George Meredith (1828-1909)
Willoughby Patterne was the lord/ inheritor of a vast estate in rural England. In his early twenties, he sought to fulfill his ancestral obligations by getting married and providing scions for the future. He met Letitia Dale, the daughter of a local land owner, and began to court her with marital prospects in mind. But he happened to meet Constantia Durham with whom he fell deeply in love and who henceforth attracted his attention, to the sorrow of Letitia, who continued caring for her sick father and occupying her time with routine tasks.
Sir Willoughby in turn received a jolt when Constantia eloped with Harry Oxford, Captain in a local regiment. Stunned, Willoughby looked to Letitia for consolation and love, but, understandably, she maintained a cool attitude toward his urgent protestations. Ten days later he embarked on a world tour with his long time friend, Vernon Whitford.
Three years later the two travelers returned and Willoughby resumed his search for a mate. He fixed on Clara Middleton, the daughter of a visiting scholar and professor famous for his Latinity and researches into Classical culture. Clara, overwhelmed and young, agreed to marry him, but soon after reneged on her promise as a result of realizing that she didn’t love him, and that he was a confirmed Egoist.
Willoughby viewed his estate as his own personal kingdom, a buffer of sorts against what he considered the “outside world”. He was convinced that unnamed cultural and social forces harbored malevolent intent inimical to his interests, and that he had to guard himself at all times from incursions by evil influences.
One of the frequent visitors to Patterne Hall was Lady Montstuart Jenkinson, an astute observer, who characterized Willoughby tersely: “You see he has a leg”. Meaning that he was egoistic and possessed of a certain narrowness of vision. She also had an opinion of Clara, that she was “a rogue captured in a porcelain vase”, alluding to her hidden resolve to follow her own star. Both of these analyses were proven to be accurate in the sequence.
Clara soon realized that she could never marry someone like Willoughby, but every aunt, uncle, father and friend were shocked by her attitude, and pressed her to fulfill what they considered to be her obligations. She felt alone and oppressed and could only relieve her misery by helping a local child, the son of a naval officer who had once walked ten miles to visit the Patternes but was turned away at the gate. The boy, Crossjay, played a critical role later in the book when he was witness to an attempt by Willoughby to propose marriage to his former love interest, Letitia. This occurred after Willoughby finally gave up trying to force Clara into marriage and evolved a plot to marry her to Vernon instead, while he convinced himself that he really had loved Letitia all along. (spoilers ahead)
Characteristically, after a long series of misunderstandings, complications, heart-rendings, and quarrels, Vernon and Clara, Willoughby and Letitia marry each other, and a certain resolution is arrived at. The first couple honeymoon in the Alps and the second pair travel to Italy.
This is a very complicated book. After reading about half of it i kept thinking about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in which the speed and location of a quantum particle cannot both be measured at the same time. Willoughby’s uncertainty about his marital prospects, Clara’s waffling over her emotional state, Letitia’s responsibilities to her sick father versus her duty to her former lover, the Reverend Doctor Middleton’s difficulties with preferring port wine to dealing with his daughter’s welfare, Crossjay’s attempts to behave at odds with his natural egg-stealing instincts, aunts Isabel and Eleanor having to change their minds over their nephew’s amatory variations, Ms. Busshe’s predicament over what to do with her wedding present… these all pend throughout the length of the novel, changing with the emotional ambiance experienced by the principal actors in unpredictable and sometimes exasperating ways.
Meredith is a great writer undoubtedly, but sometimes that judgment is more justified in quantity as opposed to quality. One of his sentences in Chapter 32 is 227 words long. But in general he tells an interesting tale and he has a lot of insight into how humans relate to each other and how they cope with their own internal demons. It’s characteristic of his overall conception that almost at the very end of the book, Letitia, Clara, and Willoughby all confess to being Egoists.
I think if i read this book again i’d get more out of it, but i can’t see that happening right away.