28 March 2019

The Scientist in Victorian Literature: Sir Willoughby Patterne (The Egoist, 1879)

Trade paperback, 606 pages
Published 1978 (originally 1879)

Acquired January 2019
ead February 2019
The Egoist by George Meredith
'The world has faults; glaciers have crevices, mountains have chasms; but is not the effect of the whole sublime? Not to admire the mountain and the glacier because they can be cruel, seems to me . . . And the world is beautiful.'
     'The world of nature, yes. The world of men?'
     'My love, I suspect you to be thinking of the world of ballrooms.'
     'I am thinking of the world that contains real and great generosity, true heroism. We see it round us.'
     'We read of it. The world of the romance writer!'
     'No: the living world. I am sure it is our duty to love it. I am sure we weaken ourselves if we do not.' (100)
This book was recommended to me by a graduate student I met at NAVSA; when I told him about my project on Victorian scientist novels, he asked if I had read The Egoist. I had not. I had actually never read any George Meredith, as far as I know. Now that I have read it, George Meredith strikes me as one of those Victorian novelists we are probably better off not reading. The Egoist is supposedly about the necessity of comedy to puncture egoism-- but it strikes me as something of a bad idea to begin your supposed paean to comedy with an incredibly unfunny and overly pedantic explanation of why humor is important.

Anyway, there are moments of what I'm interested in in this overly long and tedious novel, but there are better examples. Sir Willoughby Patterne is a man of science, sort of vaguely defined-- I don't think we ever learn what kind of science he actually does even though he's in his laboratory a lot of time-- and this does affect his romantic relationships. His egoism means he always needs to get his way, is always trying to bend his fiancée to his will. Science doesn't seem to be to blame though, because even though he's in the laboratory so much, he supposedly mostly does it because science is popular; his true passion is sport (46). On the other hand, his devotion to the laboratory is more complete than that of his rivals (71), so even if it's not his passion per se, he throws himself into it.

There is an emphasis on how he sees the world; as my epigraph above indicates, he doesn't see the world the same as his fiancée Clara, because his perceptions come from science, while hers come from ballrooms and romances. The biggest consequence of his egoism seems to be that he thinks he understands himself more than he actually does understand himself. That seems a scientific problem-- the scientist has to have the ego to believe they understand the world better, and that ego is not always warranted-- but other Victorian scientist novels deal with the topic better than Meredith does. Stay away if you can.

No comments:

Post a Comment