1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Meredith, George
MEREDITH, GEORGE (1828–1909), British novelist and poet, was born at Portsmouth, Hampshire, on the 12th of February 1828; the parish church register records his baptism on the 9th of April. About his early life few details are recorded, but there is a good deal of quasi-autobiography, derived apparently from early associations and possibly antipathies, in some of his own novels, notably Evan Harrington and Harry Richmond, as to which the judicious may speculate. He had, as he used to boast, both Welsh (from his father) and Irish blood (from his mother) in his veins. His father, Augustus Armstrong Meredith, was a naval outfitter at Portsmouth (mentioned as such in Marryat's Peter Simple); and his grandfather, Melchisedek Meredith, clearly suggested the “Old Mel” of Evan H Harrington. Melchisedek was 35 when in 1796 he was initiated as a Freemason at Portsmouth; and he appears to have been known locally as “the count,” because of a romantic story as to an adventure he once had at Bath; he was churchwarden in 1801 and 1804; and some of the church plate still bears his name.
Meredith's mother died when he was three years old, and he was made a ward in chancery. He was sent to school at Neuwied on the Rhine, and remained in Germany till he was sixteen. During these impressionable years he imbibed a good deal of the German spirit; and German influence, especially through the media of poetry and music, can often be 'traced in the cast of his thought and sentiment, as well as in some of the intricacies of his' literary style. Returning to England he was at first articled to a solicitor in London, but he had little inclination for the law, and soon abandoned it for the more congenial sphere of letters, of which he had become an eager student. At the age of twenty-one he began to contribute poetry to the rnagazines, and he eked out a livelihood for some years by journalism, for the Daily News and other London papers, and for the Ipswich Journal, for which he wrote leaders; a certain number of his more characteristic- fugitive writings are collected in the memorial edition 'of his works (1910). In London he became one of the leading spirits in the group of young philosophical and positivistic Radicals, among whom were John (afterwards Lord) Morley, Frederic Harrison, Cotter Morison and Admiral Maxse. But during the years when he was producing his finest novels he was practically unknown to the public. In 1849 he married Mrs Nicholls, daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, the novelist, a widow, eight years his senior, whose husband had been accidentally drowned a few months after her first marriage (1844), and who had one child, a daughter; but their married life was broken by separation; she died in 1861, and in 1864 Meredith married Miss Vulliamy, by whom he had a son and daughter. His second wife died in 1885. Up to that time there is little to record in the incidents of his life; he had not been “discovered” except by an “honourable minority” of readers and critics. It must suffice to note that during the Austro-Italian War of 1866 he acted as special correspondent for the Morning Post; and though. he saw no actual fighting, he enjoyed, particularly at Venice, opportunities for a study of the Italian people which he* turned to account in several of his novels. Towards the close of 1867, when his friend John Morley paid a visit to America, Meredith undertook in his absence the editorship of the Fortnightly Review for Messrs Chapman & Hall. They were not only the publishers of his books, but he acted for many years as their literary adviser, in which capacity he left a reputation for being not only eminently wise in his selection of the books to be published, but both critical and encouraging to authors of promise Whose works he found himself obliged to reject. Thomas Hardy and George Gissing were among those who expressed their grateful sense of his assistance. He was indeed one of the last of the old school of “publishers’ readers.” In his early married life he lived near Weybridge, and later at Copsham between Esher and Leatherhead, while soon after his second marriage he settled at Flint Cottage, Mickleham, near Dorking, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Meredith’s first appearance in print was in the character of a poet, and his first published poem “Chillian Wallah,” may be found in Chambers’s Journal for the 7th of July 1849. Two years later he put forth' a small volume of Poems (1851), which was ati least fortunate in eliciting the praise of two judges whose opinion was of the first importance to a beginner. Tennyson was at once struck by the individual flavour of the verse, and declared of one poem, “Love in the Valley,” that he could not get the lines out of his head. Charles Kingsley's eulogy was at once more public and more particular. In Fraser’s Magazine he subjected the volume to careful consideration, praising it for richness and quaintness of tone that reminded him of Herrick, for completeness and coherence in each separate poem, and for the animating sweetness and health of the general atmosphere. At the same time he censured the laxity of rhythm, the occasional lack of polish, and the tendency to overload the description with objective details to the confusion of the principal effect. No doubt as a result of Kingsley's introduction, two poems by Meredith appeared in Fraser's Magazine shortly afterwards; but with the exception of these, and a sonnet in the Leader, he did not publish anything for the next live years. In the meanwhile he was busy upon his first essay in prose fiction. It was early in 1856 that the Shaving of Shagpat, a work of singular imagination, humour and romance, made its appearance. Modelled upon the stories of the Arabian Nights, it catches with wonderful ardour the magical atmosphere of Orientalism, and in this genre it remains a unique triumph in modern letters. Though unappreciated by the multitude, its genius was at once recognized by such contemporaries as George Eliot and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the latter of whom was one of Meredith's intimate friends. For his next story it occurred to Meredith to turn his familiarity with the life and legendary tradition of the Rhinelander into a sort of imitation of the grotcsquerie of the German romanticists, and in 1857 he put forth Farina, a Legend of Cologne, which sought to transfer to English sympathies the spirit of German romance in the same way that Shagpat had handled Oriental fairy-lore. The result was less successful. The plot of Farina lacks fibre, its motive is insufficient, and the diverse elements of humour, serious narrative, and romance scarcely stand in proportion to one another. But the Ordeal of Richard Feverel, which followed in 1859, transferred Meredith at once to a new sphere and to the altitude of his accomplishment. With this novel Meredith deserted the realm of fancy for that of the philosophical and psychological study of human nature, and Richard Feverel was the first, as it is perhaps the favourite, 'of those wonderful studies of motive and action which placed him among the demigods of English literature. The essential theme of this fine criticism of life is the question of a b0y's education. It depicts the abortive attempt of a proud and opinionated father, hide-bound by theory and precept, to bring up his son to a perfect state of manhood through a “system ” which controls all his early circumstances and represses many of the natural and wholesome instincts and impulses of adolescence. The love scenes in Richard Fefuerel are gloriously natural and full of vitality, and the book throughout marked a revolution in the English treatment of manly passion. Those who have not read this novel in the original form, with the chapters which were afterwards omitted, have lost, however, the key to many passages in the story: In the following year Meredith contributed to Once a Week, and in 1861 published as a book the second of his novels of modern life, Evan Harrington, originally with the sub-title “He Would be a Gentleman”—in allusion to the hero being the son of “Old Mel,” the tailor—which contains a richly humorous—in its unrevised form, splendidly farcical—plot, with some magnificent studies of character. Afterwards revised, ai certain amount of the farcical element was cut out, with the result that, considered as comedy, it has weak spots; but the Countess de Saldar remains a genuine creation. A year later he produced his finest volume of poems, entitled Modern Love, and Poems of the English Roadside, with Poems and Ballads. An attack upon the dramatic poem which gives the volume its title appeared in the Spectator, and is memorable for the fact that Meredith's friend, the poet Swinburne, with one of his characteristically generous impulses, replied (Spectator, June 7, 1862) in a spirit of fervent eulogy. Some of the individual “sonnets” (of sixteen lines) into which Modern Love is divided are certainly worthy of being ranked with the most subtle and most intense poetic work of the 19th century.
Returning to fiction, Meredith next published Emilia in England (1864), afterwards renamed Sandra Belloni. His powerful story Rhoda Fleming (1865) followed soon afterwards. Vittoria, published in the Fortnightly Review in 1866, and in book form in 1867, is a sequel to Emilia in England. Four years later appeared The Adventures of Harry Richmond in the pages of Cornhill (1870-1871). Its successor was Beauchampis Career (Fortnightly Review, 1874-187 5), the novel which Meredith usually described as his own favourite. Its hero's character is supposed to have been founded upon that of Admiral Maxse. Sandra Belloni, Rhoda Fleming, Vittoria and Beauchamp are all masterpieces of his finest period, rich in incident, character and workmanship. “The House on the Beach” and “The Case of General Opie and Lady Camper ” (New Quarterly Magazine, 187 7) Were slight but glittering exercises incomedy; the next important novel was The Egoist (1879), which shows an increase in Meredith's twistedness of literary style and is admittedly hard to read for those who merely want a “ story, ” but which for concentrated analysis and the real drama of the human spirit is an astounding production. In an interesting series of lectures which Meredith delivered at the London Institution in 1877 his main thesis was that a man without a sense of comedy is dead to the nner issues of the spirit, and the conception of Sir Willoughby Patterne, the central figure of The Egoist, is an embodiment of this idea in the flesh. The Tragic Comedians (1880), the next of Meredith's novels, slighter in texture than his others, combines the spirits of comedy and tragedy in the story of the life of Ferdinand Lassalle, the German Socialist. The appearance of Diana of the Crossways (1885), a brilliant book, full of his ripest character-drawing, though here and there tormenting the casual reader by the novelist's mannerisms of expression, marks an epoch in Meredith's career, since it was the first of his stories to strike the general public. Its heroine was popularly identified with' Sheridan's granddaughter, Mrs Norton, and the use made in it of the contemporary story of that lady's communication to The Times of the cabinet secret of Peel's conversion to Free Trade had the effect of producing explicit evidence of its inaccuracy from Lord Dufferin and others. As a matter of historical fact it was Lord Aberdeen who himself gave Delane the information, but the popular acceptance of the other version of the incident gave a factitious interest to the novel.
Meanwhile further instalments of poems—Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883)—had struck anew the full, rich note of natural realism which is Meredith's chief poetic characteristic. “The Woods of Westermain, ” in particular, has a sense of the mysterious communion of man with nature u nap pro ached by any English poets save Wordsworth and Shelley. Ballads ind Poems of Tragic Life (1887) and A Reading of Earth (1888) gave further evidence of the wealth of thought and vigour of expression which Meredith brought to the making of verse. To “ the general, ” no doubt, Meredith's verse is prohibitive, or nearly so-for, after all, he has written some poems, like “Martin's Puzzle,” “The Old Chartist,” and “Juggling Jerry,” which anybody can read with ease. But his most characteristic style in verse is so concentrated that any one accustomed to “straightforward” writing, and unwilling to read with the mind rather than with the eye, must needs, to his loss, be put off. His readers, of the verse even more than of the prose, must be prepared to meet him on a common intellectual footing. When once that is granted, however, the music and magic of such poems as “ Seed-time, ” “Hard Weather, ” “ The Thrush in February, ” “ The South-Wester, ” “The Lark Ascending, ” “ Love in the Valley, ” “Melampus, ” “A Faith on Trial, ” are very real, amid all their occasional obscurities of diction.
Meredith had now completed his sixtieth year, and with his advancing years the angles of his individuality began to grow sharper, while the difficulties of his style became accentuated. The increase in mannerism was marked in One of Our Conquerors (1891), otherwise a magnificent rendering of a theme full' of both tragedy and comedy, and in the poem of “ The Empty Purse ” (1892). Neither Lord Ormont and His Aminta (1894) nor The Amazing Marriage (1895) reached the level of the earlier novels, though in the latter he seemed to catch an afterglow of genius. In 1898 appeared his Odes in Contribution to the Sang of French History, consisting of one ode (“ France, December 1870 ”) reprinted from Ballads and Poems (1871), and three others previously unpublished; a fine example of his lofty thought, and magnificent-if often difficult-and individual diction. In 1901 another volume of verse, A Reading If of Life, appeared. In later years too he contributed occasional poems to newspapers and reviews and similar publications, which were collected after his death (Last Poems, IQIO). His comedy, The Sentimentalists, was performed on the 1st of March 1910; his early but unhnished novel, Celt and Saxon, was also posthumously published in that summer.
From the early 'nineties onward Meredith's fame had been firmly established. His own literary contemporaries still living could join hands with the younger generation of enthusiastic admirers in insisting on a greatness of which they themselves had been unable to persuade the public. He was chosen to succeed Tennyson as president of the Authors' Society; on his seventieth birthday (1898) he was presented with a congratulatory address by thirty of the most prominent men of letters of the day; before he died he had been included by the king in the Order of Merit; and in various other ways his position -as the chief living English writer had come to be popularly recognized. The critics discussed him; and new editions of his books (both prose and verse), for which there had long been but scanty demand, were called for. One of the 'results was that Meredith, with very doubtful wisdom, recast some of his earlier novels; and in the sumptuous “ authorized edition ” of 1897 (published by the firm of Constable, of which his son, William Maxse Meredith, was a member) very large alterations are made in some of them. In fact, a reader who compares the first and last editions either of Richard Feverel or Evan Harrington will notice changes little short of revolutionary. Even in the previously current editions of 1878 onwards, published by Chapman & Hall, Richard Feverel had been considerably shortened as compared with the original three-volume edition; but it was now robbed again of some of its best-known passages. It is no doubt competent to an author himself to revise his earlier published work even to the extent to which Meredith in the 1897 edition revised these novels; but certainly it is not necessary to accept his judgment when this involves the excision in old age of some of the most virile passages of books that were written in the full glow and vigour of his prime. In Constable's memorial edition (1910) of his complete works the excisions were published separately, and are therefore on record for those to consult who care. But the wise will read Richard Feverel and Evan Harrington in the original versions.
Meredith's literary quality must always be considered in the light of the Celtic side of his temperament and the peculiarities of his mental equipment. His nature was intuitive rather than ratiocinative; his mental processes were abrupt and far reaching; and the suppression of connecting associations frequently gives his language, as it gave Browning's, but even to a greater extent, the air of an impenetrably nebulous obscurity. This criticism applies mainly to his verse, but is also true of his prose in many places, though there is much exaggeration about the difficulties of his novels. When once, however, his manner has been properly understood, it is seen to be inseparable from his method of intellect ion, and to add to the narrative of description both vividness of delineation and intensity of realization. The essential respect in which Meredith's method of describing action and emotion in narrative differs from that of convention is that, while the ordinary method is to relate what happens from the point of view of the onlooker, Meredith frequently describes it from the point of emotion of the actor; and his influence in this direction has largely modified the art of fiction. Herein lies the secret of the peculiar brilliancy of his style, derived from his combination of the narrator with the creator, or-in its strict sense-the seer. The reader, by the transference of the interest from the audience to the stage, is transported into the very soul of the character, and made to feel as-he feels and act as he acts. Moreover, Meredith's instinct for psychology is so intimate, and his sense of motive and action so true, that the interaction of character and character directly dominates the sequence of events depicted in his imaginary world, and discloses the moral idea or criticism of life, instead of the preconceived “moral” being merely illustrated by the plot. In building up the minds, actions, 1
creeds, and tragedies or comedies of his imaginary personalities amid the selected circumstances, and inspiring them with the identical motives and educational influences of life itself, Meredith spent an elaboration and profundity of thought and an originality and vigour of analysis upon his novels which in explicitness go far beyond what had previously been attempted in fiction, and which give to his works a philosophical value of no ordinary kind. Simplicity can scarcely be expected of his language, for the interplay of ideas is in itself original and complex, and their interpretation is necessarily original and complex too. But when Meredith is at his best he is only involved with the involution of his subject; the aphorisms that decorate his style'are simple when the idea they convey is simple, elaborate only in its elaboration. Pregnant, vividly graphic, capable of infinite shades and gradations, his style is a much finer and subtler instrument than at first appears, and must be judged finally by what it conveys to the mind, and not by its superficial sound upon the conventional ear. It owes- something to Jean Paul Richter; something, too, to Carlyle, with whose methods of narrative and indebtedness to the apparatus of German metaphysics it has a good deal in common. To the novelist Richardson, too, a careful reader will find that Meredith, both in manner and matter (notably in The Egoist and in Richard Feverel), owes a good deal; in “ Mrs Grandison ” in Richard Feverel he even recalls “ Sir Charles Grandison ” by name; and nobody can doubt that Sir Willoughby Patterne, both in idea and often in expression, was modelled on Richardson's creation. Careful students of the early 19th-century English novel will find curious echoes again in Meredith of Bulwer-Lytton's (Baron Lytton's) literary manner and romantic outlook. But he was, after all, an originator, and at first suffered in estimation on that score; he wrote in his own way, and what is most characteristic in Meredith remains individual. Like all the great masters, he has his own tone of voice, his own fashion of expressing an idea. Feeling, perception, reflection, judgment, have equal shares in determining his architectonic relation to a problem or a situation. He rings changes on the changing emotions of humanity, but every chime rings true. He is a literary artist. He takes great themes, not little ones; the characters in his fiction are personalities, human beings, neither “heroes” nor “ sports ”; and he does not descend to pander to lubricity or cater for the “ reading public.” His gallery of portraits of real human women, not dolls, would alone place him among the few creators in English literature.
It is beyond our scope here to enter into details concerning the philosophy which represents Meredith's “ criticism of life.” Broadly speaking, it is a belief in the rightness and wholesomeness of Nature, when Nature-“ Sacred Reality ”-is lovingly and faithfully and trustfully sought and known by the pure use of reason. Man must be “ obedient to Nature, not her slave.” Mystical as this philosophy occasionally becomes, it is yet an inspiring one, clean, austere and practical; and it is always dominated by the categorical imperative of self-knowledge and the striving after honesty of purpose and thought. A strong vein of political Radicalism runs through Meredith's creed. It is, however, a Radicalism allied to that of the French philosopher, rather than to the contemporary developments of British party politics, though in later life-he gave his open support to the Liberal party. In spite of his German upbringing Meredith was always strongly French in his sympathies, his appreciation of French character at its best and at its worst is finely shown in his Napoleon odes. In the main his politics may be summed up as a striving after liberty for reason and conscience and the constant progress of humanity-
The cry of the conscience of life
Keep the young generations in hail,
And bequeath them no tumbled house.
Ask of thyself: This furious Yea
Of a speech I thump to repeat,
In the cause I would have prevail,
For seed of a nourishing wheat,
Is it accepted of Song?
Does it sound to the mind through the ear,
Right sober, pure sane? has it disciplined feet?
Thou wilt find it a test severe;
Unerring whatever the theme.
Rings it for Reason a melody clear,
We have bidden old Chaos retreat,
We have called on Creation to hear;
All forces that make us are one full stream.
Meredith is generally ranked far less high as a poet than as a novelist. But he can only be understood and appreciated properly by those who realize that not prose (in the ordinary sense) but poetry was to him the highest form of expression, and that only in it could he fully deliver his message, as a writer who aspired to contribute something more to the common stock of ideas than could be embodied dramatically in prose fiction.
On Meredith's 80th birthday in 1908, the homage of the English literary world was again paid in an address of congratulation. But his health, which for many years had been precarious, was now failing. He died at Flint Cottage, Box Hill, Surrey, on the 18th of May 1909. A strong feeling existed that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey, and a petition to that effect, which was approved by the prime minister, Mr Asquith, was signed by a large number of men of letters. But this was not to be. A memorial service was held in the abbey, but Meredith's own remains, after cremation, were interred at Dorking by the grave of his second wife. He had died only a brief span after his old friend Swinburne, his affection for whom had never suffered abatement, and it was felt that, with them, a great epoch in English literary history had closed. They were the last of the great Victorians; and in Meredith went the writer who had raised the creative art of the novel, as a vehicle of character and constructive philosophy, to its highest point-a point higher indeed than most contemporary readers were prepared for. The estimate of his genius formed by “an honourable minority,” who would place him in the highest class of all, by Shakespeare, has yet to be confirmed by the wider suffrage of posterity.
A carefully compiled bibliography by John Lane was included in George Meredith: Some Characteristics, by R. Le Gallienne (1890). This sympathetic essay in criticism was the first substantial publication addressed to that stimulation of a wider appreciation of Meredith which was carried on by several later books, perhaps the best of which is M. Sturge Henderson's George Meredith: Novelist Poet, Reformer (1908); but such earlier testimonies to Meredith's importance as justin McCarthy's, in his History of Our Own Times, must not be forgotten. See also ]. A. Hammerton, George Meredith in Anecdotes and Criticism (1909).
- The fact that Bulwer-Lytton's son, the 1st Earl of Lytton Meredith's junior by three years, took the pen-name of “Owen Meredith,” led occasionally to some confusion among uninstructed contemporaries, and even the suggestion of a family connexion.