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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Meredith Post by :nighthawk Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1566

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Meredith

(_27 May '09_)

The death of George Meredith removes, not the last of the Victorian novelists, but the first of the modern school. He was almost the first English novelist whose work reflected an intelligent interest in the art which he practised; and he was certainly the first since Scott who was really a literary man. Even Scott was more of an antiquary than a man of letters--apart from his work. Can one think of Dickens as a man of letters, as one who cared for books, as one whose notions on literature were worth twopence? And Thackeray's opinions on contemporary and preceding writers condemn him past hope of forgiveness. Thackeray was in Paris during the most productive years of French fiction, the sublime decade of Balzac, Stendhal, and Victor Hugo. And his "Paris Sketch-Book" proves that his attitude towards the marvels by which he was surrounded was the attitude of a clubman. These men wrote; they got through their writing as quickly as they could; and during the rest of the day they were clubmen, or hosts, or guests. Trollope, who dashed off his literary work with a watch in front of him before 8.30 of a morning, who hunted three days a week, dined out enormously, and gave his best hours to fighting Rowland Hill in the Post Office--Trollope merely carried to its logical conclusion the principle of his mightier rivals. What was the matter with all of them, after a holy fear of their publics, was simple ignorance. George Eliot was not ignorant. Her mind was more distinguished than the minds of the great three. But she was too preoccupied by moral questions to be a first-class creative artist. And she was a woman. A woman, at that epoch, dared not write an entirely honest novel! Nor a man either! Between Fielding and Meredith no entirely honest novel was written by anybody in England. The fear of the public, the lust of popularity, feminine prudery, sentimentalism, Victorian niceness--one or other of these things prevented honesty.

* * * * *

In "Richard Feverel," what a loosening of the bonds! What a renaissance! Nobody since Fielding would have ventured to write the Star and Garter chapter in "Richard Feverel." It was the announcer of a sort of dawn. But there are fearful faults in "Richard Feverel." The book is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of the excellent Charlotte M. Yonge. The large constructional lines of it are bad. The separation of Lucy and Richard is never explained, and cannot be explained. The whole business of Sir Julius is grotesque. And the conclusion is quite arbitrary. It is a weak book, full of episodic power and overloaded with wit. "Diana of the Crossways" is even worse. I am still awaiting from some ardent Meredithian an explanation of Diana's marriage that does not insult my intelligence. Nor is "One of our Conquerors" very good. I read it again recently, and was sad. In my view, "The Egoist" and "Rhoda Fleming" are the best of the novels, and I don't know that I prefer one to the other. The latter ought to have been called "Dahlia Fleming," and not "Rhoda." When one thinks of the rich colour, the variety, the breadth, the constant intellectual distinction, the sheer brilliant power of novels such as these, one perceives that a "great Victorian" could only have succeeded in an age when all the arts were at their lowest ebb in England, and the most middling of the middle-classes ruled with the Bible in one hand and the Riot Act in the other.

Meredith was an uncompromising Radical, and--what is singular--he remained so in his old age. He called Mr. Joseph Chamberlain's nose "adventurous" at a time when Mr. Joseph Chamberlain's nose had the ineffable majesty of the Queen of Spain's leg. And the _Pall Mall haughtily rebuked him. A spectacle for history! He said aloud in a ballroom that Guy de Maupassant was the greatest novelist that ever lived. To think so was not strange; but to say it aloud! No wonder this temperament had to wait for recognition. Well, Meredith has never had proper recognition; and won't have yet. To be appreciated by a handful of writers, gushed over by a little crowd of thoughtful young women, and kept on a shelf uncut by ten thousand persons determined to be in the movement--that is not appreciation. He has not even been appreciated as much as Thomas Hardy, though he is a less fine novelist. I do not assert that he is a less fine writer. For his poems are as superior to the verses of Thomas Hardy as "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is superior to "The Egoist." (Never in English prose literature was such a seer of beauty as Thomas Hardy.) The volume of Meredith's verse is small, but there are things in it that one would like to have written. And it is all so fine, so acute, so alert, courageous, and immoderate.

* * * * *

A member of the firm which has the honour of publishing Meredith's novels was interviewed by the _Daily Mail on the day after his death. The gentleman interviewed gave vent to the usual insolence about our own times. "He belonged," said the gentleman, "to a very different age from the _modern writer--an age before the literary agent; and with Mr. Meredith the feeling of intimacy as between author and publisher--the feeling that gave to publishing as it was its charm--was always existent." Charm--yes, for the publisher. The secret history of the publishing of Meredith's earlier books (long before Constables had ever dreamed of publishing him) is more than curious. I have heard some details of it. My only wonder is that human ingenuity did not invent literary agents forty years ago. Then the person interviewed went grandly on: "In his manner of writing the great novelist was very different from the _modern fashion. He wrote with such care that judged by _modern standards he would be considered a trifle slow." Tut-tut! It may interest the gentleman interviewed to learn that no modern writer would dare to produce work at the rate at which Scott, Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray produced it when their prices were at their highest. The rate of production has most decidedly declined, and upon the whole novels are written with more care now than ever they were. I should doubt if any novel was written at greater speed than the greatest realistic novel in the world, Richardson's "Clarissa," which is eight or ten times the length of an average novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward. "Mademoiselle de Maupin" was done in six weeks. Scott's careless dash is notorious. And both Dickens and Thackeray were in such a hurry that they would often begin to print before they had finished writing. Publishers who pride themselves on the old charming personal relations with great authors ought not to be so ignorant of literary history as the gentleman who unpacked his heart to a sympathetic _Daily Mail_.

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