Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1915
First published: 1874-1875, serial; 1876, book
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Political romance
Time of work: Nineteenth century
Nevil Beauchamp, a young naval officer
Everard Romfrey, his uncle
Mrs. Rosamund Culling, the Romfrey housekeeper
Renee Rouaillout, nee De Croisnel, Nevil’s beloved
Colonel Halkett, a staunch Tory
Cecelia Halkett, his daughter
Dr. Shrapnel, a radical
Jenny Denham, his ward
There was a diplomatic dispute between England and France with much rattling of swords on both sides. The affair, loudly taken up by the press, so stirred Nevil Beauchamp’s national pride that he decided to post a challenge to the French Guard. Uncle Everard Romfrey’s housekeeper, Mrs. Rosamund Culling, mailed the letter for Nevil. No reply ever came, and Nevil went off to fight the Russians in the Crimea. Uncle Everard expected his nephew to behave like a true Beauchamp.
Wounded in service, Nevil went to Venice with Roland de Croisnel, a French officer whose life he had saved at the risk of his own. Mrs. Culling also went to Italy. In Venice, Nevil drifted in a gondola with Roland de Croisnel’s sister Renee, who was grateful to her brother’s rescuer. The flirtation was interrupted by the arrival of the middle-aged Marquis de Rouaillout, intended as a husband for Renee. Nevil asked Renee to marry him, but she refused to disappoint her father by betraying Rouaillout. When Nevil persisted, Roland assured him that Renee did not love him.
The marquis arrived just as Nevil, Roland, Renee, and Mrs. Culling set out for an overnight jaunt in a boat. During the trip, Nevil secured Renee’s promise to break her pledge to the marquis. They headed for Trieste, but Renee’s phlegmatic consent and Roland’s dismal viewpoint dissuaded Nevil from the elopement. They returned to Venice with nothing settled. The next day, Renee married the marquis. Nevil went to sea once more.
Later, in the famous port of Bevisham, Nevil began his campaign as a Liberal candidate for a seat in Parliament. Mrs. Culling followed the young man there and met Miss Denham, ward of Dr. Shrapnel, who seemed to be helping Nevil in his campaign. Mrs. Culling wished that she could influence Nevil to drop his foolish scheme. Uncle Everard scoffed at Nevil’s political ambitions, especially because he despised Dr. Shrapnel.
While campaigning for votes, Nevil paid calls on his acquaintances and attended dinners. Colonel and Cecelia Halkett were steadfast Tories. Prompted by Uncle Everard, they tried to talk the young Liberal candidate out of his set course. They were strongly opposed to his views, but when the opposition wrote a rhyme comically depicting Nevil’s romantic relationship with Renee, the colonel thought the thrust unfair.
Meeting Lord Palmet, who was secretly in the rival camp, Nevil invited the gentleman to accompany him on his campaign tour. While entangled in political plots from which Cecelia was trying to extricate him, Nevil received a note from Renee, bidding him to come to her at once.
Twice since her marriage Nevil had met Renee, both times in the company of her husband, and Roland had written to him occasionally. In France, Renee told Nevil that she had sent for him only to fulfill a wish to see him once again, a mere caprice. She was in the company of a Count Henri d’Henriel, who wore her glove. The marquis was traveling, and only his sister, Madame d’Auffrey, was staying with Renee. Later, Madame d’Auffrey told Nevil that Renee had wagered her glove to d’Henriel that Nevil would come immediately at her request. A storm had delayed Nevil; the Frenchman had kept the glove.
When Nevil returned from France with a lame leg, his enemies gossiped that he had fought a duel with the marquis. The report was not true, but Nevil did not win the election.
During the campaign, Cecelia Halkett, admiring courage, had fallen in love with him. Uncle Everard pressed his nephew’s cause by proposing to Colonel Halkett an alliance between Nevil and Cecelia. Nevil, after promising to meet Colonel Halkett and his daughter, paid a call on Dr. Shrapnel to bid farewell to Jenny Denham, who was leaving for Switzerland. The young girl begged Nevil to look after the doctor.
A letter written by Dr. Shrapnel and filled with advice for the young man fell into Uncle Everard’s hands. Indignant at the contents, he went to Dr. Shrapnel and horsewhipped the man who was attempting to undermine Nevil’s future with radical theories. Cecelia, fearing that a break between Nevil and his uncle would end the marriage negotiations, tried to convince her father that Nevil was worthy of her. The more Colonel Halkett derided Nevil’s political views and disdained the Shrapnel influence, the more Cecelia insisted that Nevil was a man of high honor. She added, however, that she would give him up if she ever learned that his honor was sullied.
Nevil challenged his uncle to give Dr. Shrapnel a personal apology. Trying to assist the injured man in earning his livelihood, Nevil next asked Uncle Everard for money. His request was refused. Penniless, Nevil left his uncle’s house, but a short time later, an unexpected inheritance saved him from actual need.
One night, Renee appeared at Nevil’s house. Having left her husband and believing in Nevil’s courtesy and constancy, she had come to him. Since she had married the marquis to please her father, now dead, she had no other bonds to keep her chained to a cold and sullen husband. Nevil sent immediately for Mrs. Culling and pleaded with Renee that Roland be summoned. Close on Renee’s heels came Madame d’Auffrey, who announced that the marquis was in London. When Renee became ill, it was necessary for her family to occupy Nevil’s home until her recovery. Nevil, who no longer loved Renee, patched the shattered marriage, and the unhappy wife returned to France.
Cecelia still loved Nevil. In spite of all attempts to dissuade her, she had remained loyal to him; but the new scandal about the marquis shook her faith. She went to Italy with her father. When she returned, she yielded to her father’s wishes and became engaged to a young man of stable notions, Mr. Blackburn Tuckham. Nevil’s proposal of marriage came too late, and when she refused him, he became ill.
Some time before, Uncle Everard had married Mrs. Culling, who was soon to bear a child. When Nevil became ill, his uncle, in an effort to ease his wife’s anxiety, begged Colonel Halkett to let Cecelia marry Nevil in order to hasten the sick man’s recovery. Meanwhile, Jenny Denham was Nevil’s nurse in Dr. Shrapnel’s house.
Nevil’s illness brought all of his friends to his bedside as well as his political enemies. In the end, a reconciliation between uncle and nephew was effected when Everard apologized to Dr. Shrapnel. Nevil was persuaded to sail to Italy to recuperate. He insisted that Jenny and the doctor accompany him.
Jenny had nursed Nevil back to health. More than that, she had been steadfast throughout all his difficulties. In love with Jenny, Nevil wanted her to marry him before they set out on their voyage. Until the last moment she refused, hoping that he and Cecelia would become reconciled.
The three went on their cruise. Jenny bore a child along the way. Shortly after their return to England, Nevil, trying to rescue a drowning child, was himself drowned. His career to reform the world was over.
George Meredith’s novels have never attracted as wide an audience as the fiction of his contemporaries—Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Eliot—critics in his own day generally ignored Meredith’s work. Not until the publication of THE EGOIST in 1879 did the author gain much critical attention or public popularity. Meredith’s lack of popularity among the general public has been partially due to his difficult prose style and partially to the inaccessibility of his abstract and philosophical comic vision. His style is an odd mixture of the intellectual and emotional, the analytical and lyrical; his famous epigrams, for example, are often so compact and riddlelike as to elude easy understanding, while his descriptive passages and love scenes are frequently laden with rich images and inspired with great sensitivity. Meredith was primarily a philosopher who pleaded for the classical ideal of the golden mean; his witty comedy was aimed at restoring sanity and balance, at bringing men to their senses by making them laugh at the spectacle of their follies.
BEAUCHAMP’S CAREER appeared only a short time before Meredith published his famous ESSAY ON COMEDY. The novel, in consequence, bears the stamp of his theorizing, and in it comedy becomes a subtle and complex tool for character portrayal and social criticism, especially in the field of contemporary politics. Frederick Augustus Maxse, political reformer and Meredith’s friend, was the original of Beauchamp. Other characteristics of the novel are typical of Meredith’s work. There are delicately treated emotional conflicts and skillfully rendered personality differences. The dialogue is good, probably less discursive than in other Meredith novels. The plot is simple, and the satire follows the same pattern. The hero, Beauchamp, is an admirable character, as is Cecelia Halkett. Both are targets for ironic but poetic comedy.
In BEAUCHAMP’S CAREER, Meredith brings his rational comic vision to bear in his examination of politics; this novel is political, both on the surface and on the deeper thematic level. On the surface, the plot concerns the political career of Nevil Beauchamp and follows first his experiences in the Crimean War, and later, his campaign as candidate for Bevisham (based on Maxse’s campaign in an election at Southampton). On a deeper level, however, BEAUCHAMP’S CAREER traces the hero’s growth to political awareness through the events in his personal life; Meredith brilliantly dramatizes the inseparable nature of the political and personal in real life.
Nevil begins as a foolish young man, infatuated with hazy romantic notions, who rushes forth to defend English honor against French insolence, and then goes to fight in the Crimea. His first love affair with the French aristocrat Renee results from his naive and idealistic Romanticism, which retains its hold on him for some time afterwards as seen in his chivalric answer to his old lover’s summons during the height of his campaign in Bevisham. In his second love relationship with rich, beautiful, Tory Cecelia Halkett, Nevil becomes much more complexly and realistically involved; both he and Cecelia are forced to deal with the problem of their conflicting ideologies and backgrounds. His last involvement is with Jenny Denham, Dr. Shrapnel’s niece. Although Meredith himself was a Radical, he uses the rather absurd figure of the doctor to illustrate the follies to which such a stance, untempered by good sense, can descend. Dr. Shrapnel’s niece, however, is both sensitive and sensible, an intellectual woman who, unlike her uncle, blends emotional depth with rational intelligence. Ironically, it is Jenny—not an active person politically—who at last becomes Nevil’s permanent partner; and, also ironically, it is shortly after their union and the birth of their child that Nevil dies as a result of an act of humanity, an act at once apolitical and the most intensely political of his career.