eaders of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel are not likely to miss Meredith's frequent allusions both to the dramatic art in general and to specific plays. Such chapter titles as "In Which the Last Act of the Bakewell Comedy Is Closed in a Letter," "Ferdinand and Miranda," "In Which the Last Act of a Comedy Takes the Place of the First," and "The Last Scene" hardly convey the extent of the allusions, but they do suggest something of the importance which dramatic devices had for Meredith. My purpose here is to examine the use of dramatic reference both for incidental illustration and the conveying of theme, and to suggest a way of viewing the novel structurally as a tragic drama. Although Meredith had not yet achieved the well-integrated plot and extraordinary focus of The Egoist, he began in Feverel to see the possibility of techniques drawn from the stage. And if The Egoist has the unity of a well-made Restoration comedy, the earlier novel offers the richness and variety of Renaissance tragedy, in which comic and tragic elements enrich and comment upon each other.
n the System in which Sir Austin plays the role of Providence and stage manager, Adrian, the tutor, is both an instrument and a capricious critic. He identifies himself with the Comic Muse, even though, as a recent writer has reminded us, he is really a "perversion of Meredith's notion of ideal Comedy." Isolated at Raynham, Adrian can do little more than lament the decline of the stage and attempt a private showing in which he can manipulate the actors. "The Stage is the pastime of great minds. That's how it comes that the Stage is now down. An Age of rampant little minds" (p. 80). For the Stage, Adrian substitutes the spectacle of real life. "Boys are like monkeys," he remarks when he learns about the melodramatic plot to rescue Tom Bakewell, "the gravest actors of farcical nonsense that the world possesses. ... A couple of boys left to themselves will furnish richer fun than any troop of trained comedians. No: no Art arrives at the artlessness of Nature in matters of Comedy" (p. 79). And again, to Austin Wentworth, who pleads for a halt to this particular comedy, "Let the wild colt run free! We can't help them. We can only look on. We should spoil the play" (p. 82).
The buxom Miss Molly sees Adrian as an actor himself: "You're al'ays as good as a play" (p. 201). And the Wise Youth, given to stagey meditations and sililoquies, seems to enjoy playing Hamlet "in the absence of the Prince of Denmark" (p. 61). But as villain of the Bakewell Comedy, he goes unpunished, and this is only one of several indications that the Bakewell comedy is no comedy at all in the context of the entire novel. Deriving enjoyment from Heavy Benson's anguish after the beating, Berry's malapropisms, and Mrs. Berry's pangs of guilty conscience after the elopement, Adrian manages "to satisfy his appetites without rashly staking his character" (p. 32). For him, life is a source of entertainment. It is not that Adrian fails to see beneath hypocrisy, but that (unlike the true Comic Spirit) he is not motivated by the aim of moral reform. His detached view is as pernicious as Sir Austin's Providential meddling, and serves his self-aggrandizement. Far from resting content with his position, he must manipulate, and in so doing he perversely confuses real life with a play or operatic entertainment; he hopes to see the last act of the opera "after enjoying the Comedy of real life" — the marriage of Richard and Lucy (p. 384).
Adrian does not altogether escape from involvement in the plot. Richard's marriage interferes with the Wise Youth's plans for continental travel, and so Adrian must content himself with a fine exit from Mrs. Berry's, carrying a slice of the cake and delivering the gloating speech of a revenger:
"So dies the System!" was Adrian's comment in the street. "And now let prophets roar! He dies respectably in a marriage-bed, which is more than I should have foretold of the Monster. Meantime," he gave the Cake a dramatic tap, "I'll go sow nightmares." [p. 367]
Adrian is not the only spectator of the action, although at the outset he is one of the arch-manipulators. Frequently characters in the novel observe other figures much as an audience observes a play. Meredith uses the eavesdropping device to maximum advantage. The boys eavesdrop on Tinker and Speed-the-Plough while they debate "one of the most ancient theories of transmundane dominion and influence on mundane affairs" (p. 57). The names of the characters suggest persons in a morality play, but their audience heeds not the philosophical argument but an incidental illustration of it: the fact that Farmer Bollop's rick was burned down. Sir Austin spies on the boys long enough to have a dark suspicion about the fire they so gleefully witness; Clare, from behind, observes all three of them. Lady Blandish's observation of the swimming-match demoralizes one of the performers; and in the woods, Lady Blandish and Sir Austin, "the two actors in [a] courtly pantomime," are witnessed by the "aghast" Richard, whose imagination is set afire by the show (p. 142). Benson, Adrian, and Lady Blandish eavesdrop on the lovers in the woods; but Benson, the true believer in the reigning System, is (like another faithful servant) caught in his hiding place and chastised, though not fatally, by the young Prince. Later, Benson is expelled from Raynham because, like Mrs. Berry before him, he has been the unwelcome audience at a private showing. In most such scenes the actors, at least initially, are unaware that they are performing for a public. Frequently they are revealing some true aspect of themselves, and are then flustered and disoriented by the fact that they have let down their guard. Meredith thus reminds us that in society we must, to some extent, wear masks and conceal the real person in the illusion created by the actor. Mrs. Berry's banishment comes about because, in witnessing Sir Austin's tears, she has had momentarily "a glimpse behind the mask." Sir Austin, in the conversation with Lady Blandish after the elopement, is seen "torturing his brows to fix the mask" (p. 393). He is successful. The mask is "impenetrable," and from that point Lady Blandish begins to "study her Idol...."
Sir Austin may be an all-too-successful actor because he has found a method, a System. By contrast, the performance the artless Ripton consciously stages for his father and Sir Austin in the law-office ends in his own "unmasking," for Ripton is a bad actor who cannot conceal what he really knows. In turn, his father has a "grimace like a melancholy clown in a pantomime" for the Baronet (p. 174). The delighted Sir Austin declares, "I think I have been dealing with The World in epitome" (p. 176), and that, after all, is what the stage conventionally is. At best, as on the actual wedding occasion, Ripton can only stand silent, "looking like a Mask of ancient Comedy, beneath which general embracing took place" (p. 355). Mrs. Berry is similarly unable to perform before the critical scrutiny of the Wise Youth; she blurts out the name of the honeymoon spot just as Ripton earlier revealed the secret about the ploughman in the Bakewell Comedy.
What Sir Austin has not reckoned with is that his son may also "have learned to act and wear a mask" (p. 520). After the first attempt at the reunion of the lovers is frustrated, Sir Austin, in trying to penetrate the mystery his son has created, reflects that the "curious mask" Richard "had worn since his illness; the selection of his incapable uncle Hippias for a companion in preference to Adrian . . . was an evident, well-perfected plot" (p. 389). Meredith seems to endow the last word with two meanings. Sir Austin objects to the plot in its sense of "conspiracy," but Meredith implies that there is also a dramatic plot which has deceived the audience. Sir Austin's revelation is only partial, and the drama unfolding before his eyes has no power to reform him, for he is too much wedded to his own theory of education. "Sir Austin, despite his rigid watch and ward, knew less of his son than the servant of his household" (p. 130).
ichard, of course, is the chief actor of the piece. But there are two Richards, the one who "acts" and the one who expresses the inner man. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, either in the novel or in our own observation of life. Society expects roles as a matter of course, but the tragedy of Richard is that he does not finally distinguish the world of the stage from the stage of the world.
When Richard is caught off guard, as in the scene of the swimming match, the shock paralyzes his natural impulses. No longer is he the unashamed youth competing innocently in a race, but an unwilling actor for Lady Blandish. And so Richard becomes progressively more entangled in the roles demandedof him. At first, when he plays the young gentleman for Farmer Blaize, he is a novice, and his audience sees through the part. He passes later through a series of roles ("bread-and-water," "Vegetarian," "religious") without finding the one that suits him. His rebellions paradoxically confirm his kinship with the System all the more, and his insistence on the duel with Mountfalcon is the act of a hero in a melodrama. His father unwittingly imposes the necessity of wearing a mask. Just after Richard's first search for Lucy is frustrated and he is recovering from his illness, he seems "sober . . . as one who has recovered from a drunkenness and has determined to drink no more. The idea struck [Lady Blandish] that he might be playing a part" (p. 263). He does, indeed, try several.
The similarities Lionel Stevenson has noted between the novel and Romeo and Juliet illuminate our view of hero and heroine, but the other Shakespearean references deepen our understanding of their plight. The identification of Richard and Lucy with Ferdinand and Miranda (Ch. XVIII) is ironic; so perfect a love, Meredith seems to say, can not survive in a hostile world. If Shakespeare's island is a world in which misunderstandings are repaired and disharmonies resolved and men made better, Meredith's is a world of tragic illusion, and the Adam and Eve references in the same chapter foreshadow the dark finale toward which the novel moves. "Sir Austin was not Prospero, and was not present, or their fates might have been different" (pp. 151-152). We later return to the island in a chapter entitled "A Diversion Played on a Penny Whistle," and the title puts the Enchanted Island in perspective. The chapter itself is, for the reader, only a momentary diversion in a story of pain.
The scene in Mrs. Mount's rooms also exhibits the ironic possibilities of Shakespearean allusions. Richard takes the enchanted island for Paradise and Mrs. Mount's rooms for Hell. She remarks that she ought to have been an actress, and Richard assures her that "all natural women had a similar wish" (p. 479). His mistake, however, lies in taking her art as nature. He responds only to his own melodramatic, stereotyped notion of the wronged woman, and fails to see that the stereotype is manipulated by a versatile actress. "Various as the Serpent of old Nile, she acted fallen Beauty, humorous indifference, reckless daring, arrogance in ruin. And acting thus, what think you?-She did it so well because she was growing half in earnest" (p. 483). "She was best in her character of lovely rebel accusing foul injustice" (p. 484). She can play the part of Sir Julius or of "a deadly charming and exquisitely horrid witch" (p. 492). Before the climactic scene, Meredith asks us, "Was ever Hero in this fashion wooed?" (p. 476) and, after her conquest, "Was ever Hero in this fashion won?" (p. 497). But Richard is no Gloucester.3 Indeed, the reversal of male and female roles points to the disparity between what happens in conventional drama and what can happen in real life. In reversing, and hence criticizing, the familiar melodramatic pattern of pure heroine and wicked seducer, Meredith may also be reminding us of Mrs. Berry's recent judgment on Sir Austin:
"Everybody's deceived by him, and I was. It's because he keeps his face, and makes ye think you're dealin' with a man of iron, and all the while there's a woman underneath. And a man that's like a woman, he's the puzzle o' life! We can see through ourselves...and we can see through men, but one o' that sort-he's like somethin' out o' natur'." (p. 473)
In the ensuing scene, as elsewhere in the novel, the reader senses uneasily that Richard is truly his father's son.4
hese dramatic devices and allusions are, however, assimilated into an independent drama, impressive and moving in its own right. Whether or not one is justified in arguing what was or was not Meredith's conscious purpose, I would like to suggest that the references, taken in conjunction with the rises and falls in the action, point to what may be analyzed conveniently as a five-act structure which gives coherence to the novel's tragic pattern. Meredith makes it abundantly clear that the Bakewell Comedy is not only a self-contained play, a one-act curtain-raiser, as it were, but also an overture which states the major themes of the ensuing drama. But it is more than this; it is integrally related to the hero's career. If we call it Act I, then Act II begins with Chapter XV, extends to Chapter XXVIII, and serves the purpose of transition and complication. Here the love affair between Richard and Lucy is launched but temporarily thwarted, and at the end of the act, the hero's fortunes are declining. The "approaches of fever" in Chapter XXVI parallel those which beset Richard before the rick-burning. Various comic relief scenes support the main line of the action. Ripton is "unmasked" in the law office, Sir Austin looks for a wife for his son among the Grandison girls, and Benson is chastised for his eavesdropping but has his revenge at the end. The System is at the height of its power when the curtain falls, but we anticipate a reversal. When Richard returns from his unsuccessful interview with the farmer in which he pleaded for the return of Lucy, Tom sees that he is in for "the first Act of the new Comedy" (p. 254).
This new Comedy is Act III (Chapters XXIX-XXXIII) which, relatively brief, shows the hero at the peak of his fortunes. He "takes a step" when he discovers Lucy's presence in London, and Ripton is pressed into service once again, "very curious to hear the plot of the New Comedy" (p. 294). If the New Comedy, as Walter Wright points out, has Terentian overtones, it is also a new play for the chief writer, actor, and producer, the first play not directed by the agents of the System. It ends with wedding bells, as comedies are apt to, but like the Bakewell Comedy it also brings injury to Clare. Lucy weeps after the ceremony. She "has nobly preserved the mask imposed by Comedies, till the curtain has fallen, and now she weeps, streams with tears. Have patience, O impetuous young man! It is your profession to be a Hero" (p. 344) — and that is just the difficulty. Lucy, perhaps more than Richard, senses that real life has begun.
Act IV (Chapters XXXIV-XLII) is far more sombre. Like Act II, it serves a transitional purpose. It shows the reversal of the hero's fortunes and the widening of the doomed circle to include other victims. Adrian extracts a confession from the penitent Mrs. Berry, Mrs. Doria curses the bride, Richard leaves Lucy, Clare is married to Todhunter, Richard is seduced by Mrs. Mount. The act is related structurally to the Bakewell Comedy by the illness of Clare, and to the end of the novel by the struggle for the ring between Lucy and Mrs. Berry, Lucy's success being reversed by the fact that it is Mrs. Berry who is permanently reunited with her husband.
Act V (Chapters XLIII-XLIX) moves rapidly and inexorably to the tragic "Last Scene," for which Lady Blandish's letter to Austin Wentworth serves as a kind of epilogue. Mrs. Berry's meditations come too late to reverse the course of events; Austin effects a meeting of father and daughter-in-law but cannot deflect the hero from his disastrous course. The death of Clare and the reunion of the Berrys illuminate from different perspectives the principal tragedy which cannot be averted. Failing to hold fast to Nature's lesson, Richard must fight a duel; Lucy, who like Richard and Clare has learned all too well to stifle her emotions, falls prey to the System as well as they.
If dramatic references reinforce this dramatic structure, the structure in turn helps to support the theme. As in drama, each "act" of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel can be seen in terms both of its own coherence and its place in the developing thematic pattern. The novel beautifully conveys the point that the life of the world is not the life of the stage, although the world, too, has its cast, its would-be stage-managers, its audience and directors. In later years, Meredith, in his essay on comedy, alluded to "a sagacious essayist, who said that the end of a comedy would often be the commencement of a tragedy, were the curtain to rise again on the performers."5 The transition from "Act III" to "Act IV" exemplifies this point. The same essay also disposes effectively of the Wise Youths of this world: "Life, we know too well, is not a comedy, but something strangely mixed; nor is comedy a vile mask."6
When Meredith uses the word comedy, especially in his chapter headings, we must be on our guard. For although some of the characters may regard what happens as a comedy, the results are more mixed than they know. The curtain falls on the Bakewell Comedy"with Sir Austin's pointing out to his friends the beneficial action of the System .. . from beginning to end" (p. 119). It is a comedy for Sir Austin because it has proved to his satisfaction that the world is "well-designed." But it is not well-designed for Clare, who lies ill as a result, nor for Richard, in whom the System is already beginning to stifle Nature. Again, toward the end of "Act II," Sir Austin is convinced of the beneficence of the System. Parodying Hamlet, he delivers a moral: "Tofeel, but not to feel to excess, that is the problem" (p. 261). It is characteristic of him that he does not weigh alternatives, as Hamlet does, but makes exclusions and in doing so oversimplifies reality.
The point is that Sir Austin does not realize that real life has begun, far ahead of the schedule which the System prescribes. When he comes to instruct Richard, he is behind-hand, for his son is already in love:
"Your passions are violent. You have had a taste of Revenge: You have seen, in a small way, that the pound of Flesh draws rivers of Blood. But there is now in you another power. You are mounting to the Table-land of Life, where mimic battles are changed to real ones. And you come upon it laden equally with force to create and to destroy." He deliberated to announce the intelligence, with deep meaning: "There are women in the world, my son!" (p. 224)
But life is not a revenge tragedy or a replay of The Merchant of Venice, and there is no time for rehearsals. What battles Richard has had have not been "mimic" but actual. And yet, ironically, the System which is designed to advance Richard to "the Table-land of Life" is reversing the process. Thwarted in what might have been a normal rapprochement with reality, Richard gradually regresses to a land of mimic battles and knightly shadows. Though he tells Carole he has never been to a theater in his life (p. 232), he has already begun to act. And only toward the end of the novel does the author of the System recognize, at least partially, his own role in the drama. "Not altogether conscious that he had hitherto played with life, [Sir Austin] felt that he was suddenly plunged into the stormful reality of it" (p. 522).
The crowning irony of the drama is the survival of the hero. By avoiding a more conventional tragic ending, in which the stage is heaped with corpses, Meredith once more points up the difference between the stage and real life. At the final curtain, the baby is secure in his cradle, but the death-blow, as Lady Blandish observes, has been given to Richard's heart. Meredith's audience may then ask itself if the Feverels have learned from their attempt to reduce life to a play, or if, on the other hand, their Ordeal is to re-stage and reenact the Magian conflict in a succeeding generation.
University of Nebraska
Last modified 15 November 2014