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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
George Meredith (1828–1909)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Anna McClure Sholl (1868–1956)
 
WHAT Robert Browning is among English poets, George Meredith is among English novelists. A writer of genius who had no predecessors and who can have no posterity, the isolation of Meredith is inherent in the very constitution of his remarkable novels. These are so completely of the man himself that their kind will perish with him. Their weaknesses elude the imitation of the most scholarly contortionists of English. Their strength is altogether superlative and unique.  1
  In the preface to a late work Meredith writes: “The forecast may be hazarded that if we do not speedily embrace philosophy in fiction, the art is doomed to extinction.” The Meredithian principle of the novel is summed up in this prophecy. There have not been wanting critics to whom the lusty embraces of art with philosophy in Mr. Meredith’s novels seem productive of little but intolerable weariness to the reader. Be this as it may, the writer of ‘The Egoist’ and of the ‘Tragic Comedians’ has been scrupulously faithful to his ideal of what constitutes vitality in fiction. He never descends to the deadening vulgarity of an intricate plot, nor does he swamp character in incident. His men and women reveal themselves by their subtle play upon one another in the slow progress of situations lifelike in their apparent unimportance. They are actors not in a romance nor in a melodrama, but in a drama of philosophy. Sometimes this philosophy of Meredith’s lies like a cloak of lead about the delicate form of his rare poetical imagination. The enchanting lines can only be faintly traced through the formless shroud. The man who wrote this love passage in ‘Richard Feverel’ might seem to have made sad uses of philosophy in his later books:—
          “The sweet heaven-bird shivered out his song above him. The gracious glory of heaven fell upon his soul. He touched her hand, not moving his eyes from her nor speaking: and she with a soft word of farewell passed across the stile, and up the pathway through the dewy shades of the copse, and out of the arch of the light, away from his eyes.”
  2
  From the delight of pure beauty like this, the reader passes to sentences where the metaphysician has buried the artist and poet under the unhewn masses of his thought.
          “A witty woman is a treasure: a witty beauty is a power. Has she actual beauty, actual wit? not an empty, tidal, material beauty that passes current among pretty flippancy or staggering pretentiousness? Grant the combination: she will appear a veritable queen of her period, fit for homage, at least meriting a disposition to believe the best of her in the teeth of foul rumor; because the well of true wit is truth itself, the gathering of the precious drops of right reason, wisdom’s lighting; and no soul possessing it and dispensing it can justly be a target for the world, however well armed the world confronting her. Our contemporary world, that Old Credulity and stone-hurling urchin in one, supposes it possible for a woman to be mentally active up to the point of spiritual clarity, and also fleshly vile—a guide to life and a biter at the fruits of death—both open mind and a hypocrite.”
  3
  Between these two passages there is apparently a great gulf fixed, but they are equally expressive of the genius of George Meredith. He is a poet whose passion for mind has led him far enough away from the poetical environment. Of all English novelists, none approach him in his absorption in the minds of men. He weaves his novels not around what men do, but what they think. Mental sensations form the subject-matter of his chapters. He delights in minute analyses, which, as in ‘The Egoist,’ reveal human nature unclothed. He laughs over his own amazing discoveries, but he seldom victimizes a woman. What sympathy he has with his creations falls to the lot of his heroines. The minds of women are to George Meredith the most fascinating subjects of research in the universe. He may jest at times over their contradictions; but he attributes their worst features to man, who should have been the civilizer of woman, but who has been instead the refined savage, gloating over “veiled, virginal dolls.”  4
  Meredith, who was born in 1828, was many years in revealing himself to the British public, who loved him not. He had published a volume of verse in 1851, and he was known to the narrow circle of his friends as a poet only. His first wife was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, who was in a sense the spiritual progenitor of George Meredith the novelist. The eccentric author of ‘Headlong Hall’ and ‘Maid Marian,’ whose novels are peopled with “perfectibilians, deteriorationists, statu-quo-ites, phrenologists, transcendentalists, political economists, theorists in all sciences, projectors in all arts, enthusiasts, lovers of music, lovers of the picturesque, and lovers of good dinners,” might well have influenced the author of ‘One of Our Conquerors.’  5
  Among the earlier works of Meredith ‘The Shaving of Shagpat’ and ‘Farina’ witness to the splendor of his imagination, but not to the wealth of his psychological experience. ‘The Shaving of Shagpat’ is an extravaganza which puts the ‘Arabian Nights’ to shame. ‘The Ordeal of Richard Feverel’ is his first typical novel, and in a sense one of his greatest, because it combines his passion for philosophical estimates of character with his passion for beauty. Beauty to George Meredith means women and nature. The genius of the man forgets theories when under this double inspiration.  6
  One of the most perfect love scenes in the whole range of fiction is that between Richard and Lucy alone together in the sweet fields. Richard Feverel was a youth with whom it was intended that nature should have little to do. He was reared upon a system, the fruit of the dejected brain and hurt heart of his father, Sir Austin Feverel. This system in its sublimated perfection overlooks human nature, and provides for marriage as a play of ‘Hamlet’ with Hamlet left out. Richard, young, ardent, living in his youth as in a halo, breaks through the paddock of the appointed order to marry Lucy, a farmer’s daughter, the one woman of George Meredith adjusted to the sentimental type. Separated from his bride, Richard is plunged into his fiery ordeal. He comes out of it spotted, wretched, unwilling to return to his girl bride, whose love had not held him from unfaithfulness. The book closes in the somberness of tragedy; an ending unusual with Meredith, who inclines naturally to the comedy of human nature. There is not a little of this comedy in ‘Richard Feverel.’ The household of Sir Austin is essentially the fruit of the author’s humorous insight into the eccentricities of men and women. In his portrayal of the wise youth Adrian Harley, who will speak only in epigrams; of Algernon Feverel, to whom dinner is both heaven and hell; of the scheming mother; of the pale Clare, the type of feminine submission to the inevitable,—Meredith exhibits his comprehension of twisted and damaged human nature and his detachment from it.  7
  No author ever took his creations less seriously, unless indeed they are women, full of rich, vibrant life. Meredith’s characters must be a match for him, else he will hold them up to the subtle ridicule of those who are in his secret. The men and women of ‘Evan Harrington’ are thus put on the stage. Parts of this novel are supposed to be pages from Meredith’s own experience when living in a village near London. The struggles of Evan and his sisters, who have been hampered in their social career by their father, a tailor of foppish pretensions, are related with delicate gusto. About these central figures come and go a host of Meredith’s own people, enveloped one and all in the rose light of a dainty comedy of manners.  8
  In ‘Sandra Belloni’ and in its sequel ‘Vittoria’ the transition becomes marked from the well-tempered realistic romance of ‘Richard Feverel,’ and the frank comedy of ‘Evan Harrington,’ to the metaphysical, enigmatic, subtle novels of Meredith’s later manner. Yet ‘Sandra Belloni’ and ‘Vittoria’ are brilliant with “noble strength on fire.” The heroine Emilia is the daughter of great passions. Her meteoric life is traced by flashes through heavy clouds of profound and lengthy epigrams,—epigrams after the manner of Meredith, whole paragraphs long.  9
  In ‘Diana of the Crossways’ the peculiar genius of Meredith finds more complete expression. This is a year-long novel for the reading, and like ‘The Egoist’ requires perhaps a lifetime for digestion. The career of Diana, an Irish gentlewoman, strong and beautiful, pure and fervid, made for love and leadership, is the subject of this remarkable novel. The men who love her are seen and judged less by a light of their own making than by the radiance of Diana. They are, as is usual with Meredith’s men, the dependents of the woman. The author introduces his reader to his heroine by a preface unintelligible to the uninitiated:—
          “To demand of us truth to nature excluding philosophy is really to bid a pumpkin caper. As much as legs are wanted for the dance, philosophy is required to make our human nature credible and acceptable. Fiction implores you to heave a bigger breast and take her in with this heavenly preservative helpmate, her inspiration and her essence. There is a peepshow and a Punch’s at the corner of every street: one magnifying the lacework of life, another the ventral tumulus; and it is there for you, dry bones, if you do not open to Philosophy.”
  10
  Philosophy, the guiding star of Meredith’s artistic pilgrimage, leads him in ‘The Egoist’ into heavy quagmires of mannerisms. Yet this novel is the most typical of his intricate genius. It reveals to the full his passion for unveiling man to the gaze of man. Sir Willoughby Patterne, the egoist, might be embodied satire on the dearest frailty of man, were he not too lifelike and too remote from the region of the abstract. His monstrous selfishness is set forth in such exquisite detail that the lesson cannot possibly fail of its purpose through undue exaggeration. Clara Middleton, “the dainty rogue in porcelain,” too precious for the clumsy fingers of Sir Willoughby, ranks with Diana as one of the most finished creations of Meredith. She gives to ‘The Egoist’ whatever charm it has. It is mainly for the sake of George Meredith’s women that the reader adventures o’er moor and fen and crag and torrent of his philosophical mysteries of style. The prize is worth the quest. No one but Hardy has approached Meredith in the portrayal of woman nature, and Hardy falls short of Meredith, because the creator of Diana has done what the creator of Tess omits doing. He has given to the world its own nineteenth-century women of the best type,—brilliant but not neurotic, thoughtful but not morbid. Renée and Cecilia in ‘Beauchamp’s Career,’ Clara Middleton in ‘The Egoist,’ Aminta in ‘Lord Ormont,’ Diana, Vittoria, and others of their kin, are in their mentality women of no century but the present; yet in their capacity for noble passion they might be placed with Elaine in the airy tower of a forgotten castle, or with Penelope in the sea wanderer’s palace, or with Senta in the fisherman’s hut. The milkmaid type of woman Meredith drew but once, in Lucy. She is much more of a pink-and-white country lass than Dahlia and Rhoda in ‘Rhoda Fleming.’ These sisters are in no sense country women, unless the straightforward passionate career of Rhoda seeking to right a ruined sister establishes her as a child of nature. To George Meredith it is the woman who combines heart and intellect who is to be worshiped on bended knees. His ideal of women—and perhaps the best description of his own women—is summed up in this passage from his essay on ‘Comedy’:—
          “But those two ravishing women, so copious and so choice of speech, who fence with men and pass their guard, are heartless! Is it not preferable to be the pretty idiot, the passive beauty, the adorable bundle of caprices,—very feminine, very sympathetic of romantic and sentimental fiction? Our women are taught to think so. The Agnès of the ‘École des Femmes’ should be a lesson for men. The heroines of comedy are like women of the world: not necessarily heartless from being clear-sighted; they seem so to the sentimentally reared only for the reason that they use their wits, and are not wandering vessels crying for a captain or a pilot. Comedy is an exhibition of their battle with men, and that of men with them; and as the two, however divergent, both look on one object,—namely, Life,—the gradual similarity of their impressions must bring them to some resemblance. The comic poet dares to show us men and women coming to this mutual likeness: he is for saying that when they draw together in social life their minds grow liker; just as the philosopher discerns the similarity of boy and girl until the girl is marched away to the nursery. Philosopher and comic poet are of a cousinship in the eye they cast on life; and they are equally unpopular with our willful English of the hazy region, and the ideal that is not to be disturbed.”
  11
  George Meredith explains himself and his doctrine so lucidly in this paragraph, that it seems impossible ever again to join forces with the “willful English of the hazy region.” Yet in his latest novels he sometimes compels his most penetrative disciples to apostasy. Professor Dowden has well said that the obscurity of an author is a matter for subsequent generations to decide; yet the obscurity of Meredith in ‘One of Our Conquerors,’ in the ‘Amazing Marriage,’ or in ‘Lord Ormont and his Aminta,’ can scarcely be due to the smoked glasses of his contemporaries. A writer like Meredith, who possesses in the highest degree the unique gift of the comic insight into life, with all that it implies of delicate sympathy and subtle comprehension of human nature, must be expected to tell of his extraordinary discoveries in an extraordinary tongue. The question is pertinent, however, of whether supreme genius might not be able to relate the same marvelous stories of humanity in a simpler speech.  12
 
 
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