The Ordeal of Richard Feverel was George Meredith’s first novel, although by the time of its publication he had already published poetry, journalism, and two entertaining prose fantasies. George Eliot praised the novel, but other critics found it unconvincing and excessively intellectual. Later critics have generally agreed that it is somewhat thesis-ridden, but they find its flaws counterbalanced by wit and emotional force. It remains probably the most popular if not the most admired of Meredith’s novels.
There is no denying that at times Meredith’s concern for his thesis acts to the detriment of the novel. As a result, the novel serves as a kind of unintentional exemplification of this thesis: that life is too various, too rich, and too spontaneous to conform to even the most admirable system. Few readers can quite believe that Richard would remain separated from Lucy for as long as the plot requires, and the deaths of both Lucy and Clare seem to be less from natural than from authorial causes. These events are necessary to Meredith’s design, but he is unable to give them the quality of inevitability that characterize other elements of the plot.
The novel nevertheless works remarkably well. Meredith may have intended to keep Sir Austin Feverel at center stage, demonstrating the fatuity of high intelligence and lofty ideals when they lack the precious leaven of humor and common sense. The message is effectively conveyed, and Meredith’s comic purpose is served by a reader’s last sight of Sir Austin, still blindly clinging to his theories in the shipwreck of his beloved son’s life. It is, however, the romantic pathos of the love between Richard and Lucy that most fully engages readers and is most vivid at the novel’s conclusion. Meredith’s later revisions for a new edition suggest that he recognized what had happened to his original intention and concluded that the gain in emotional power was worth preserving. To thus value intense feeling above strict adherence to his preconceived system was a thoroughly Meredithian decision.
There is some latent Romanticism evident in Meredith’s representation of his characters. Adrian, young Richard’s tutor, is a sophisticated, classically educated epicurean whose detachment from...
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