Port, or Hermitage? This does not refer to personal consumption. I was trying to remember Meredith’s Egoist, in which one of the principal characters seeks to coerce his daughter into marriage, in order to have unlimited access to his putative son-in-law’s ancient wines. That could give rise to an interesting moral speculation.
I raised the question in a club, one of the few surviving places in Britain where free speech is possible. There was a desire for further and better particulars: which wine were we talking about, and what about the daughter? Was she an easy-on-the-eye, generally obedient creature, a pleasure to have about the place, or…. Someone quoted Lord Tottering, from one of those splendid cartoons in Country Life. At a party, Tottering and a chum are confronted by a roomful of gyrating teenage females. His Lordship comes to a conclusion: ‘The number of daughters a chap has must be related to his wickedness in a previous existence.’
There was a cautious endorsement of trading daughters for wine, and the subject gave rise to merriment, which is more than Meredith does. Few reputations have plummeted so totally, so irrevocably: so deservedly. He is all strain and no effect. His earnestness may have enabled him to slip below the late Victorian radar. They were used to long sermons. But the tedium. His contemporaries rated him with Dickens and Eliot. Why? He is defective in plot, narrative and characterisation. He cannot write a decent sentence. ‘Comedy is a game played to throw reflections upon social life,’ the book begins. Meredith is incapable of humour, he has no understanding of society and his reflections are worthless. There is one vaguely entertaining character, a boy called Crossjay Patterne: a cross between Mr Midshipman Easy and William Brown, a few respites of light relief. Mostly, it is a desert of tedium.
If I sound dyspeptic, it is because I was determined to schlep across the scrub prose to discover the genus of the daughter-price wine. It was 90-year-old port: a further reason for disparagement. I have drunk port of that age, but it never had much to say for itself. Even if the spine of brandy survived, the fruit had largely gone. It was approaching the Shakespearian seventh age. Meredith tries to endow Dr Middleton with the eloquence to praise the port and proffer the daughter. But even if our author had written persuasive English, we would distrust the assessment. Port that age cannot be that good. Most will be as musty as Meredith’s writing. To be traded in such an exchange, a daughter would need to be dull, plain, disobedient, graceless: deficient in intellectual or sentimental appeal: not worth enough dowry to incarcerate her in an Irish nunnery: a Lydia Bennet of a daughter.
How could our forebears have esteemed Meredith so highly? I suppose we have Derrida, Lacan and Martin Amis. But one suspects that they were laughing behind their hands, astonished that anyone would take them seriously. Poor old Meredith took himself seriously.
Apropos of seriousness, I have some diverse recommendations. Olivino, the delicatessen branch of Mauro Sanna’s Little Sardinia in lower Belgravia, has a really good Cannonau, an Inu Riserva 2010. Take every opportunity to drink Hermann Dönnhoff’s wines from the Nahe. He is still reasonably priced, but his reputation is growing. The same is true of Château Bernadotte from the Haut-Médoc, a well-made Cru Bourgeois. I recently drank an ’09. In that evocative and comprehensive phrase, it tasted of claret. However much one disrespects the Bordelaises, it must be acknowledged that the quality of their lesser wines has improved. It will be interesting to see whether that will have survived the recent poor vintages. But Bordeaux will always recover, unlike Meredith, now reclassified as a vin very ordinaire.