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Meredith And A Few Of His Best Novels Post by :louis1899 Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1479

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Meredith And A Few Of His Best Novels


George Meredith is acknowledged by the best critics to be among the greatest English novelists of the last century; yet to the general reader he is only a name. Like Henry James, he is barred off from popular appreciation by a style which is "caviare to the general." Thomas Hardy is recognized as the finest living English novelist, but there is very little comparison between himself and Meredith. Professor William Lyon Phelps, who is one of the best and sanest of American critics, says they are both pagans, but Meredith was an optimist, while Hardy is a pessimist. Then he adds this illuminating comment: "Mr. Hardy is a great novelist; whereas, to adapt a phrase that Arnold applied to Emerson, I should say that Mr. Meredith was not a great novelist; he was a great man who wrote novels."

It is only within the last twenty-five years that Meredith has had any vogue in this country. At that time a good edition of his novels was issued, and critics gave the volumes generous mention in the leading magazines and newspapers. But the public did not respond with any cordiality. The novel with us has come to be looked upon mainly as a source of amusement, and a writer of fiction who demands too keen attention from his readers can never hope to be popular. Meredith, as Professor Phelps says, was a great man who, among other intellectual activities, wrote some good novels. Doubtless he did more real good to literature as the inspirer of other writers than he did with his books. For more than the ordinary working years of most men he was one of the chief "readers" for a large London publishing house. To him were submitted the manuscripts of new novels, and it was his privilege to recognize the genius of Thomas Hardy, of the author of The Story of an African Farm and other now famous English novelists.

Meredith was a singularly acute critic of the work of others, but when he came to write himself he cast his thoughts in a style that has been the despair of many admirers. In this he resembled Browning, who never would write verse that was easy reading. Meredith's thought is usually clear, yet his brilliant but erratic mind was impelled to clothe this thought in the most bizarre garments. Literary paradox he loved; his mind turned naturally to metaphor, and despite the protests of his closest friends he continued to puzzle and exasperate the public. He who could have written the greatest novels of his age merely wrote stories which serve to illustrate his theories of life and conduct. No man ever put more real thought into novels than he; none had a finer eye for the beauties of nature or the development of character. But he had no patience to develop his men and women in the clear, orthodox way. He imagined that the ordinary reader could follow his lightning flashes of illumination, his piling up of metaphor on metaphor, and the result is that many are discouraged by his methods, just as nine readers out of ten are wearied when they attempt to read Browning's longer poems. His kinship to Browning is strong in style and in method of thought, in his way of leaping from one conclusion to another, in his elimination of all the usual small connecting words and in his liberties with the language. He seemed to be writing for himself, not for the general public, and he never took into account the slower mental processes of those not endowed with his own vivid imagination.

Meredith's life was that of a scholar; it contained few exciting episodes. He was of Welsh and Irish stock. At an early age he was sent to Germany, where he remained at a Moravian school until he was fifteen. He then returned to England to study law, but he never practiced it. For a number of years he was a regular contributor to the London MORNING POST, and in 1866 he acted as correspondent during the Austro-Italian war. For many years he served as chief reader and literary adviser to Chapman & Hall, the English publishers, and in that capacity he showed an insight that led to the development of many authors whose first work was crude and unpromising. Meredith himself began his literary career with The Shaving of Shagpat, a series of Oriental tales the central idea of which is the overcoming of established evil. Shagpat stands for any evil or superstition, and Shibli Bagarag, the hero, is the reformer. This book, with its wealth of metaphor, opened the door for Meredith, but he did not score a success until he wrote The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, two years later. Despite its faults, this is his greatest book, and it is the one which readers should begin with. It is overloaded with aphorism in the famous "Pilgrim's Scrip," which is a diary kept by Sir Austin, the father of Richard. The boy is trained to cut women out of his life, and just when the father's theory seems to have succeeded Richard meets and falls in love with Lucy, and the whole towering structure founded on the "Pilgrim's Scrip" falls into ruin. The scene in which Richard and Lucy meet is one of the great scenes in English fiction, in which Meredith's passionate love of nature serves to bring out the natural love of the two young people. Earth was all greenness in the eyes of these two lovers, and nature served only to deepen the love that they saw in each other's gaze and felt with thrilling force in each other's kisses. But even stronger that this scene is that last terrible chapter, in which Richard returns to his home and refuses to stay with Lucy and her child. Stevenson declared that this parting scene was the strongest bit of English since Shakespeare. It certainly reaches great heights of exaltation, and in its simplicity it reveals what miracles Meredith could work when he allowed his creative imagination full play.

Another story which is usually bracketed with this is Diana of the Crossways. This great novel was founded on a real incident in English history of Meredith's time. Diana Warwick was drawn from Caroline Norton, one of the three beautiful and brilliant granddaughters of Sheridan, author of The School for Scandal. Her marriage was disastrous, and her husband accused her of infidelity with Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister at the time. His divorce suit caused a great scandal, but it resulted in her vindication. Then later she was accused of betraying to a writer on the TIMES the secret that Sir Robert Peel had decided to repeal the corn laws. This secret had been confided to her by Sidney Herbert, one of her admirers. Meredith's novel, in which the results of Diana's treachery were brought out, resulted in a public inquiry into the charge against Caroline Norton, which found that she was innocent. But the fact that Meredith used such an incident as the climax of his story gave Diana of the Crossways an enormous vogue, and did much to bring the novelist into public favor.

No more brilliant woman than Diana has ever been drawn by Meredith, but despite the art of her creator it is impossible for the reader to imagine her selling for money a great party secret which had been whispered to her by the man she loved. She was too keen a woman to plead, as Diana pleaded, that she did not recognize the importance of this secret, for the defense is cut away by her admission that she was promised thousands of pounds by the newspaperman at the very time that her extravagances had loaded her with debts.

Space is lacking here to do more than mention three or four of Meredith's other novels that are fine works of art. These are Rhoda Fleming, Sandra Belloni, Evan Harrington and The Egoist. Each is a masterpiece in its way; each is full of human passion, yet tinged with a philosophy that lifts up the novels to what Meredith himself called "honorable fiction, a fount of life, an aid to life, quick with our blood." The novel to him was a means of showing man's spiritual nature, "a soul born active, wind-beaten, but ascending."

A score of novels Meredith wrote in his long life. The work of his later years was not happy. The Amazing Marriage and Lord Ormont and His Aminta are mere shadows of his earlier work, with all his old mannerisms intensified. But if you like Richard and Diana, then you can enlarge your acquaintance with Meredith to your own exceeding profit, for he is one of the great masters of fiction, who used the novel merely to preach his doctrine of the richness and fulness of human life if we would but see it with his eyes.

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George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Meredith And A Few Of His Best Novels

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