Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1731
First published: 1861
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social satire
Time of work: Nineteenth century
Evan Harrington, a tailor’s son
Caroline Strike, and
Louisa, the Countess de Saldar, Evan’s sisters
Rose Jocelyn, an heiress
Ferdinand Laxley, Evan’s rival
Melchisedec Harrington was a tailor with the bearing and manners of a great nobleman. When he died, his neighbors spoke fondly of him and wondered what his son, who was in Portugal, would do. His widow knew that the great Mel, as he was called, had left debts amounting to more than four thousand pounds, which Evan would want to repay. The boy was to go to Mr. Goren in London to learn the tailor’s trade.
There had been three daughters in the tailor’s household, each of whom had married so well that they had henceforth cut themselves apart from their father, a common tradesman. Harriet had married a brewer, Andrew Cogglesby; Caroline had married Major Strike, and Louisa had become the Countess de Saldar. The Countess decided that her brother Evan must also marry well, and she tried to ally him with Rose Jocelyn, who had money of her own.
When Mrs. Harrington told Evan about old Mel’s debts, the son consented to go to London and learn his trade from Mr. Goren; not even the Countess’ entreaties and assurances that Rose loved him could dissuade him from his course. Setting out for London on foot, he met Jack Raikes, an old school friend. They went to the Green Dragon Inn, where they joined a group of men at dinner. Old Tom Cogglesby, brother of Andrew, the brewer, presided. Among those present were Harry Jocelyn, Rose’s brother, and Ferdinand Laxley, his friend. Evan and Jack got into a drunken brawl involving much name-calling and many threats. The gentlemen present scoffed at Evan’s choice of trade. Laxley challenged Evan to a duel, but on learning that Evan was the son of a tailor, he haughtily declined to fight a common tradesman.
While watching a cricket match on the green on the day after the tavern brawl, Evan met Rose Jocelyn and her party, which included the Countess de Saldar. He was prevailed upon to visit the Jocelyns at Beckley Court before he went to London. As he rode along beside Rose, one of the men with whom he had quarreled the night before pointed him out as a tailor. At Beckley Court, the Countess was able to persuade Harry Jocelyn that Evan was not the tailor but that Jack Raikes was. Laxley still demanded that Evan deny his trade and fight the duel as a gentleman or else acknowledge it.
Laxley was one of Rose’s suitors. Resenting Evan, he continually challenged him to admit he was not a real gentleman. Since claiming that he was a gentleman would mean a duel with Laxley, Evan resolved to leave Beckley Court.
The Countess, fearing to see all her plans ruined, prevailed upon Evan to seek the advice of his relatives. Harriet, Caroline, and Andrew were also visiting at Beckley Court; Evan’s predicament concerned all of them. Andrew offered the young man a position in his brewery.
Glorying in her position, Rose encouraged her admirers to outrace each other in an amateur steeplechase; the prize would be her handkerchief. Evan won the prize but was injured when thrown from his horse.
There was a rumor in Lymport that at the age of sixteen the Countess de Saldar tried to run off with a certain George Uploft. Melchisedec allegedly had chased the pair down and ended the romance. When Uploft appeared at Beckley Court, the Countess brazenly defied him to recall her background. At dinner, the conversation swung to old Mel, and during the last anecdote, which involved Mel’s oldest daughter, Caroline swooned and was taken from the room. Uploft, however, had already recognized her as Mel’s daughter.
Although confined to bed because of his injury, Evan was still determined to leave Beckley Court. His masquerade of pretending to be one of the upper class when he was actually a tailor’s son was too much for him. That evening, seeing Rose in the garden, he followed her to claim the handkerchief that he had won. When Evan revealed his love for Rose and she responded, he promised himself that he would disclose his base origin to her.
The next day, Evan told Rose the facts about himself. She admitted that she already knew his story and loved him in spite of it, and she promised to fight her family for the right to marry him. She also asked him to accept employment as her Uncle Melville’s secretary.
Awaiting Evan’s arrival in London, Mr. Goren learned from Jack Raikes that Evan was loitering at Beckley Court. Mr. Goren wrote a complaint to Mrs. Harrington, who proceeded at once to Beckley Court. Stopping overnight at the Green Dragon Inn, she met the obstreperous Tom Cogglesby and tamed him with her efficiency and good sense. Since both were going to Beckley Court, they traveled together the next day. Tom said that he was on his way to help a tailor marry a gentlewoman.
The social involvements at Beckley Court grew more tense. Laxley was blamed for an outrageous blunder in revealing the whereabouts of a runaway wife whom Lady Jocelyn had befriended, and he was sent away. The Countess de Saldar had a triumphant moment. Mrs. Harrington conducted herself with finesse in the midst of a difficult situation.
The Harringtons, however, had been publicly exposed as the family of the tailor Melchisedec. Evan, fearing that he had lost Rose, discovered that his sister, the Countess de Saldar, was responsible for the anonymous letter Laxley was supposed to have written. Failing in his entreaties to convince his sister to confess the truth to Lady Jocelyn, Evan decided to take the blame for Laxley’s dismissal. After declaring his guilt to Lady Jocelyn, he also wrote to Laxley. Evan decided beforehand that if Laxley challenged him to a duel, he would refuse the challenge.
Juliana, Rose’s cousin and a plain-looking crippled girl, was in love with Evan and had always been loyal to him. From the beginning, she had known the facts about his background. When the question of his infamous deception involving Laxley arose, Juliana refused to believe ill of Evan.
On the day of Evan’s departure from Beckley Court, Rose came to him and asked him if he had been responsible for Laxley’s Fumiliation. Feeling that if she truly loved him she would not need to ask, he refused to explain. Laxley arrived and took possession of Rose. A note from Juliana informed Evan that she believed in him.
Evan prepared to follow his trade in Mr. Goren’s shop. The Cogglesbys, receiving Juliana as a guest in their home, set out to win Evan’s heart for the invalid girl; but Evan still pined for Rose, who cut him cruelly when she met him on the street.
When Andrew’s brewery went bankrupt and he lost all his property, the three sisters, who had been living in the Cogglesby house, were forced to go to their mother in Lymport. Juliana was in poor health, and at Evan’s request, Lady Jocelyn had taken her back to Beckley Court.
Juliana inherited Beckley Court upon the death of her grandmother. Just before she died of an incurable malady, Juliana wrote to Rose and revealed Evan’s innocence. She also wrote a will leaving her estate to Evan. Meanwhile Rose, engaged to Laxley, felt herself bound by promise to Evan and sent for him to release her before she could marry his rival. Evan did so with no show of self-sacrifice. Later Rose learned that Evan, rejecting Juliana’s bequest, had returned Beckley Court to Lady Jocelyn.
Everyone had become indebted to Evan for his generosity; he had simply tried to make everyone happy. Lady Jocelyn and Rose went to Lymport to thank him. There Rose, speaking with Evan alone, asked him why he had blackened his name to her. No longer compelled to pretend anything about himself, Evan rose manfully to the occasion. When he declared his love, Rose accepted him. Old Tom Cogglesby was delighted and offered to give Evan an income.
The sisters went back to their former ways of life. Mrs. Harrington became Tom Cogglesby’s housekeeper.
EVAN HARRINGTON displays George Meredith’s keen irony and fine sense of distinctions, both social and human, while his sense of appropriate detail lends the book a density and richness of design. It is easy to see the influence of Meredith’s friend and father-in-law Thomas Love Peacock in this early novel, especially in the witty dialogue. Epigrams stud the narrative—many of them truly witty, others too strained. For example, Meredith observes: “Most youths are like Pope’s women; they have no character at all.” The narrative, however, does not possess the extreme artificiality of Peacock; the story moves well, and many scenes are funny in themselves without the embroidery of added wit.
Meredith’s genius for comedy is allowed full scope in EVAN HARRINGTON’s almost farcical exposure of snobbery. What is a gentleman? The question is asked frequently in different forms throughout the book. The postillion thinks that he is a man with “a purse long and liberal,” but the Countess holds that he is indefinable. Evan seeks to become a gentleman safely and permanently, yet he is not happy about denying his filial past. The deceptive nature of appearances also plays an important part in the story. Is a man what he appears? asks Meredith. How far do a fine figure and bearing and patrician features go toward making a person truly of the gentry? Are the qualities that make a gentleman hereditary, or can they be acquired? How far can they be stretched without appearing absurd? Meredith poses the questions and then lets the reader draw his own conclusions from the events in the story. EVAN HARRINGTON is one of George Meredith’s most readable novels, filled with delightful characterizations, such as the Cogglesby brothers and Evan’s trio of snobbish sisters. Its comedy makes some shrewd points but is no less fun for its serious intent.