Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hippy verteth, Ricky sterteth, Sing Cuckoo! - George Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, a novel by George Meredith published in 1859.  Meredith would later be not only famous but regarded as a great Victorian sage, but this novel was not the one that made his reputation.  On the verge of popularity, it was accused of obscenity and pulled from Mudie’s lending library, making it possibly the only novel in history whose sales were damaged by being thought of as a dirty book.  It actually is kind of naughty in places.  Meredith is the most French Victorian novelist I have come across.

The story:  Sir Austin Feverel has been abandoned by his wife (she ran off with a poet).  He is raising his son Richard according to a System, his own personal blend of Rousseau and Lord Chesterfield.  The comic, even mocking tone is instantly identifiable, so the surprise is not going to be if the System falls apart, but how and also who it will crush when it collapses.

Most of the conflict is over choice of mate.  While the father and his System are interviewing suitable candidates, Richard, who is going through a “Romantic poet” phase, wanders into a pastoral poem and meets the dairymaid of his dreams.  Has the System failed?  No, the dairymaid would be perfect of only the strict father could relax for a minute.

The resulting complications should be sufficient to fill out a novel, but instead there is an enormous twist, or at least bend, maybe more than one, leading to some strange scenes and surprises that of course culminate in a terrible ironic crash.

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel contains things I have never seen in a Victorian novel.  At the end of Chapter XIX, a young man is caught reading a pornographic novel:

Mr. Thompson, without any notion of what he was doing, drew the book from Ripton's hold; whereupon the two seniors laid their grey heads together over the title-page.  It set forth in attractive characters beside a coloured frontispiece, which embodied the promise displayed there, the entrancing Adventures of Miss Random, a strange young lady.

Exactly how pornographic the book might be is left to the imagination or independent knowledge of the reader.  Miss Random becomes a symbol of the sexual dangers facing young men (I mean a symbol for the characters, a shorthand they use), as seen in another novel chapter where Richard and poor Ripton attend a party of the London demi-monde, minor nobility and their kept women and courtesans, like something from a Maupassant or Balzac story.  Who knew, from Victorian novels at least, that London even had a demi-monde?

And how many Victorian novels have this – no, I have to set it up.  Richard’s incessantly ironic tutor Adrian sings a parody of a medieval folk song that includes the lines:

Hippy verteth,
Ricky sterteth,
   Sing Cuckoo!  (Ch. 10)

Ricky is of course Richard, and Hippy is Uncle Hippias, who is with them.  Move the scene to a train compartment, just a bit later:

Hippias, on finding the carriage-door closed on him, became all at once aware of the bright-haired hope which dwells in Change; for one who does not woo her too frequently; and to express his sudden relief from mental despondency at the amorous prospect, the Dyspepsy [i.e., Hippias] bent and gave his hands a sharp rub between his legs: which unlucky action brought Adrian's pastoral,

          "Hippy verteth,
          Sing cuckoo!"

in such comic colours before Richard, that a demon of laughter seized him.

          "Hippy verteth!"

Every time he glanced at his uncle the song sprang up, and he laughed so immoderately that it looked like madness come upon him.

This is an actual fart joke, disguised in archaic language (“verteth”), but repeated several times and emphasized by a teenage boy’s laughter at the idea of his uncle’s flatulence.  Even stranger, Richard’s laughter is used in the plot.

To the reader who could not find the joke because of the impenetrable opening prose – “the bright-haired hope which dwells in Change” and so on – let’s talk about that tomorrow.


  1. I tried reading The Egoist once, and found it completely impenetrable and baffling. It all looks like English, and the sentences seem grammatical, but for long passages I didn't have a clue what Meredith was going on about. It all seemed like some kind of unexplained in-joke. It was like reading Thomas Browne. I look forward to your explanation tomorrow.

  2. Explanation, or lament, or condolence. Meredith's prose has a strong and unique flavor. The response of many good readers will be to spit it out.

  3. "possibly the only novel in history whose sales were damaged by being thought of as a dirty."
    Actually, it was something of a risk in Victorian times: if the powerful commercial lending-libraries refused to stock a novel its sales were badly damaged. George Moore and Thomas Hardy were other victims.

    " Who knew, from Victorian novels at least, that London even had a demi-monde?"
    Two of Surtees' novels- Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour and Mr. Facey Romford's Hounds- feature the "tolerably virtuous" Lucy Glitters as heroine, and- a bit before Victoria, but still popular in her reign- one of the heroines of Piers Egan's Tom and Jerry is Cyprian Sue, who is a prostitute when she isn't one of the heroes' mistress.

  4. Vanished from last post!

    Meredith's first wife, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, ran away with a painter and later killed herself. As well as this book, the marriage inspires Meredith's sequence of poems Modern Love. His poetry does not from suffer the same contortions as his prose.

  5. Vanished? I didn't do it!

    The funny thing is that Swinburne, writing for a smaller elite audience and not depending on the lending libraries, can have a hit with a dirty book, while the poor novelist takes it in the chin (boxing joke, see below).

    How is Surtees? I have read good things about him. I thought I had never heard of Pierce Egan, but I was wrong, since I knew of him as a writer about boxing. I had no idea about the Tom and Jerry phenomenon.

    I doubt I will go into the biographical side of Meredith much, although it is certainly an odd story. Or his artistic response to it is unusual, such as the way the injured husband in Feverel is made out to be a fool and worse. Not the typical literary revenge.

    I agree about his poetry. It suffers from different contortions. But we expect that more in verse. It is much less bizarre.

    Thanks for all of the tips.

  6. I'm not blaming anyone- my last paragraph vanished between posting and appearing- a matter of milliseconds...

    Sponge and Facey are the two most easily read books by Surtees- they concentrate mainly on the characters, who are all reprobates and ne'er-do-wells. Very good they are too, I think. After that there's Jorrocks- a cockney hero, but you've got to struggle with transliteration of accents- and then the rest. Nimrod's Life of John Mytton depicts the real sporting demi-monde- again, just before Victoria- very well.
    Trollope and Disraeli both glance at the demi-monde, but neither shows it in detail. George Moore, perhaps? I've seen references.

  7. All right, I will try a Surtees sometime. I have read some quite funny excerpts, somewhere - I do not remember where.

    That is my impression of Trollope, too, that the upper class immorality is kept behind a thick curtain and only quietly alluded to. That is what made his contemporary Meredith so surprising to me.

    Moore seems a likely source for something more explicit - another English novelist who loved French literature. And there must eventually be more daring stuff among the Yellow Book crowd.

  8. Basing a system of life on a combination of Roseau and Lord Chesterfield is a great idea (In the world if fiction). Of course we think of it as comical and absurd, until one really thinks of all the real life "systems" being peddled as a way to a better life by so many.

    I am not sure that I would find the joke if you did not point it out.

  9. I had the advantage of a footnote to help me out.

    But imagine the puzzle otherwise - what in the devil does that kid find so funny?