A Word With Mr. George Meredith

— I lately read an account of a visit paid by a certain English authoress to that most peculiar genius, Mr. George Meredith.

In the course of the conversation Mr. Meredith expounded some of his favorite ideas, one in especial, which has been the theme, variously treated, of several of his novels. This idea, so vividly and humorously developed in Sandra Belloni, is, briefly, the opposition between real feeling—natural, strong, passionate, it may be, as in the Italian girl Sandra — and its counterfeit, as Mr. Meredith regards it, mere sentiment. What the novelist means is plain enough, and undeniably it is true doctrine; but I would except against his using the word “ sentiment,” where what he really decries is sentimentality. Sentiment is not passion, it does not imply any deep or strong feeling, but it is something so far as it goes ; its tendency may be to run into sentimentality, still it ought to be distinguished from the latter. In Sandra Belloni, the ladies Pole are not, it seems to me, embodiments of sentiment as contrasted with true feeling. I should say that Cornelia was a sentimentalist, who ruined the life of her lover and herself from false conceptions of generosity and duty, and from pure cowardice also ; and that Arabella and Adela were simply heartless, — the latter purely so, the former with just enough of feeling to cause her some discomfort.

Mr. Meredith’s remedy for the cure of “ sentiment ” is development of the reasoning powers, and the raising of the intellect into lordship over sensation and fancy. Here, it strikes me, he preaches a half truth only. It is indeed hard to say too much for the value of rationality in all the concerns and relations of life. Irrationality is the huge, lumbering giant against whose strength we have to contend daily, and who is overthrown now only to rise in renewed force in some other shape to-morrow. It is true that what looks like heartlessness in people is sometimes simple stupidity ; yet this is not the sole root of difficulty, and Mr. Meredith, if he could invent some clever process for the sharpening of men’s wits and proceed to apply it universally, might be surprised to learn that, though he had possibly destroyed false sentiment, true feeling was not invariably found to take its place. The sad fact is that many people have very little feeling at all, and it is not the most enlightened intellects that go together with the warmest and sincerest hearts. Different capacities of feeling exist in men and women, and these natural capacities are so unevenly developed ! The problem is a far harder one than Mr. Meredith supposes. Is not the difficulty always in building rather than in pullingdown, in the creation rather than the destruction of life ? — and feeling is a form of active life. How much easier to obey the law “ Thou shalt not kill ” than the gospel command to love our brother as ourself !

Mr. Meredith thinks women especially in need of mental training as a safeguard against sentiment, and he may be right. I am not concerned to dispute him. But I have sometimes wondered whether false sentiment, cowardice, or pure lack of feeling were at the bottom of one sad wrong very commonly done by men to women. A man is engaged to some woman whom presently he makes up his mind he cannot marry. It is nothing to my argument here whether there is good reason or none for his decision, whether the woman is to suffer for an honest mistake on his part or from his simple fickleness; in either case the man begins a course of systematic neglect of his mistress, whereby he intends her to discover his change of heart, trusting that she will then dismiss him. Perhaps he honestly thinks this the best means of saving her pride. But does he really save it ? Not in the least. She knows and he knows that she gives him up not of her own will, but because she is driven to do so ; yet to escape what he fancies would be the brutality of a frank avowal of the truth, he condemns her to what is nothing less than prolonged torture; and the nobler the woman the more cruel the struggle between love and pride, between faith in him and the evidences of unfaith on his part which she would deny and cannot. Is it stupidity, Mr. Meredith, or what is it, that blinds a man to the suffering he thus inflicts ? What we want in place of false sentiment and no sentiment is genuine, deep, warm feeling. But where it is not. there to plant and make it grow, — tell us how to do this, O ye wise !