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A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

Title: The Egoist

Author and Title: George Meredith. The Egoist: A Comedy in Narrative

First Edition: London: Kegan Paul, 1879. 3 volumes, 31s. 6d.

Serialization: Glasgow Weekly Herald, 21 June 1879 to 10 January 1880 (weekly)

Summary: Originally titled Sir Willoughby Patterne the Egoist during its serial run. Following a prelude that parses the subtitle of the book, “a comedy in narrative,” Sir Willoughby Patterne is introduced as the eponymous egoist in the act of snubbing Lieutenant Crossjay Patterne, a poor relation in the Marines. Willoughby enjoys universal flattery on the night of his majority, when Laetitia Dale, the daughter of a retired army surgeon and tenant of Sir Willoughby’s, idolizes him in poetry composed for the occasion. Laetitia’s romantic prospects seem favored after Willoughby’s fiancée, Constantia Durham, elopes with one Captain Harry Oxford, but Willoughby ends his brief flirtation by embarking on a global tour with his cousin. Vernon Whitford is a scholar of limited means who nevertheless engages to lodge the now Captain Patterne’s eldest son, Crossjay, and tutor him for admission into the navy. He and Laetitia share custodianship of the animated twelve-year-old at the time Clara Middleton joins their retinue as Willoughby’s future bride. The daughter of a wealthy classicist, Clara had accepted Willoughby’s impassioned proposal on the heels of her debut and submitted to a hurried engagement, six months instead of the year she requested “to see a little of the world.” Clara’s scruples over her waning freedom are exacerbated by the first signs of incompatibility between the couple. Willoughby antagonizes the world in displays of possessive sentimentality that alienate his fiancée instead of infatuating her. Meanwhile, social authority Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson’s sketch of Clara as “a dainty rogue in porcelain” gives Willoughby pause. Clara struggles to understand her escalating revulsion until Willoughby makes a passing allusion to “the perfect Egoist.” Afraid of acting dishonorably, upsetting her father, and raising a scandal by breaking an engagement she nonetheless loathes, Clara measures her desire for liberty against her sense of limitation as a marriageable woman. When she contrives an escape by releasing Willoughby to court Laetitia instead, he believes that his attempt at provoking jealousy has backfired. Having learned of Vernon’s plan to settle in London and pursue a literary career, Willoughby resolves to sacrifice Laetitia’s devotion by marrying her to his cousin, whom he hopes to retain at Patterne Hall as business manager, resident scholar, and future parliamentary aide. He agrees to underwrite Crossjay’s education instead of bringing him up as a gentleman on his own plan if Vernon remains, commissioning Clara to help broker the arrangement. She buckles in conversation and makes a clean breast of her desperate affairs to Vernon, who tasks her with acting independently and appealing to her father once twenty-four hours have passed. After a second, more explicit appeal to Willoughby founders the next day, Clara confides in Laetitia, also on Vernon’s advice. The same day sees the arrival of Willoughby’s best man and his wedding present, a porcelain vase that shatters when his fly is upset on the road. Colonel Horace De Craye meets Clara during the accident and chemistry ensues between the “dainty rogue” and the witty Irish officer. Clara soon convinces Dr. Middleton to leave Patterne Hall without divulging her reasons, but her plans are waylaid when Willoughby entices the oenophile with a daily supply of vintage Patterne port. After a tempestuous night of inner conflict, Clara decides to run. The novel climaxes on her flight in a rainstorm with Vernon in self-questioning pursuit. He arrives ahead of her train to London and encourages that she act with integrity instead of succumbing to circumstances, mentioning the injury in store for her reputation, her father, and Crossjay, who played unwitting accomplice to Clara’s escape. Vernon leaves to divert Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson, whose carriage has arrived for an inbound dinner guest, while Clara entertains second thoughts. The sight of Colonel De Craye, guided by a suitor’s instinct to the railway station, determines Clara to return to Patterne Hall. News of a lady drinking hot brandy and water with a gentleman at the railway inn circulates at Mrs. Mountstuart’s party later that evening, despite De Craye’s sallies as decoy in Clara’s favor, and suspicion points to Clara and the Colonel when the story spreads the next day. Willoughby’s jealousy of his friend strengthens his grip on Clara, another of whose petitions he rejects in the wake of a midnight conference with Laetitia that boosts his self-esteem. Their dialogue has the opposite effect on his longtime admirer of rousing her “newly enfranchised individuality.” In conversation that morning, Laetitia and Vernon smart under each other’s uninformed allusions to the reputations they have lost for constancy and selflessness—Laetitia, because of her disenchantment with Willoughby, and Vernon, because of his confirmed romantic interest in Clara. Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson, meanwhile, receives coded intelligence of Clara’s own displaced affections from Clara herself before agreeing to help sue Willoughby. Her insinuations reduce him to desperate measures for the preservation of his ego. Having mentioned Vernon’s ill-advised first marriage to Clara, Willoughby schemes to humiliate her and best De Craye by releasing her on the condition that she marry his cousin. He persuades himself to settle for Laetitia and proposes during another midnight appointment before actually breaking his previous match. Laetitia declines Willoughby, however, and their exchange is accidentally overheard by Crossjay, who seeks Vernon’s counsel the following morning. Colonel De Craye pieces the developments together from Crossjay’s inadvertent slips and makes opportune contact with Clara, whose father has given her an hour’s reprieve to renew her marriage promise. In a penultimate scene that summons Mr. Dale and his daughter, as well as Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson and her rival beldames, Willoughby intimates his engagement to Laetitia. His repeated addresses overnight, coupled with her father’s practical advice, move Laetitia to accept Willoughby’s proposal with a view to her philanthropic opportunities as Lady Patterne. Clara and Vernon, meanwhile, tacitly confess their love, and the novel closes on the scene of their reunion far afield of Patterne Hall. (JT)

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References: EC; Sutherland; Vann


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