- Margaret Harris
George Meredith (1828–1909)
Meredith, George (1828–1909), novelist and poet, was born at 73 High Street, Portsmouth, Hampshire, on 12 February 1828, the only child of Augustus Urmston Meredith (1797–1876) and Jane Eliza (1802–1833), daughter of Michael Macnamara, an innkeeper. Settled in the Portsmouth area at least from the middle of the eighteenth century, the Meredith family became prominent during the time of George's grandfather Melchizedec (c.1763–1814), a flamboyant naval outfitter, who as the larger-than-life tailor, the Great Mel, dominates his grandson's second novel, Evan Harrington (1861).
Youth, early career, and marriage
Little is known of Meredith's childhood. His mother died when he was five; Augustus, unable to maintain the family business, was declared bankrupt in 1838 and moved to London. George went to St Paul's School in Southsea, then to boarding-school in Suffolk, and finally in August 1842 set off to Germany to the School of the Moravian Fathers in Neuwied near Koblenz on the Rhine. This school, chosen presumably for reasons of economy, had many advantages and was formative in important ways. Meredith's experience in its supportive environment gave him facility in languages—he had good French and German—and a perspective on England in relation to Europe. His later strong views on the need for women to be educated may in part have derived from the fact that girls as well as boys attended the school, though their accommodation was separate as were most classes and other activities. It is unclear why Meredith returned to England in January 1844, or how he spent the next couple of years. His annual income of £60, derived from a legacy from his mother together with her share of the estate of a sister who died in 1840, enabled him to be articled to Richard Stephen Charnock, a London solicitor and a man of literary tastes, in February 1846, though he seems never to have applied himself seriously to the law. He had little contact with his father, especially after Augustus migrated to South Africa in 1849 with his second wife, Matilda Buckett, said to have been his cook. They returned to England in the early 1860s, settling in Southsea, where Augustus died in 1876, and Matilda in 1885.
Meredith soon made his way into literary circles. Among the would-be authors he met was Edward Gryffydh Peacock, a son of the novelist Thomas Love Peacock, who shared rooms near the British Museum with his sister, a widow, Mary Ellen Nicolls (1821–1861). Described by Holman Hunt as 'a dashing type of horsewoman who attracted much notice from the “bloods” of the day' (Stevenson, 46), Mary had a five-year-old daughter from her first marriage in January 1844 to Lieutenant Edward Nicolls RN. Nicolls had drowned within months of the wedding in an attempt to rescue one of his men. Mary was a contributor to a manuscript journal, the 'Monthly Observer', begun in 1848, in which Meredith and others also participated. Meredith's acquaintance with Mary, seven years older than him, was soon more than casual: they were married on 9 August 1849, at St George's, Hanover Square, London. Following their honeymoon in the Rhineland, they were back in London by November 1849, and for some years lived somewhat impecuniously, usually in the country near London, occasionally by the sea at Seaford, Sussex. Meredith later maintained, 'No sun warmed my roof-tree; the marriage was a blunder' (Clodd, 21), yet the relationship, always volatile, was sometimes ecstatic. Though Mary became pregnant more than once, only one child survived infancy, Arthur Gryffydh, born on 13 June 1853.
Early in their marriage both George and Mary worked on literary projects, and published articles in Fraser's Magazine. George had some poems accepted, the first in 1849, and soon assembled a volume, Poems (1851). Critical reaction can be summarized in R. H. Hutton's condescending verdict that Poems displayed 'more of promise than performance' (Williams, 28). Meredith's first volume of fiction was a prose allegory, The Shaving of Shagpat: an Arabian Entertainment (1856), which he claimed to have 'written … at Weybridge with duns at the door' (Clodd, 21). It attracted some highly favourable though not extensive critical comment, George Eliot in The Leader greeting it as 'a work of genius, and of poetical genius' (Williams, 41). A similar stylistic virtuosity and fascination with pastiche and generic experiment was exercised in Farina: a Legend of Cologne (1857), a slighter comic grotesque tale set in medieval Germany. Meredith meanwhile continued to seek work wherever he could, maintaining his output of verse, and succeeding George Eliot as the author of the 'Belles lettres' section of the Westminster Review from April 1857 to January 1858. In this capacity he took the opportunity to review his own work, asserting that 'Farina is both an original and an entertaining book' (ibid., 58).
By 1856 George's relationship with Mary had frayed to breaking point. The painter Henry Wallis was known to them both, George having been the model for the dead poet in Wallis's most famous painting, The Death of Chatterton, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856. A strong attraction developed between Mary and Wallis: in spring 1857 Mary, pregnant by her lover, went to join him in Wales, leaving Arthur and her daughter Edith Nicolls with her former mother-in-law Lady Nicolls. Meredith claimed Arthur from Lady Nicolls in the autumn and assumed sole charge of the boy, taking rooms in Chelsea, London, until 1859 when he moved to Esher after the publication in June of his first full-length novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: a History of Father and Son. Both this work and the poem sequence Modern Love (1862) were fuelled by the trauma of sexual betrayal.
Mary's affair with Wallis did not last long after the birth of their child, registered as Harold Meredith (later known as Felix Wallis). Mary and the baby joined Wallis in Capri in summer 1858, returning to England without him early in 1859, shifting from one set of lodgings to another, and moving to Oatlands Park near Weybridge in spring 1861, where she died from kidney disease on 22 October. Meredith allowed Arthur to see his mother during her last illness, but kept himself at a distance. Having been away in the week Mary died, he wrote euphemistically to his new friend William Hardman, 'When I entered the world again, I found that one had quitted it who bore my name: and this filled me with melancholy reflections which I rarely give way to' (Letters, 1.108).
While Meredith creatively transformed some aspects of his shame as a deserted husband in the situation of Sir Austin Feverel in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, the novel is diminished if read simply as personal displacement. It is a startlingly original work, particularly in its stylistic diversity and sexual frankness, with a rich literary genealogy that includes ‘new comedy’ as well as the novel of education and chivalric romance. Elements of his philosophy, which became influential, were already distinctively demonstrated. The commitment to trust in natural energy and instinct over the constraints of system and reason, reiterated through all Meredith's writing, encouraged belief in the persistence of mystery and wonder in the natural world without requiring adherence to Christian myth (Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in the same year). Feverel's originality was recognized, but at the cost of some notoriety. 'I am tabooed from all decent drawing-room tables' (Letters, 1.39), Meredith lamented when Mudie's circulating library, which had taken 300 copies, withdrew the novel. Though he revised Feverel several times, he never modified the treatment of Richard's adultery or the glimpses of the demi-monde which were presumably the source of offence. A different kind of recognition of Meredith's calibre came from an influential quarter. Jane Carlyle was initially exasperated by Feverel, but persevered, reading some of it to Thomas, who offered the opinion that 'The man's no fool' (Clodd, 24).
Meredith's next novel, Evan Harrington, or, He would be a Gentleman (1861), was serialized in Once a Week from February to October 1860. He was hard put to meet the demands of weekly serial publication, documenting the pains of composition in correspondence with the editor Samuel Lucas: 'Your advice is good. This cursed desire I have haunting me to show the reason for things is a perpetual obstruction to movement. I do want the dash of Smollett and know it' (Letters, 1.57). Stylistically Evan Harrington is plainer than its predecessors, working a topical vein of novels about class and gentlemanliness to similar effect but in a more comic, picaresque mode than its near-contemporary, Dickens's Great Expectations. Like Richard Feverel, it was in many ways a confessional novel, depending heavily on family history but also introducing characters drawn from other friends and acquaintances, notably Rose Jocelyn, avowedly based on Janet, the daughter of Sir Alexander and Lady Duff Gordon. Meredith met the Duff Gordons first at Weybridge in 1849–50, and the friendship resumed soon after Meredith's move to Esher when Janet rescued Arthur from being trampled by a runaway horse. By some accounts Meredith's attachment to the young woman who called him 'my Poet' went deeper than the courtly badinage recorded in his letters. Certainly he was devoted to her even after her marriage in December 1860 to H. J. Ross, a banker twenty years older than her, and they corresponded to the end of his life.
Always conscious of the priorities represented by 'baker's bills and Boy' (Letters, 1.250), Meredith took on a variety of jobs. He became a publisher's reader for Chapman and Hall, who had published Feverel, in succession to John Forster in 1860, a role he famously filled for over thirty years. He also read manuscripts for Saunders and Otley in the early 1860s. In his capacity at Chapman and Hall he encouraged several younger writers who went on to become figures of consequence. Thomas Hardy was one who appreciated his 'trenchant, turning kind' comments, recalling that 'he gave me no end of good advice, most of which, I am bound to say, he did not follow himself' (Stevenson, 174). George Gissing and Olive Schreiner were among others to profit from his counsel. He also made some spectacular miscalculations, in 1861 roundly stating of East Lynne that he was 'emphatically against it', thus opening the way for Bentley to make immense profits from Ellen Wood's novel. His pithy reports on the large quantity of reading he got through—averaging about ten manuscripts a week—were relished in the Chapman and Hall office.
In addition Meredith became an editorial writer for the tory Ipswich Journal at the invitation of a Weybridge acquaintance, Thomas Eyre Foakes. For some years his weekly columns earned a welcome £200 annually, despite the horrors of the ‘Foakesday’ deadlines. He none the less undertook other journalism, not all of it identified, including articles for the Morning Post, as well as publishing poems and short stories. For a time in 1862–3, in order to facilitate his London commitments, he spent Thursday nights in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's household in Chelsea, of which the poet Algernon Swinburne was also part. Perhaps because of the concentration of artistic energies under the same roof, the arrangement did not last long for all that in some respects it was productive. Another resident, the painter Frederick Sandys, told of an outing with Meredith, Rossetti, and Swinburne, when each of his companions wrote a poem between Waterloo station and their destination, Hampton Court.
From the years at Esher date many of Meredith's most enduring friendships. Chief among these friends was Captain Frederick Augustus Maxse RN, a Crimean War hero, whose mother was a daughter of the fifth earl of Berkeley. Maxse was an idealistic enthusiast whose personal idiosyncrasies and family history contributed substantially to Beauchamp's Career. He was not the only one of Meredith's friends to be used as a source for his fiction: William Hardman, a barrister and later editor of the Morning Post, whom Meredith got to know in autumn 1861, appears as Blackburn Tuckham in Beauchamp's Career; and the character of Adrian Harley in Richard Feverel was based on the eccentric Maurice Fitzgerald, a nephew of the poet Edward Fitzgerald. A little later Meredith met such up-and-coming men of letters as John Morley and Leslie Stephen (who became Vernon Whitford in The Egoist). Augustus Jessopp, clergyman and headmaster of the King Edward VI School in Norwich, introduced himself in a flattering letter in November 1861. Their correspondence became acquaintance, and in September 1862 Arthur Meredith was enrolled at Jessopp's school.
Most of these men shared Meredith's pleasure in long walks in the Surrey countryside, and some of them the passion for the Alps which infuses his writing, especially The Egoist. His first alpine holiday was in July and August 1861 in company with Arthur and the sometimes tiresome William Charles Bonaparte Wyse, described by Meredith as 'half Prince, half Paddy' (Letters, 1.125) because of his descent from a brother of Napoleon Bonaparte on his mother's side, and Irish landowners on his father's. Wyse later figured as Richmond Roy in The Adventures of Harry Richmond. Meredith's exhilarated letters, especially to Maxse, trace their itinerary from Germany into Switzerland and on to Italy. While his resistance to orthodox Christian belief was shaken momentarily, his belief in the transcendent if inscrutable power of the natural world was affirmed:
My first sight of the Alps has raised odd feelings. Here at last seems something more than earth, and visible, if not tangible. They have the whiteness, the silence, the beauty and mystery of thoughts seldom unveiled within us, but which conquer Earth when once they are. In fact they have made my creed tremble.—Only for a time. Our great error has been (the error of all religion, as I fancy) to raise a spiritual system in antagonism to Nature.ibid., 1.93
The Liberal statesman and editor John Morley later commented pertinently on this passage, that 'This hardly comes to much for purposes of controversial logic', proceeding, however, to a qualification which speaks of the attraction that Meredith's vigorous communion with the natural world held not only for Morley himself but for others of the next generation: 'the train of latent thought and feeling, thus suddenly started in his soul, carried him far into new regions of art, faith, and life' (Morley, 1.45).
Many accounts of Meredith in person derive from his years at Esher. Frank Burnand, later editor of Punch, described their first meeting in terms coloured by subsequent friendship:
George Meredith never merely walked, never lounged; he strode, he took giant strides. He had … crisp, curly, brownish hair, ignorant of parting; a fine brow, quick, observant eyes, greyish—if I remember rightly—beard and moustache, a trifle lighter than the hair. A splendid head; a memorable personality. Then his sense of humour, his cynicism, and his absolutely boyish enjoyment of mere fun, of any pure and simple absurdity. His laugh was something to hear; it was of short duration, but it was a roar; it set you off—nay, he himself, when much tickled, would laugh till he cried (it didn't take long to get to the crying), and then he would struggle with himself, hand to open mouth, to prevent another outburst.Burnand, 1.361–2
Such accounts of Meredith's boisterous physical presence are numerous: this one aligns with the author himself the philosophy of the tonic properties of laughter which appears in a rudimentary form in Shagpat, and later in a more mandarin presentation in The Egoist. '[A] born tease' (Clodd, 28), Meredith was renowned to the end of his days as 'a brilliant and indefatigable leader of talk' (Sully, 324). His oral delivery had none of the dense obliquity of his written prose:
‘By God,’ said one of the Victorian wits to him one day, ‘George, why don't you write like you talk?’ It is true that his conversation, particularly as he grew deafer, tended to become a monologue, but it was sprinkled with gems and never bored. He was a great improvisatore and nothing could be more exhilarating than to watch him, with his splendid head and his eyes aflame, stamping up and down the room, while he extemporized at the top of his resonant voice a sonnet in perfect form on the governess's walking costume, or a dozen lines, in the blankest of Wordsworthian verse, in elucidation of Haldane's philosophy.Asquith, 1.37
In many respects his talking and writing were of a piece. A critic commented that it was difficult in his novels to distinguish 'where record of sober fact had ended and where the innocent mendacity of the novelist had begun' (Hammerton, 110). This tendency was apparent also in Meredith in person. His propensity for improvisation, sometimes in verse as Asquith describes, and sometimes in prose narratives, maybe triggered by advertisements in the daily papers, has considerable relevance to his fictional practice, where ‘facts’ are frequently discernible, as in the use of friends and acquaintances as prototypes for characters. Even in his letters Meredith fictionalized his correspondents, characterizing them often through extravagant jokes based on nicknames.
Meredith repeatedly worked through personal trauma in his writing, at a greater or lesser remove. Those 'melancholy reflections' occasioned by the death of Mary before long assumed powerful shape in the poem sequence Modern Love (1862). The fifty sixteen-line 'sonnets' play out the end of a love affair in a narrative which dwells on representing states of mind and shifts of perception rather than on an objective account of what actually took place. Even Maxse, the dedicatee, complained of obscurity in a review in the Morning Post, while others went on the attack. 'Mr George Meredith is a clever man, without literary genius, taste or judgement' whose work 'has no kind of right to the title “Modern Love”: “Modern Lust” would certainly be … more accurate', ranted R. H. Hutton in The Spectator, his earlier dismissiveness transformed to overt hostility (Williams, 95). In reply Swinburne provided dignified and detailed advocacy for Meredith as a poet 'whose work, perfect or imperfect, is always as noble in design as it is often faultless in result' (ibid., 98).
Literary merit aside, Modern Love is a curiously even-handed working through of the dynamics of Meredith's first marriage from which there was no evident trauma carried over into his second marriage. Marie Vulliamy (1840–1885) was the youngest daughter of an English mother and a French father. Meredith met the family, which had settled in Mickleham following Justin Vulliamy's retirement from his wool business in Normandy, in autumn 1863. The handsome young widower was subjected to intense interrogation about his previous marriage and his financial situation by his prospective father-in-law before permission for the wedding was forthcoming. The marriage was celebrated by Augustus Jessopp in Mickleham parish church on 20 September 1864.
Meredith waxed rhapsodic about his bride: 'I knew when I spoke to her that hers was the heart I had long been seeking, and that my own in its urgency was carried on a pure though a strong tide' (Selected Letters, 41). Once adjusted to conjugal life, he described her as 'a mud fort. You fire broadsides into her, and nothing happens' (Stevenson, 185). Marie was a handsome woman, capable of effective domestic diplomacy, an accomplished pianist whose favourite composer was Chopin, and a capable scholar whose translation of Charles de Mazade's Life of Cavour was published by Chapman and Hall in 1877. There were two children: William Maxse (b. 1865) and Marie Eveleen (Mariette; b. 1871). Though the new Mrs Meredith was fond of her stepson, Arthur was away at school and did not become part of the family circle. Early in 1867 Meredith transferred him from Jessopp's school in Norwich to Hofwyl School near Bern, where G. H. Lewes's three sons had been pupils. Neither his visits to Hofwyl nor Arthur's visits home were frequent.
When he met Marie, Meredith was finishing Emilia in England (1864; re-titled Sandra Belloni when it was reissued in 1886). The novel was from the first conceived as part of a diptych, in which Meredith made yet another generic departure, interlacing comedy of manners with political adventure. The struggle for Italian unification provides a strong undertow, with Meredith drawing on the Rossettis and others with Italian connections, as well as depicting Swinburne in a minor character, Tracy Runningbrook. Always a good self-critic, though unable to act on his criticisms, he observed accurately that 'the novel has good points, and some of my worst ones. It has no plot, albeit a current series of events: but being based on character and development it is not unlikely to miss a striking success' (Letters, 1.247). Yet despite generally lukewarm if sympathetic reviews, Meredith's reputation was consolidating. A milestone was the appraisal of his work to date by Justin McCarthy, later a politician and journalist, in 'Novels with a purpose' (Westminster Review, July 1864), which praised its distinctiveness but cautioned that the author is 'too often … induced to sink the story-teller in the critic, the poet in the social philosopher' (Williams, 135).
Brimming with ideas, desperate for popularity and profit, Meredith tried 'an English novel, of the real story-telling order' (Letters, 1.250), a version of the traditional squire-and-milkmaid seduction plot used to good effect as recently as 1859 by George Eliot in Adam Bede. As always he encountered problems in his efforts 'to “finish off” Rhoda Fleming in one volume, now swollen to two—and Oh, will it be three?—But this is my Dd. Dd. Dd. uncertain workmanship' (ibid., 1.302). The work did run to three volumes: Rhoda Fleming: a Story was published by Tinsley in 1865.
Meredith attempted redress for the flat reception of Emilia in its sequel, which had the working title 'Emilia in Italy'. Vittoria came out in 1866 (serialized in The Fortnightly, and published in three volumes by Chapman and Hall): 'all story … no Philosopher present: action: excitement: holding of your breath, chilling horror: classic sensation' (Letters, 1.255). To no avail. Geraldine Jewsbury, who had found Emilia in England 'a charming story' though the style 'becomes fatiguing after a while', described Vittoria as an 'unmerciful novel' (Williams, 111, 113, 153). Meredith's partisan enthusiasm for Italian nationalist movements had another outcome, however, when he was commissioned to cover the Austro-Prussian War for the Morning Post. He was in Italy from June to November 1866 (though the war was over in July), producing lively coverage. He undertook other journalistic roles, deputizing as editor of The Fortnightly in 1867 when Morley went to America, and in the following year contributing a number of essays to the Pall Mall Gazette. About this time he began to read aloud for a couple of hours a week to Mrs Benjamin Wood, an eccentric widow with failing sight who lived at Eltham, for which he earned a substantial £300 a year well into the 1880s.
Late in 1867 the Merediths made a move of great significance. Having lived since their marriage in rented houses in Esher and Norbiton, they bought Flint Cottage, Box Hill, Dorking, which was to be Meredith's home for the remaining forty-two years of his life. The relatively small house was imaginatively extended in 1876 by the construction of a chalet as Meredith's study. The building was at Marie's expense, her annual income of £200 at marriage having increased following her father's death in 1870. Meredith was delighted by the arrangement, boasting to Morley:
You should know, I work and sleep up in my cottage at present, and anything grander than the days and nights at my porch you will not find away from the Alps: for the dark line of my hill runs up to the stars, the valley below is a soundless gulf. There I pace like a shipman before turning in.Letters, 1.539
Settled in Flint Cottage, Meredith finished a long-nurtured project, The Adventures of Harry Richmond, which ran in the Cornhill Magazine from September 1870 to November 1871, illustrated by the rising George Du Maurier, then appeared in three volumes from Smith Elder dated 1871. Elements of earlier novels were reworked in this 'History of father and son': like Evan Harrington, Harry Richmond has picaresque elements; and like the Emilia novels, it has a distinct political inflection. The distancing in time and place often associated with its romance adventure genre is qualified as the hero's adventures take him through a recognizably mid-nineteenth-century Europe where the divine right of kings is everywhere in question and exposure of patriarchal egoism goes along with demonstration of female strength and suffering. Meredith had claimed for Modern Love, the most painfully personal of his works, wider relevance as 'a dissection of the sentimental passion of these days' (Letters, 1.160). His concern to analyse contemporary life became even more explicit from the 1870s, not only in his fiction but also in the topical commentary that provides the substance of five Peacockian 'Up to midnight' dialogues which appeared in The Graphic in December 1872 and January 1873.
Popular acclaim, 1875–1885
Though Meredith had published Harry Richmond with Smith Elder, he returned amicably to Chapman and Hall for the publication of Beauchamp's Career (1876). Always engaged in generic experiment, in Beauchamp's Career he produced a political novel. Serialization in The Fortnightly (August 1874–December 1875) marked the end of some years' estrangement from its touchy editor, John Morley, who in 1871 had complained to Meredith about his abrasive comments on Morley's 'opinions, ideas, and likings' (Letters, 1.443); later Morley expressly recognized Meredith's dignified and generous behaviour during the rift. Of all Meredith's friends from the 1850s and 1860s, Morley achieved the greatest worldly success, first in literature (as editor and author) and then in politics (he took office first under Gladstone in 1886, as chief secretary for Ireland, and was secretary of state for India from 1905 to 1910). Morley was only one of the key figures in the Liberal Party to whom Meredith was close, especially from the 1880s on: others included Herbert Asquith, a future prime minister, and Richard Haldane, a future lord chancellor. Not only did Meredith engage in his fiction with political issues, but increasingly he also consorted with public figures, and intervened in current debates through journal essays and letters to the newspapers.
Beauchamp's Career can be read as Meredith's contention with Morley. Meredith's awareness of the power of impulse and chance in human affairs pervades the novel, implicitly undermining the basic conviction of Morley and his positivist colleagues of the inexorable power of reason to effect personal, social, and political change. In this sense Morley is a presence in the novel, though he is represented in no single character. The titular hero, however, was avowedly based on Meredith's closest friend, Frederick Maxse. While the focus is on the revolt of the radical hero against his aristocratic establishment formation, sexual politics become more insistent than in earlier work. The career of Nevil Beauchamp is marked out through his relationships with women, which successively define the damaging contradictions and limitations of his radical idealism. In particular the complex characterization of the tory heiress, Cecilia Halkett, brings out the extent to which male authority painfully circumscribes women.
Meredith later suggested of this novel that 'There is a breezy, human interest about it; and the plot has a consistency and logical evolution which Feverel lacks' (Clodd, 24)—a comment that downplays the extent to which Beauchamp's Career, like its almost exact contemporaries, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and Anthony Trollope's The Way we Live now, is concerned to anatomize the England of the day. It also downplays the extent to which his characteristic narrative tactics are fully matured in this work: major confrontations are reported, not shown, because their significance resides not in the action itself, but in its implications and effects. The reception of Beauchamp's Career established Meredith as a major literary presence, who because of the density of his style was often compared to Browning.
In the middle 1870s Meredith was again working on a number of projects, including a never-completed play, 'The sentimentalists', as well as poetry and short fiction. The House on the Beach: a Realistic Tale, The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper, and The Tale of Chloe were published in the New Quarterly Magazine in the late 1870s, but not in book form until the 1890s. He also made a start on two novels: The Amazing Marriage, which he rewrote and published in 1895, and Celt and Saxon, to which he did not return (it was posthumously published in 1910). In these novels emerged a personal mythology cast in terms of racial characteristics—the dialectic of fiery Celt and stoic Saxon—that became more central in Diana of the Crossways, though the superiority of the Welsh in spirit and imagination to the phlegmatic, materialistic English was a subject of his fiction as early as Emilia in England. Meredith, calling himself half-Welsh and half-Irish, laid comprehensive claim to Celtic attributes at a time when ideologies of race and political issues such as home rule were topical.
The momentum of Meredith's work in this phase was generated by exploration of comedy—always a genre that engaged him. He delivered his lecture on comedy at the London Institution on 1 February 1877 (published in the New Quarterly Magazine in April, and in book form in 1898). The essay was part of his preparation for The Egoist: a Comedy in Narrative (serialized in the Glasgow Weekly Herald, June 1879–Jan 1880; then issued in 3 volumes by Kegan Paul, 1879). Now acknowledged as his masterpiece, this highly structured novel both articulates Meredith's particular idea of comedy as 'the ultimate civilizer' (Egoist, Prelude) and draws on the traditions of stage comedy of Molière and Congreve. While celebrating these various literary traditions, The Egoist also engages with such significant Victorian discourses as evolution and imperialism. Sir Willoughby Patterne, like Sir Austin Feverel, invokes science to control his domain, but even more comprehensively than Sir Austin he is thwarted by the elemental energies of nature associated particularly with women and the lower orders. In his presentation of the female characters, especially the beautiful heroine Clara Middleton and the witty widow Mrs Mountstuart Jenkinson, Meredith's advocacy for women becomes more explicit. As always, some reviewers objected to Meredith's preciosity, but others responded with enthusiasm to the novel's verbal brilliance. By now he had another generation of devotees among younger writers, including Robert Louis Stevenson (to whom Meredith confided that Sir Willoughby Patterne 'is all of us' (Williams, 521)), and W. E. Henley (who reviewed the novel four times).
Throughout his career certain of Meredith's works set up dialogues with their predecessors. The Tragic Comedians: a Study in a Well-Known Story (serialized in The Fortnightly, Oct 1880–Feb 1881, and published in 2 volumes by Chapman and Hall, 1880) provides an excellent case in point. Again he homed in on the egoism and self-deception of the central characters, in a grim negative demonstration of the corrective capacities of the comic spirit. Meredith reinterpreted the love affair of the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, a Jew, with a much younger woman from an aristocratic Roman Catholic family, which ended in Lassalle's death in a duel. Here the novel foreshadows its successor by drawing on the history of a public figure for significant aspects of the plot.
It was Diana of the Crossways (1885) that finally gained Meredith significant popular acclaim. Readers could see resemblances in the account of Diana Merion's tribulations to the close relationships of Caroline Norton with Lord Melbourne (Lord Dannisburgh in the novel) and Sidney Herbert (Percy Dacier), and the allegation that she betrayed a political secret (concerning the corn law repeal). Possibly because of threats of legal action the serialization in the Fortnightly Review, which ran from June to December 1884, was abruptly terminated after twenty-six chapters. There were seventeen more in the three-volume version brought out by Chapman and Hall in February 1885—and the novel went into two further editions before the end of the year. Diana's double disadvantage as an Irish woman tapped into two highly topical issues, home rule and women's rights, on both of which Meredith was increasingly drawn to make public pronouncement. In addition, like many of Meredith's novels, Diana contains commentary on the aims and techniques of fiction, made particularly potent by Diana's being herself a novelist dedicated to 'reading the inner as well as exhibiting the outer' (Diana, chap. 1).
Meredith was now prospering as never before. In 1882, by the death of a distant cousin he secured a reversion from the estate of a great-uncle, which, he observed inimitably, 'relieves me of the constant harassment of the sense of neediness' (Letters, 2.659). Despite his complaints about financial problems early in his career, Meredith had been able to support himself by his writing and related activities with assistance from his inheritance and the income of his second wife. This additional legacy, together with effective management of his business affairs from the mid-1890s at the hands of his son Will, contributed to his substantial estate, declared at £33,701 15s. 10d. (ibid., 2.1067n.).
Meredith's health was no longer robust, however. Always subject to gastric ailments, he adopted a vegetarian diet for a time in the late 1870s. Digestive problems paled beside the onset of motor ataxia from the end of 1881, a cruel affliction given his commitment to vigorous physical exercise. The contemporary diagnosis of locomotor ataxia, a possible symptom of tertiary-stage syphilis, was questioned by twentieth-century medical opinion, which suggested that Meredith suffered—painfully but less dramatically—from osteoarthritis. Whatever the cause, his physical mobility was severely restricted from the late 1880s, when increasing deafness further limited his social interactions. Travel abroad was now difficult, so he holidayed in the British Isles: in August 1887 he went to St Ives to be with Leslie Stephen and his family; in 1888 he made his first visit to Wales to visit Will, who was with an engineering firm there; and in August 1890 he journeyed to Scotland.
The death of Marie on 17 September 1885, from cancer of the throat, was a grievous blow. Meredith's poem 'A Faith on Trial' movingly sets her mortal illness in the larger context of decay and death as necessary for renewal, and he mourned her as 'the most unpretending, brave and steadfast friend ever given for a mate' (Letters, 2.789). Of necessity, some lifestyle change followed, notably the employment of a governess for the fourteen-year-old Mariette, his strong-willed but devoted daughter. His concern for instance that Mariette should not go about unchaperoned can be seen as intelligibly inconsistent with his advocacy of equality for women. Less intelligible was his gradual estrangement from his elder son, whose schooling in Germany had been followed by employment in Le Havre and Lille. In the early 1880s there was some rapprochement when Meredith, remorseful on learning that Arthur had tuberculosis, spent time with him both in England and in Italy. But Arthur's affinities were rather with his half-sister Edith (Mrs Charles Clarke) than with his Meredith kin, and he was being cared for by her at home in Woking when he died on 3 September 1890. Meredith did not attend the funeral.
Late phase, 1885–1909
The success of Diana encouraged Chapman and Hall to put out a collected ('new') edition of Meredith's work, of which the first titles were issued in 1885. With his fiction (some of it lightly revised) now in circulation, it became the subject of significant critical surveys—some, inevitably, hostile, like William Watson's censure of his artificiality (Williams, 317–30); but an increasing proportion were admiring, notably the book-length studies by Richard Le Gallienne in 1890 and Hannah Lynch in 1891. His reputation was not only English: Roberts Brothers' uniform edition, issued simultaneously with the New Edition, did well in the United States; and his continental reputation, especially in France, consolidated through the 1890s.
Meredith turned again to poetry: Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883) was followed by four more volumes—Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life (1887), A Reading of Earth (1888), Modern love: a reprint, to which is added ‘The sage enamoured and the honest lady’ (1892), and Poems: the Empty Purse (1892)—over the next decade. All were published by Macmillan, Meredith having made a strategic decision to bring out his verse from a publisher other than Chapman and Hall, though he assembled his work under one imprint when he moved to Constable in the mid-1890s. That house published Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History (1898) and A Reading of Life (1901), and also issued a number of selections: Selected Poems (1897), The Nature Poems (1898), and two posthumous volumes, Last Poems and Poems Written in Early Youth (both 1909). Meredith was of the view that his poems would outlive his novels, for all that 'Only a few read my verse, and yet it is that for which I care most … I began with poetry and I shall finish with it' (Clodd, 23). While his technical virtuosity is still acknowledged, readers turn to his poetry now for its emphatic articulation of his philosophy of life. That philosophy, which is likely to appear anachronistic and arcane to readers in the twenty-first century, however sympathetic they may be to Meredith's environmentalism, was potent for his contemporaries. The most thoroughgoing testimony to the influence and impact of Meredith's ideas is G. M. Trevelyan's The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith (1906), the historian's only book on a living person and, additionally, an index to the admiration for Meredith among the intelligentsia and the Liberal establishment. John Morley pungently summarized Meredith's vitalist ethic:
Live with the world. No cloister. No languour. Play your part. Fill the day. Ponder well and loiter not. Let laughter brace you. Exist in everyday communion with Nature. Nature bids you take all, only be sure you learn how to do without.Morley, 1.38
Morley delineates the tonic power of Meredith's 'deep companionship of the large refreshing natural world [which] brought unspeakable fullness of being to him, as it was one of his most priceless lessons to men of disposition more prosaic than his own' (ibid., 39). Others were similarly exhilarated. '[T]he glory of George Meredith is that he combined subtlety with primal energy: he criticized life without losing his appetite for it', declared G. K. Chesterton in his obituary in the Illustrated London News (22 May 1909), succinctly identifying Meredith's appeal for a post-Darwinian world.
Meredith's creative energies were not all directed to poetry, for there were three more novels: One of our Conquerors (serialized in The Fortnightly, Oct 1890–May 1891, simultaneously in The Sun (New York) and Australasian, and published in 3 volumes by Chapman and Hall, 1891), Lord Ormont and his Aminta (serialized in the Pall Mall Magazine, Dec 1893–July 1894, and issued in 3 volumes by Chapman and Hall, 1894), The Amazing Marriage (serialized in Scribner's Magazine, Jan–Dec 1895, and published in two volumes by Constable and Scribner, 1895). Claimed to be 'a broad and a close observation of the modern world' (Letters, 2.999), One of our Conquerors is the most challenging of all Meredith's works in the extravagance of its address to such familiar themes as the social injustices experienced by women, and the connections among egoism, capitalism, orthodox Christianity, and militarism. Both Lord Ormont and his Aminta and The Amazing Marriage continue an exploration of sexual relationships apparently or actually illicit, and of the range of comedy. Although these are mellower works than the relentlessly tragic One of our Conquerors, each is challenging in subject matter and narrative method.
Meredith's world was gradually closing in. The household at Flint Cottage following Mariette's marriage in 1894 to Henry Parkman Sturgis, a businessman, was made up of a nurse, Bessie Nicholls, and gardener, Frank Cole, together with dogs, and later a donkey to pull the trap in which Meredith took outings once he could no longer walk. He now left Box Hill only rarely, though in some years he had seaside holidays in Norfolk. His health became increasingly frail: he underwent surgery for urinary problems and gallstones in the 1890s; then, after a serious illness in winter 1903–4, he broke his right ankle in 1905. None the less, he maintained a wide circle of acquaintances, receiving guests, and developing new friendships, a number of them with young women. The letters and poems he wrote from the mid-1880s to Hilda de Longueil, Jean Palmer, Alice Meynell, and especially Ulrica Duncombe, a Girton graduate and daughter of the earl of Faversham, are sympathetic, playful, and seemingly flirtatious, oddly complementary to the bonhomie of earlier letters to his male peers.
Although Meredith accepted few public responsibilities, he succeeded Tennyson as president of the Society of Authors in 1892. At times reluctantly, he assented to recognition of various kinds including an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews in 1892. Because he was unable to attend the appropriate ceremonies he later declined similar degrees from the universities of Oxford and Wales. Edward Clodd organized a dinner in his honour at the Burford Bridge Inn close to Flint Cottage in 1895, at which Hardy and Gissing spoke of their admiration and indebtedness. For his seventieth birthday in 1898 Leslie Stephen instigated a testimonial, signed by thirty 'comrades in letters'. The highest public honour came in 1905 with his installation as the twelfth of twenty-four members of Edward VII's new Order of Merit, which Meredith whimsically described as the 'Order of Old Men'.
A process of setting his affairs on a more business-like basis began when Meredith employed W. Morris Colles as his literary agent in 1892, and accelerated when his son Will took over in 1895, having joined the publisher Constable—a move which ended Meredith's long relationship with Chapman and Hall. Constable promptly capitalized on their acquisition, bringing out The Amazing Marriage, and then the De Luxe Edition of his works, including fiction, poetry, and non-fiction prose (36 vols., 1896–8, 1910–11). Other complete editions followed: the Library Edition from 1897, the Pocket Edition from 1906, and the Memorial Edition from 1909. Though he continued to speak of 'new' fictional works, especially one called 'The journalists', none eventuated: he wrote only poetry and the occasional short prose piece.
By the turn of the century Meredith was well ensconced as the Sage of Box Hill. He volunteered public pronouncements in letters to the press, and was sought out for interviews, commenting wryly that 'the British public (who never cared to read my books)' now 'wanted to know what I eat for breakfast, and what coloured tie I generally wear' (Butcher, 130). For all this self-deprecation, his status was not simply that of celebrity, but of public intellectual. His political position, usually implicit in his fiction, was now explicit, and consistently if idiosyncratically Liberal and anti-imperialist. He supported home rule, and opposed the South African War; generally interested in military matters, he followed closely the Russian Revolution of 1905. He could be relied on for pungent anti-clerical statements: 'Parsondom has always been against progress; they treat Christianity, not as a religion but as an institution' (Clodd, 26); for all this he bore with Anglican rites of marriage, baptism, and burial. He was much in demand for comment in the brief campaign leading to the 1906 general election, won by the Liberal Party following the resignation of Balfour and his Conservative government in December 1905. With his Liberal connections now holding high office, Meredith's influence was probably at its height: but the Fabian George Bernard Shaw's description of him at this time as 'a Cosmopolitan Republican Gentleman of the previous generation' (Stone, 96) was ominous.
The political issue with which he came particularly to be identified was women's rights and the suffrage. Throughout his fiction, women's disadvantage in a patriarchal society is tellingly presented, and also argued out in his poetry, notably in 'A Ballad of Fair Ladies in Revolt' (Fortnightly Review, 1 Aug 1876). He developed his ideas in interviews, typically pointing out to W. T. Stead in 1903 'a certain contempt on the part of man for the creature he has subdued and made a minister to his own gratification' (Stead, 230), and sensationally proposing to a Daily Mail interviewer in 1904 that marriage should be for a probationary term of ten years.
He was, however, emphatically opposed to militancy; in a letter to The Times he deplored the flawed tactics of a suffragist demonstration in the outer lobby of the House of Commons ('The mistake of the women has been to suppose that John Bull will move sensibly for a solitary kick'), while maintaining the line he had consistently advanced, that men must come to see 'that women have brains, and can be helpful to the hitherto entirely dominant muscular creature who has allowed them some degree of influence in return for servile flatteries and the graceful undulations of the snake—admired yet dreaded' (Letters, 3.1576–7).
Much publicity attended Meredith's eightieth birthday in 1908. In high spirits, he instructed an interviewer to 'Say that I am very well, and that you found me sitting in my chair, delivering myself freely of very Radical sentiments' (Hammerton, 49). But he was failing. He took a chill after his donkey-cart outing on 14 May 1909, and died at home in Flint Cottage on 18 May. Following cremation at Woking, on 22 May his ashes were buried beside Marie in Dorking cemetery in a grave lined with whitebeam and wild briar. Inscribed on the gravestone is a quotation from Vittoria:
Life is but a little holding, lentTo do a mighty labour.
Though a petition that he be buried in Westminster Abbey was denied, a memorial service was held there at noon on the day of the funeral, attended by his friend the prime minister H. H. Asquith and Miss Asquith, the American ambassador, and prominent literary figures. Newspaper reports noted that there were many wreaths from women's suffrage societies, and that mourners included a notable representation of young women. The organ of the non-militant suffragists, the Common Cause, carried an extended obituary editorial which delivered a telling personal testimony to Meredith's influence, expanded into an evaluation of how he had 'changed the world':
Beyond everything, what he brought to the younger generation of women was hope and self-revelation … Now woman feels that she belongs to herself, that she possesses herself, and that unless or until she does so the gift of herself is impossible. You cannot give what you have not got. Women … would force men to look at things as they are; at women's lives as they are; at the purely masculine world in which they are compelling women to live and to which the women cannot and ought not to adapt themselves.27 May 1909, 91–2
Such tributes might have gratified Meredith, who in his later years had frequently proclaimed, 'I think that all right use of life, and the one secret of life, is to pave ways for the firmer footing of those who succeed us' (Letters, 2.876). Other obituaries dwelt on different accomplishments. The Times was suitably representative: its full authority was invested in its eulogy, which pronounced that 'in the end he achieved the position of the greatest man of letters of his age', delineating with conviction:
the once great walker, great talker, great writer, the poet with the noble head, the keen-eyed, keen-tongued foe of pretence and folly, [who] watched with almost unabated interest the life of which so many different features appealed to him, from cricket to tragic love, from old wine to contemporary politics.19 May 1909
Certain obituaries celebrating Meredith as the last of the Victorians, anticipated the inevitable eclipse of his late-blooming fame, which did not long survive him. Neither Meredith's intellectual attraction, nor the currency of his writing, lasted much beyond 1920. His declining reputation coincided with the downturn in the political fortunes of the Liberal Party, by the late 1920s—with the rise of Labour—no longer a potential party of government. The novelist E. M. Forster, whose early work shows some Meredithian influence, denounced his predecessor in 1927:
Meredith is not the great name he was twenty or thirty years ago, when much of the universe and all Cambridge trembled … His philosophy has not worn well. His heavy attacks on sentimentality—they bore the present generation, which pursues the same quarry with neater instruments … And his visions of Nature—they do not endure like Hardy's, there is too much Surrey about them, they are fluffy and lush … What with the faking, what with the preaching, which was never agreeable and is now said to be hollow, and what with the home counties posing as the universe, it is no wonder Meredith now lies in the trough.Forster, 62–3
Similar sentiments were expressed by Harold Nicolson thirty years later, in an Oxford rather than a Cambridge milieu, reminiscing with David Cecil and Maurice Bowra:
We discuss how the books which we admired in our youth survive into old age. The one who comes out worst of this discussion is Meredith, who must have meant to us the subtleties that Freud provided for our successors but which seem to us just crinkum-crankum.Nicolson, 313
The Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis, himself a redoubtable maker and breaker of literary reputations, acknowledged the efficacy of Forster's attack in his post-war stocktake of the history of the English novel:
As for Meredith, I needn't add anything to what is said about him by Mr E. M. Forster, who, having belonged to the original milieu in which Meredith was erected into a great master, enjoys peculiar advantages for the necessary demolition-work.Leavis, 23
In the second half of the twentieth century, there were none the less occasional attempts to revive Meredith and restore at least his literary reputation, notably about 1970 with the publication of C. L. Cline's edition of the letters and several critical studies. But his work was only partially and erratically in print, and by 1997 John Sutherland could pronounce that 'he is to all intents and purposes a literary corpse—a well-remembered and abstractly revered corpse but apparently beyond critical exhumation' (Sutherland, 5).
It is arguable, however, that the nature and extent of Meredith's achievement is best demonstrated by his formative influence on the next generation of novelists, including James Joyce. Even E. M. Forster allowed that 'he is the finest contriver that English fiction has ever produced'. This judgment was shared by Virginia Woolf, daughter of Meredith's friend Leslie Stephen, who accurately saw in him 'a great innovator'. He was always a writer's writer. The exasperated and ambivalent comments of his contemporary Oscar Wilde, declaring that he is 'an incomparable novelist', defined the paradoxes constituted by his work: 'His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate' (Williams, 315–16). A similar irritation was more than once expressed by Henry James, another contemporary, who exercised particular authority about the art of the novel. Discussing 'the unspeakable Lord Ormont', James expostulated: 'not a difficulty met, not a figure presented, not a scene constituted' (ibid., 406–7); and yet at Meredith's death he generously declared, 'He did the best things best' (ibid., 406). Thomas Hardy, a fellow practitioner both in poetry and prose, and no believer in the afterlife, published an eighteen-line poem, 'G. M. 1828–1909', in The Times on the day of Meredith's funeral. Its concluding line, 'His words wing on—as strong words will' (later amended to 'as live words will'), points to the capacity of Meredith to speak to later generations. Hardy's tribute also provides important evidence in support of the verdict that Meredith holds a central place in the literary history of the Victorian era, as poet, journalist, and publisher's reader, and primarily as novelist.
- L. Stevenson, The ordeal of George Meredith (1953)
- The letters of George Meredith, ed. C. L. Cline, 3 vols. (1970)
- E. Clodd, ‘George Meredith: some recollections’, Fortnightly Review, 86 (1909), 19–31
- S. M. Ellis, George Meredith: his life and friends in relation to his work (1919)
- J. A. Hammerton, George Meredith: his life and art in anecdote and criticism, 2nd edn (1911)
- I. Williams, ed., George Meredith: the critical heritage (1971)
- M. Collie, George Meredith: a bibliography (1974)
- Selected letters of George Meredith, ed. M. Shaheen (1997)
- The notebooks of George Meredith, ed. G. Beer and M. Harris, Salzburg Studies in English literature: Romantic Reassessment, 73/2 (1983)
- A. Butcher, Memories of George Meredith, O. M. (1919)
- J. Ross, The fourth generation: reminiscences (1912)
- W. T. Stead, ‘Character sketch: George Meredith’, Review of Reviews (10 March 1904), 224–30
- F. R. Leavis, The great tradition (1948)
- J. Lucas, ‘Meredith's reputation’, Meredith now: some critical essays, ed. I. Fletcher (1971)
- J. Sutherland, ‘A revered corpse: the peculiar unreadability of George Meredith’, TLS (15 Sept 1997)
- M. B. Forman, Meredithiana: being a supplement to the bibliography of Meredith (1924)
- John, Viscount Morley, Recollections, 2 vols. (1918)
- H. Nicolson, Diaries and letters, 1945–1962, ed. N. Nicolson (1968)
- Earl of Oxford and Asquith, Memories and reflections, 1852–1927, 1 (1928)
- J. S. Stone, George Meredith's politics as seen in his life, friendships, and works (1986)
- G. M. Trevelyan, The poetry and philosophy of George Meredith (1906)
- R. A. Gettmann, ‘Meredith as publisher's reader’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 48 (1949), 45–56
- B. W. Matz, ‘George Meredith as publisher's reader’, Fortnightly Review, 86 (1909), 282–98
- F. C. Burnand, Records and reminiscences, personal and general, 2 vols. (1904)
- J. Sully, My life and friends: a psychologist's memories 
- D. Johnson, The true history of the first Mrs. Meredith and other lesser lives (1973)
- J. Lindsay, George Meredith: his life and work (1956)
- V. Woolf, ‘The novels of George Meredith’, Collected essays, ed. L. Woolf (1966)
- Dartmouth College Library, literary papers
- Hunt. L., corresp. and literary MSS
- L. Cong., literary papers
- Morgan L., literary papers
- NYPL, literary papers
- Princeton University Library, New Jersey, papers
- Ransom HRC, papers
- Yale U., Beinecke L., letters and papers
- BL, letters to Sir William Hardman
- BL, corresp. incl. family corresp. with Macmillans
- Bodl. Oxf., letters to various members of the Lewis family
- Bodl. Oxf., letters to James Thomson
- LUL, letters to M. Lewin and T. H. Lewin
- LUL, corresp. with Henry Salt
- NL Scot., letters to Lord Haldane
- UCL, letters to James Sully
- W. Sussex RO, letters mainly to F. A. Maxse
- H. Wallis, oils, 1856 (The death of Chatterton; Meredith as model), Tate collection
- D. G. Rossetti, sketch, 1860 (Mary Magdalene at the gate of Simon the Pharisee; Meredith as model)
- Hillyer, photograph, 1887
- H. Roller, photograph, 1888
- F. Hollyer, cabinet photograph, 1890, NPG [see illus.]
- G. F. Watts, oils, 1893, NPG
- J. S. Sergent, charcoal drawing, 1896, FM Cam.
- M. Menpes, drypoint etching, 1900
- J. S. Sergent, drawings, 1901
- A. L. Coburn, photograph, Oct 1904, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper and others, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1913)
- W. Strang, oils, 1906, NPG
- W. Strang, chalk drawing, 1908, Royal Collection
- T. Spencer-Simson, bronze medallion, 1910, NPG
- M. Beerbohm, caricature, AM Oxf.; repro. in VF (24 Sept 1896)
- M. Beerbohm, double portrait, caricature, sketch (with Kipling), NYPL, Hall Caine and Swinburne collection
- C. Holroyd, bronze medals, NPG, Tate collection
- E. T. Reid, caricature, repro. in Punch (28 July 1894)
- Violet, duchess of Rutland, pencil drawing, Scot. NPG
- Mrs S. Trower, photograph (aged sixty-eight)
- E. J. Wheeler, caricature, repro. in Punch (19 Dec 1891)
- photograph (aged thirty-five)
- photograph (aged eighty)
- photograph, University College Medical School, London
- photographs, repro. in The memorial edition, 27 vols. (1909–11)
- photographs, repro. in Ellis, George Meredith
- photographs, repro. in Hammerton, George Meredith
- photographs, repro. in W. M. Meredith, Letters of George Meredith, 2 vols. (1912)
Wealth at Death
£32,359 3s. 10d.: probate, 1909, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
£33,701 15s. 10d.: Letters of George Meredith, ed. Cline, 2, 1067n