The Adventures of Harry Richmond
First edition title page
|Genre||Romance novel, Picaresque novel, Adventure novel|
|Media type||Print (Magazine serial)|
The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1870–71) is a romance by British author George Meredith, sometimes picaresque, sometimes melodramatic. It is believed to be strongly autobiographical in some sections. Meredith intended the book to be a popular success, but the roll-call of reprints shows it to have been so only during Meredith's late-Victorian and Edwardian heyday, his highly-wrought style proving an obstacle for some readers.
Richmond Roy, or Roy Richmond, is the ne'er-do-well son of an actress and an unnamed member of the royal family. He has taken up the trade of singing teacher, and in this capacity is employed by Squire Beltham, one of whose two daughters he seduces and elopes with. Having given birth to Harry Richmond the daughter dies. Squire Beltham and his other daughter, Dorothy, obtain custody of Harry after a prolonged struggle with Roy. Harry runs away from school and ends up in Germany, where he happens upon his father, now living at the courts of various German princes, with intervals in debtors' prisons. Harry falls in love with Princess Ottilia, but he is once more returned to the care of his grandfather, who promises to make Harry heir to his fortune of £20,000 a year if he will marry local girl Janet Ilchester. Harry will have none of this, and goes back to the Continent to pursue his princess, only to find that she has married a German prince. Since Janet is now engaged to an English marquess, and Squire Beltham has left his grandson a measly £3000, Harry seems to have got the worst of both worlds. Happily, Janet has second thoughts about the marquess and marries Harry instead. The story ends with a disastrous fire, in which Roy dies while trying to save Dorothy Beltham's life.
Writing and publication history
Meredith first began working on The Adventures of Harry Richmond as far back as 1863, and the following year he told his friend Augustus Jessopp that he was writing a work to be called The Adventure of Richmond Roy and his Friend, Contrivance Jack: Being the History of Two Rising Men. Since he was also working on the novels Rhoda Fleming and Vittoria in these years progress was slow, but Harry Richmond was completed by 1870. It first appeared in Cornhill Magazine between September 1870 and November 1871, with illustrations by George du Maurier. The novel had been intended by Meredith as "a spanking bid for popularity", and at first the bid seemed successful. The magazine appearance was followed at the end of 1871 by a three-volume edition issued by Smith, Elder & Co., with a second edition only three months later. At that point the demand died away, and another edition was not needed for 15 years; but with the revival of interest in Meredith in the 1880s a string of reprints began, which lasted up to the First World War.
As with many other of Meredith's novels, Harry Richmond has always divided critical opinion. From the start many were disconcerted by the spectacle of a studiedly witty and philosophical adventure story. An anonymous reviewer in The Examiner was damning:
Mr. Meredith sets at defiance all ordinary rules of composition, and indulges in the wildest vagaries of plot-making; but the net result of his efforts is a work so enigmatical, and with such constant affectation of wit, that it is very irksome reading, and so disappointing in the end that the reader who has plodded through the three volumes is likely to vow that he will never take up another of Mr. Meredith's novels.
Here is a young man who goes through a series of surprising adventures quite removed from the sphere of probability…The only literary excuse for such extravagance would be the rollicking character of the hero, such a one, for instance, as was endeared to our childhood by Captain Marryat or Kingston. But Harry Richmond does not rollick; he is never young, but talks about himself with the maladie de la pensée of a modern age.
On the other hand Arthur Symons found it "rousing, enthralling, exciting, full of poetry, and a serious and masterly study in character", and Max Beerbohm enthused: "What a book! What swiftness and beauty and strength! It is the flight of a young golden eagle high across seas and mountains." Gore Vidal claimed that Mark Twain enjoyed and "stole" the characters of the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn from Harry Richmond, and noted:
They knew that literature was (let us use the past tense) never a democracy or even a republic. It was a kingdom, and there for a time ruled George Meredith, the tailor's son whose unique art made him what all of Richmond Roy's con-man's cleverness could not, a king.
- L. T. Hergenhan (ed.) The Adventures of Harry Richmond (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970)
- Sven-Johan Spånberg (ed.) The Adventures of Harry Richmond: The Unpublished Parts (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1990)
- Margaret Drabble (ed.) The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 455.
- Catalogue entry at Copac.
- S. M. Ellis George Meredith: His Life and Friends in Relation to his Work (London: Grant Richards, 1920) p. 224.
- Margaret Canney (ed.) The Sterling Library: A Catalogue of Printed Books and Literary Manuscripts Collected by Sir Louis Sterling and Presented by him to the University of London (Cambridge: privately printed, 1954) p. 193.
- Philip J. Waller Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 891; Catalogue entry at Copac.
- Ioan Meredith (ed.) George Meredith: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1996) p. 157.
- J. A. Hammerton George Meredith: His Life and Art in Anecdote and Criticism (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1911) p. 215.
- S. M. Ellis George Meredith: His Life and Friends in Relation to his Work (London: Grant Richards, 1920) p. 229; David Cecil Max: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965) p. 365.
- Vidal, Gore (1993) , "Meredith", United States—essays, 1952-1992, New York: Random House, pp. 165–6, ISBN 0-679-75572-1