April 16th, 2011

breaking bad

The Egoist

I am currently re-reading The Egoist by George Meredith (pub. 1879). I like this book, but it is not very accessible, particularly at the start, which is a fey and ironical discourse on human moral failings. Here's my theory - in the 19th century you could get away with discussing socially transgressive topics, if the book was sufficiently impenetrable to the hoi polloi. It was assumed that only older and more sophisticated men and women would tackle dense allusive text, and it was socially safe for them to read about controversial issues. I think in particular the difficult first chapter or two serve as a baffle for the slightly racy or even feminist content which follows. Nowadays such a baffle is unnecessary, and I think it simply prevents people reading his work.

Meredith was an interesting guy. When he was in his early twenties he was the model for the famous painting The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis. Wow, what a looker. However, all ended in disaster when his wife (who was quite a bit older than him) ran off with the painter! Oops.

He had a high reputation in the 19th century.
"And now let us talk about George Meredith, if you please, and we shall leave all minor matters until to-morrow." Sherlock Holmes in The Boscombe Valley Mystery
"Ah, Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning".Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

The Egoist is a the story of a teenage girl who is betrothed to an older guy, who at first seems highly attractive and desirable. But after a while, as she becomes less innocent and naive, she realises he's a complete git, and it is very difficult for her to escape from the engagement. It's basically a comedy not a tragedy, and the humour is very dry. He cleverly and convincingly shows the contrast between the public face of this perfect 'Lizzy and Darcy' type romance, and the hidden vanity and selfishness behind it, and how the idealisation of the virginal girl serves to trap her in an increasingly repulsive intimacy. Interestingly a key factor in her raising consciousness is the friendship she develops with a woman (an unmarried older and more educated sister-figure) on the estate. It's definitely a Bechdel test nominee.

I think it would make a very good BBC costume drama, but it's never going to be a popular novel. The style is too arch and mannered.