The milieu of Maurice Guest, her first novel, is Leipzig and the music conservatory there. All the characters are music students or music teachers, except for an occasional mother, landlady or whore.
If I were to rate three novels that deal with the classical music scene – Maurice Guest, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music – Maurice Guest would fall, by default, in the middle. You wouldn’t expect someone you’d never heard of to surpass Maestro Mann. And Seth’s book, which I read as soon as it was published, because I thought A Suitable Boy was the great novel of the 1990’s, turned out to be a mushy failure which gave the impression, as so many current boring, predictable novels seem to do, of being aimed not so much at the reader as at the movie or television producer – in An Equal Music’s case, Merchant-Ivory, perhaps, or Masterpiece Theatre.
Maurice Guest was published in 1908. It took Richardson six years to write, so that places it squarely in the fluorescent turn of the century, when so much superb work was being done in all the arts. Up against James and Wharton and Conrad and Lawrence, Richardson doesn’t stand a chance. (According to a biographical piece I read about her, she considered herself more of a Continental writer than an English one. Her francophone competition was just as overwhelming, but if her models were teutophonic, which is likely, she came out much better, for all I know – Fontane, Hauptman, Stifter, being just names to me.) As an English novel? I would place it on the same level as Gissing at his most perfunctory.
However, in its depiction of the world of music, Maurice Guest towers above Mann’s book and Seth’s. The details of student life in Leipzig, of the politics of the music conservatory, in which the students, in thrall to the romanticism of Liszt and Chopin, chafe against the conservative pedagogues, for whom Brahms is excitingly avant garde, of the descriptions of the conservatory premises, the students’ digs, Leipzig itself, are so clear and comprehensive that one can feel just what it was like to be there, doing that, at that time. And the same bunch of characters we all knew in our own college days are there, but described in such detail – not only their appearance, but their personalities -- that the comparison between our own reminiscences and Richardson’s of late 19th century Leipzig provides a full, four dimensional impression of the milieu (the fourth dimension being psychological). A marvelous book, in that way. You just have to nudge aside the occasional melodrama.
Postscript: One small strand of Maurice Guest is the impact on the students (and the mother of one of them, who is caricatured as lost to reality in the world of sentimental novels) of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.
I saw the reprint of this on bookstore shelves for decades, but I never picked it up because 1) I assumed it was a memoir, of a time and place that didn’t interest me and 2) I confused it with Isaak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, which I was avoiding for the same reason.
It turns out that The Story of an African Farm is a novel, extremely bold for the time (1883), feminist, atheistic, with complex sexual situations leading to one of the main characters spending a good portion of the novel in drag. The story is broad, with different sections presented through the point of view of different narrators, and the chronology is amorphous. It sounds to me, structurally, at least, if not stylistically, Faulknerian.
Not that I’ve read The Story of an African Farm. I’ve read enough about it, along with some excerpts on line, to convince me to give it a pass.
But Schreiner herself is fascinating. I’ve never seen her mentioned in pantheons of early feminism, but she should be. Suffragist, pacifist, atheist, a friend (or more?) of Havelock Ellis – and she wrote an introduction to Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, so what more need be said? Perhaps she’s been ignored because she was a Boer.
(While Richardson’s students in Leipzig are bowled over by the daring of Schreiner’s book, its impact on the mother addicted to trashy novels is almost nil; a bad book, she says, because it has an unhappy ending.)