World Literature

George Meredith

 

BORN: 1828, Portsmouth, England

DIED: 1909, Surrey, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Shaving of Shagpat (1856)

Farina (1857)

Modern Love (1862)

The Egoist (1879)

Diana of the Crossways (1885)

 

 

George Meredith. Meredith, George, photograph. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

George Meredith is known chiefly as a Victorian novelist and poet who innovated literature by his focus on character psychology rather than plot. His shorter fiction appeared toward the beginning of his career, in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and reached its fullest development in three stories published in the 1870s in the New Quarterly Magazine. Meredith’s career developed in conjunction with an era of great change in English society during the second half of the nineteenth century. His treatment of issues such as shifting social class and rapidly developing industrialization established him as a heavy influence on the early modernist writers that would follow him.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

The Victorian Era and False Prosperity. Meredith lived most of his life in a time known as the Victorian era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories. Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with advances in industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in factories instead of on farms as in the past. The era was also marked by a preoccupation with proper behavior in society and domestic life, a topic which translated into Meredith’s works as a concern for social issues and character psychology.

George Meredith was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 12, 1828, to Augustus and Jane Eliza (Mac-Namara) Meredith. His father inherited a seemingly prosperous Portsmouth naval outfitters and tailor shop from his own father, but he soon discovered that customers were not paying their bills. Augustus ran the failing business at a loss for several years while the family lived extravagantly on the dowry that Meredith’s mother had brought into the marriage.

Considering themselves superior to ordinary tradespeople, the Merediths unsuccessfully attempted to establish themselves as the social equals of the elegant patrons of the tailor shop. The young Meredith quickly learned to say nothing of his family’s position, instead encouraging the assumption that he was of the gentry. When Meredith was five, his mother died, leaving her money in a trust for her son’s education. Lacking access to these funds for his business, Meredith’s father was forced into bankruptcy. The boy was sent to boarding schools and had very little contact with his father thereafter.

At fourteen Meredith was sent to school in Neuwied, Germany, where he remained for two years. Upon his return to England, his father wanted to apprentice him to a bookseller and publisher, but Meredith disregarded the suggestion and found a post for himself assisting an attorney, for whom he worked for five years.

Early Writing, Early Marriage. In his early twenties, Meredith began writing poetry. He became acquainted with Edward Gryffydh Peacock and Mary Nicolls, the son and widowed daughter of the satirist Thomas Love Peacock, a man he admired. With the younger Peacock he collaborated on the publication of a privately circulated literary magazine, The Monthly Observer. After a tempestuous relationship with Nicolls, Meredith married her in 1849. The marriage was neither a happy nor a lasting one, in part due to a poor financial situation. His father- in-law offered to secure him an office position, but Meredith preferred to try to make his living by his pen. However, his first book, Poems, a volume published at his own expense, attracted little notice and never recouped printing costs.

In 1853 the Merediths’ financial difficulties forced them to move in with Thomas Love Peacock. Peacock could not adjust to the disruption of his household, which was exacerbated by the birth of the Merediths’ son Arthur later that year, and he eventually quit his own house to take rooms elsewhere. By 1856 Meredith and his wife were living apart, and in 1858 she left for Italy with another man, leaving Meredith with five-year-old Arthur. Meredith’s lifetime of reticence about his early years carried over into a stolid refusal to discuss his first marriage, though critics maintain that the sonnet cycle Modern Love (1862), which painstakingly details the dissolution of a marriage, actually chronicles that event.

Failed Relationships, Failed Publications. Meredith’s subsequent relationships with women proved for some time unsatisfactory. He lived alone or with male friends for years, traveling extensively in Switzerland, France, and Italy. Upon his second marriage in 1864, Meredith settled at Box Hill, Surrey, where he lived the rest of his life.

During the 1850s, Meredith was gainfully employed in magazine writing. He also began writing longer prose works, beginning with the fictional The Shaving of Shag- pat (1856). The work’s favorable reception inspired him to write a serious novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859). This novel, which shocked Victorian society with its sexual and atheistic innuendo, was a source of great controversy upon its publication but quickly faded from popular critical debate.

To recuperate from his first failure, Meredith attempted, according to biographer loan Williams, ‘‘to reconcile his artistic purpose with the demands of the reading public.’’ Once he despaired of reaching a large audience, Meredith began to write primarily to please himself and the small circle of admirers who had defended and praised his works from the first. It was then that he found his works more popular than at any other time in his career, beginning with his most successful comedy, the novel The Egoist (1879).

Popular Comic Writer. Meredith’s popularity grew with subsequent novels. In 1885 he published Diana of the Crossways (1885). Inspired by a scandal involving an adulterous married woman accused of selling a state secret, Diana attracted readers who believed that the novelist was revealing inside information about this widely discussed affair; in fact, so many readers assumed that the novel reflected the facts of the scandal that later editions contained disclaimers disallowing any connection between Meredith’s creation and the affair.

The Poet Within. Meredith died at Flint Cottage on May 18, 1909, and, according to his wishes, was buried at Dorking Cemetery. His well-known agnosticism prohibited his burial in Westminster Abbey. However, a memorial service was held at the abbey. At the time of his death, Meredith was considered one of England’s premier men of letters.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Meredith's famous contemporaries include:

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888): American novelist best known for her book Little Women, she was also a seamstress, servant, teacher, and Civil War nurse before becoming an author.

Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry (1828-1826): A French painter who was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1850.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): English poet, painter, illustrator, and translator, he was the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1891): Russian novelist, essayist, dramatist, and philosopher, he is known for his masterpieces Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Meredith consistently focused on the social underdog and continued to emphasize the destructiveness of egotism. Here are a few works by writers who also highlighted vanity as a human flaw:

Barrel Fever (1994), a collection by David Sedaris. In this collection of humorous stories and essays, the author entertains readers by way of a department store elf, an OCD child, and other pitifully hilarious alter egos.

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), a novel by John Kennedy O'Toole. A modern underdog protagonist with an uncontrollable ego, Ignatius J. Reilly stumbles through a life of failed attempts at work, love, and social protest in this novel.

The Fountainhead (1943), a novel by Ayn Rand. An epic novel that displays Rand's belief that ''man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress.''

Perelandra (1943), a novel by C. S. Lewis. This second installment of the Space Trilogy novels presents a unique fictional interpretation of the fall of man.

 

Works in Literary Context

Literary Influences. Meredith’s early poetry was influenced by John Keats and Alfred Lord Tennyson. As a part-time reader for the publishing firm of Chapman and Hall in the early 1860s, he was able to observe literary trends and to employ them in his early novels. In Emilia in England (1864) and its sequel Vittoria (1866), for example, Meredith was inspired by the contemporary interest in local-color fiction to give the heroine a vividly realized Italian background and to introduce historical figures and events into the story. In his position at Chapman and Hall, which he retained until 1894, Meredith also encouraged and influenced such writers as George Gissing, Thomas Hardy, Olive Shreiner, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Elaborate Style. As a ‘‘poet-novelist,’’ Meredith explored new meters and stanza forms. He experimented dramatically with syntax and grammar. Critics characterize his poetry as verbally dense, full with allusions (references) and rife with metaphor. Thus, his poetry is reflective of the late nineteenth-century inclination toward intentional manipulation of the poetic form.

Meredith’s short fiction tends to be more tightly plotted and less given to extended metaphor than his novels, but it still can be seen as characteristically ‘‘Meredithian’’ in style and theme. It is most often characterized by its use of rich psychological portraits and its ambitious and complex strategies of narrative voice. The short stories, as well as the novels, hold an important position in the change from Victorian to modernist moral and aesthetic values—most prominently in their narrative technique, development of female characters, and treatment of diverse psychological perspectives.

Modern Psychological Themes. Meredith is noted as one of the earliest English psychological novelists. His early novels largely conformed to Victorian literary conventions, and they contain his first attempts at psychological portraiture and are typically concerned with demonstrating the instability of human nature as they satirically attack egoism, pretense, snobbery, and false values. In 1857, after Mary Meredith left England with the painter Henry Wallis, later bearing his child, many of Meredith’s short stories featured themes of incompatibility in marriage, as well as a generous appreciation of the woman’s position in such situations.

Meredith’s later novels also demonstrate a concern with character psychology and modern social problems. Like his short stories in the New Quarterly Magazine, the keynote themes include explorations of the danger that egotism poses to the self and others; the social underdog and the slipperiness of self-definition in a rapidly altering society; and the moral integrity, intelligence, and independence of women.

In Farina, for example, there are several such themes: First, there is the independence, wit, and courage shown by Margarita, whose father praises her by saying, ‘‘she’s worthy to be a man.’’ The poor but noble-hearted Farina wins Margarita through courageous action and skill in modern chemistry—he invents eau de cologne to rid the city of the devil’s stench and becomes a national hero. In the character of Monk Gregory, who cannot resist the temptation to tell others of his miraculous defeat of the devil, Meredith sounds the theme of egotism as a destructive force. Gregory says: ‘‘Vanity has wrecked me, in this world and the next. I am the victim of self-incense.’’ ‘‘Self-incense,’’ or ego, poses a danger not only to Gregory’s soul but also to the city of Cologne and the German nation.

 

Works in Critical Context

During the period from 1860 to 1875, Meredith was consciously responsive to the desires of the book-buying public. Despite the introduction of fictional devices and elements that had proved successful for many other writers of the time, however, he was unable to attract either readers or favorable critical notice. Several critics theorize that Meredith tried in each new novel to correct the faults that had been criticized in the last and to incorporate elements that would appeal to Victorian readers.

Meredith’s contribution to the short-story genre reached its height in the 1870s, immediately preceding the publication of one of his most enduring critical and popular successes, The Egoist.

The Egoist (1879). Many critics suggest that the mid-Victorian trend toward compact narrative structures inspired Meredith’s experimental strategies in The Egoist. The Egoist is the most successful example of his comic method and remains his most critically praised novel. Critical consensus is that with this work Meredith most successfully combined his theory of comedy, writing style, and thematic concerns. With The Egoist, Meredith also finally achieved a popular success that grew with subsequent novels.

Early critics believed that Meredith crafted his books to meet public tastes only as a way to slip in his radical ideas about fickle human values. His novels featured very little action, relying instead on dialogue, or what Meredith called ‘‘action of the mind,’’ to advance the story. This resulted in a popular perception of his novels as static and ‘‘talky.’’ His prose therefore came to be identified as the barrier that makes his work inaccessible to readers. His supporters, however, praise the poetic quality of his prose, maintaining that each line of Meredith’s work is written in the allusive, rich language usually reserved for poetry.

More recent critics, however, now argue that Meredith possessed what Judith Wilt has called a ‘‘sensitive and aggressive awareness of the presence, at the heart of his creative art, of the reader.’’ As has been true throughout the history of commentary on Meredith, there remains a dedicated group of admirers who contend, with J. B. Priestley, that Meredith’s difficult style, requiring as it does the full and undivided attention of the reader, paved the way for the public acceptance of much subsequent serious fiction, helping to shape ‘‘the modern attitude towards fiction and the modern novel itself.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Meredith’s early novels largely conformed to Victorian literary conventions. Go online to literary sites and databases and find one aspect of Victorian literature to investigate. This could be Victorian literary style, esteemed Victorian writers, lesser-known Victorian writers, publishing venues of the period, differences in the Victorian writing of alternate continents, or even the events and concerns that influenced Victorian themes. When you have printed out examples, return to share your new area of expertise with the group.

2. Throughout his career, Meredith explored the circumscribed role of women in society, a topic known in his day as ‘‘the woman question,’’ and had long contended that civilization can only flourish when men and women are equal. Look into feminism in nineteenth-century England. How is the feminist movement reflected in Meredith’s works? Can you find other feminist texts that you believe borrow ideas from Meredith’s work? How do the works compare? Do the more modern works offer a critique of Meredith’s feminism?

3. Following The Egoist, Meredith was most concerned with writing psychological novels that portrayed the tangled motivations of individuals and explored the disparity between the public and private aspects of self. In a team effort decide on one character in one of Meredith’s stories and explore the traits Meredith mentions for this character. What are the character’s desires, fears, impulses, and feelings? What does Meredith try to reveal by describing these character traits?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Harris, Wendell. British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979.

Priestley, J. B. George Meredith. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

Williams, Ioan. Meredith: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.

Wilt, Judith. The Readable People of George Meredith. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Periodicals

Barrie, James M. ‘‘The Lost Works of George Meredith.’’ Scots Observer (November 24, 1888): 12-13.

Ketchum, Carl H. ‘‘Meredith at Work: ‘The Tale of Chloe.’’’ Nineteenth Century Literature 21 (December 1966): 235-47.

Swain, H. Lewis. ‘‘George Meredith: A Bibliography of Meredithiana, 1920-1953.’’ Bulletin of Bibliography 21 (September-December 1955): 186-91, 215-16.

Web sites

Geocities. George Meredith. Retrieved May 28, 2008, from http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/2601/meredith.html.

Project Gutenberg. Meredith, George, 1828-1909. Retrieved May 28, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/m#a520.

The Victorian Web. George Meredith. Retrieved May 28, 2008, from http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/meredith/meredithov.html.