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.