Max Beerbohm — caricaturing Meredith's exuberance., by
George Meredith came to be seen as the last of the Victorian sages, something that did his reputation more harm than good in the long run.1 Yet his stance was anything but sage-like. He was an ebullient figure, hugely inventive and brimming with humour: "chaff you he would," remembered one young family friend, "in prose, in verse, in parables, in grotesque images, the whole wafted along by gales of laughter."2 Far from being moral diatribes, his works were intended to stimulate and provoke. They still do both. Largely through the operation of the comic principle, they challenge us to take the measure of ourselves, and find our true place in an ever-changing universe.
The best known of these works are his probing and innovative sonnet sequence "Modern Love," and his virtuoso comic novel, The Egoist, along with the Essay on Comedy that preceded it. Also still admired and studied are his early Bildungsromans, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and The Adventures of Harry Richmond; his political novel, Beauchamp's Career; and Diana of the Crossways, inspired by the real-life struggles of Lady Caroline Norton to cope with the consequences of a failed marriage. Readers of these works are drawn into an unusual dialogue with the author – surely one of the age's most intriguing personalities – and repaid with a keen sense of lived experience. This not only sheds light on the Victorian period, but regularly surprises us into making fresh and, it seems, personal discoveries about human nature. Such moments of surprise are among the greatest rewards of reading Meredith.
The novels, with their unconventional plots and unforgettable characters, can be riveting. In the best-known episode in The Adventures of Harry Richmond, the young hero realizes that the mounted figure in the equestrian monument at Sarkeld in the [1/2] Austrian Alps is actually his father. At the first flicker of life in the "statue," the spectators gathered for the unveiling ceremony fall back "with amazed exclamations." The hitherto unsuspecting reader is similarly checked. When the apparently bronze figure moves, speaks, and dismounts to embrace him, Harry is frozen: "I was unable to give out a breath," he confesses (16; 197). The reader too is momentarily stunned. It is some time before Harry's feelings thaw and he can be at ease with his father again. Then he must part from him and hurry on towards the next stage of his picaresque travels and independent life, sweeping the reader along in his wake. Meredith's vitality is contagious, invigorating. He makes us feel, like Harry and his friend Temple, that adventures (including the adventure of reading) are "the only things worth living for" (20; 226).
As dynamic in mind as in personality, Meredith was fully engaged in the intellectual ferment of his age. Beauchamp's Career is shot through with his experience of helping his friend Admiral Maxse canvas for votes in Southampton. As for the eponymous Diana, she astounds Sir Lukin early on in her story by talking about the Repeal of the Corn Laws, because she is so different from his dreadful image of a Radical woman. She is just one of the feisty heroines through whom Meredith projects his views on the "Woman Question." Such heroines are "new women" before the "New Woman" really arrives at the end of the century.3 Elsewhere, it is evolution that most concerns him. Meredith was recognized long ago as an "evolutionary philosopher," 4 and, along with his feminism (to which it is related), this has become a particularly fruitful area for recent scholarly research. The focus here has been on the poetry, and also on The Egoist, where Sir Willoughby Patterne believes that science has become "the sole object worth a devoted pursuit" (3; 21). Willoughby misunderstands, or rather misapplies, Darwinism; but Meredith himself has thoroughly understood and assimilated it. His concern with the "flourishing of the spirit" above and beyond the self had blossomed during his formative schooldays in Germany (Letters II: 910), and he finds his own way of developing it in poems like "In the Woods" and "The Woods of Westermain." Wary of more rigid systems of philosophy, such as Auguste Comte's Positivism to which friends like G. H. Lewes and Leslie Stephen were more drawn,5 [2/3] he also became increasingly suspicious of organized religion. In general, a sense of man's fundamentally unmediated connection to nature links everything in Meredith's thinking, and leavens and illuminates everything he wrote.
The Old Chartist by Frederick Sandys. Frontispiece to Poems, Vol. I (Memorial Edition, Vol. XXIV), but originally accompanying the poem in the magazine Once a Week, 8 February, 1862.
If Meredith distils and contributes to the debates of his age, he is also a forerunner of our own in the way he communicates them. In his early fantasies, he experiments with what would now be called magic realism, and in Harry Richmond he explores and evokes the evolving consciousness, throwing a unique light on early experience. Eschewing pat answers, he subverts the conventional form of the novel by engaging his characters in situations and dialogues where their feelings are thwarted, their identities undermined, their words divorced from their meanings. The resultant narratives, with their metafictional commentaries, their obliquities and omissions, are of a kind to which recent dialogic critical approaches provide useful keys; such approaches help us catch the misinterpretations of characters like Willoughby, or Victor Radnor, the self-centred hero of One of Our Conquerors, and sieve their responses for the truth. Meanwhile, working and reworking his themes in the context of his wide reading and current discourse, Meredith affords many examples of now-fashionable intertextuality. His particular understanding of women's emotions and frustrations, their relationships with each other as well as with men, deserves all the praise it has been given.
Even Meredith's style, despite being as quirky, self-conscious and over-embellished as High Victorian architecture, has acquired a contemporary feel. Its figurative extravagance seems partly to have come naturally to him, and partly to have emanated from what Virginia Woolf calls his "defiance of the ordinary" (533). But it has other, more specific purposes. Seymour Austin in Beauchamp's Career points out that metaphors permit "condensation, as the hieroglyphists put an animal for a paragraph" (28; 300). They can also serve to protect against the rawness of experience, as the narrator explains in Diana of the Crossways, where they help the heroine to confront her problems indirectly, to "distinguish the struggle she was undergoing" (24; 275). Most significantly, throughout Meredith's work, related images work beneath the surface of the text to weave deeper layers of meaning. What is packed can be unpacked, a challenge [3/4] to which twenty-first century readers are well equipped to rise.
A study of Meredith's work reveals a fascinating, innovative author whose overriding concern with man's place in the natural scheme of things is more relevant than ever to us today.
Last modified 1 December 2014