The 1860s were described by contemporary historian Justin McCarthy as a distinctive epoch with a history entirely its own, no previous period having produced such a quantity of 'original matter' (483). One book in particular, Darwin's Origin of Species published in 1859, George Henry Lewes observed, 'made' the 'epoch' (1868, 353). The evolutionary perspective acquired during the 1860s, I argue in this study of two novels, is integral to Meredith's fiction written in this period. Evan Harrington articulates an early response to the evolutionary debate, which appreciates the humour as well as the stir of ideas produced by Darwin's theories. At the end of the decade Harry Richmond constructs the evolutionary position with past, present and future inextricably connected.

Evan Harrington was serialized in Once a Week before being published as a three volume novel in 1861.1 Harry Richmond was not published until ten years later, first appearing in the Cornhill Magazine, but the idea for this autobiographical novel appears to have been in George Meredith's mind for a number of years.2 In this study, I argue that as in Meredith's first full-length novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, published in the same year as the Origin of Species, Evan Harrington and Harry Richmond are novels rooted in the scientific and intellectual ideas of the time. Written in the wake of the Origin of Species, they are concerned with ideas of heredity, development and adaptation. In Evan Harrington and Harry Richmond, origins are shown to exist beyond the boundaries of the single life of the protagonist, incorporating earlier generations which influence future life through physical laws of inheritance.

In the Origin of Species, Darwin argued a biological or genealogical arrangement for past and present in 'a single community of descent' joined together by lines of inheritance (479). Heredity, Walter Bagehot observed in 1867, had been rendered 'distinct' by modern science (518-19). The question of physical inheritance was raised before Darwin by Lewes in 1856. In his essay 'Hereditary Influence, Animal and Human,' Lewes recognized the fact that transmission of physical and mental qualities from parent to offspring was a visible fact, open to universal observation, but he also suggested that this hypothesis in the past was formed in ignorance of nature's processes. In contrast, modern physiological science, he argued, provided a material law for inheritance which demonstrated its necessity in maintaining the species (1856, 135-36). Variations in transmission were later explained by Lewes in terms of 'double parentage' or 'double inheritance,' the unequal influence of two parents which produce variations and contradictions (1859, 2, 378).

The question of heredity is made central by Meredith in both Evan Harrington and Harry Richmond. In each novel, human character and development are shown to be determined, in part at least, by the transmission of physical and mental characteristics. In Evan Harrington, Meredith observes two generations of a family of tailors and traces the individual variations of character and temperament which emerge within the familial network.3 Harry Richmond is an autobiographical study of three generations of two families of contrasting social backgrounds.

In Evan Harrington the principal characters are described significantly in terms of their hereditary relationships. The children all derive attributes from both parents in different combinations and to varying degrees. Their physical inheritance is visible to all those around them: they are the handsome children of a fine looking couple. The daughters are persons of singular beauty and refinement 'hereditarily combined' (1.2.27). The effects of double parenting are recognised in Evan's nature and personality: he is a Harrington and a Dawley with all the contradictions that this implies. Although the father had aspired to high society, and kept horses, it is Evan's mother who has the greater claims to gentility, her lawyer father having descended 'the genealogical tree' to marry his cook (1.1.15).

Though the novel opens with Evan Harrington's father, 'the great Mel,' dead in his coffin, his larger than life personality is clearly delineated. Mel had lived his life to the full; he was a poetic dreamer, extravagant and impractical. He spoke mysteriously of his origins, of a great line of descent from the Welsh princes. It is suggested by some who knew him well that his behaviour was conditioned: it was 'in the grain' (1.1.8). Mrs Mel is his opposite. She organizes the household and its inhabitants with precision and a fearless determination, epitomized in her single handed capture of a young intruder whom she shoots, nurses back to health, tames and places in her service. After her husband's death, while she allows other women to weep and to collapse under the emotional weight of the occasion, she remains matter of fact, the emotion she still feels for her husband disciplined and under control. Whereas Mel, able to accommodate human weakness, had 'a Presence' she has 'a Port': a natural but unsympathetic dignity and nobility (1.1.15). Evan is shown to have derived a complex inheritance from both parents; his poetic romantic temperament, his ambition, his openness and natural honesty, all inherited from his father, are blended in his nature with a natural authority, a grace and a strong sense of duty derived from his 'barren-spirited' mother (2.2.30). Evan is described as inheriting from each progenitor the finest of their attributes; he is 'the best mixed compound of his parents' (3. 7.116).

The flamboyance and grand aspirations of Evan's eldest sister Louisa would seem to connect her closely to her father but she has also inherited her mother's hard practical sense. She has lifted her life from the tailor's shop in Lymport with an unsentimental determination by arranging a magnificent marriage for herself. Her sisters have similarly removed themselves from Tailordom, via 'the slight connecting links' in the social fabric (1.3.28). As the Countess de Saldar, Louisa operates like a military strategist, interpreting situations, anticipating difficulties, and martialling events. A 'born general,' she mines the opposition as she attempts to take charge of the events around her (1.14.271). She has not inherited her father's openness and honesty but directs all her energies into the concealment of her anomalous social position. She plays a shrewd game; her robust heath, inherited from Mel, allows her, when occasion demands, to play the part of the 'high-born invalid' without 'damage to her constitution' (2.4.85).

Louisa's vulnerability lies in a deep seated fear of a mother whom she associates with the Demogorgon. The 'root of the evil' for Louisa was her father's decision to marry an unromantic, prosaic Dawley, whose only concern was 'to deliver facts' (3.1.13). Louisa blames Evan's shortcomings on the maternal line, on the fact that he is a Dawley rather than a Harrington and therefore a hopeless case. One might as well, she complains, 'try to raise the dead as a Dawley from the dust he grovels in!' (3.4.79). In spite of her antipathy to her mother, in her determination to take total control of events, Louisa strongly resembles her. They share a religious sensibility but whereas her mother's feelings are grounded in superstition Louisa believes in a Providence that is seen to work invariably in her favour, its interest coinciding with her own. The Countess like her brother is a composite and complex product of two strong parents of opposing temperaments, whose joint biological legacy has visibly helped to shape her.

All of the sisters are variations of their parents, 'some Port, and some Presence, hereditarily combined' (1.3.27). Harriet is handsome, practical and down to earth, without the flourish of Mel. Caroline is beautiful and graceful, like her mother, but with Mel's sensitivity and vulnerability. In life, the father had dominated his daughters; in death he continues to subjugate as they become 'bondsmen to his ashes' (1.7.100). Each praises their father as the perfect gentleman but, to preserve their own status, they mount guard over his grave, to 'secure his ghost from an airing' (1.3.33). The threads linking the generations in Evan Harrington are shown to be intricate, fine and tenacious.

In Harry Richmond, written towards the end the decade, the issue of heredity is considered from a more intimate perspective, with emphasis placed on observed states of mind, on the transmission of mental qualities. The inheritance of mental as well as physical characteristics had been argued before the Origin of Species by Herbert Spencer who, in 1855 in The Principles of Psychology, described the modified nervous tendencies that were produced by 'new habits of life' over countless generations (526). The psychological significance of heredity and double parenting seemed confirmed in the mid-1860s by the statistical research of Frances Galton, who argued that intellectual capacity was largely the result of descent and the combined influence of two parents (158).4

Harry Richmond opens with an account of the seizing of young Harry by his father from his grandfather at his mother's home. This encounter reveals not only the vast social inequality between the families united by his birth but also physical and temperamental differences. Squire Beltham and Fitz-George Roy Richmond are shown to be fundamentally unalike. The Squire is blunt, practical and down to earth while Roy is a romantic, impractical dreamer. The Belthams are the oldest family in the county with an uncontested pedigree and great wealth. Roy, the impoverished son of an actress, pretending to royal blood, claims a superior lineage though, as his name implies, through an illegitimate line. Riversley is a solid conservative country seat and the wealthy Squire its equally solid and reliable, if hot tempered, master.

From Roy's perspective, Squire Beltham lacks the finer feelings; he is 'earthy' and 'an animal' (1.1.13). To the Squire, Roy is a blackguard and a madman who has destroyed the life of his daughter. From the child's point of view, his father is a magician, capable of turning himself into a menagerie of wild animals at will. Emotionally Harry feels close to his father but knows himself also to be a Beltham. The only offspring of the union of the two families, he is aware from an early age of conflicting elements in his nature which he associates with converging but discordant lines of descent. He sees himself as a hostage between two worlds: 'a kind of shuttlecock flying between two battledores' (1.2.33-34). Harry has his father's proclivity to dream but possesses the strong practical sense of his grandfather. He hates speculation but, once he is away from his studies, his head 'shoots rockets to the furthest hills.' His eventual apprehension that his father is an 'engine' rather than an 'individual' propels him back to Riversley (3.9.131). Any weakness in Harry is seen by his grandfather as a matter of 'bad blood,' in one of several references in the novel to the mixing of blood. The allusion is current and draws on interests in cross-breeding stimulated by Darwin who, in the Origin of Species and in other works, argues the benefits to be derived from a cross between individuals not closely related (96-97). The Squire, proud and confident in his lineal descent, damns the mixing of blood and looks for purity. In Harry, he recognises 'Beltham' pluck and trusts that the 'bad blood' of his mixed inheritance will be 'sweated out'; assured that 'old blood' will win out in the end (I. 8.141). An opposing view is given by the Reverend Peterborough, who has studied the question, believing it to be one of the 'great physical problems' of the day. Contesting the Squire's judgment, he informs Harry that science has shown that intermixing does no harm and occasionally is of benefit: 'old blood,' he asserts, requires varying and modifying by 'intermixture' (2.15.201). The social benefit of mixing strains is advocated humorously in the novel when John Thresher, the uncomplicated but philosophical farmer at Harry's childhood retreat, proposes that the solution to every problem is to 'mix, strain and throw away the sediment,' a process used to produce England's finest ale (1.3.41). The same method, he suggests, could be used to resolve social differences. 'There's cockney, and there's country, and there's school,' he reflects, 'Mix the three, strain and throw away the sediment' (1.3. 37).The social and cultural benefit of mixing strains was argued by Bagehot in ,m, where he argued the importance of the process of blending for the earliest societies in creating the degree of variability necessary for their advancement (69).


The significance of factors other than heredity and blood was emphasized by Lewes in 1868, when he argued that the organism represented only one half of the problem of life; the other was the medium in which the organism grew (62). Spencer, from his earliest evolutionary studies, had emphasized the importance of the medium in describing the process of continual adjustment and adaptation between organism and environment.5 In the mid-1860s, statistical research led Galton to recognize that inherited talent depended on certain necessary conditions, acknowledging that circumstances could modify character. He identified the interval between the embryo and the fully grown animal as the most dangerous period in an individual's life, a time when natural selection chiefly played its part by testing the strength of the individual. In human terms, he noted, wealth alone could interpose in the process and deprive 'natural selection' of its 'rightful victim' (323).

In Meredith's novels, the hereditary transmission of characteristics is shown not as an isolated element working in people's lives, but as one factor among several affecting the development of character. In Evan Harrington, the importance of adapting to circumstances is stressed early in the narrative. Evan is initially presented as lacking in character due to his 'wanting experience.' This is however seen as a positive rather than negative attribute which allowed his character to adapt to the tide of events. 'A character that does not wait for circumstances to shape it,' it is noted, 'is of small worth in the race that must be run.' Development, it is observed by the narrator, is inevitable; natural, organic and subject to imperceptible but incessant growth, it is 'like 'blooming sea flowers and other graduated organisms' when left undisturbed. (I.6.87). Evan's inherent resemblance to his father is modified by a difference in conditions. It is a subject of general observation and speculation that Evan is more serious, more scholarly than Mel, his natural abilities having been nurtured by a gentleman's education and foreign travel. Evan's social aspirations are given substance by his education and strengthened by the determination of his sisters to improve his station. His innate sense of worth and all the circumstances of his life, together with his inherited temperament, are shown to play their part in shaping his nature and pulling him from the social situation into which he was born.

In Harry Richmond there is a preoccupation with all that affects individual character: the forces that govern intellectual and moral growth, determining the development of the faculties and the fulfilment of the individual. The process is described subjectively. The procedure relies on the perceptions, emotions and memories of a first person narrator but development is nevertheless shown to be intricate, linked to environment as well as to heredity, and temperament. The young Harry Richmond is uprooted from all that he knows and understands and placed into very different conditions which make new demands on his nature. His personality is shown to grow in complexity, to become differentiated, as he matures and learns to adapt to a variety of contrasting environments. The world of Riversley Grange, where Harry spends his first four years, is secure dependable and predictable, except for the shadowy and tragic figure of his mother, unhinged possibly by inherited disease or by Roy's treatment of her. The world into which he is transported by his father is filled with excitement, wonder and marvel but his position is shown to be precarious in the extreme when he becomes lost on the streets of London. It is a world the child only half comprehends, mediated by a brilliant father who is nevertheless an unreliable guardian. Harry's childhood is described as a time of particular plasticity.7 The childhood impressions are rich and sensuous but it is only with difficulty that fact be discerned from fantasy.

Harry is transplanted into a succession of different environments: Riversley, London, Dipwell, the Continent, boarding school, Germany, London and Bath, each with its distinct sights, sounds, smells, different conditions, social encounters and cultural experiences, each of which modifies his perspective. At Dipwell he knows stability and security but school represents separation and a fall in status, from 'a young prince' to a charity case (1.6.89). Here the incidents and the people around him become objects of study and to introspection is added a more comprehensive grasp on the adult world. His encounter with Kiomi, the gipsy girl, stirs in him the desire to escape the confines of civilisation, to find a closer, more sensual contact with the world. The people he meets, and the places he inhabits, are closely linked to his developing character; they gradually add substance to his experience and dim his dreams. The dangers he meets, he overcomes through a combination of physical strength, mental ability and endurance, aided at times by his wealth, as Galton could have predicted.


Evolutionary discussion in the 1860's, despite Darwin's avoidance of the human implications of his theories, placed great stress on the animal aspects of human nature. In Evan Harrington such concerns are evident in details which emphasize the affinity between animals and humans, while the presence of animals and animal imagery in the novel strengthens a sense of the relationship. Mrs Mel's pet monkey brings into question the relative status of monkeys and men as he sits 'very like a tailor' and, in the death chamber, mimics human emotions as his 'lithe skinny body' performs 'grief's convulsions' (1.2.26). Andrew Cogglesby recognizes a natural affinity between animal and human life when he ruefully imagines himself exchanging 'pathetic glances' with a marmoset in the zoological gardens. When he associates the same creature with the chop on his plate, he suggests the tragi-comic web of animal and human life (3.15.229).

Physiology directs many of the comic scenes of the novel, demonstrating the ironic gap that exists between human aspirations, or pretensions, and basic animal mechanisms. An unconscious burst of energy in John Raikes, due to overexcitement on his arrival at Beckley Court, causes his legs to dance a hornpipe without conscious volition when a nearby band strikes up a tune. It is an indignity from which he does not recover (3.1.26).7 Comic effects are gained from a topical source when Raikes is described by Sir John as 'a monkey just turned into a man,' and as 'a Brazilian ape' by the Countess, who disdainfully considers his marriage to Polly Wheedle 'a case of natural selection' (3.1.5; 4.78; 18.280).

Humour is derived from physiology at the expense of biblical accounts of history. These stories are parodied in Evan Harrington by the inclusion of 'Antediluvians,' who believe that 'miasmas of the Deluge' so upset conditions on earth that they shortened the lives of the Postdiluvians. Noah proved to be an inferior progenitor to Adam because his nervous system, and that of his sons, was irreparably damaged, forever altering the physical organisation of their descendents (1. 12.223).8 The physiological effects of alcohol are shown to lubricate events in the tavern where the Antediluvians meet, creating a comedy of animated limbs and unconscious actions, revealing the 'two ultimate perplexities of the British Sybarite': what to do with the legs and how to imbibe liquor without 'deranging' them (1.11.193) The effects of alcohol are also demonstrated and a physiological explanation offered when after drinking Raikes' legs fail twice when attempting to deliver a speech, 'probably owing to the energy called for by his brain' (1.12.214). The strange dark effects of alcohol on the body are illustrated in the miseries of Dandy, the miscreant Mrs Mel has taken into the household. The comedy in Harry Richmond is less direct, less physical and more psychological. It arises from the humorous reflections and observed ironies of the autobiographer as he looks back on the events and experiences of his past life. The comedy is incidental to his observations and varies with the stage of growth recalled. At school, the humour is adolescent, characterised by practical jokes and pranks, the physical manifestation of high spirits, but also by punning from classical as well vulgar sources, innuendo and name calling. In Harry's more mature account of the great comic incident of the novel, when his father astride a bronze horse plays the part of a statue that suddenly comes to life, the humour is filtered through mental confusion and emotional embarrassment, as frozen emotions are revived and mechanical actions remembered together with the faint recollection of a crowd who believed they had heard a dead ancestor speak (1. 16. 253). Harry considers the event broadly, from Temple's point of view as well as his own. For his friend, he recalls, untroubled by strong feeling or complicated emotions, the incident had a clear static fixed quality. The humour of the scene is subtle and the psychology complex and precise.


A refinement of focus in Harry Richmond, I argue in this final section of my study, registers the shift during the 1860s towards a new evolutionary psychology, a transition described by Rick Rylance as the most far-reaching in nineteenth century psychological theory (203). A psychology based on an evolutionary foundation was envisaged by Darwin in the Origin of Species, where he recognized the acquirement of 'each mental power and capacity by gradation' (488). The emotions, Spencer argued, like everything else were hereditary and needed to be studied through their evolution from childhood to maturity, and through the generations (1860, 64).

His 'scheme as a workman,' Meredith explained in a letter to Augustus Jessopp in 1871, involved a psychological study of his characters at different times in their lives: "It is to show you the action of minds as well as of fortunes — of here and there men and women vitally animated by their brains at different periods of their lives" (Cline 1. 451).

In Harry Richmond, in a first person narration, psychological interest is extended beyond the experience of the maturing adult to encompass an evolutionary perspective: the development of the child from infancy to adulthood and a comparison between generations. The psychology of a father and a son are unravelled together as the child grows in years and experience and as physical and temperamental similarities emerge through the generations. The personality and temperament of the father become more distinct through the child's maturing perceptions and increased knowledge. The child, as he develops, becomes more complex, emotionally and intellectually: a process linked to the lives of his father and grandfather. The circumstances of his father's early life are shown to be similar to the child's, featuring an early separation from his mother and unstable conditions. The narrative in illuminating one situation elucidates the other.

The psychology of the novel is detailed. The evolving self, the centre of Harry Richmond's autobiographical account, is described as a busy creature 'digging pits for comfort to flow in, of any kind, in any form,' seizing on every idea, every circumstance (3.18.282). The shifting moods of the child's mind are charted, his deep admiration for his father, his confusion at his protracted absences, and his fears for his life. The self, in Harry Richmond, in the process of maturing, is revealed in its many relations, dependent not only present experience but on remembered associations and the contribution of past lives, as an evolving thing. His intellectual and emotional growth is rooted in the tangle of his relations with the generations which precede him; he develops in the wake of their lives.

In writing his autobiographical account of his growth and development Harry defends the inclusion of apparently insignificant details, the 'trifling phenomena of the sensations.' These, he explains are necessary to bring the scene to life (1.17. 256). In his depiction of the journey across Germany in a diligence he constructs the particular situation, the atmosphere, his mood, through the use of precisely observed details which suggest the conditions and sensations experienced in the close, fetid confinement of the coach as daylight dwindles. His state of mind is suggested though the fantastic images and speculations which the situation gives rise to:

Nothing was left us but to combat the sensation that we were in the depths of a manure-bed, for the windows were closed, the tobacco- smoke thickened, the hides of the animals wrapping our immense companions reeked; fire occasionally glowed in their pipe bowls; they were silent, and gave out heat like inanimate forces of nature. I had most fantastic ideas, — that I had taken root and ripened, and must expect my head to drop off at any instant; that I was deep down, wedged in the solid mass of the earth. [1.14.222]

His sensations and physical miseries 'translated' by his imagination, he feels himself to be at the centre of the earth's forces; drawn down into the solid organic earth, ripening in the warmth and the heat inside the vehicle. A detailed record of his mental and physical state is given after he is injured in roadside attack. His mind entering a torpor, the mental processes are suspended while nature looks to his vital functions and operates 'on the disquieted lower functions.' The sensations and distortions of his perceptions are closely observed as his 'enormous eyes throw objects to a distance of a mile away.' Unable to bring the tiny things closer he shuts his eyes, causing 'a rolling of mountains in the brain.'

Gradually, Harry Richmond acquires a kind of detachment as he learns to position himself as an observer of the apparently random flow of experience: the 'mossy bearded substances' that travel 'blind along the wide current of the stream clinging to this and that, twirling absurdly' (3.5.63-64). In reflections borne of experience, Harry Richmond constructs for himself a philosophy that is evolutionary, in which past, present and future are inextricably linked. 'Fate,' he comes to realize, does not lie ahead of him but is germinating in 'seed paths' already traversed. The past, he now grasps, is 'no dead thing' but 'our mortal mother' (2.11.123).

In turning to an evolutionary philosophy, the autobiographer in Harry Richmond implicitly dismisses those cultural explanations offered by concepts such as Fate or Providence, beliefs such as those which bolster Louisa's self-confidence and self-assertion in Evan Harrington. Allied to the serious investigation of evolutionary ideas through fiction, and giving an obverse view, is the lively interest in comedy and its functions in the novels. The comic elements in both Evan Harrington and Harry Richmond help to expose the incongruities, the anomalies, and the ambiguities of human nature which were being given greater visibility during the 1860s by Darwin's ideas of animal descent.

Victorian Website Overview George Meredith Victorian Scence

Last modified 10 December 2007