George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career (1875)

by Mark Wallace

In the never-ending game of musical chairs that is literary-canon formation, a “continual selection and re-selection of ancestors” as Raymond Williams says (The Long Revolution, Penguin, 1980, p. 69), there are winners and losers. George Meredith might have seemed to his contemporaries likely to join the immortals, but rather than the Dickenses, George Eliots, &c., Meredith has taken his place at the bottom table with the Bulwer Lyttons and Charles Levers of the day; that is, he is no longer read very much. He wasn’t as widely and lucratively popular as Lytton and Lever in his day, either, so he’s really getting it at both ends. I read about the Carlylean influence on Beauchamp’s Career (1875), so had to seek out that book for myself. Though the book hasn’t been properly reprinted in a long time, the advent of the Kindle means it’s easily available, and free in the Amazon Kindle edition. As I was beginning Beauchamp’s Career, a blog post appeared on my WordPress reader: “Five Reasons Everyone Should Know George Meredith” from Interesting Literature. Therein I learned, among other things, that Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was inspired by a Meredith poem of the same name. Perhaps revealingly, though, none of the reasons were really to do with Meredith’s novels, earlier considered his most impressive achievement. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica has it:

[I]n Meredith went the writer who had raised the creative art of the novel, as a vehicle of character and constructive philosophy, to its highest point – a point higher indeed than most contemporary readers were prepared for. The estimate of his genius formed by “an honorable minority”, who would place him in the highest class of all, by Shakespeare, has yet to be confirmed by the wider suffrage of posterity.

This analysis has one common theme in contemporary criticism of Meredith: that he was too good, too smart and too insightful for the general populace to appreciate, and so always remained a minority taste, respected but not widely read. Nor, as the Interesting Literature writer acknowledged, has the wider suffrage of posterity much heeded Meredith. He holds now an intermediate position, let us call it sub-canonical, not quite forgotten, but not very much remembered.

Beauchamp’s Career was apparently a favourite of Meredith’s own (EB again), but he’s been in a minority on that one. The novel deals with one Nevil Beauchamp, an idealistic young person who goes into politics as a self-proclaimed “radical” and talks a lot about the degeneracy of the aristocracy and the need to unite the classes. It’s a political novel, then, and this genre often doesn’t age well, because although certain broad themes of politics are timeless, the concentration is often on details and hair-splitting ideological debate that quickly loses interest – and to many isn’t even of interest in the first place. Beauchamp’s Career isn’t just a political novel; more specifically than that, in the first half at least, it’s an electioneering novel. Beauchamp is running for parliament, and the novel deals with the period of B.’s life immediately preceding and succeeding the election, and follows him as he canvasses and involves himself in heated debate with people of a Tory persuasion.

Maybe part of the reason why so little seems to be at stake in Beauchamp’s long discussions is that no effort is made to actually show how the populace outside of B.’s circle of acquaintances lives. There is the familiar condition-of-England novel talk of providing leadership for “the people”:

Nevil was for a plan, a system, immediate action; the descending among the people, and taking and initiative LEADING them, insisting on their following, not standing aloof and shrugging. (Kindle ed., loc 399)

Yet “the people” themselves only exist in the novel as a subject of Nevil and his friends’ discourse: they are just there to be talked about, that’s what the people are for. So Beauchamp’s Career is less of a condition-of-England novel than say, Gaskell’s North and South, which makes a real attempt, most notably in the depiction of strike leader Nicholas Higgins, to faithfully represent the voice of the workers. And much of Nevil’s conversation also has romantic subtext, in that he’s conducting several frienships with eligible young ladies – its clear he’s going to marry one of them, it’s just which one that is in question. With all of these young ladies he conducts long state-of-the-nation discussions. So rather than simply talking about political questions, there’s a mutual emotional and moral feeling-out between the characters in these conversations, which agains asks questions about how seriously the actual socio-political questions are being taken, when they don’t provide enough dramatic interest to stand on their own.

Yet the Carlyle influence is strong in this one, which renders it of some interest to this blog. Early on we find that:

[Nevil’s] favourite author was one writing of Heroes, in a style resembling either early architecture of utter dilapidation, so loose and orugh it seemed; a wind-in-the-orchard style, that tumbled down here and there an appreciable fruit with uncoth blusterr; sentences without commencements running to adrupt endings and smoke, like waves against a sea-wall, learned dictionary words giving a hand to street-slang, like slant rays from driving clouds; all the pages in a breeze, the whole book producing a kind of electrical agitation in the mind and the joints. (loc 314)

This “one writing on Heroes” is obviously Carlyle, and shortly thereafter the figure of Dr Shrapnel appears, soon to become a political and personal mentor to Beauchamp, and to some extent an avatar of Carlyle (see Gary Handwerk, “On Heroes and their Demise: Critical Liberlism in Beauchamp’s Career”, Studies in English Literature, 27:4 (1987)). All very well, yet taking off my Carlyle-studier hat and putting on my general-reader hat, I can’t say I found much to whet my appetite for more Meredith in Beauchamp’s Career. I’ll have to return to him later, particularly his most famous novel The Egoist, but until then I can’t bring myself to lament greatly his lack of posthumous fame.

Link: A more favourable blog appraisal of Beauchamp’s Career