Charles Petzold

1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel”

June 20, 2009
Roscoe, N.Y.

The Victorian era in England is often portrayed as a rather prudish time, but that impression is based mostly on their literature, which often refers to sexual matters obliquely, if at all. Some of this reticence about sex in Victorian literature results from the custom of families reading books aloud to each other. In effect, novels had to be appropriate for all ages.

As the 1850s glided into the 1860s, family reading time became less common, partially as a result of literature written specifically for children (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland appeared in 1865) and increased leisure time for the middle-class woman, allowing private reading time for her as well. (See the chapter "Affairs of the Heart(h)" in The Victorian Novel)

One book clearly inappropriate for family reading was George Meredith's eccentric, astonishing, comical, erudite, poetic, difficult, brainy, complex, infuriating first novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: A History of Father and Son, published on June 20, 1859, 150 years ago today.

The high cost of books in those days required that authors rely on big sales from the lending libraries, and particularly the one run by Mudie. At first it seemed that The Ordeal of Richard Feverel would be a financial success. As George Meredith explained in a letter some months later,

That was a more subdued analysis than the reaction he had soon after the incident:

Of course, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is tame by today's standards, but anyone familiar with the conventions of Victorian literature is likely to be surprised by the large role that sex plays in this novel. For me, the jaw-dropping scene involved a high-class prostitute engaging in erotic cross-dressing.

From Google Book Search, you can access Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 of the original 1859 edition of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, but I strongly recommend you go with a modern edition with notes that help decipher Meredith's many obscure allusions. The Penguin edition — edited and with an introduction by Edward Mendelson (my old friend from PC Magazine days) — is ideal and readily available.

The Ordeal of Richard Feveral was George Meredith's first real novel, published when he was 31 years old. He had previously published a book of poetry and two fables, but with Richard Feverel he found a unique comic voice and a sophisticated prose style that makes his novels more difficult than Dickens or Trollope. Meredith often requires we poor readers to struggle through forests of irony, and at times he slips into the incomprehensible.

For at least half its length, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is basically a comedy. Sir Austin Feverel is raising his son Richard with a System that he has developed, and which he is developing into a book, "Proposal for a New System of Education of our British Youth." This System requires that Richard remain morally pure and ignorant of sex until he is married at the age of 25 to a younger woman of Sir Austin's choosing who is as uncontaminated as his own son. In 1859, even the staidest of Victorians would have recognized that such a scheme was doomed to failure.

To keep Richard pure of thought and deed, Sir Austin has tried to prevent him from meeting girls of his own age. He is alarmed when he discovers that Richard has been reading John Lemprière's Classical Dictionary because the descriptions of randy Greek and Roman gods might have a corrupting influence on the adolescent mind. When Sir Austin discovers that Richard has been writing poetry, he directs his son to destroy all his poems. He even instructs the servents to avoid Public Displays of Affection in Richard's presence:

Although some scholars have tried to trace Sir Austin's fictional child-rearing practices to Herbert Spencer's recent writings on education, it seems likely that Meredith based the System more on Rousseau's Émile, particularly the idea that men should marry at the age of 25 and only then educated on the birds and the bees. (Rousseau's Confessions are alluded to elsewhere in Richard Feverel.)

Although Sir Austin believes his System to be founded on sound scientific principles — and Meredith often sardonically refers to him as a Scientific Humanist — it is obvious from the early pages of Richard Feverel that Sir Austin has a misogynist view of women based on his belief in Original Sin, which he often refers to as the Apple Disease or the Great Shaddock Dogma. (Shaddock is an early term for grapefruit, which was associated with the forbidden fruit.) Sir Austin has published an anonymous book of aphorisms that includes such gems as "I expect that Woman will be the last thing civilized by Man."

On a more psychological level, Sir Austin's fear of Richard's possible "ordeal" if his marriage is not arranged correctly has arisen from Sir Austin's own disastrous marriage. His wife (and Richard's mother) ran off with a family friend, the poet Denzil Somers, who writes under the name Diaper Sandoe. (This pseudonym is not nearly as ridiculous to the British audience as it is to North Americans: In Great Britain, a "diaper" is a repeating pattern woven on fabric, while the cloth that covers a baby's bottom is called a "napkin" or "nappy.") Diaper Sandoe's poetry — which is liberally quoted in Richard Feverel, for Meredith was also a poet — also obviously influenced Sir Austin's antipathy toward's Richard's poetry.

(Curiously enough, when George Meredith was writing Richard Feverel, his wife had recently run off with a painter, and he was raising their son as a single parent. Meredith was obviously using some of his own bitterness in fabricating Sir Austin's personality and views, yet he seemed to transcend his own concerns by comically extrapolating the type of parent he might become were he to learn the wrong lessons from his failed marriage.)

Sir Austin's System isn't a complete disaster. Richard becomes a bright healthy boy, although inheriting a streak of stubborn pride from his father, and at times exhibiting a quick temper. But to credit Richard's character entirely to the System wouldn't be quite accurate either, as demonstrated by a sequence of events that begins on Richard's 14th birthday:

Richard and a friend take revenge on a farmer who offended them by burning his rick, and when Sir Austin figures out that Richard is at fault, he assumes that Richard will come to the correct decision by himself and apologize. Richard's cousin, Adrian Harley, who has been appointed by Sir Austin to tutor the boy and who Meredith ironically terms the "Wise Youth," tries to circumvent the need for apology by bribing a witness to put the blame on someone else. But it is another of Richard's cousins, Austin Wentworth, who sits down with the boy and who makes him understand the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions.

The presence of two characters with the name "Austin" is sometimes confusing (although Meredith is careful to always refer to Richard's father as "Sir Austin") but I think Meredith is inviting the reader to contrast the two men. Cousin Austin seems to be the real Humanist of the family. For much of the novel, however, he is away in South America "looking out a place — it's a secret — for poor English working-men to emigrate to and found a colony in that part the world." (Vol. II, Ch. V) Had Austin been around more, many of the problems that develop might have been averted, and there wouldn't be a novel at all.

When Richard is nearing the age of 18, Sir Austin decides the time is right for him to find a suitable wife for Richard as unsoiled as he, and to arrange a betrothal for a marriage to be scheduled 7 years hence. Sir Austin journeys to London to begin his search. But another goal is to reinforce his belief that he has made the correct decision in not allowing Richard to sow any wild oats during his youth.

Much more amenable to Sir Austin is the household of Mrs. Grandison, who Meredith tells us is a descendant of Sir Charles Grandison, the title character of a novel by Samuel Richardson. Mrs. Grandison is in complete accordance with Sir Austin concerning the importance of maintaining the purity of their children, and she proudly exhibits six of her eight daughters for his inspection, as well as the Gymnasium she has built.

Sir Austin is so blinded by Mrs. Grandison's educational theories that he fails to see that her daughters are really in no better shape than the children of the Wild Oats advocates. Nonetheless, Sir Austin settles upon the youngest — a 13-year old named Carola. (And yes, even though the marriage won't be for another 7 years, it's still a little creepy.)

But it's much too late. Richard has already accidently met a young woman closer to his own age while rowing on a river, and in a famous sequence of passages, Meredith humorously and poetically captures the phenomenon of love at first sight. It begins like this:

Lucy Desborough is a fine young woman, even someone Richard's father would have selected for his son if he had not been so dogmatically fixed on making his own choice from families philosophically in accordance with his own ideas. But Lucy's uncle is a farmer (the same farmer whose rick Richard burned four years ago), and Lucy herself is Catholic, so she is summed up by cousin Adrian with the quaint label "the Papist dairymaid" (Vol. III, ch. I).

Richard is definitely his father's son. He has inherited (or learned) a combination of pride and obstinacy that pits father against son as two stubborn and immovable objects, propelling the novel down the road to tragedy.

Taking advantage of a separation between Richard and Lucy imposed by Sir Austin, a predator named Lord Mountfalcon swoops down and begins a seduction of Lucy, while his concubine — a high-class prostitute sometimes called Bella but often referred to as Mrs. Mount (and I suspect there's a pun or two in there) — is given the job of distracting and possibly seducing Richard.

Bella is perhaps the most memorable character in Richard Feverel, world-weary and love-weary at the age of 21, able to string Richard along in a relationship that begins Platonically but which she can skillfully twist in whatever direction she wills.

The tragic ending of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel was problematic for contemporary readers, who expected a novel that began as a comedy to end as a comedy. Similar criticism continued for about a century. (Do a title search of "Richard Feverel" in JSTOR and you'll turn up 14 often illuminating articles published between 1946 and 1980.) Readers today don't mind so much; following the emergence of Black Humor in the 1950s and early 1960s — Catch-22 was published in 1961 and Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964 — we're much more inclined to accept and even admire genre-bending novels like Richard Feverel.

In a first reading of Richard Feverel, the initial impression of a comedy is so strong that you keep holding on to the idea long after it has turned more solemn, and the tragic ending seems tacked on and unjustified. A second reading reveals this shift from the comic to the tragic to be integral to the novel's structure. Meredith has strewn plenty of symbols of foreboding throughout the novel, and one of the subsidiary pleasures of Richard Feverel is seeing how Meredith skillfully shifts the tone. (For my second reading I found helpful the "five-act" analysis of Lawrence Poston, "Dramatic Reference and Structure in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel," Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 6, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1966), pp. 743-752. There is certainly a reason why Meredith titled a chapter (Vol. II, Ch. XIV) "In which the Last Act of a Comedy Takes the Place of the First.")

It's easy to detect the basic flaw in Sir Austin's System of educating his son: It doesn't allow for human nature or even common sense. It might seem like science to Sir Austin because he's sure it's based on a sound foundation, from which everything else flows in perfect rational thought. Sir Austin doesn't realize that this System is actually born of his wrath with his disastrous marriage. Sir Austin is an "egoist" — a common brunt of Meredith's comic writing — a man who sees himself as the center of a pre-Copernican pre-Lyellian world, unable to grasp that he is part of a larger natural universe.

What Sir Austin's System is missing is basic empiricism. In the context of 1859, The Education of Richard Feverel can be interpreted as the battle for Richard's soul between two world-views: natural theology, which treats science as the study of intelligent design in nature, and the emerging science of evolution through natural processes.

It's significant that the novel takes place sometime in the decade preceeding Victoria's ascension in 1837. (See John Halperin's introduction to The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Oxford World's Classics, 1984.) The early 1830s encompassed the last hurrah of natural theology with the publication of the Bridgewater Treatises, and the transition to Old Earth cosmology with the publication of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology.

Judging from the following aphorism, Sir Austin is evidently a believer in natural theology:

In a designed universe, everything is predetermined; nothing is left to chance. Sir Austin is forcing nature to conform to his "scientific" assumptions, and playing God to re-create himself in a perfected state. He's not willing to allow the serendipity of nature to play a role in life (as it did with the meeting between Richard and Lucy). He wants everything to be neat and ordered, manipulated and designed. When Sir Austin finally realizes what he's done to his son, the impact is devastating:

(My analysis here was aided by Irving H. Buchen, "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: Science Versus Nature," ELH, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Mar., 1962), pp. 47-66.)

George Meredith had his own personal concept of evolution, partially based on a continuum between man and animals, but on the ability of man to transcend his intelligence, not through a System like Sir Austin's but through "the creative and beneficient forces of Nature." (William R. Mueller, "Theological Dualism and the 'System' in Richard Feverel," ELH, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Jun., 1951), p. 139) Richard Feverel was written a year or so too early to incorporate directly Origin of Species, but it's amusing to see an allusion to Darwin's theory of sexual selection (introduced in The Ascent of Man in 1871) in Meredith's 1879 novel The Egoist (1879). Notice the tone of comic playfulness:

Charles Darwin was 50 years old when The Origin of Species was published in 1859; George Meredith was just 31 when The Ordeal of Richard Feverel was published earlier that same year. Darwin struggled with his religious beliefs; Meredith pretty much shrugged them off. As he told a friend "When I was quite a boy, I had a spasm of religion which lasted about six weeks, during which I made myself a nuisance in asking everybody whether they were saved. But never since have I swallowed the Christian fable." (quoted in Lionel Stevenson, The Ordeal of George Meredith, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953, p. 14)

The two-decade difference between the births of Darwin and Meredith makes all the difference. Darwin was in his twenties when Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology was published and converted the Victorian reading public to ideas of an old Earth; Meredith was a child, and a member of the first generation of Englishmen comfortable with the absence of belief. Although Meredith was at the height of his fame when he died on May 18, 1909 (just a century ago last month), he was not allowed burial in Westminster Abbey, probably because of his well-known agnosticism. A recent interview in which he indicated that marriage licenses should have a term of 10 years probably didn't help either. (Stevenson, p. 354)

When Virginia Woolf wrote about George Meredith in 1928 on the hundredth anniversary of his birth (and the same year Orlando was published), she noted that Meredith's reputation had declined in the two decades since his death. (Virginia Woolf had actually met Meredith in her younger years. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a good friend of Meredith's, and a visitor to their the Stephens home.) She finds The Ordeal of Richard Feverel to be an "odd conglomeration" and uncovers flaws in Meredith's later novels as well. Yet, she was willing to forgive these flaws for the role Meredith played in the evolution of the English novel:

This formulation doesn't quite work for The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, which was published five years before Trollope's Small House at Allingon, but Meredith has been cited as the link between Tristram Shandy and Ulysses (which actually contains a quote from Richard Feverel), and for this reason alone it's odd that Meredith's reputation hasn't much improved since Virginia Woolf's analysis.

It's understandable that readers find Meredith to be difficult; but it's incomprehensible why he should continue to be neglected.

Earlier Entries in This Series

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)

1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)

1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)

1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)

1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)