Once Richard and Lucy are married, communicating by letter becomes even more problematic. The morning after the wedding, Richard sends letters via Ripton to both his father and Lady Blandish. The latter condoles with the irate father, and tries to show him her letter; but Sir Austin refuses to look at it : "I think I have enough to meditate upon," he tells her grimly (328), before crumpling up his own letter from Richard and tossing it in the fire. Instead of trying to see things from his son's point of view, he hugs his disappointment to him, and makes no move towards reconciliation. In fact, when Richard is persuaded by his cousin Adrian to leave Lucy in their honeymoon lodgings on the Isle of Wight, and come up to London to await a summons to Raynham Abbey, his father makes himself scarce. He has a vague idea, too "ugly" for him to admit even to himself at first, that the innocent young man should be "tried and tested" in town (370). When Lady Blandish sends him a "vehement entreaty" to return and forgive his son, the baronet replies only by expatiating on woman's role in the fall of man. It is a strange letter, as from the misogynistic "PILGRIM," its bitterness not so much "moderated through his philosophy" as overflowing it. In addressing an inclusive "you" before adopting the third-person "her," it expresses his criticism of Lady Blandish herself, along with other feelings for her that he fears but cannot quash: "The Serpent has slimed her so to secure him!.... The Serpent laughs below. At the gateways of the Sun they fall together!" Nowhere perhaps is Sir Austin's sexual repression more evident (see Spånburg 219). Understandably, all this is too much for Lady Blandish. She resents the presumption of moral superiority: "'He tries to be more than he is,' thought the lady: and she began insensibly to conceive him less than he was" (384-85).

George Meredith and his son Arthur, by Meredith's friend William Hardman [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image].

Now correspondence not only fails to heal rifts; it widens them. As Richard, for all his good intentions, gets sucked into the demi-monde, yet another flurry of letters ensues. Inspired by the idealism fostered in him by his father's "System," he has cast himself as the champion of fallen women. With Ripton's help, he has already hunted out the mother who deserted him in childhood, and extricated her somewhat unwillingly from her dishonourable relationship. His old nursemaid, Mrs Berry, rightly sees the dangers of such naive heroics, and tries hard to reunite him with Lucy. Lucy, however, is in touch with Adrian, who convinces her that Richard has a better chance of being welcomed by his father without her. So she responds to Richard's summons with a "cheerful rigmarole he could make nothing of, save that she was happy in hope, and still had fears." Even the barely literate Mrs Barry is driven to pick up her pen at this point. "You poor marter," she writes to Lucy, drawing our attention to the strain she is under, and also reminding us of an alternative view of women to Sir Austin's. "I know what your sufferins [sic] be" (397). Lucy's subsequent letters to Richard are more subdued. "yet she never called him to come, or he would have gone" (403).

Much as Mrs Berry had feared, Richard ends up being unfaithful to Lucy. He falls into the enticing arms of Bella Mount, Lord Mountfalcon's ex-mistress. As well as having made Meredith's clerical friend Augustus Jessopp "ill for 24 hours" (Letters 1:116), this affair produces two important letters, one from Richard to Bella, and one from Bella to Richard. True to form, one finds its way into other hands, and one is delayed. Neither serves its intended purpose, and one turns out to have fatal repercussions.

The first, Richard's to Bella, is an urgent request begging her to meet him again: "Come, my bright Hell-star! ... You have taught me how Devils love, and I can't do without you" (418). This is as strange and overwrought as Sir Austin's "Serpent" letter to Lady Blandish. Apparently recognising the note of self-hate and desperation here, Bella ignores it. But it is found by the Hon. Peter Brayder, Lord Mountfalcon's henchman. He has been manipulating Bella, engaging her to keep Richard busy while Mountfalcon lays siege to Lucy in the Isle of Wight. He takes the incriminating note to Mountfalcon, who reacts with hypocritical self-righteousness, and determines to tell Lucy how he feels about her. Bella, however, is better than she seems. Realising for the first time the identity of Mountfalcon's target, she dashes off a letter to Richard at his London hotel, explaining the trap he has fallen into, and telling him to hurry to Lucy's side. "Now listen to me," she insists, in a forthright tone at odds with her feminine handwriting, "I am quite sure you are too much of a man to stop away from her another moment" (479). But the letter is not destined to reach Richard yet.

"Where there is no plot, no story, the author generally maunders," Meredith explained to his friend Frederick Maxse in September 1859, less than three months after The Ordeal of Richard Feverel was published (Letters I: 41). In typical fashion, therefore, he has by now introduced another complication for his hero. Richard's quiet, gentle cousin Clare, who had adored him from childhood, has committed suicide. His aunt lets him read her diary, and the extracts given here — forming another important interpolation — reveal that his cavalier treatment of her had driven her to despair: "I cannot live. Richard despises me." This whole episode is profoundly revealing. It shows how closely Meredith already attends to the entire writing/reading process, as he describes how the physical appearance of Clare's handwriting on the page reflects her feelings (especially the large, despairing, uncontrolled scrawl at the end); and how a tearful Richard veers between jolts of remembrance and a reluctance to process what he is reading: "he wrapped the thought in shrouds" (444-45). In his later novels, Meredith would be even more insistent on "the work of reading" (Jones 92), the challenging task of wresting meaning from the written word. As for Richard, he finally accepts the implications here. Realising how badly he has let down both Lucy and Clare, aware too of how badly he has let himself down, he leaves London for the Continent.

In one sense, Bella's letter is not too late: Lucy's innocence keeps Mountfalcon at bay until Mrs Berry arrives to support her. But at this point, communication breaks down entirely. Having made his way to the Rhineland, Richard fears to be drawn back before managing somehow to "cleanse" himself (446). He feels too morally sullied to re-enter the paradisiacal "alternative world" that he and Lucy had found for themselves (see Keen 9), and stops reading the letters that do catch up with him, destroying them on receipt. Thus he learns nothing of Lucy's pregnancy, the birth of their son, and her reconciliation with his father. "Why, they all wrote to you. Lucy wrote to you.: your father, your aunt. I believe Adrian wrote too," says yet another cousin, the thoroughly good-hearted and sensible Austin Wentworth, who finally tracks him down to Nassau (461). Of course, Richard has failed to reply to these unread missives. Lucy has not heard from him for months now. As she had said tearfully earlier, "I could live on his letters for years. But not to hear from him!" (425).

Ironically, the one letter that should have been destroyed, Bella's account of Mountfalcon's machinations, is still waiting for Richard in England. Greatly moved by news of his fatherhood, Richard at last makes his way home. Walking in a forest in Nassau during a storm, he had picked up a leveret and felt it licking his hand roughly: "What did it say to him? Human tongue could not have said so much just then" (464). This pre-Lawrentian moment, with its explicit acknowledgement of the inadequacy of words, had been reinforced by the sight of a Madonna and Child in a simple roadside shrine. But, on arriving in London, he stops to collect his mail and reads the fatal letter. He does so uninterruptedly and in absolute silence. The impact on him is enormous. The flame of his revelation at Nassau gutters. What does it matter that Bella's news is stale, and that Lucy is still loyally waiting for him? He had been toyed with. His weakness had been played on, and he had succumbed. He must prove himself! Whilst abroad he had nurtured lofty thoughts of liberating Italy: "Had he not been nursed to believe he was born for great things?" (459). Now he has a cause of his own. Bella had urged a public caning for Brayder, but instead Richard impulsively delivers a challenge to Mountfalcon himself.

Thanks to this one out-of-date letter, the reunion at Raynham becomes a poignant leave-taking, the prelude to a foolish, dangerous mission which he refuses to abandon. In turning his back on his epiphany, he also turns down the last chance to escape the toils of his father's "System" (see Lindsay 90). As he hurries off to defend his honour in the duel, Lucy is left traumatised, and all hope of a happy ending fades.

Related Material

Works Cited

Hardman, William. A Mid-Victorian Pepys: The Letters and Memoirs of Sir William Hardman, MA FRGS. Ed. S.M. Ellis. London: Cecil Palmer, 1923.

Jones, Anna Maria. Problem Novels: Victorian Fiction Theorizes the Sensational Self. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007.

Keen, Suzanne. Victorian Renovations of the Novel: Narrative Annexes and the Boundaries of Representation. Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 1998.

Lindsay, Jack. George Meredith, His Life and Work. London: Bodley Head, 1956.

Meredith, George. Letters. Ed. C.L. Cline, 3 Vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.

_____. The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: A History of Father and Son. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Penguin Classics, 1998. See note at the end of Part I.

Spånburg , Sven Johan. "The Theme of Sexuality in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel.." Studia Neophilologica. Vol. 46, No. 1 (1974): 202-224.


Last modified 21 June 2010