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.