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Meredith and the Novel.

NEIL ROBERTS. Pp. viii+286. Houndmills, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press, 1997. [pounds]42.50.

The reputation of George Meredith remains uncertain. His most discussed work remains his poem sequence Modern Love (1862), the subject of a minor controversy at the time of its publication. The literary histories usually mention The Egoist and perhaps The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, but there has been little taste for getting to grips with either the remainder of his fiction or his poetry. Critical studies of his work are therefore not frequent, and for this reason alone Neil Roberts's book is a significant event in Meredith studies.

The beginning of the 1970s saw a burst of Meredith scholarship. There was Gillian Beer's Meredith: A Change of Masks (1970), Clines's three-volume edition of the letters, V. S. Pritchett's George Meredith and English Comedy, Ian Fletcher's collection of critical essays in 1971, and a Critical Heritage volume edited by loan Williams. Judith Wilt's The Readable People of George Meredith followed in 1975. In the 1980s we had Mohammed Shaheen's George Meredith: A Reappraisal of the Novels (1981), Joseph Moses' George Meredith and the Ironic Sensibility (1983), Renate Muendel's overview in the Twayne series (1986), and James Stone's George Meredith's Politics (1986). In 1988 Beauchamp's Career was edited for the World's Classics series by Margaret Harris.

Roberts opens by referring to the inability of early reviewers to cope with 'the stylish variation and genre-breaking formal innovation of a novel such as The Ordeal of Richard Feverel' (p. 1). While agreeing with critics who find Meredith's writing irritating, Roberts claims such irritation is merely indicative of the presence of the new. In other words, Woolf was right when she stated that Meredith deliberately challenged and broke with fictional traditions to produce a new kind of novel. This explains the failure of critics to interpret Meredith successfully. Roberts argues that Meredith can be read with an excitement 'like that of reading new work'.

Roberts's discussion of Meredith is informed throughout by Mikhail Bakhtin, in particular Bakhtin's concept of 'heteroglossia, the many-voiced, already-uttered, already-intended, ideologically crowded character of language as it really exists in society' (p. 2). Roberts uses Bakhtin to explain the kind of instabilities in Meredith's novels which traditional criticism has found detrimental, since 'the novel . . . embraces a conflict-ridden linguistic diversity' (p. 2). Meredith shows a self-consciousness about style 'in registering and organizing what Bakhtin calls the "languages of heteroglossia". He is less a stylist than a stylizer' (p. 3).

Roberts goes on in the introduction to say some interesting things about the way Meredith subverts Victorian plot conventions, 'interpolated genre' (p. 7), his troubled relationship with the reading public, and his awareness of shifting linguistic codes in relation to class. The first chapter is devoted to The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, looking back at its handling by critics of various times and persuasions and concluding by discussing the novel in the context of 'menippean satire' (p. 46). Chapter 2 surveys the four novels of the 1860s, from Evan Harrington's entry into a novelistic context dominated by Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to Vittoria, a decade Roberts sees as marked by Meredith's unsuccessful attempt to curb his own artistic ambitions for the sake of popularity.

Individual chapters are given to The Adventures of Harry Richmond, Beauchamp's Career, The Egoist, The Tragic Comedians (where Roberts draws attention to that novel's intertextuality), and Diana of the Crossways. The study concludes with 'The Final Phase', which covers One of our Conquerors, Lord Ormont and his Aminta, and The Amazing Marriage.

This is a neat way of moving Meredith's work on to new ground. I am not sure whether most readers will find the overall argument entirely persuasive. For example, Roberts refers to a passage from One of our Conquerors as 'an instance where his fractured and contorted style is triumphantly justified as the mediation of a dissident vision' (p. 239). A host of artistic failures might be justified in this way. Furthermore, some of the most perceptive moments seem to me to happen in spite of, rather than because of, the Bakhtinian methodology. At times, one wishes the critic could find his way around what is for most readers fairly uncharted territory without this particular compass.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Rooksby, Rikky
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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