The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 3. The comic spirit
Meredith summoned the novelist to define not only his philosophy but, also, the temper and intention with which he proposed to depict society. He symbolised the ideal attitude in his creation of the comic spirit, an emanation of “earth,” and, therefore, endowed with sanity, clear vision, inborn purity and sympathy with the final purpose of “earth.” Politely but relentlessly, it fulfils its office as guardian spirit of a civilisation of which the members are but quasi-civilised. “Accord” is its social aim; it seeks out, therefore, not the obvious sinners, with whom the moralist can deal simply and well, but the Patternes, Poles, Daciers and Fleetwoods, in whom lurking savage instincts are concealed by surface veneer and rectitude. The weapon of the comic spirit is the “silvery laughter of the mind”; its strokes take the form of satire, humour, wit or irony. It is clear that the comic spirit is a new form of the ideal observer, already known in the Greek chorus, in the spirit of Aristophanes and of Molière and of others reviewed in Meredith’s Essay on Comedy, in Addison’s Mr. Spectator, in Goldsmith’s Chinaman; the comic spirit ranges over a wider field in the novel, exercises a more incessant vigilance in its efforts to reconcile the diverse aims of society.