnet Lucifer by Starlight, the famous Lark Ascending and at least some of the poems in the sequence Modern Love.
But the more I read of his novels, the more irritated I became. I could see whyhighbrows once admired them. For real late-Victorian intellectuals, Meredith was a cut above even the highly intellectual George Eliot, and certainly superior to those vulgarians Dickens and Thackeray. But that is the problem. Meredith’s novels are too self-consciously intellectual. Authorial commentary and interventions stop narrative stone dead. In most of his novels, characters are lost in the author’s analysis of them. In addition, some of the issues with which Meredith dealt would have seemed “advanced” and “daring” to intellectuals of his age, but they are now sadly dated. This is particularly true of what was once his second-most admired novel Diana of the Crossways (1885), with its plot of a loveless marriage and a woman’s desire for independence.
But it is to what was once considered his masterpiece that I now turn.
The Egoist announces itself in its subtitle as “A Comedy in Narrative”, and Meredith precedes it with an introduction in which he expounds his theory of what comedy should be. He says:
“Comedy is a game played to throw reflections on social life, and it deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilised men and women, where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent clashes, to make the correctness of the representation convincing….[Comedy] it is who proposes the correcting of pretentiousness, of inflation, of dullness, and of the vestiges or rawness and grossness to be found among us. She is the ultimate civilizer, the polisher, the sweet cook. If….she watches over sentimentalism with a birch rod, she is not opposed to romance.”
The notion of comedy as a civilising force and corrector of vice is an excellent one, but from this you may infer that Meredith’s version of comedy is oddly restricted. It will include no slapstick or vulgar farce and will confine itself to the gentryfolk. He also (elsewhere in his prologue) speaks of seeing people as being deformed by false views of themselves, which he calls Egoism. This comes close to the comedy of “humours” of Ben Jonson or Thomas Love Peacock, but those two wits handled the matter less ponderously than Meredith does.
On with the show, as I now plunge into the mode of giving you (as I warned at the top of this notice) one of those synopses that tell you nothing about the novel’s quality.
The Egoist concerns one Sir Willoughby Patterne, who lives at Patterne Hall with his admiring aunts Eleanor and Isabel, and who thinks the world of himself. Others are there either to serve his needs or to be condescended to. He is engaged to be married to Constantia Durham, but when she realises how much he intends to control her life, she jilts him and runs away with a robust army officer. Sir Willoughby’s amour propre is wounded. To console himself, he invites a distant relative, Crossjay Patterne, to live with him, in the hopes of patronising him. But when Crossjay Patterne proves to be ragged and ordinary, he is dismissed.
All this is a kind of prelude to the main action. The story really gets going (if one can say it ever gets going in this novel) when Sir Willoughby, aged 32, becomes engaged to the lively Clara Middleton, aged 19. The arc of the story has Clara rapidly becoming aware of Sir Willoughby’s self-absorption. She wishes to be freed of her promise of marriage. But Sir Willoughby will not let her go as he fears that society will laugh at him for having been twice jilted by possible brides.
Clara is really the centre of the novel’s consciousness. Her realization that Sir Willoughby wants her just as an ornament (“a dainty rogue in porcelain”, as one minor character calls her) and her frustration at being engaged to Sir Willoughby, are counterpointed by her growing affection for the non-egotistical Vernon Whitford, and her easy, cheerful, chummy relationship with the boy Crossjay Patterne (son of the ragged chap whom Sir Willoughby had peremptorily dismissed).
Sir Willoughby’s egoism is acted out in many ways. He sees servants as mere minions and at one point he cruelly dismisses from his post the carrier Flitch, even though the poor old chap has no other income and a large family to support. He wants people to gather around him and admire his wit, style and poise. (Damme! He’s so camp that sometimes one suspects in another age he wouldn’t be seeking to marry a woman at all). He shows ostensible charity by letting the boy Crossjay reside at Patterne Hall, but he thwarts the boy’s ambition to be a naval officer as he wants him to stay there as one of his entourage of admirers. Eventually, about three-quarters of the way through the novel, and having failed to reason, shame, bully or cajole Clara Middleton out of her desire, he releases her from her promise to marry him. It is implied that Clara duly marries Vernon Whitford.
But there is a sort of happy ending for Sir Willoughby Patterne. Early in the novel we have been introduced to another woman in his life, the sharp and waspish Laetitia Dale. Sir Willoughby likes Laetitia to come and admire him and exchange witticisms with him, but when she dares to have an intellectual life in writing, he regards her coldly. Having been twice rejected by women, however, Sir Willoughby proposes to Laetitia. She turns him down, as she can see right through him. But by complications of the plot, with which I will not bother you, she reconsiders and decides to accept him in a purely pragmatic spirit and with no illusions. She tells Sir Willoughby that she too is an Egoist and that Sir Willoughby must accept her with all her intellectual strengths and on equal terms.
So the Egoist is rewarded with another Egoist and jolly suited they are to each other too. And so the novel ends.
Once again, you see how useless plot summaries are on their own, don’t you? In the hands of Jonson or Peacock (or maybe even Oscar Wilde), this tale that I have just spun could have been witty, farcical and very amusing. But unfortunately it is in the hands of George Meredith.
Now believe me, while I may be a cad and a bounder, I am not a chump, and I can see moments of real and penetrating wit in this novel. Relish with me some of the choice moments I noted down in my reading diary.
Here is the moment where Sir Willoughby first meets Laetitia. Oh what a paradigm of narcissism!
“ ‘Your name is sweet English music! And are you well?’ The anxious question permitted him to read deeply in her eyes. He found the man he sought there, squeezed him passionately and let her go…” (Chapter 4)
And here is a word of sound commentary from the level-headed Clara:
“ Cynicism is intellectual dandyism without the coxcomb’s feathers; and it seems to me that cynics are only happy in making the world as barren to others as they have made it for themselves.” (Chapter 7)
Then there is the long passage in Chapter 11 in which Clara’s consciousness leads Meredith to comment on how intelligent women can see that men who idolise them and praise their purity are really enslaving them. It begins with the following fine sentence:
“The capaciously strong in soul among women will ultimately detect an infinite grossness in the demand for purity infinite, spotless bloom.”
I relish the remark Clara makes about I minor character:
“I must avoid her. The thought of her leaves me no choice. She is clever. She could tattoo me with epigrams.” (Chapter 27)
The last sentence there could describe many a smart-arse conversation I have heard, not to mention much of the dialogue of Wilde and Shaw when they use clever-dick one-liners to resolve complex problems.
My soul joins Vernon Whitford when he is in a state of depression:
“Books he could not read, thoughts were disturbing. A seat in the library and a stupid stare helped to pass the hours…” (Chapter 30)
Been there, done that!
I like Laetitia’s caution to Clara when she suspects her of being disingenuous:
“Similes have the merit of satisfying the finder of them, and cheating the hearer.” (Chapter 48)
Finally, I like the passage in which Laetitia makes her pragmatic decision to marry Sir Willoughby after all. Meredith’s wit is positively feline as he shows how much self-interest is involved in her rational decision:
“Those features of the possible once beheld allured the mind to reconsider them. Wealth gives us the power to do good on earth. Wealth enables us to see the world, the beautiful scenes of the earth. Laetitia had long thirsted for both a dowering money bag at her girdle and the wings to fly abroad over lands which had begun to seem fabulous in her starved imagination. Then, moreover, if her sentiment for this gentleman were gone, it was only a delusion gone; accurate sight and knowledge of him would not make a woman the less helpful mate. That was the mate he required and he could be led. A sentimental attachment would have been serviceless to him. Not so the woman allied by a purely rational bond…” (Chapter 49)
So you see, I can go through the novel and pick out gems of wit which, on their own, might seduce you into thinking that the whole novel sparkles.
But it doesn’t.
What kills this novel? Partly it is the sheer artificiality of the story, and its arch and calculated poise. Note that, as in other “humour” comedies, Sir Willoughby does not grow or change. He is there to be described and to be the foil of more sensible people, but he is a stage caricature who cannot be subjected to the type of psychological analysis that a novel demands – even a purportedly comic novel. (Note that subtitle “A Comedy in Narrative”, meaning that Meredith is aware he is producing a theatrical situation in prose.) We might laugh at Sir Willoughby if he were placed in a farcical situation on stage; but too much suspension of disbelief is required when we met him on the printed page. Only by an act of faith can we continue to believe that the egotistical Sir Willoughby would have a clique of hangers-on when he is so grossly, and so self-evidently, a completely selfish prat.
This is a country-house story with a restricted cast of characters in a limited setting contending with a rigid (and dead) social code. It is also (in spite of what my synopsis might have lulled you into believing) very static, with little forward dramatic momentum. Most of the story is conveyed in dialogue or interview scenes, with artificial contrivance to bring characters together or set them apart. It is amazing how often meetings occur because somebody just happens to be strolling on “the lawn” of Patterne Hall.
I am aware that this was once seen as the most polished of Meredith’s novels, and it was regarded as awfully clever that he had patterned the tale of Sir Willoughby Patterne on the Willow Pattern “legend” that came with English-manufactured crockery. To explain: in the late eighteenth century, English potters produced plates and pots in imitation of genuine Chinese ceramics, and incorporating a white-and-blue image of willow trees, two birds in flight and people crossing a Chinese bridge. To publicise their products, a “legend” (which is now known to be of English origin) was invented, saying that the pattern depicted an ancient Chinese tale of two lovers fleeing from a cruel prince who would not allow them to wed. In other words, the “legend” was an early example of English advertising copywriting. Obviously in The Egoist, Sir Willoughby Patterne is the cruel prince, and Clara and Vernon are the two lovers he prevents from marrying. (Crockery also comes into the novel in the form of a vase, given as a wedding present, which is symbolically smashed en route to its recipient; and a set of porcelain also given as a wedding present).
One also notes Meredith’s choice of names for his other major characters. Clara (=clear-sighted about Sir Willoughby) is also the Aristotelian desired medium (=Middleton) between extremes of feeling and self-conceit. Laetitia (=Joy) brings wit and a certain sort of joy to the Egoist in the end. This is in the tradition of “humours” comedy.
Despite its supposed polish, however, this is so often an obtuse and opaque production. Meredith frequently gives way to his least lovable stylistic habits. There are so many lengthy sentences, with metaphors dribbling through long subordinate clauses in which the subject of the sentence is lost. Much of the dialogue is allusive and indirect, as if the characters are speaking in a particular social code to which we are not privy. (The same is horribly true of another of Meredith’s novels Evan Harrington). When Meredith begins to philosophise in long digressions about “the Book of Egoism”, it has the same affect as his ramblings about “the Philosopher” in his novel Sandra Belloni. We want him to stop telling us and start showing us.
I do note Meredith’s attempts to let some sunshine into this closed world. There are a few bursts of boyishness. When the boy Crossjay Patterne goes out hunting birds’ eggs, it has the welcome freshness of the scenes in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel where Richard goes on country rambles (or the scenes in one of Meredith’s many duds, Harry Richmond, in which young Harry consorts with gypsies.) At least there is an attempt to break with the artificial decorum and etiquette of Patterne Hall. I also note that trademark habit of Meredith’s novels, where the expected denouement (Sir Willoughby releasing Clara from her engagement) occurs well before the end of the novel.
But ultimately, this once-esteemed classic does not breathe. It is too polished, finished, artificial and verbose – and seems mostly hermetically sealed off from the world outside Patterne Hall. A group of unbelievable characters preserved in aspic.
I know that in making this call, I am putting myself on the wrong side of the judgments of E.M.Forster, Virginia Woolf and other worthies. But it’s not my fault if they sometimes got it wrong.