This essay has been adapted by the author from Chapter 6 of her book, Literary Surrey (Headley Down: John Owen Smith, 2005)
eorge Meredith was as passionate about nature as any of those more exclusively categorised as "Country Writers." Throughout his adult life, until stopped by paralysis in old age, one of his great joys was to tramp for miles along the ancient roads of his adopted home county of Surrey. But his observations went not into letters (like Gilbert White's), reports (like Cobbett's) or essays (like Richard Jefferies). Instead, they went into his novels and poetry. Thus, among the many contradictions and surprises in his work are the quintessentially English settings so often chosen by this most flamboyant and eccentric of writers — complete with the fir knolls, juniper slopes, gravel cuttings and weirs with which he was most familiar. Not, of course, that he confined himself to such local settings. When his friend and admirer William Sharp wrote about "The Country of George Meredith" in his Literary Geography (Vol. IV), he exclaimed: "what a country it is — how wide its domain, how evasive its frontiers!" For all his attachment to the scenery around him, Meredith travelled widely both at home and abroad. Nor are his rural Surrey scenes mere quiet and picturesque backdrops for his characters and their adventures. On the contrary, they are as alive, as fabulous, as exotic, as essential to the breathlessly unrolling narrative as anything else in his work.This is true right from the first outpourings of the 1851 Poems, brimming as they are with young love and drenched with his delight in the recently discovered Surrey countryside, with its waterfowl, wood-pigeons, rooks, mists and so on. Here, the woman whom he loves is so closely identified with nature that she becomes "full of all the wildness of the woodland creatures" ("Love in a Valley"). Later, in the fifty sonnets of the "Modern Love" sequence (1862), feelings in the fraught marriage which he analyses so searingly ebb and flow with the water of the Thames at Shepperton, where Meredith and his own wife lived for a while with, and then just across the green from, his wife's father, the satirical novelist Thomas Love Peacock. The marriage of the unfortunate couple in the poem (based, it would seem, on Meredith's own first marriage) becomes a performance which cannot last, but must end in some great denouement. Yet, poignantly, in the midst of such high emotional drama, the pair can still stroll by the river together on an autumn evening, feeling momentarily at one with each other and nature. Examine Sonnet XLVII. How do the season, the time of day, the details (including the colours) of the natural scene reflect and impinge on the relationship at this point: What is gained by the expansiveness of the 16-line sonnet? In this connection, look at the last two lines and consider what they add to the mood of the poem.
The Thames, looking towards Shepperton Weir in the evening. Photograph by the author.
No one who has read this poem can walk along the river at Shepperton, with its several "willow islands," its swans and its populous swallow-roosts (once observed by Gilbert White on his summer visits to neighbouring Sunbury) without imagining Meredith and his own wife walking there in real life. But a little further upstream is a more obviously dramatic sight: Shepperton weir. In The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), the impressionable young hero glimpses Lucy Desborough when boating on a stretch of river with just such a rushing weir. Lucy's surname itself connects her strongly with the area, for the Thames at Shepperton loops round a piece of land called Desborough Island, with the narrow Desborough Channel enclosing it from the other side. Again, the emotional moment is indissolubly linked with the place itself. "Surrounded by the green shaven meadows, the pastoral summer buzz, the weirfields thundering white, amid the breath and beauty of wild flowers, she was a bit of lovely human life in a fair setting," writes Meredith in Chapter 14. As for the heartstruck Richard, "It was the First Woman to him," says the narrator in the next chapter. What is the effect of this expression,and its capitalisation here. What note of tension or foreboding does it introduce?
The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871) was the first novel which Meredith wrote after moving to Flint Cottage, his permanent Surrey home on the lower slopes of the famous beauty-spot, Box Hill. How are the settings in this novel intrinsic to the narrativem and how does Meredith lead from one setting to another? Note the role of the gypsy here, which seems different from the role of gypsies in novels like George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and Charles Reade's A Terrible Temptation.
Sharp, William. "The Country of George Meredith" in Literary Geography (Vol. IV).
Last modified 2 November 2005