Thursday, September 26, 2013

One of Meredith’s more baffling sentences - perhaps more than one

Meine Frau has described Thomas Bernhard as the anchovy of German literature, meaning that although many people savor him, for others even the smallest taste of his style ruins the dish.  George Meredith is, let’s say, the Brussels sprout of the Victorian novel.  His style is very much his own.

I switched to a vegetable in deference to the veganism of Colleen of Jam & Idleness, who wrote this encomium to an obscure 1864 Meredith novel.  She is responding with enthusiasm to the powerful flavor of Meredith.  Look at how long her excerpts are (I understand the problem).  Look at this fragment:  “then, like the wise ancients, we should be able to tell to a nicety how far we had advanced in our dithyramb to the theme of fuddle and muddle,” from the middle of a long paragraph about hats.

This is the beginning of Chapter II, when we have been introduced to the hero’s father and little else:

Fame, the chief retainer of distinguished families, has first sounded the origin of the Feverels where their line of Ancestry blossoms with a Baronet; and Rumour, the profane vagabond, who will not take service in any respectable household, whispers that he was a Villain.  At all events, for this proud race, behind his dazzling appearance sits Darkness and democratic Adam, and they cling to him as an ark of pure aristocracy.

The editor of the Penguin Classics editions adds a footnote: “One of Meredith’s more baffling sentences.”  The next page or so of the paragraph makes clearer that Meredith is describing the antique origins of the family.  Although some were hearty enough to fight on “Marston Moor, that great field of phlebotomy,” the family has just barely kept enough sons alive to perpetuate the line, perhaps because of “the Apple-Disease.”  That mysterious concept will not be explained, or mentioned again, for another twenty-five chapters, although the earlier mention of Adam should suggest that Meredith is referring to some aspect of original sin (sexual knowledge, specifically).

Here we see one of the distinctive tics of Richard Feverel, the continuous use of shorthand and nicknames.  The tutor becomes the Wise Youth, the Baronet’s pedagogical method is the System, the hypochondriac uncle is the Dyspepsia, the struggle between right and wrong is the Magian Conflict, and an elderly relative is the Eighteenth Century (“Adrian had to sit alone with Hippias and the Eighteenth Century”).

Those of us who are devoted fans of Thomas Carlyle’s prose will recognize the technique, as in The French Revolution where everything ends up with two names, the invented driving out the actual.  I was amazed to see someone bring this into a novel.

Virginia Woolf, in “The Novels of George Meredith” (1928, in The Second Common Reader), describes Richard Feverel this way:

The style is extremely uneven.  Now he twists himself into iron knots; now he lies as flat as a pancake.  He seems to be of two minds about his intention.  Ironic comment alternates with long-winded narrative.


He has been, it is plain, at great pains to destroy the conventional form of the novel.  He makes no attempt to preserve the sober reality of Trollope and Jane Austen; he has destroyed all the usual staircases by which we have learnt to climb.

I would not want to advise a reader who hates Brussels sprouts to put them on his anchovy pizza.  I enjoy it all well enough myself, but once I realized how deliberately artificial the entire novel was, in style, story and structure, it began to be pretty interesting.  So for tomorrow, the artificial Meredith.


  1. Love the Brussel sprouts comparison!

    It seems from what you've said and those Woolf quotes, that in spite of some style and other issues, the book is still interesting for what it is attempting to do.

  2. The analogy fails in the sense that Brussel sprouts can be prepared in ways that minimize their distinctive taste, which I do not believe to be so easy to do with anchovies. At first I was going to say Meredith tasted like liver, but since Colleen is a vegan that seemed rude.

    The book really is interesting. Genuinely innovative, I think, and the innovations continue in the other Meredith I have read, The Egoist, written twenty years later.

    In a comment on the previous post, obooki compared Meredith's style to Sir Thomas Browne, which is useful. They both write baroque prose. They both constantly overdo effects on purpose.

    You have read Carlyle. Richard Feverel is a social novel, with family conflicts and a romance and a variety of characters, the usual novelistic stuff, but written in the style of Sartor Resartus.

    1. Now you are really making Richard Feverel tempting!

    2. "Brussel sprouts can be prepared in ways that minimize their distinctive taste, which I do not believe to be so easy to do with anchovies."
      Actually, anchovies have already been prepared- by soaking them in brine for several months- to produce their distinctive taste. Fresh anchovies just taste- well, fishy.

    3. Well, that makes a fair amount of sense. I do not believe I have ever had one fresh.

  3. From recommending Bernhard on Caravana de Recuerdos to comparing him to my favourite snack fish, the much maligned anchovy, you are driving me forcefully into the arms of M. Bernhard.
    Meredith seems a little less attractive although I do love some Brussel sprouts.

  4. My honest belief is that all of these tastes - anchovies, Meredith, tiny bitter cabbages - can actually be cultivated, but I would not want to press the point.

    Bernhard's salty books are at least much shorter than Meredith's. Easier to sample from beginning to end.

  5. Please: it's Brussels sprouts, with an s, hooray for Belgium. If they're bitter, you're overcooking them. Try steaming them, and adding salt and lemon. And no butter: it clashes with the flavor, and is an abomination.

    I can't help with Meredith or anchovies.

  6. Am I contributing to the corruption of the language? It seems that I am. I honestly did not know that "Brussels" was standard, even though the link to the city to make it obvious.

    So I will correct the post, but the errors in the comments will remain as a - hmm - as a tribute to the possibility of lifelong learning.

    Roasting also leeches out the bitterness. This is why I really wanted to use liver as the analogy.