It has always beensaid of George Meredith that, in the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘as a novelist he can do anything except tell a story.’ ‘Regarding narrative,’ J.B. Priestley declared, ‘every novel that Meredith wrote is not merely faulty but downright bad.’ On Meredith’s centenary in 1928, Arnold Bennett summarised the problem: ‘He wanders vaguely around. He gets lost. Even when going straight he often goes too slowly. So that the reader says impatiently to himself: “Yes. This is brilliant and sound stuff, but it irritates me, and I almost wish I hadn’t begun the thing.”’ Such was my experience with The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871). It revs up like a great novel, before driving off a narrative cliff. Yet by the end I still felt I had read something significant. So what is Meredith up to when he isn’t telling a story?

Let’s go back to the beginning. It is the middle of the night, and the inhabitants of Riversley Grange are woken by a banging on the door. On the step is a man barred from the house: Richmond Roy, his features ‘exceedingly frank and cheerful’. He wants to see his wife. According to her father, the expostulatory Squire Beltham (a descendant of Fielding’s Squire Western), she returned to the family home years earlier after finding Roy to be ‘a liar and a beast’, and has since gone mad. The request for access is brusquely denied. Having expressed his regret (‘My wife deranged! I might presume it too truly an inherited disease’), Roy changes tack and asks for his little boy instead. Harry is brought down: ‘It appeared to him that the stranger was of enormous size, like the giants of fairy books: for as he stood a little out of the doorway there was a peep of night sky and trees behind him, and the trees looked very much smaller, and hardly any sky was to be seen except over his shoulders.’ Roy is destined to dominate his son’s field of vision, to appear magically more than lifesize; already Harry is struggling to get him into proportion.

The squire attempts to buy Roy off. He responds with what we will soon recognise as a characteristic piece of impromptu rhetoric, gathering momentum and conviction from sentence to sentence: ‘The boy is mine; I have him, and he shall traverse the wilderness with me. By heaven! His destiny is brilliant.’ When the squire pushes Harry out into the night, Roy is dumbfounded. Yet here we see something else characteristic: his ability to make something out of nothing. After some ‘moments of irresolution’, he lifts Harry onto his shoulder and departs, ‘like a horse to whose neck a smart touch of the whip has been applied’.

Harry’s journey to London becomes his origin myth: ‘that night stands up … like the brazen castle of romance round which the sea-tide flows.’ The rest of the book is told in the first person and so, like Harry, we lose the ability to see Roy from a distance. Established in his new life, the boy is enraptured by his father, who is an actor and storyteller of distinction. Meredith brilliantly captures the imaginative intensity of this relationship – for both parties, though we see it only from the perspective of the besotted child. There is something odd about Roy’s spinning of tales about British heroes (‘I understood very early that it was my duty to imitate them’), and his making his son do ‘exercises in early English history and the book of the Peerage’. When Harry proudly performs his knowledge, he comes to expect their landlady’s ‘invariable whisper: “Blood Rile,” she said; and her friends all said “No!” like the run of a finger down a fiddlestring.’ We realise, as Harry does not yet, that his father purports to be royalty.

At the same time, we are given firm evidence to justify the squire’s charge that Roy is a ‘damned scamp’. He is often absent for days on end, and is eventually arrested for debt. Harry is moved uncomprehendingly to a farm in the country, until Roy returns in a blaze of monied glory, taking him back to London and to a townhouse containing a pet monkey and many images of kings. Harry is told he has a new name, Richmond Roy, like his father (‘I said “Very well,” for I was used to change’), is whisked around Europe and given a sense of his position: ‘It is our duty, my son, never to forget names and persons.’ But soon it’s all over (Roy has spent the fortune that belonged to Harry’s mother, who has died). Leaving the house as the bailiffs take possession, father and son drive off in a carriage outfitted in the red livery reserved for royalty:

We had an extraordinary day. People stood fast to gaze at us; in the country some pulled off their hats and set up a cheer. The landlords of the inns where we baited remained bareheaded until we started afresh, and I, according to my father’s example, bowed and lifted my cap gravely to persons saluting us along the roads. Nor did I seek to know the reason for this excess of respectability; I was beginning to take to it naturally.

It is a dreamlike journey, moving seamlessly to Harry’s abrupt abandonment at a school and Roy’s disappearance (there were in fact two days in between, but ‘memory transplants me from the coach and scarlet livery straight to my place of imprisonment’).

At this point the novel badly loses its way. Harry remains as a pupil, initially much petted, until his fees are not paid, and he is birched instead. He gets into various forms of bother, eventually escapes and befriends a Gypsy girl, finds himself back at Riversley Grange under the gruff but kindly supervision of the squire, escapes again and goes to London, gets lost in the fog and ends up on a ship headed for Germany whose captain is determined to save his soul. It’s tiresome.

Harry finds his father again in strange circumstances. The scene was once famous, at that high noon when Robert Louis Stevenson thought Meredith second only to Shakespeare. Roy has become a sort of court jester for a German margravine and – to cut a long story short – has agreed to pose as a newly erected equestrian statue in bronze, so that she can win a bet. The ruse convinces everyone until Harry passes by the statue:

Its chest heaved; both bronze hands struck against the bosom.

‘Richmond! my son! Richie! Harry Richmond! Richmond Roy!’

That was what the statue gave forth.

My head was like a ringing pan. I knew it was my father, but my father with death and strangeness, earth, metal, about him; and his voice was like a human cry contending with earth and metal – mine was stifled. I saw him descend … We met at the ropes and embraced. All his figure was stiff, smooth, cold. My arms slid on him. Each time he spoke I thought it an unnatural thing: I myself had not spoken once.

Roy is an idol with feet of clay. In that ‘stiff, smooth, cold’ embrace, we sense Harry’s dawning discomfort with the person his father really is. Things are never again quite as they were.

Harry Richmond continues for another four hundred pages, and while there is no shortage of incident (including further German and Gypsy escapades), it is largely plotless, ‘a dream and a chaos’, in the phrase of the critic Oliver Elton. So what is Meredith doing when he’s failing to tell a story? The answer is that we are being offered a study of character. Viewed from Harry’s increasingly adult perspective, we see Roy more accurately and, in an odd way, more appreciatively. We have excused Harry’s hero worship on grounds of youth, but now we realise that Roy really is a sort of genius. In spite of his dubious reputation, he attains the summit of London society. As he manoeuvres expensively to secure his own and Harry’s position, we are dazzled by his serene and justified confidence, his savoir-faire, his grand enjoyment of life. It is a pleasure to see him surrounded once again by the accoutrements of his old successes: back comes the townhouse and Mrs Waddy the housekeeper; back comes Alphonse the indispensable chef; back comes credit, apparently infinite. His dialogue is impeccable: ‘When you are on a runaway horse – I prefer to say a racehorse – Richie, you must ride him … Retrenchment at this moment is perdition’; ‘I do not like to have my debts disturbed.’

If Roy has an analogue it is Dickens’s Micawber, but he is, as Elton said, ‘Micawber in excelsis’. Harry’s descriptions of his father evoke his ceaseless onrush: ‘I heard his nimble and overwhelming volubility like a flood advancing’; ‘he figured in my apprehensive imagination as an engine more than as an individual.’ He recognises that Roy is ‘hardly able to respond to a call on his past life and mine. His future, too, was present tense: “We do this,” not “we will do this”; so that, generally, no sooner did we speak of an anticipated scene than he was acting in it.’ A dream and a chaos, indeed. The form of the novel, in its haphazard forward movement, is an effect of Roy’s ‘swamping initiative’, his permanent present tense. It is a picaresque, but it isn’t Harry – unlike Tom Jones or Peregrine Pickle – who is its motive force. Harry has adventures, but his father is the adventurer.

As a boy Harry moves between conscious belief in his father and subconscious doubt. As a young man, it begins to be a matter of conscious doubt and subconscious belief. The latter is more dangerous, and more poignant. At one point Harry refers to his ‘thirsty craving’ to have his father ‘inflating me, puffing the deep unillumined treasure-pits of my nature … as mines are filled with air to keep the miners going. While he talked he made these inmost recesses habitable. But the pain lay in my having now and then to utter replies. The task of speaking was hateful.’ Harry, like his father, or perhaps because of him, is a romantic. It is pleasant to exist in his father’s fantasy world. No matter how often he is confronted by Roy’s worst excesses and by the emptiness behind the bluster, he always finds himself falling back under the spell. That is, until he finally begins to learn. Many of Meredith’s novels take the form of the ‘ordeal’ (the original is The Ordeal of Richard Feverel), the rocky climb to self-understanding. Harry’s ordeal is his father. It is only when he hardens into a separate personality, sealing off those ‘treasure-pits’ in his nature, that Roy stops puffing and the novel can end.

One of Meredith’s most interesting narrative dodges relates to Roy’s supposed royal blood, which is only intermittently raised. This was no doubt forced by concerns about propriety, but also seems congenial to Meredith’s instinct for displacement. It slowly emerges that Roy is the son of an actress who allegedly made a secret marriage with an heir to the throne (Meredith must have been thinking of George IV and Maria Fitzherbert, as well as William IV and Dorothea Jordan). Roy’s mother died on his fourth birthday – ‘I remember to this day my astonishment at her not moving’ – and the success of his ‘claim’, which gives his life meaning, depends on his ability to prove that the marriage really occurred. It is one of the few things he cannot do. Therefore it is Roy, and not Harry, who is fixed in the identity of a child. In this way he really is equivalent with the ‘mild, flabby, amiable-looking old person’ working in the City of London who believes himself to be the dauphin of France, the little son of the beheaded Louis XVI, and with whom much sport is made at Roy’s expense.

A father looms as large, is as romantic and elusive in Roy’s life as in Harry’s. This is a novel full of fathers and sons, and fathers and daughters, but empty of mothers. Meredith hardly knew his own mother, who died when he was five, and he lived separately from his father, a bankrupt, for most of his childhood (when he was 21, his father decamped to South Africa). His marriage to Mary Ellen Nicolls, daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, one of his writer heroes, ended in 1857 after she absconded with the painter Henry Wallis. Meredith took sole custody of their four-year-old son, Arthur; Mary Ellen died in 1861. There are photographs of Meredith and Arthur that might be of Roy and Harry; the father large, bearded and vital, standing with his arm around the boy, or with the boy planted firmly on his knee. In them we can see defiance, as well as vulnerability. But by the time Meredith began work on Harry Richmond in the mid-1860s he had a new wife and, with her, a new son. What does it tell us about this man’s anxieties, that he conjured a great ordeal out of a superabundance of paternity in a motherless world?

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