Thursday, July 24, 2008

One of Our Conquerors by George Meredith

One of Our Conquerors is a very good, if not great, novel, but I closed it thinking, “This is enough Meredith for now.” Meredith writes witty, epigrammatic, baroque English: some will like it, others not. The main issue of the novel is divorce, and it is reminiscent of Edith Wharton's themes, also dealing with hypocrisy and the double standard for women.

In the first chapter, Victor Radner, the Babbit-like businessman and central character, sullies his white waistcoat. Cleaning up the “absurd blots of smutty knuckles” and buying a new waistcoat is easier than defending the sullied reputation of his mistress of 20 years, Nataly, who, blackballed by bores, never finds her place in society. Their daughter, Nesta, who grows up in their bohemian musical circle (Nataly is a former singer), knows nothing of their unmarried relationship. Money can protect Nesta, if not Nataly. Victor blames his first wife, who still bears his name, Radner, for not giving him a divorce. He says she shouldn’t have married him in the first place: she was too old. Divorce is the issue, but so is Victor's hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of society. Two women’s lives have been ruined. Nataly, increasingly worn and sensitive, has almost ceased to love him.

Victor does has a buoyant sense of humor, which makes him likable. He laughs about his waistcoat. “But I am taking it seriously,’ he said, and jerked a dead laugh, while fixing a button of his coat.”

The dead laugh--this sadly is the tone of the whole novel. Every incident follows on Meredith's beautifully planned interwoven path.

We see some of the chapters through Nataly’s and Nesta’s points of view. Meredith understands them very well. They love Victor, but he is too ostentatious for them. They want to live a quieter life.

This is a very worthwhile, and the more I think about it, unconventional novel.


Ellen said...

As an undergraduate majoring in English, I took a very hard course in 19th century novels. The professor was a novelist: not infallible, he described Trollope as a "mirror of his age" and faulted Trollope for telling not showing.

Still, I do not forget how he showed Hardy to be crude, simplistic, and misogynist and much preferred Meredith.


Mad Housewife said...

Virginia Woolf once wrote that Hardy had genius but no talent.

George Merdith is in a diffferent class from either of these two. His style is almost coy at times: he tries too hard; his witticisms pall. He won't leave us alone with his characters.

But it works well in One of Our Conquerors, a later novel, perhaps because he is finally influenced by Hardy and Trollope.