Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 27, 2011

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

George Meredith by George Frederic Watts (Wikipedia Commons)

If you enjoy 19th century irony as I do, you will enjoy The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) immensely!  This novel was a recent choice by the Yahoo 19th Century Lit group, and I don’t know why it isn’t more widely read by lovers of the classics because much of it is hilarious.

The ordeal that young Richard must endure is the System of Education devised for him by his father, Sir Austin Feverel.  His plan is that the boy should grow up happy and self-confident by being secluded from all pernicious influences, especially school and females.  He does not, to put it mildly, have very realistic ideas about his child, and he ‘s not a very good judge of character.

For Sir Austin has cast aside his faithless wife and is bringing up the boy himself, with only the companionship of some hangers-on at the Estate.  There is a Cousin Austin Wentworth who disgraced the family name by marrying a housemaid, and a cynical Cousin Adrian Harley, an Epicurean who flunked out of Curate school and has been given a ‘stipendiary post’ at Sir Austin’s so that he can loaf about in a more respectable way.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Richard’s only playmate is Ripton Thompson, son of Sir Austin’s solicitor and a ‘boy without a character’.  These two rampage about as boys do, culminating in setting alight a neighbour’s hayricks because he took exception to them poaching on his land.  There is a lot of pompous to-and-fro about upright behaviour but there is never any question of young Richard being charged and transported for what was a serious crime.  Indeed it is only the clear-sighted unscrupulous Adrian who wryly recognises the moral issues and (with judicious bribes) arranges the release of poor Tom (the scapegoat)  and a grudging apology from Richard to the aggrieved farmer.

As Richard enters adolescence Sir Austin decides that nuptials must be planned ahead.  He sets off for London to take advice from the (somewhat errant) pals of his youth, leaving Lady Blandish behind to keep an eye on things.  Everyone agrees that it’s a good idea for Richard to take up rowing and burn off some of his adolescent angst, but alas, fate intervenes in the form of beautiful Lucy on the riverbank, daintily nibbling on dewberries (nothing so vulgar as a slice of bread-and-butter), and lo! here comes Richard sculling past as Cupid shoots his arrow!

Imagine the scene at the movies: Distracted by Lucy’s beauty Richard is heedless of the approaching weir.  The roar of the water fails to warn him, for he is entranced!  Just in time, he leaps out of the boat to save her from drowning  as she tries to grasp a fruit just out-of-reach – and the boat continues on its merry way, to end up floating upside-down further downstream (where Richard in the raptures of first love remains oblivious to its loss).

Even minor characters are superbly drawn.  Here is Berry, the baronet’s man:

Whereas Benson hated women, Berry admired them warmly.  Second only to his own stately person, women occupied his reflections, and commanded his homage.  Berry was of majestic port, and used dictionary words.  Among the maids of Raynham his conscious calves produced all the discord and the frenzy those adornments seem destined to create in tender bosoms.  He had, moreover, the reputation of having suffered for the sex; which assisted his object in inducing the sex to suffer for him.  What with his calves, and his dictionary words, and the attractive halo of the mysterious vindictiveness of Venus surrounding him, this Adonis of the lower household was a mighty man below, and he moved as one.  (p146)

Worthy of any Shakespearean comedy of exits and entries, there’s a delicious scene where Lady Blandish (temporarily in charge of Richard’s welfare) is strolling in the garden with Adrian (who makes it his business to know what young Richard is up to).  They are spying on the young lovers when they stumble upon Benson, also spying, and much to Adrian’s dismay (because it is in his interests to be first to inform Sir Richard of any goings-on) Benson has already spilled the beans.  Young Richard apprises the movements in the shrubbery and in another example of youthful  intemperance assails Benson with some spirit until Adrian reluctantly intervenes.  It would not do, he says, for the advancing Lady Blandish to witness ungentlemanly behaviour…

Adrian is the most interesting character, and it seems to me that his reactions to Richard’s scrapes represent Meredith’s own thinking.  He’s always delighted to see that Sir Austin’s system doesn’t work.  No matter how ‘scientific’ and ‘reasoned’ the System of Education has been, the boy’s passions subvert it.  He was an adolescent prig with an inflated idea of his own importance and when he lost his temper with Farmer Blaize we could see the extent to which he has no moral framework except his own self-interest.

Lucy is not suitable as a bride, because she is not of their class.  She is educated, she speaks nicely, but she is nonetheless the niece of a mere farmer, and Adrian christens her ‘The Dairymaid’ to reinforce her unsuitability.  But Richard loves her, and he will have her.  Rational, reasonable steps must be taken to separate the lovers, but Passion circumvents Reason every time in Meredith’s novel.  The Age of Enlightenment is over, and the Age of  Liberalism is dawning.

For in the aftermath of the wedding we see Adrian at his most perceptive.  He is amused, and he is also tolerant of Mrs Berry’s sentimentality as the vengeful Mrs Doria (frustrated in her ambitions for her daughter Clare) most certainly is not.  This made me start thinking about The Enlightenment and its ideological successor, Liberalism.

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel  was published some 50 years after modern scholars say that the period of the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) was over and the Age of Liberalism was emerging.  So it was a time when Reason’s primacy in the value system of Britain and Europe was in transition to the notion of having human rights. Is what we see in Adrian, the ‘wise’ man shaking his head in amused dismay at the idea of young people brought up to cherish their rights at the expense of others?   And is Meredith slyly pointing out that while Sir Austin champions his own son’s rights, he’s happy to trample over Farmer Blaize’s and resorts to Noblesse Oblige rather than the law to sort out the compensation issues that arise from the arson and the assault on Benson?

The story ends as a good melodrama should but underneath the witticisms and the aphorisms from The Pilgrim’s Scrip[1] Meredith seems to be ambivalent about the emergence of democracy.  He doesn’t show the aristocracy in a good light, especially not the character of Lord Mountfalcon, and perhaps there is glee in the observation of  Austin Wentworth (he of the dubious marriage to the housemaid) that  the aristocracy is ‘on notice’.   But this novel is designed to show that ‘scientific’ systems of education no matter how rigorously applied can’t control human passion; common sense is in short supply and it doesn’t look to me as if Meredith feels optimistic about the common man achieving suffrage under liberalism.

Some critics think that The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is the first modern novel.  It’s a ‘pyschological’ novel, more interested in the motivations of the characters than realism, and like Stendhal’s Red and Black, the plot serves the theme.  It wasn’t popular in his day but as a forward thinking man Meredith was a respected man of letters in 19th century Britain.  As a publisher’s reader he was very influential (and perhaps it is to his encouragement of Thomas Hardy that we owe the pleasure of reading the Wessex novels).

I enjoyed The Ordeal of Richard Feverel.  It’s available for free online at ManyBooks , or from Project Gutenberg.

[1] The Pilgrim’s Scrip is a real book of witticisms published in 1988 by Meredith himself.  Presumably he had this in mind when he wrote The Ordeal of Richard Feverel in 1859.  You can read it online if you are really keen, click the link.


Responses

  1. Oh joy – I read a review of a book and decide I want to read it and find I can download it for free in Kindle format from Project Gutenburg. I look forward to revisiting your review in a few weeks time and seeing whether I agree with you!

    • Hi Tom – That is the joy of the Kindle – instant gratification, at least where the classics are concerned!
      PS I’ve been enjoying your adventures with the Kindle – I haven’t yet downloaded one of your posts because I haven’t had time to figure out what happens to them when I do, but holidays – and more time to play – are only a fortnight away:)
      PPS One other reason I hesitate to download your posts to my Kindle is that I have a good system for ‘saving’ your posts. Often I order a book on the strength of your reviews, (or Sue’s, or Kevin’s, or Kinna’s, or Kim’s or Trevor’s, or Tony’s, or Elizabeth’s, or Sarah’s, etc etc) and by the time I come to read it I’ve forgotten who amongst my blogging friends recommended it. So now I have started saving the RSS feeds in a special email folder and I ‘save’ the book in my ToRead pile at Good Reads with the reference there. Hopefully this way I can acknowledge the source of my enthusiasm when the time comes to write my own post about it…

  2. Hi Lisa. I skimmed your post to avoid the spoilers, but picked up enough to be very interested. I hadn’t even heard of George Meredith, but he has my attention now! It sounds quite unusual for 19th century lit: is that a fair assessment do you think?

    I don’t do the Kindle thing, but online availability is wonderful when it comes to finding quotes. Not having to type them out myself may lead to overdoing it though…

    Having recently started to compile a written TBR, since my mental list is woolly and useless, I like your idea of listing the source too. So many of my reads are blogger-led, and I would like to show my appreciation.

    • Hi Sarah, yes, Meredith is different partly because of his social concerns but also (at least in my experience) because of his irony. Everyone in the Yahoo group with whom I read it really enjoyed it.
      Re compiling a written TBR: uber-keen readers like us who keep finding new must-read treasures online do need some kind of system for keeping track. I have two methods: I keep an Excel database which records the books that are actually on my shelves; I copy and paste them out of that db into my Books Read db (where I also record which reading journal they’re in because with over 20 journals now, I need to – if I’m ever to find a particular title.)
      But I’ve also joined Good Reads where, as well as finding good chat, great reviews and of course more recommendations LOL, I also keep a record of what I’ve read, as well as what I want to read, whether I have a copy of it yet or not (and I shelve it as ‘own it’ or ‘wishlist’). When I add a book that interests me, there’s a space to put who recommended it, and another private space where I enter the URL of the blogger whose review seduced me into wanting the book. I’ve only recently started doing this because I was finding that I couldn’t remember who of all the bloggers I subscribe to recommended it. If you click the GoodReads logo in the RH menu it will take you straight to my shelves where you can see what I mean (and friend me if you decide to join).

  3. Oh dear. I am already on Good Reads, but was far too lazy to make proper use of it! It does sound like a versatile tool, a lot better than my makeshift list on an unpublished blog page… Thanks for the tip, I will reinvestigate.


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