Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews





George Meredith, the Dean of English Novelists

 

“Brains will beat grim death if we have enough of them!”



This was a saying of the old buccaneer Kirby, a character in one of George Meredith’s novels, and it is an apt opening phrase for a sketch of the famous English novelist and his career.  Brain, sheer brain, has carried him well beyond grim death so far as this world’s immortality is concerned.  When the twenty-second or twenty-third century sums up the tale of intellectual activity in the nineteenth, the name of George Meredith must surely be in the list.  His mind is too biting, the foundation of his work too deeply rooted in human experience, his sympathies too wide, and his battle for the freedom of women too chivalrous, to admit the oblivion which will then have closed upon names now equally famous.  For sheer mentality he is one of our highest; unique in that he seems apart from all the intellectual currents of his time.
     When we think of the novelists of the mid-Victorian era we think of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope.  As one of this company, George Meredith’s name seems a negligible quantity.  Yet he was the contemporary of the rest, reviewing their books and praising them, while they were probably careless of his, and certainly ignorant that their most powerful rival for lasting fame was the young man whose novels, in their green and purple dresses and orthodox three-volume bulk, lay unregarded on the shelves of Mudie’s Library.
     But it was even so.  To-day we begin to see him in his relative size.  As we draw away from this intellectual mountain-range, the peak we call George Meredith towers and towers, and will not be hidden by mist or tempest. [page 94]
     Meredith’s life of fourscore years now seems to have been passed in the gradual maturing and development of his mind, so little of striking incident does it reveal, but it has been filled with deep and strenuous, though quiet, toil.  He was born in Hampshire in the year 1828, and is allied to the peasantry of that fruitful English county.  His parents died when he was a boy, and he grew up as a ward in Chancery.  His guardian sent him to Germany, and there he received his early education.  Seekers after personal data in the novels will find much of it in Harry Richmond.  Reading the first quarter of the book—surely the raciest, the most graphic of narratives—they will discover what sort of a lad George Meredith was, what his surroundings were, and what impression his sojourn in Germany left on his mind.
     He returned to England at fifteen, and before long began the study of law; but the legal profession did not call him strongly.  Visions and dreams came between him and the pages of forms and precedents, and he saw shining a brighter law than the law of evidence.  It was soon necessary, if he was to develop in his own way, to face the world alone, and for years his life in London was a brave struggle against poverty.
     Encumbered with financial burdens, but determined to master his destiny, he maintained himself as best he could.  It is said that he lived for one whole year upon oatmeal—a diet upon which heroes have been nurtured.  Hack-work for the press and literary odd jobs of reviewing and paragraphing kept life in him, and the hard school developed his courage.
     In 1851 he published his first book of poems, and in 1856 his fantastic prose tale, the marvellous Shaving of Shagpat.  As the years wore on, his work and his force of character began to tell, and when he was nearing the end of his third decade he was a journalist of standing, editing the Ipswich Journal, a weekly paper, and writing social and literary articles for the Morning Post.  Both these sheets were Tory in their political affinities, and Mr. Meredith must have found it an irksome task to laud Disraeli and to find weak spots in the armor of Lord John Russel and Mr. Gladstone.  But the former statesman must have attracted him, for lately he remarked that Disraeli was one of the most baffling personalities of modern England, and regretted that he could not have discovered his meaning by study at close range. [page 95]
     His editorial work was done from his cottage in Surrey, but he had friends and a foothold in London.  As might have been foretold, his acquaintances were of the brightest.  In October, 1862, Dante Gabriel Rossetti had rented No. 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and his brother, W.M. Rossetti, and several of his friends took rooms in the house.  Swinburne and Meredith were of the company, but the latter made but little use of his rooms.  Indeed, it is said that he never slept one night under the roof, and that the Pre[-]Raphaelite cookery did not agree with his somewhat Spartan taste.  In a year of less he gave up his tenancy, but it is probable that parts of Modern Love and Sandra Belloni were written there.
     In 1866 he went to the scene of Italy’s final struggle for independence as correspondent for the Morning Post.  His sojourn in Venice at this time, in the very heart of the intrigues and the desperate heroism which made up the closing scene in the drama, gave him material for Vittoria, in which novel Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, and the nobles and peasants of the exalted time play their natural parts.
     His marriage with the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, the author of Headlong Hall and Crotchet Castle, the friend to whom Shelley addressed his fine descriptive letters from Italy, did not bring him happiness.  His wife was a brilliant creature, but wit and singular gifts do not always consort with the qualities necessary to make a home for an imaginative writer.  A breach ensued, and only at her death, after twelve years of a somewhat tragic union, was the chapter closed.  Later, Mr. Meredith married happily a lady of Irish birth, who died in 1886, leaving him two children.


Richard Feverel, his Masterpiece


At this time, while he had not achieved fame, he was constantly gaining ground.  His masterpiece, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, published in 1859, had won its way and was already an unforgettable book.  Between 1859 and 1867 he had published four novels and one book of poems, and now he often regrets the difficulties which forced him to produce too rapidly for serial and even for simultaneous publication.  The decade of the ‘70’s gave us Harry Richmond, Beauchamp’s Career, and The Egoist.  The next ten years added The Tragic Comedians and Diana of the Crossways to the list, and this generation [page 96] can remember the publication of One of Our Conquerors, Lord Ormont and His Aminta, and The Amazing Marriage.
     The American interest in Meredith’s work gave an impetus to his circulation, and now his books are with us wherever culture is.  His sympathy with woman in her individual life, as well as in her sex relation, had much to do with this transatlantic cult.  Here women have greater liberty than elsewhere, and it was natural that the thoughtful American woman should find in his creations echoes of her own spirit.  There is no doubt that Meredith’s women are freer than the women of other great novelists.  They have charm, and his great characters among them have intellect as well.
     “Intellect is a pearl,” he writes.  “A woman of intellect is as good as a Greek statue; she is divinely wrought, and she is divinely rare.”
     It has been his habit to write for three or four hours daily, in the morning, and his output was about twelve hundred words a day, but he allowed himself frequent holidays.  His work-room is situated in a chalet separate from his cottage at Box Hill, on a higher level, from which there is a long vista of the rolling meads of Surrey.  The cottage itself is hidden in a garden, circled with hedges and embowered in trees, and behind it rises the sheltering hill.  Here he lives simply, as he has always done, judges his wine as a connoisseur, smokes a fine Italian cigar reflectively, and is surrounded with the sort of comfort which suits him and which he suits.

George Meredith at Fourscore


The Meredith of our day is white-haired, and physically somewhat burdened with his years of intellectual toil and the abrasions of life.  His visitors now oftener see him seated in his arm-chair than afoot and alert as of old.  He is tall, well proportioned, and slender.  The wonderful lines of his head at once fix the attention.  They are most delicate, sensitive lines, and the head somehow seems to suggest the penetrative power of his intellect.  His expression is not introspective, but rather that of a man of the world, as in the widest sense he is; and this idea gathers force when he speaks.  His voice is deep, mellow, and freighted with a perfect choice of words.
     What talk it is!—informed, fiery, full of dash, grave with import, the lightest thistle-down of wit, the barbed but never poisoned dart of satire, all literature put under contribution, and all experience, so [page 97] that the listener needs to be worthy of the speaker to follow him in his wide circling flights.  He might pour forth from his knowledge of Napoleonic literature for days, it would seem, so vast is his erudition on the subject.  He has unearthed and read every known thing on this subject, and with the literary result of but a few noble odes.  But then reading has always been a habit with Mr. Meredith, and his knowledge of French literature alone is amazing.
     His knowledge is not exclusively literary.  His fund of information regarding the arts and sciences is full, and he has stored up the results of accurate observations at first hand.  A memory active and tenacious enough to retain the contributions of his many-sided interest in life is one of the gifts of his good gods.
     His advisory connection with a great publishing-house has kept him in touch with contemporary English literature, and genial and kindly is his treatment of young writers.  To him the present absence of great writers is not a reason for discouragement.  He says we are in the trough of a wave, that is all; the crest is rearing up its head behind.  If he speaks of his own work it is but a remark that he esteems The Shaving of Shagpat, or he seems pleased with his treatment of Victor Radnor’s character in One of Our Conquerors, showing the creeping progress and effect of his insanity; or he remarks that the obscurity of the opening chapter of The Egoist was occasioned by a single attempt on his part to write like Carlyle.
     When we study this man, and think of his books, we think of a very treasure-house of human impulse, frailty, heroism, sordidness, indifference, affection, humor, and hate—in short, of human character.  Character, that is the point—a great novelist of character!  Meredith’s aim has been to render events as consequent as a piece of logic through an exposure of character.  Other novelists have rendered the progress of events by other means, and character has slipped in as it might, often with tottering and bloodless result; but Meredith has first thought of character, and triumphs by his characters.
     If, after dreaming The Shaving of Shagpat, he had invented, or rather discovered, the form of expression which was germane to his genius, he would have been absolutely one of our great originals.  But he was forced to think of writing novels and poems in the conventional way.  While he has great wealth of poetic ideas, clear expression, even in the simplest form of verse, he finds difficulty; and while he has a supersensitive feeling for character, and a virile [page 98] philosophy of life, he never completely masters the development of his story.
     His age did not supply him a form for expression, as the ages of Rabelais, Cervantes, Dante, Molière, and Shakespeare supplied them; so that he does not express his time as they have done theirs, and we place him beneath them.  But his endowment, differing in kind, was but little, if at all, inferior to theirs, and another age may value him still more highly than ours. [page 99]

 

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