The great Mel – Melchisedec Harrington – is a tailor with delusions of grandeur. He was once mistaken for a Marquis &, ever since, enjoys pretending to be an upper-class member of the Harrington family when, in reality, he was a tailor in the town of Lymport-on-the-Sea. He ran up debts that he had no hope of paying & created embarrassments which his sensible, respectable wife, Henrietta Maria, had to deal with. Mel’s daughters had all married well but none of them had told their suitors that their father was a tailor. Harriet married rich brewer Andrew Cogglesby; Caroline married Major Strike & Louisa married a Portuguese Count & became Countess de Saldar. Only Andrew Cogglesby discovered the truth of his wife’s family & he was a good-natured man who couldn’t have cared less. The only son of the family, Evan, has not been brought up to be a tailor. He’s in that halfway state of being educated above his station but with no money to keep up any position at all. His father wanted him to go into the Navy, then the Army & in the end he went out to his sister, Louisa, in Portugal, where he has met the wealthy Jocelyn family of Beckley Court & fallen in love with Rose Jocelyn.
When the story begins, the Great Mel has died. His widow expects that Evan will come home, take up tailoring & pay his father’s debts. Evan arrives for the funeral alone (none of his sisters are willing to be seen in Lymport) & tries to comfort his mother. When Evan hears the situation, he agrees at once that he must pay his father’s debts but he’s in a dilemma. He’s in love with Rose, a young lady who has been heard to be scornful of tradesmen. Louisa, Countess of Saldar, is a schemer who is determined to see Evan marry either Rose or her cousin, Juliana Bonner, an invalid who is the heiress to Beckley Court, the home of the Jocelyns but the property of Rose’s grandmother, Mrs Bonner. She wangles an invitation to Beckley Court for herself, Evan & Caroline (who is unhappy with her abusive husband & is being pursued by the Duke of Belfield) & is disconcerted to find Andrew Cogglesby is also a guest. This is where the intrigue & machinations really begin.
Louisa is a beautiful woman who always has admirers hanging around her, including Rose’s brother, Harry, & several other members of the house party. Louisa is terrified that someone will discover the tailoring connection. Evan has promised to be apprenticed to a friend of his father’s but is reluctant to begin. He loves Rose but is conscious of his poverty & his connections. Rose realises that she loves Evan despite his background & announces her engagement to him. Ferdinand Laxley is another of Rose’s suitors & hearing rumours of Evan’s family, is determined to make mischief. The chief schemer though is Louisa. She imposes herself on the party, bewitching the men & irritating the women. When she writes a letter imitating Laxley’s handwriting to an absent husband alerting him to the affair of his wife with another guest, Lady Jocelyn dismisses Laxley from the house. When Evan discovers what Louisa has done, he confesses to writing the letter & his engagement with Rose is broken. The scene is set for tragedy mixed with quite a bit of farce.
Evan Harrington (cover from here) is a very strange book. If I hadn’t been reading it with my 19th century bookgroup, I don’t think I’d have read past the first few chapters. The tone is a mixture of social comedy, romance & farce & the prose is over the top & very convoluted. A whole lots of characters are introduced in the early chapters, tradesmen & creditors discussing the Great Mel, but then most of them disappear from the story & we’re left confused. But suddenly, about halfway through, I suddenly found I couldn’t put the book down & read the last half in just a few days. I was so irritated by the pretentious Countess at first but soon I just wanted to find out what outrageous scheme she would come up with next. Evan is a pretty colourless hero, honourable but silly. He is given money by a benefactor &, instead of paying off the debts or using it in some other useful way, he loans money to Harry Jocelyn (who has gotten a young working class woman pregnant) who is such a fool thatr he decides, on this evidence alone, that Evan must really be a gentleman after all. Anyway, now that he’s in the fellow’s debt, he can’t expose him as a tradesman as it would be bad form.
The women are more interesting than the men in this book. Mrs Mel, Evan’s mother, is a humourless but very proper woman who does the right thing no matter the consequences. I loved the scene when she’s at an inn & Old Tom Cogglesby (Andrew’s brother) arrives demanding his trunk taken up to his room, his chops perfectly cooked & his bed remade because it’s lumpy. The landlady’s in a complete flap but Mrs Mel manages Old Tom as though he were a recalcitrant child. It turns out they’re both on their way to Beckley Court & he offers her a lift in his donkey-cart. Rose begins as a rather affected, spoilt girl who is attracted to Evan but snobbish about class. She realises that love is more important when he confesses his background & she is very strong-minded when it comes to family opposition to her plan to marry Evan. Juliana is not a stereotypical Victorian invalid, she’s bad-tempered & resentful, prone to fits of weeping & sulking. She knows she’s plain & has nothing to recommend her but her position as heiress. She knows that Evan loves Rose but she finds it very difficult to be gracious about it.
Evan Harrington was one of Meredith’s first novels & he used his family background as the basis for the Harrington’s tailoring business. Apparently his father (who was a naval outfitter) was horrified by the novel & embarrassed that his son had used his life in his fiction. I think the varying tone of the novel – from serious romance to farce – comes from inexperience. Some of the characters are just eccentric for the sake of it, Evan’s friend John Raikes for instance, &, like many three volume novels, it’s too long. However, there are scenes like the picnic & the races, which are so beautifully done. It’s a real mixture of styles & tone but when it works, it’s immensely readable.
George Meredith was such a well-known figure in his time but is hardly read at all now. Only The Egoist seems to be in print although his work is available as eBooks. His best-known novel is Diana of the Crossways, which was reprinted by Virago & has been sitting on my tbr shelves for a very long time. Diana was based on Caroline Norton & I was so impressed by his female characters in Evan Harrington that I really must read Diana soon. Meredith was well-connected in literary circles (he was a reader for publishers Chapman & Hall) & knew Hardy, Tennyson, & Rossetti. He advised Hardy not to publish his first novel because the satire was too savage & Meredith’s career had suffered from adverse criticism of his early novels & their “low moral tone”. As I’ve been reading Max Beerbohm’s essays recently, I loved this caricature by Beerbohm of Meredith trying to get Rossetti to go for a country walk. Janey Burden languishes in the background. Meredith was known for his love of nature & he was a respected & revered figure in London literary society. Although his health declined in his old age, he continued to be visited by friends at his home at Box Hill until the end of his life.