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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Art Of Letters - 16. George Meredith
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The Art Of Letters - 16. George Meredith Post by :codebluenj Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :May 2012 Read :630

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The Art Of Letters - 16. George Meredith

XVI. GEORGE MEREDITH

(1) THE EGOIST

George Meredith, as his friends used to tell one with amusement, was a vain man. Someone has related how, in his later years, he regarded it as a matter of extreme importance that his visitors should sit in a position from which they would see his face in profile. This is symbolic of his attitude to the world. All his life he kept one side of his face hidden. Mr. Ellis, who is the son of one of Meredith's cousins, now takes us for a walk round Meredith's chair. No longer are we permitted to remain in restful veneration of "a god and a Greek." Mr. Ellis invites us--and we cannot refuse the invitation--to look at the other side of the face, to consider the full face and the back of the head. He encourages us to feel Meredith's bumps, and no man whose bumps we are allowed to feel can continue for five minutes the pretence of being an Olympian. He becomes a human being under a criticizing thumb. We discover that he had a genius for imposture, an egoist's temper, and a stomach that fluttered greedily at the thought of dainty dishes. We find all those characteristics that prevented him from remaining on good terms first with his father, next with his wife, and then with his son. At first, when one reads the full story of Meredith's estrangements through three generations, one has the feeling that one is in the presence of an idol in ruins. Certainly, one can never mistake Box Hill for Olympus again. On the other hand, let us but have time to accustom ourselves to see Meredith in other aspects than that which he himself chose to present to his contemporaries--let us begin to see in him not so much one of the world's great comic censors, as one of the world's great comic subjects, and we shall soon find ourselves back among his books, reading them no longer with tedious awe, but with a new passion of interest in the figure-in-the-background of the complex human being who wrote them.

For Meredith was his own great subject. Had he been an Olympian he could not have written _The Egoist or _Harry Richmond_. He was an egoist and pretender, coming of a line of egoists and pretenders, and his novels are simply the confession and apology of such a person. Meredith concealed the truth about himself in his daily conversation; he revealed it in his novels. He made such a mystery about his birth that many people thought he was a cousin of Queen Victoria's or at least a son of Bulwer Lytton's. It was only in _Evan Harrington that he told the essentials of the truth about the tailor's shop in Portsmouth above which he was born. Outside his art, nothing would persuade him to own up to the tailor's shop. Once, when Mr. Clodd was filling in a census-paper for him, Meredith told him to put "near Petersfield" as his place of birth. The fact that he was born at Portsmouth was not publicly known, indeed, until some time after his death. And not only was there the tailor's shop to live down, but on his mother's side he was the grandson of a publican, Michael Macnamara. Meredith liked to boast that his mother was "pure Irish"--an exaggeration, according to Mr. Ellis--but he said nothing about Michael Macnamara of "The Vine." At the same time it was the presence not of a bar sinister but of a yardstick sinister in his coat of arms that chiefly filled him with shame. When he was marrying his first wife he wrote "Esquire" in the register as a description of his father's profession. There is no evidence, apparently, as to whether Meredith himself ever served in the tailor's shop after his father moved from Portsmouth to St. James's Street, London. Nothing is known of his life during the two years after his return from the Moravian school at Neuwied. As for his hapless father (who had been trained as a medical student but went into the family business in order to save it from ruin), he did not succeed in London any better than in Portsmouth, and in 1849 he emigrated to South Africa and opened a shop in Cape Town. It was while in Cape Town that he read Meredith's ironical comedy on the family tailordom, _Evan Harrington; or He Would be a Gentleman_. Naturally, he regarded the book (in which his father and himself were two of the chief figures) with horror. It was as though George had washed the family tape-measure in public. Augustus Meredith, no less than George, blushed for the tape-measure daily. Probably, Melchizedek Meredith, who begat Augustus, who begat George, had also blushed for it in his day. As the "great Mel" in _Evan Harrington he is an immortal figure of genteel imposture. His lordly practice of never sending in a bill was hardly that of a man who accepted the conditions of his trade. In _Evan Harrington three generations of a family's shame were held up to ridicule. No wonder that Augustus Meredith, when he was congratulated by a customer on his son's fame, turned away silently with a look of pain.

The comedy of the Meredith family springs, of course, not from the fact that they were tailors, but that they pretended not to be tailors. Whether Meredith himself was more ashamed of their tailoring or their pretentiousness it is not easy to decide. Both _Evan Harrington and _Harry Richmond are in a measure, comedies of imposture, in which the vice of imposture is lashed as fiercely as Moliere lashes the vice of hypocrisy in _Tartuffe_. But it may well be that in life Meredith was a snob, while in art he was a critic of snobs. Mr. Yeats, in his last book of prose, put forward the suggestion that the artist reveals in his art not his "self" (which is expressed in his life), but his "anti-self," a complementary and even contrary self. He might find in the life and works of Meredith some support for his not quite convincing theory. Meredith was an egoist in his life, an anti-egoist in his books. He was pretentious in his life, anti-pretentious in his books. He took up the attitude of the wronged man in his life; he took up the case of the wronged woman in his books. In short, his life was vehemently pro-George-Meredith, while his books were vehemently anti-George-Meredith. He knew himself more thoroughly, so far as we can discover from his books, than any other English novelist has ever done.

He knew himself comically, no doubt, rather than tragically. In _Modern Love and _Richard Feverel he reveals himself as by no means a laughing philosopher; but he strove to make fiction a vehicle of philosophic laughter rather than of passionate sympathy. Were it not that a great poetic imagination is always at work--in his prose, perhaps, even more than in his verse--his genius might seem a little cold and head-in-the-air. But his poet's joy in his characters saves his books from inhumanity. As Diana Warwick steps out in the dawn she is not a mere female human being undergoing critical dissection; she is bird-song and the light of morning and the coming of the flowers. Meredith had as great a capacity for rapture as for criticism and portraiture. He has expressed in literature as no other novelist has done the rapturous vision of a boy in love. He knew that a boy in love is not mainly a calf but a poet. _Love in a Valley is the incomparable music of a boy's ecstasy. Much of _Richard Feverel is its incomparable prose. Rapture and criticism, however, make a more practical combination in literature than in life. In literature, criticism may add flavour to rapture; in life it is more than likely to destroy the flavour. One is not surprised, then, to learn the full story of Meredith's first unhappy marriage. A boy of twenty-one, he married a widow of thirty, high-strung, hot and satirical like himself; and after a depressing sequence of dead babies, followed by the birth of a son who survived, she found life with a man of genius intolerable, and ran away with a painter. Meredith apparently refused her request to go and see her when she was dying. His imaginative sympathy enabled him to see the woman's point of view in poetry and fiction; it does not seem to have extended to his life. Thus, his biography is to a great extent a "showing-up" of George Meredith. He proved as incapable of keeping the affection of his son Arthur, as of keeping that of his wife. Much as he loved the boy he had not been married again long before he allowed him to become an alien presence. The boy felt he had a grievance. He said--probably without justice--that his father kept him short of money. Possibly he was jealous for his dead mother's sake. Further, though put into business, he had literary ambitions--a prolific source of bitterness. When Arthur died, Meredith did not even attend his funeral.

Mr. Ellis has shown Meredith up not only as a husband and a father, but as a hireling journalist and a lark-devouring gourmet. On the whole, the poet who could eat larks in a pie seems to me to be a more shocking "great man" than the Radical who could write Tory articles in a newspaper for pay. At the same time, it is only fair to say that Meredith remains a sufficiently splendid figure in. Mr. Ellis's book even when we know the worst about him. Was his a generous genius? It was at least a prodigal one. As poet, novelist, correspondent, and conversationalist, he leaves an impression of beauty, wit, and power in a combination without a precedent.

(2) THE OLYMPIAN UNBENDS

Lady Butcher's charming _Memoirs of George Meredith is admittedly written in reply to Mr. Ellis's startling volume. It seems to me, however, that it is a supplement rather than a reply. Mr. Ellis was not quite fair to Meredith as a man, but he enabled us to understand the limitations which were the conditions of Meredith's peculiar genius. Many readers were shocked by the suggestion that characters, like countries, must have boundaries. Where Mr. Ellis failed, in my opinion, was not in drawing these as carefully as possible, but in the rather unfriendly glee with which, one could not help feeling, he did so. It is also true that he missed some of the grander mountain-peaks in Meredith's character. Lady Butcher, on the other hand, is far less successful than Mr. Ellis in drawing a portrait which makes us feel that now we understand something of the events that gave birth to _The Egoist and _Richard Feverel and _Modern Love_. Her book tells us nothing of the seed-time of genius, but is a delightful account of its autumn.

At the same time it helps to dissipate one ridiculous popular fallacy about Meredith. Meredith, like most all the wits, has been accused of straining after image and epigram. Wit acts as an irritant on many people. They forget the admirable saying of Coleridge: "Exclusive of the abstract sciences, the largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists of aphorisms; and the greatest of men is but an aphorism." They might as well denounce a hedge for producing wild roses or a peacock for growing tail feathers with pretty eyes as a witty writer for flowering into aphorism, epigram and image. Even so artificial a writer as Wilde had not to labour to be witty. It has often been laid to his charge that his work smells of the lamp, whereas what is really the matter with it is that it smells of the drawing-room gas. It was the result of too much "easy-goingness," not of too much strain. As for Meredith, his wit was the wit of an abounding imagination. Lady Butcher gives some delightful examples of it. He could not see a baby in long robes without a witty image leaping into his mind. He said he adored babies "in the comet stage."

Of a lady of his acquaintance he said: "She is a woman who has never had the first tadpole wriggle of an idea," adding, "She has a mind as clean and white and flat as a plate: there are no eminences in it." Lady Butcher tells of a picnic-party on Box Hill at which Meredith was one of the company. "After our picnic ... it came on to rain, and as we drearily trudged down the hill with cloaks and umbrellas, and burdened with our tea baskets, Mr. Meredith, with a grimace, called out to a passing friend: 'Behold! the funeral of picnic!'"

If Meredith is to some extent an obscure author, it is clear that this was not due to his over-reaching himself in laborious efforts after wit. His obscurity is not that of a man straining after expression, but the obscurity of a man deliberately hiding something. Meredith believed in being as mysterious as an oracle. He assumed the Olympian manner, and objected to being mistaken for a frequenter of the market-place. He was impatient of ordinary human witlessness, and spoke to his fellows, not as man to man, but as Apollo from his seat. This was probably a result of the fact that his mind marched much too fast for the ordinary man to keep pace with it. "How I leaped through leagues of thought when I could walk!" he once said when he had lost the power of his legs. Such buoyancy of the imagination and intellect separated him more and more from a world in which most of the athletics are muscular, not mental; and he began to take a malicious pleasure in exaggerating the difference that already existed between himself and ordinary mortals. He dressed his genius in a mannerism, and, as he leaped through his leagues of thought, the flying skirts of his mannerism were all that the average reader panting desperately after him could see. Shakespeare and the greatest men of genius are human enough to wait for us, and give us time to recover our breath. Meredith, however, was a proud man, and a mocker.

In the ordinary affairs of life, Lady Butcher tells us, he was so proud that it was difficult to give him even trifling gifts. "I remember," she says, "bringing him two silver flat poached-egg spoons from Norway, and he implored me to take them back with me to London, and looked much relieved when I consented to do so!" He would always "prefer to bestow rather than to accept gifts." Lady Butcher, replying to the charge that he was ungrateful, suggests that "no one should expect an eagle to be grateful." But then, neither can one love an eagle, and one would like to be able to love the author of _Love in a Valley and _Richard Feverel_. Meredith was too keenly aware what an eagle he was. Speaking of the reviewers who had attacked him, he said: "They have always been abusing me. I have been observing them. It is the crueller process." It is quite true, but it was a superior person who said it.

Meredith, however, among his friends and among the young, loses this air of superiority, and becomes something of a radiant romp as well as an Olympian. Lady Butcher's first meeting with him took place when she was a girl of thirteen. She was going up Box Hill to see the sun rise with a sixteen-year-old cousin, when the latter said: "I know a madman who lives on Box Hill. He's quite mad, but very amusing; he likes walks and sunrises. Let's go and shout him up!" It does Meredith credit that he got out of bed and joined them, "his nightshirt thrust into brown trousers." Even when the small girl insisted on "reading aloud to him one of the hymns from Keble's _Christian Year_," he did not, as the saying is, turn a hair. His attachment to his daughter Mariette--his "dearie girl," as he spoke of her with unaffected softness of phrase--also helps one to realize that he was not all Olympian. Meredith, the condemner of the "guarded life," was humanly nervous in guarding his own little daughter. "He would never allow Mariette to travel alone, even the very short distance by train from Box Hill to Ewell; a maid had always to be sent with her or to fetch her. He never allowed her to walk by herself." One likes Meredith the better for Lady Butcher's picture of him as a "harassed father."

One likes him, too, as he converses with his dogs, and for his thoughtfulness in giving some of his MSS., including that of _Richard Feverel_, to Frank Cole, his gardener, in the hope that "some day the gardener would be able to sell them" and so get some reward for his devotion. As to the underground passages in Meredith's life and character, Lady Butcher is not concerned with them. She writes of him merely as she knew him. Her book is a friend's tribute, though not a blind tribute. It may not be effective as an argument against those who are bent on disparaging the greatest lyrical wit in modern English literature. But it will be welcomed by those for whom Meredith's genius is still a bubbling spring of good sense and delight.

(3) THE ANGLO-IRISH ASPECT

Meredith never wrote a novel which was less a novel than _Celt and Saxon_. It is only a fragment of a book. It is so much a series of essays and sharp character-sketches, however, that the untimely fall of the curtain does not greatly trouble us. There is no excitement of plot, no gripping anxiety as to whether this or that pair of lovers will ever reach the altar. Philip O'Donnell and Patrick, his devoted brother, and their caricature relative, the middle-aged Captain Con, all interest us as they abet each other in the affairs of love or politics, or as they discuss their native country or the temperament of the country which oppresses it; but they are chiefly desirable as performers in an Anglo-Irish fantasia, a Meredithian piece of comic music, with various national anthems, English, Welsh, and Irish, running through and across it in all manner of guises, and producing all manner of agreeable disharmonies.

In the beginning we have Patrick O'Donnell, an enthusiast, a Celt, a Catholic, setting out for the English mansion of the father of Adiante Adister to find if the girl cannot be pleaded over to reconsider her refusal of his brother Philip. He arrives in the midst of turmoil in the house, the cause of it being a hasty marriage which Adiante had ambitiously contracted with a hook-nosed foreign prince. Patrick, a broken-hearted proxy, successfully begs her family for a miniature of the girl to take back to his brother, but he falls so deeply in love with her on seeing the portrait that his loyalty to Philip almost wavers, when the latter carelessly asks him to leave the miniature on a more or less public table instead of taking it off to the solitude of his own room for a long vigil of adoration.

In the rest of the story we have an account of the brothers in the London house of Captain Con, the happy husband married to a stark English wife of mechanical propriety--a rebellious husband, too, when in the sociable atmosphere of his own upper room, amid the blackened clay pipes and the friendly fumes of whiskey, he sings her praises, while at the same time full of grotesque and whimsical criticisms of all those things, Saxon and more widely human, for which she stands. There is a touch of farce in the relations of these two, aptly symbolized by the bell which rings for Captain Con, and hastens him away from his midnight eloquence with Patrick and Philip. "He groaned, 'I must go. I haven't heard the tinkler for months. It signifies she's cold in her bed. The thing called circulation is unknown to her save by the aid of outward application, and I'm the warming-pan, as legitimately as I should be, I'm her husband and her Harvey in one.'"

It is in the house of Captain Con, it should be added, that Philip and Patrick meet Jane Mattock, the Saxon woman; and the story as we have it ends with Philip invalided home from service in India, and Jane, a victim of love, catching "glimpses of the gulfs of bondage, delicious, rose-enfolded, foreign." There are nearly three hundred pages of it altogether, some of them as fantastic and lyrical as any that Meredith ever wrote.

As one reads _Celt and Saxon_, however, one seems to get an inkling of the reason why Meredith has so often been set down as an obscure author. It is not entirely that he is given to using imagery as the language of explanation--a subtle and personal sort of hieroglyphics. It is chiefly, I think, because there is so little direct painting of men and women in his books. Despite his lyricism, he had something of an X-ray's imagination. The details of the modelling of a face, the interpreting lines and looks, did not fix themselves with preciseness on his vision enabling him to pass them on to us with the surface reality we generally demand in prose fiction.

It is as though he painted some of his men and women upon air: they are elusive for all we know of their mental and spiritual processes. Even though he is at pains to tell us that Diana's hair is dark, we do not at once accept the fact but are at liberty to go on believing she is a fair woman, for he himself was general rather than insistently particular in his vision of such matters. In the present book, again, we have a glimpse of Adiante in her miniature--"this lighted face, with the dark raised eyes and abounding auburn tresses, where the contrast of colours was in itself thrilling," "the light above beauty distinguishing its noble classic lines and the energy of radiance, like a morning of chivalrous promise, in the eyes"--and, despite the details mentioned, the result is to give us only the lyric aura of the woman where we wanted a design.

Ultimately, these women of Meredith's become intensely real to us--the most real women, I think, in English fiction--but, before we come to handshaking terms with them, we have sometimes to go to them over bogs and rocky places with the sun in our eyes. Before this, physically, they are apt to be exquisite parts of a landscape, sharers of a lyric beauty with the cherry-trees and the purple crocuses.

Coming to the substance of the book--the glance from many sides at the Irish and English temperaments--we find Meredith extremely penetrating in his criticism of John Bullishness, but something of a foreigner in his study of the Irish character. The son of an Irishwoman, he chose an Irishwoman as his most conquering heroine, but he writes of the race as one who has known the men and women of it entirely, or almost entirely, in an English setting--a setting, in other words, which shows up their strangeness and any surface eccentricities they may have, but does not give us an ordinary human sense of them. Captain Con is vital, because Meredith imagined him vitally, but when all is said and done, he is largely a stage-Irishman, winking over his whiskey that has paid no excise--a better-born relative of Captain Costigan.

Politically, _Celt and Saxon seems to be a plea for Home Rule--Home Rule, with a view towards a "consolidation of the union." Its diagnosis of the Irish difficulty is one which has long been popular with many intellectual men on this side of the Irish Sea. Meredith sees, as the roots of the trouble, misunderstanding, want of imagination, want of sympathy. It has always seemed curious to me that intelligent men could persuade themselves that Ireland was chiefly suffering from want of understanding and want of sympathy on the part of England, when all the time her only ailment has been want of liberty. To adapt the organ-grinder's motto,

Sympathy without relief
Is like mustard without beef.


As a matter of fact, Meredith realized this, and was a friend to many Irish national movements from the Home Rule struggle down to the Gaelic League, to the latter of which the Irish part of him sent a subscription a year or two ago. He saw things from the point of view of an Imperial Liberal idealist, however, not of a Nationalist. In the result, he did not know the every-day and traditional setting of Irish life sufficiently well to give us an Irish Nationalist central figure as winning and heroic, even in his extravagances, as, say, the patriotic Englishman, Neville Beauchamp.

At the same time, one must be thankful for a book so obviously the work of a great abundant mind--a mind giving out its criticisms like flutters of birds--a heroic intellect always in the service of an ideal liberty, courage, and gracious manners--a characteristically island brain, that was yet not insular.

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