The key to The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is its deliberate artificiality. George Meredith’s conception of the novel is unusual. He fits patterns onto the novel in peculiar ways. The lead character of The Egoist, which came twenty years Ordeal, is actually named Willoughby Pattern. He is so named because the motif of willow pattern china runs through the novel, providing an arbitrary structure independent from the action. It is an advanced technique.
Oh, it is so tempting to hash out the whole thread of eighteenth century literature that runs through The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, one of the novel’s substitutes for china patterns. I mentioned the parodies of eighteenth century pedagogy, like Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education (1762). I mentioned that there is a character actually called the Eighteenth Century (“The Eighteenth Century wondered whether she should live to see another birthday,” Vol. II, Ch. 4).
Most amazing is the thoroughgoing parody, or even travesty, of the novels of Samuel Richardson, particularly of Jane Austen’s favorite novel, Sir Charles Grandison (1753), Richardson’s enormously long attempt to portray the ideal man after creating one of English literature’s greatest villains in his previous novel, Clarissa. Richard the Knight, the Hero, to use Meredith’s epithets, is meant by his father to be another ideal man. Since Meredith does not believe in perfection, the plan goes topsy turvy.
Sir Charles, for example, demonstrates his virtue by refusing to fight a duel, while Feverel actively incites a duel. Sir Charles and his correspondents spend what must end up being hundreds of pages discussing in detail whether he can marry a Catholic. Richard Feverel’s true love is, it turns out, Catholic, but since they are young and in haste the issue is simply brushed aside. Both heroes make plans to reform prostitutes – guess which one succeeds?
You think I am making this up, but look in Book II, Chapter 3, where we meet a mother with some daughters who might be suitable for Richard Feverel. She is:
Mrs. Caroline Grandison, said to be a legitimate descendant of the great Sir Charles: a lady who, in propriety of demeanour and pious manners, was the petticoated image of her admirable ancestor. The clean-linen of her morality was spotless as his. As nearly she neighboured Perfection, and knew it as well. Let us hope that her History will some day be written, and the balance restored in Literature which it was her pride to have established for her sex in Life.
Mrs. Grandison ensures the virtues of her eight daughters by dosing them with patent medicine and enforcing an exercise regime that features “swing-poles, and stride-poles, and newly invented instruments for bringing out special virtues: an instrument for the lungs: an instrument for the liver: one for the arms and thighs: one for the wrists: the whole for the promotion of the Christian accomplishments.”
Any time the Grandison family appears, all too infrequently, the comedy is excellent. The gag culminates in a scene with the youngest daughter Carola, a thirteen year-old who wishes she were a boy and would rather be known as Carl (“That’s the German for Charles”). Another rarity in Victorian novels.
So this is one complex but highly artificial strand that runs through the whole book. One more tomorrow, and that will be enough suffering.