The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 1. Meredith
A rather loose grouping of the novels may be suggested. The exotic stories The Shaving of Shagpat (1856), and Farina (1857), have a rich vein of burlesque fantasy and romance which runs on into the earlier novels, especially in characters such as the countess de Saldar and Richmond Roy. To Meredith’s maturer taste, when he was revising his novels for later editions in 1878 and 1897, the farcical ebullience of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and Evan Harrington seemed excessive, and he pruned them with an austerity which alters the proportions of the tales. The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), Evan Harrington (1861), Emilia in England (1864) (the title was changed to Sandra Belloni in 1887) and The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871), all deal with the upbringing of well-born youth to the stage of “capable manhood.” Rhoda Fleming (1865) differs from them in giving prominence to figures of the yeoman class, who, in the earlier novels, are subsidiary. In Vittoria (1867), Beauchamp’s Career (1875) and, to a less degree, in The Tragic Comedians (1880) the novelist takes a wider sweep of vision over the world of politics in England and Germany and of high national aspiration in Italy. The short stories, or, rather, the short novels, The House on the Beach (1877), The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper (1877) and The Tale of Chloe (1879), may be grouped together with The Gentleman of Fifty and the Damsel of Nineteen, which was not published till 1910. The Egoist stands apart, not only in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but even among Meredith’s novels, by its complete originality of attitude and technique, the clues to which are disclosed in the essay On the Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit (1877). The four novels Diana of the Crossways (1885), One of Our Conquerors (1891), Lord Ormont and his Aminta (1894) and The Amazing Marriage (1895), have in common a chivalrous advocacy of women compromised in honour and in pride by masculine despotism; three of the instances have some historical foundation; the working out of the situation in Diana of the Crossways admittedly departs from historical facts in the climax of the story. The early-written and unfinished Celt and Saxon, published in 1910, has resemblances to Diana of the Crossways, in particular in its criticism of English temperament. Throughout his career, Meredith continued, without public encouragement, the writing of verse, which, from time to time, was gathered into volumes. In 1862 appeared Modern Love, the poet’s tragic masterpiece. Some of the poems, printed in the same volume, are in a mood characteristic of Stevenson and of Borrow, with whose Isopel Berners Meredith’s portrait of Kiomi may well compare. The volumes Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883), A Reading of Earth (1888) and A Reading of Life (1901), in which, chiefly, Meredith sets forth his cult of “earth,” stand high in the tradition of metaphysical poetry bequeathed by Wordsworth and Shelley. The work contained in Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life (1887) challenges comparison with similar productions of Rossetti, Swinburne and Morris; The Empty Purse was published in 1892; the poems in Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History (1898) are, in form and thought, allied to the political odes with which Coleridge, Shelley and Swinburne, earlier in the century, had celebrated the struggle of liberty against tyranny. A final collection, Last Poems, was published in 1909.
Meredith began to write at a time when Dickens, Thackeray, Browning and Tennyson were at the height of their powers and when George Eliot was hard’y known; he is not, in any strict sense, either the disciple or the founder of a school—nevertheless, he receives and hands down many traditions. Deep traces are left upon his thought by the poets of the school of Wordsworth, and by Carlyle, whose influence is tempered by that of Goethe; indirectly, science taught him accuracy of observation and the elimination of vague optimism. The lingering feudal society he depicts, with its caste-feeling, its medieval view of women, its indifference to thought, its instinct for command, its loyal retinue and its fringe social aspirants, is the background familiar in the English novel of manners; the temper in which the portrayal is done is that of keen onlookers, such as Saint-Simon and Molière. Touches of poetic fantasy and caricature (and the praise of old wine) remind us of Peacock. But, when all these links are admitted, the isolation of Meredith (eccentricity, some call it) remains. It is due, in part, to his revulsion from the sentimentality of English, and the realism of French, fiction; in part, to his rich endowment of the quality which used to be called Celtic; in part, to the fact that he studies a stratum of experience of an uncommon order; most of all is it due to the fact that he carried further than any contemporary artist, not excepting Browning, the process of intellectualisation which set in at the middle of the century. This process is manifest in Meredith in various ways; in his analytical method, in his curbing of emotion, in the prevalence of his wit, above all in his complete reinterpretation of the moral idea. This is what George Eliot essayed, but with too many prepossessions. Meredith had none. He envisaged afresh the whole area of life—natural, human and universal—and aimed at ensuring the truth of his delineations of particular characters and incidents by their consistency with this wide survey. This is his meaning when he stipulates, in Diana of the Crossways, that novelists should turn to philosophy rather than to realism (which Meredith was apt to misjudge). The full purport of his novels is not, therefore, to be grasped except in the light of such poems as The Woods of Westermain, Earth and Man, The Thrush in February and The Test of Manhood. The key is the idea of an evolution carried on into the spheres of mind and spirit. Life is a continuous unfolding of the germinal powers of earth until the spiritual essence in earthly things is liberated. Blood, brain and spirit are the names given to the successive stages of the process. The instincts of the blood govern the primal man; they breed a progeny of evil and, for this, the ascetic would eradicate them; but, at the same time, they are, in the poet’s view, the means by which man keeps firm hold on life, by which he realises his ancestral kinship with “earth.” Earth fosters him, allays his fevered blood and prompts him forward. In the strife between the nobler and the baser parts of man, brain is evolved; men learn that there are unalterable laws, accommodate themselves to a social order, perceive in self-control and fellowship the conditions of welfare and the direction of progress. The brute part of man is ill at ease in this environment, and the shifts of the “rebel heart” and the “dragon self” afford material for a great part of Meredithean comedy. Spiritual valiancy, which is tried in passionate ordeals of love, friendship and patriotism, is the final goal; the “warriors of the sighting brain” are the ideal type. The sanction of this ethical code is found in the “good of the race,” the most prevalent idea in Meredith’s writing.