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