April 16th, 2011
|06:19 pm - 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.
Antonia White also uses The Egoist in the three fictionalised autobiographies that follow Frost in May, using it both literally and allusively. The heroine is named Clara, explicitly after Clara Middleton, at her father's desire, and the books chronicle her father's attempts to make her a mirror of himself and his desires and her conflicts in both acceding to and resisting this male domination of who she is and who she might become.
I've not got around to reading The Egoist, but it sounds worthwhile.
That's very interesting. In the novel the father is less of a monster than the fiancé; he basically is an absent minded professor who is delighted to have access to the great library, and just wants a quiet life. Her mother is dead, hence she is totally trapped between these two men.
In the novel there are occasional interjections from 'the book of the egoist'. If I was making this into a TV show I would have a voice of the book, like the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
I'm always surprised how much some Victorian authors got away with, given that Eliot & Hardy had to go to incredible lengths to hint that their heroines might have got pregnant.
It's very interesting you say that because I just read on wikipedia that when Meredith was old he warned the young Hardy to be more oblique and cautious in how he talked about controversial issues. Hardy ignored his advice and his first book couldn't find a publisher. I think Hardy is a more modern open type of writer, and Meredith is more convoluted and formal so he got away with it.
I find it astonishing that there's a key scene in Far From the Madding Crowd where a coffin containing an illegitimate child is opened, and the description was entirely censored on first publication. It sounds like I ought to try Meredith.
My grandfather was a huge fan of Meredith. In fact, my aunt and I were talking about him on Thursday ("People who think reading The Egoist counts as reading Meredith..." at which I had to confess that it was the only one I'd read - I really ought to read more, it's a question of time and availability rather than not enjoying it). And then I was reading The Boscombe Valley Mystery on the train this morning, and thinking that Watson's original statement that Holmes's knowledge of literature was nil was bosh (or simply another of ACD's continuity errors) because he was reading Petrarch in the same story and quoting Goethe not long before that.
I would recommend Diana of the Crossways.