Now The Egoist was sat on the metaphorical bookshelf of my kindle for rather a while before I finally picked up. I first heard about it when researching the bestselling novels of the Victorian period, and was intrigued by the fact I hadn’t really heard of George Meredith before. I was half hesitant, half excited. When it comes to popular Victorian novels that have slipped from today’s literary culture, you can never be sure whether they’re going to turn out to be an underrated hidden gem or one of those deservedly-forgotten novels.
I was not disappointed. I thoroughly loved this book.
George Meredith’s The Egoist, published in 1879, follows a self-centred young gentleman, Sir Willoughby Patterne, and his attempts to marry. At the start of the novel, Sir Willoughby is jilted by his fiancée, Miss Durham, when she runs off with another gentleman. He spends a few years travelling abroad, before returning older and, to his mind, wiser. He soon courts and becomes engaged to a young woman named Clara Middleton, and everything looks set for a happy marriage. Until Clara and her father come to stay with Sir Willoughby at his country estate in the weeks leading up to the wedding, and Clara begins to realise she may have made a terrible mistake.
The way The Egoist examines Victorian marriage and the position women were expected to inhabit within marriage is fascinating. I have loved Victorian literature for a long time, and while I’ve read a lot of Victorian novels which end with marriage, and many which feature them, it was refreshing and interesting to read a novel focusing on the nature of Victorian engagement. As the title might suggest, Sir Willoughby is deeply self-centred and has no interest in anyone but himself. He expects his future wife to be the other half of his soul, to bend her character, thoughts, opinions and personality to him. He is concerned that Clara does ‘not sufficiently think of making herself a nest for him’, and wants to ‘shape her character to the feminine of his own.’ It distresses him that Clara has opinions which are not the same as his, and insists that she changes them. As Clara begins to see Willoughby’s true character, she realises what a marriage with him would be like, and refuses to submit to it. For her, ‘My mind is my own, married or not.’
The problem Clara encounters is just how difficult it is for her to detach herself from Willoughby. He refuses to give her up, and her father thinks she is being foolish. Meredith brilliantly examines the position of women in Victorian society, how little independence women had, moving as they did from being the possessions of their fathers to the possessions of their husband. This theme of possession, of the expectation on Victorian women to amend their personalities to fit their husbands’, of the ‘slavery’ and inequality at the heart of Victorian marriage, is fascinating. In terms of its presentation of gender, The Egoist is one of the most interesting Victorian novels I have ever read.
Moreover, the whole novel is brilliantly intense. I kept imagining it as a film or play: its cast of characters is relatively small, and the bulk of the novel only takes place over a few weeks. We are given such a profound and intense insight into the emotions of Clara and Willoughby. The subtle intricacies of the plot, the seemingly endless circle of Clara attempting and failing to be free of Willoughby – these aspects make for a brilliant, engaging, fascinating book
Clara herself is a brilliant character. Indecisive, confused, filled with internal divisions – Meredith brilliantly captures her every emotion, making her intensely realistic and fully realised. Willoughby is hypocritical, at times painful to read in his disingenuous devotion, his blindness to certain aspects of his own character. He makes you wince, but he is brilliantly, atrociously believable, a model of Victorian upper class masculinity drawn to extreme. The character of Crossjay, a young relative of Willoughby’s, is a clever device. He reveals significant sides of Clara and Willoughby’s personalities, and affects where our sympathies lie. I love Laetitia Dale, and her character development across the whole of the novel is fascinating. Vernon Whitford was perhaps my favourite character. He is nearly an enigma throughout, lovable and respected, honourable and interesting, and never fully known. His role in the novel’s ending made me especially happy.
All in all, I thoroughly loved The Egoist. It is an engaging and enjoyable read, funny, moving, beautiful. Meredith’s exploration of Victorian marriage and gender expectations made for fascinating, powerful reading. This is one I would strongly recommend for all fans of Victorian literature.
Greatest strength: The fascinating and complex presentation of Victorian gender roles and expectations, and Victorian marriage as an institution.
Greatest weakness: This is not an easy read. It is dense, long and windy, and can at times be difficult. However, I wouldn’t let that put you off, especially if you’re already a fan of Victorian literature; the content and themes more than make up for the sometimes difficult prose.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘She fell in her own esteem; less because she was the betrothed Clara Middleton, which was now palpable as a shot in the breast of a bird, than that she was a captured woman, of whom it is absolutely expected that she must submit… Clara had the shame of her sex. They cannot take a step without becoming bondwomen: into what a slavery!’
Next week: The Sea Singer, by Shome Dasgupta