Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The Egoist by George Meredith

As will probably be apparent already, I am selecting which books to mark with a written review on this blog partly by reference to the criterion of them being in my view an unjustly neglected novelist. Aldington certainly falls into that category, as does Dick, though in his case it is probably fairer to say that his status is unfairly down graded because of the subject matter of his books. So do Murdoch and McGillion, though not in the true sense of what I have in mind, since both are still very much alive (and hopefully will long remain so) and producing new work.

George Meredith, though, lies bang in the middle of the countryside I wish to mark out. Though he died in 1909, he was very much a nineteenth century novelist, and in fact all his books bar one were not only written but also published before 1900. This would place him as a contemporary of the likes of Trollope, Gissing, Kingsley, Besant and Hardy (whose last novel was published in 1895). He is, though, quite dissimilar from all of these in his style, his use of humour, and often even his subject matter. In fact, for me he looks forwards rather back, to the likes of Arnold Bennett, in his compelling story telling and strong characterisation, and Barbara Pym in his use of gentle humour. There is also, in his creation of strong though wronged female characters, perhaps a hint of Dorothy Whipple.

Like various other writers, including incidentally Arnold Bennett, he started out as what would today be called a trainee solicitor but was in those days called an articled clerk, but quickly realised that he wanted to try to earn a living as a full time writer. Then as now, this meant journalism and book reviews, which he supplemented with work as a reader in a publishing house.

His private life was initially almost as lurid as some of his plots. He married an older woman for love, but she then left him for a fairly obscure artist. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that in the plots of his novels the course of love rarely runs smoothly and, in fact, that in many cases love seems to be conspicuously absent from marital couplings, whether actual or potential (and in at least once case fraudulently induced).

It should also be remarked that, apart from a few wonderfully repellent exceptions, Meredith’s women are usually far more sympathetically drawn than his men, who seem often to view the female of the species as a marriage token, and a quiet and attentive audience for their opinions. Sir Willoughby in The Egoist is no exception. Self-obsessed to the point of failing to stop talking when someone else replies to him, he is secure in the knowledge that all women must necessarily be in love with him and that he has therefore but to choose between them. That this view is deluded is, of course, self-evident, not least because he has already had one engagement broken off by a fiancĂ©e, and now seems in imminent danger of repeating the experience.

While much of the narrative is richly comic, particularly as Meredith mocks sir Willoughby, there is also a darkness to the book. The mounting horror of Clara, as she realises the full implications of what it is going to be like being married to a man she does not even like, is all too real. This dramatic tension is heightened by the claustrophobic setting of a large house in the country from which the characters cannot escape, which in turn means they cannot escape from each other (I will not reveal the ending). This all has overtones of Jane Austen, of course, though Dorothea in Middlemarch is probably a closer parallel.

At the heart of Meredith’s writing is of course the relationship between men and women and he was an early advocate of sexual equality and the emancipation of women. In his Essay on Comedy, for example he says that what he calls “the comic spirit” is only possible where there is equality of power and influence between men and women, mutual regard and mutual respect. His women are mostly strong, and try to make their own decisions, though often hamstrung by their financial and domestic situations.

In his day, or at least towards the end of his life, Meredith was recognised as a great novelist. Conan Doyle, for example, has Holmes say to Watson at one point: “let us talk about George Meredith”. Oscar Wilde was another fan, saying “His style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning”, which sounds like an Alan Bennet parody but isn’t. Interestingly, he was also one of the favourite novelists of George Orwell, almost certainly because of his strong narrative lines; Orwell loved a good story, and his other favourites included Arnold Bennett and Jack London. Forster refers several times to The Egoist in Aspects of the Novel.

Like other writers who appear in this blog, Meredith, who seems to languish largely unknown today, surely deserves to be read and appreciated afresh by a new audience. If nothing else, his deftness of touch when it comes to sly but subtle humour is probably unsurpassed by any except Austen and Benson. Who else could talk about a “phantom half crown glittering in one eye of an anticipatory waiter”?

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