Sunday, July 13, 2008

Political Novel

George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career is an odd, confused jumble of a book. Some believe this is the best political novel of its kind, but I can’t pretend I like it as much as Phineas Finn. Beauchamp's Career is about not only politics but love, and how one affects the other--love and politics, money and marriage. Meredith's Beauchamp, inspired by the historical character, Frederick Maxse, a radical who ran for election in Southampton in 1868, becomes a radical candidate and canvasses from door to door among the poor, hoping to trigger a revolution. The first 80 pages, however, are devoted to the theme of love. Beauchamp is not a mercenary: he has a platonic affair with a young French girl, who is engaged to an older man. At one point Beauchamp obstinately tries to carry her away against her will on a yacht. This extremism is characteristic of Beauchamps in politics as well, and soon he is defined to us not just as a radical but as appallingly domineering in his relationships with women.

Beauchamps decides to become a candidate because, after studying the radical pamphlets and speeches of his friend Dr. Shrapnel, he believes that he can equalize the fortunes of English society. Maxse, Meredith's model for Beachamps, wrote. ' ..I found that a number of Britons were slaves, slaves for artificial oppressive circumstances, for the maintenance of which the governing classes stood, in my eyes, responsible," and this pretty much sums up Beauchamp's campaign. Beauchamp's political career hinders his financial prospects with his aristocratic uncle, who not only cuts off money, but furiously sends a catty nephew to oppose Beachchamp in the election. Beauchamp's candidacy, in fact, threatens all society.

Politics are important, but love and money are more so. “I must have money. I must have money,” he says, forever worrying about starting a radical journal. When Beauchamp’s uncle turns against him, he decides he must marry an heiress. Cecilia Halkett, brilliant and impressionable, would marry him, but her father, the Colonel, understands that Beauchamps wants her inheritance to start a radical journal. Cecelia, too, notices this, but it doesn’t seem offensive to her. She’s not a rebel: she, like Renee, is a “good girl,” who will do nothing without her father's approval. Jenny, the pragmatic niece of Shrapnel, is fatherless and skeptical about radicalism: she has no money, so she is not a candidate for wifedom. But all three women play as important parts: we see Beauchamp more clearly through their eyes.

Margaret Harris writes in the intro to the 1988 Oxford World Classics: “Women are denied writes, and even needs. Cecilia suffers, grievously; but her position socially and economically is a privileged one, and she has the means partly to salve her hurt by putting to sea. By contrast, for Jenny Denham...male dominance is compounded by her material dependence. However, she has a resilience and self-sufficiency..."

The book is fairly enjoyable, in a kind of messy way, but If you want to read Meredith, you’re far better off reading The Egoist or Diana of the Crossways.

No comments: