The Novels of George Meredith
WHEN a novelist’s works come to us in a new edition, revised and complete, it is time to consider him seriously as one whose task is accomplished, and to ask what place he holds in the history of fiction ; and such a consideration may seem in an especial manner timely in the case of an author like George Meredith,1 whose novels have elicited such extravagant praise and such sweeping condemnation from different readers. Indeed, I know of nothing much more discouraging than to read in succession the various reviews of Mr. Meredith’s works. There appears to be no middle ground between the homage of R. L. Stevenson, to whom Rhoda Fleming was “the strongest thing in English letters since Shakespeare died,” and the equally excessive detraction of William Watson, who has put on record his impression of The Egoist as being “ the most entirely wearisome book purporting to be a novel that ” he had “ ever toiled through in ” his “ life.” And withal few or none of these critics have deemed it necessary to give a rational explanation of their opinions. One asks in amazement whether the judgment is utterly and forever to be excluded from criticism by this kind of irresponsible impressionism.
Probably the first characteristic of these novels to attract the attention of even the most heedless reader is the peculiar language, employed, one might almost say, with malice prepense. “ Our language is not rich in subtleties for prose. A writer who is not servile, and has insight, must coin from his own mint.” So Mr. Meredith states his case, and it must be admitted he has coined with a liberal hand, not so much in the formation of new words, though he is apt to prefer a strange word to a common one, as in his distortion of language in order to surcharge it with thought and sensation. It is perhaps this peculiarity of style that led an eminent critic to declare his chief fault was inability to tell a story, — rather a grave charge against a story-teller, it it could be substantiated. The construction of a plot like that of Evan Harrington may be sufficient answer to such a charge, but it may not be so easy to contradict the censure of over-cleverness to which his pointed style lays him open.
Mr. Meredith alludes more than once to his own philosophic intentions, and speaks with some irritation of the necessity of disguising his deeper meaning for fear of seeming obscure. We fancy, however, that it is not profundity of reflection on human life which causes obscurity so much as the refraction of this into innumerable burning points. And herein lies much of the difference between real depth and mere cleverness. In any true sense of the word there is as much depth of reflection in Henry Esmond as in The Egoist; but the earlier novel is less obscure, because the thought is presented in broad masses, so to speak, which rest the mind while stimulating it, whereas The Egoist confuses with its endless clashing epigrams. Mr. Meredith, like his own Mrs. Mountstuart, is “ mad for cleverness,” and does not stop often enough to remember his judgment on Sir Austin Feverel : “ A maker of proverbs —what is he but a narrow mind, the mouthpiece of a narrower ? ” and, “ A proverb is a halfway house to an idea, I conceive.” Now, although the highest culture must always demand more repose of mind than an epigrammatist can offer, yet the flippant public is readily caught by a superficial sparkling cleverness, as recent popular novels sufficiently attest, and Mr. Meredith might be expected to attract such an audience, were it not for one grave defect. His cleverness is sparkling, but it is by no means superficial, and such cleverness does not make easy reading. Mr. McCarthy, one of his admirers, has said of the novels that “ a man or woman must be really in earnest to care much about them at all.” Really, our author seems to be caught between the devil and the deep sea. Yet criticise his style as you will, there is after all a note of sincerity in it, something so naturally artificial, if the paradox may be pardoned, that we are prone to overlook its extravagances, and can even appreciate its fascination for certain minds. It may he pretty well characterized in his own words as “the puffing of a giant ; a strong wind rather than speech.”
To Stevenson Meredith’s is the only conversation since Shakespeare. It is a little hard to understand Stevenson’s unreasoning enthusiasm for an author who is in every respect a direct contrast to him, — a contrast nowhere more apparent than in the dialogue of these novels. Mr. Meredith’s characters all talk Meredith ; they are all epigrammatic, and all his fools are wits. This might perhaps be pardoned, if our author had only learned from Shakespeare the further art of making his fools witty and natural at the same time ; but it must be confessed that Mr. Meredith too often employs language so artificial as entirely to destroy the illusion. In one respect, however, he has been led by his oblique method of thought into a false kind of realism which a deeper sense of art would have corrected. He says of one of his characters that “ she had not uttered words, she had shed meanings ; ” and this is an admirable description of much of his conversation. To be sure, in real life we are apt to leave our thoughts half expressed, or even to say one thing while another thought is in our mind; but the artist should remember that in actual conversation there are, besides words, a hundred ways of conveying our meaning which the printed page cannot employ. To produce the same impression, the novelist’s language must necessarily be fuller and more explicit than is needed in life, and true realism should recognize this difference. Generally Mr. Meredith leaves his readers to gather this undercurrent of thought as best they may, but in one place he has been kind enough to add a comment to the dialogue, which sets in so clear a light this troublesome source of obscurity that I am tempted to quote the passage in full, though it has already been used for the same purpose. This conversation, then, between Rhoda Fleming and Robert proceeds as follows : —
“ ‘ I 've always thought you were born to be a lady ! ’ (You had that ambition, madam.)
“ She answered : ‘ That ’s what I don’t understand.’ (Your saying it, O my friend !)
“ ‘ You will soon take to your new duties.’ (You have small objection to them even now.)
“‘Yes, or my life won’t be worth much.’ (Know that you are driving me to it.)
“ ‘And I wish you happiness, Rhoda.’ (You are madly imperiling the prospect thereof.)
“ To each of them the second meaning stood shadowy behind the utterances. And further: —
“ ‘ Thank you, Robert.’ (I shall have to thank you for the issue.)
“‘Now it ’s time to part.’ (Do you not see that there is a danger for me in remaining ?)
“ ‘ Good-night.’ (Behold I am submissive.)
“‘Good-night, Rhoda.’ (You were the first to give the signal of parting.)
“ ‘ Good-night.’ (I am simply submissive.)
“ ‘ Why not my name ? Are you hurt with me ? ’
“ Rhoda choked. The indirectness of speech had been a shelter to her, permitting her to hint at more than she dared clothe in words.
“ Again the delicious dusky rose glowed beneath her eyes.
“ But he had put his hand out to her, and she had not taken it.
“ ‘ What have I done to offend you ? I really don’t know, Rhoda.’
“ ‘ Nothing.’ The flower had closed.”
Here as so often Mr. Meredith has himself furnished the means of criticising him. Indeed, it would be quite practicable to compose a full review of his works by forming a cento of phrases from his own pen. The conversation just quoted has been commended for its high realism, and the praise is not undeserved ; but unfortunately the volumes are packed with dialogue of this oblique character, where there is no comment added to guide the bewildered reader. The intellectual labor required for such writing is prodigious, the pity of it is that simpler language would be a higher form of realism, because truer to life as life must be expressed through the novelist’s artistic medium. It is in the larger sense an error of style, the same error which has led him to break up his thought into points, and leave the labor of the intellect everywhere disagreeably manifest. I have called it the substitution of cleverness for true wisdom ; and if Mr. Meredith stands far above the ordinary shrewd writer of the day, it is because he is indeed clever where others only strive to be so. In the end we are tempted once more to turn against him his own weapon of attack, and quote from The Egoist: “ You see how easy it is to deceive one who is an artist in phrases. Avoid them, Miss Dale ; they dazzle the penetration of the composer. That is why people of ability like Mrs. Mountstuart see so little; they are so bent on describing brilliantly.”
One cannot help remarking, in this connection, how few of our English novel-writers are great as stylists. It is a noteworthy fact that any other class of authors — essayists, historians, divines, and even philosophers — can boast a greater number of avowed masters of language. Fielding has a strong virile style, but lacks charm and grace ; Sterne is capricious ; Jane Austen’s language is as limpid as still water, and occasionally as biting as acid, but fails in compass; Hawthorne’s style is perfect for romance, but scarcely flexible enough for an ordinary novelist’s use. Perhaps Thackeray alone can be accounted a master in wordcraft, and certainly Meredith is not the least peccant among the brotherhood. For one who desires to penetrate into the secrets of the art, I suppose no better course could be adopted than the careful study of two books, Henry Esmond and Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano; the former being the most perfect specimen among English novels of the science of writing as cunningly defined by the Italian. I was amazed, recently, to find that not a single copy of Castiglione’s famous work was discoverable in a city of six hundred thousand inhabitants ; and indeed, Italian literature in general is so little read among us that it may not be amiss to transcribe a sentence or two from Il Cortegiano. This work, as the name indicates, is a discussion of the qualities necessary to form a perfect courtier, or, as we should say to-day, gentleman ; and in the first book, after dwelling at some length on the need of grace in every action, the dialogue turns aside to touch on the use of language or style, and continues as follows : —
“ Often I have considered in myself whence this grace arises, and, leaving aside those who have received it from the stars, I have discovered one universal rule which more than any other seems to me in this respect to prevail in all things that men do or say : and that is, so far as possible, and as if it were a sharp and perilous rock, to avoid affectation ; and, if I may be pardoned the word, to adopt in everything a certain sprezzatura [I hardly know how to translate the word; it signifies an easy contempt for the means employed, a sort of gentlemanlike superiority to the results] — a certain sprezzatura, which hides the art, and shows that what we say or do is done without fatigue and as it were without taking thought. From this, as I think, springs the highest grace ; for every one knows the difficulty of things rare and well done, and in such things a sense of ease produces the greatest wonder ; whereas, the display of force and effort destroys the charm and detracts from the honor of things that may be great in themselves. . . .
“ Now writing, in my opinion, is only a form of speech which abides after the man has spoken, being an image, or rather the life itself, of his words. Therefore, in spoken language, which is dispersed with the breath that formed it, a certain license is permitted beyond what is allowed in writing; for writing preserves speech, submitting it to the judgment of him who reads and affording time for mature consideration. Hence it is reasonable to employ greater diligence in order that our written language may be pure and elegant, but not to such a degree that it should differ essentially from speech.”
Castiglione was an avowed Platonist, and it is probable that his conception of style is based on a study of that philosopher who certainly, more than any other writer of the past or present, succeeded in combining the elements of grazia and sprezzatura. In reading Thackeray I have often been struck by a kind of similarity in his use of language to Plato’s ; there is the same easy conversational tone, which is always graceful, and never, even at its loosest, slipshod, and which on the proper occasion can express sentiments of true sublimity without the slightest apparent effort. It is the complete absence of this grace and this sprezzatura that renders so much of Meredith uncomfortable and at times even painful reading. And yet it must be confessed that now and again, without losing the peculiar flavor of his style, he is able to produce pages of a strange and haunting beauty that almost atone for chapters of dreary affectation. I have quoted Mr. Meredith in condemnation of himself; scant justice calls for quotation from that famous scene by the old weir in Richard Feverel, withal one of the most enchanting love scenes in our literature : —
“ Above green-flashing plunges of a weir, and shaken by the thunder below, lilies, golden and white, were swaying at anchor among the reeds. Meadow-sweet hung from the banks thick with weed and trailing bramble, and there also hung a daughter of earth. Her face was shaded by a broad straw hat with a flexible brim that left her lips and chin in the sun, and, sometimes nodding, sent forth a light of promising eyes. Across her shoulders, and behind, flowed large loose curls, brown in shadow, almost golden where the ray touched them. She was simply dressed, befitting decency and the season. On a closer inspection you might see that her lips were stained. This blooming young person was regaling on dewberries. They grew between the bank and the water. . . . The little skylark went up above her, all song, to the smooth southern cloud lying along the blue : from a dewy copse dark over her nodding hat the blackbird fluted, calling to her with thrice mellow note : the kingfisher flashed emerald out of green osiers : a bow-winged heron traveled aloft, seeking solitude: a boat slipped toward her, containing a dreamy youth ; and still she plucked the fruit, and ate, and mused, as if no fairy prince were invading her territories, and as if she wished not for one, or knew not her wishes. Surrounded by the green shaven meadows, the pastoral summer buzz, the weir-fall’s thundering white, amid the breath and beauty of wild flowers, she was a bit of lovely human life in a fair setting ; a terrible attraction. The Magnetic Youth leaned round to note his proximity to the weir-piles, and beheld the sweet vision. Stiller and stiller grew nature, as at the meeting of two electric clouds. Her posture was so graceful that though he was making straight for the weir, he dared not dip a scull. Just then one enticing dewberry caught her eyes. He was floating by unheeded, and saw that her hand stretched low, and could not gather what it sought. A stroke from his right brought him beside her. The damsel glanced up dismayed, and her whole shape trembled over the brink. Richard sprang from his boat into the water. Pressing a hand beneath her foot, which she had thrust against the crumbling wet sides of the bank to save herself, he enabled her to recover her balance, and gain safe earth, whither he followed her.
“ He had landed on an island of the still-vexed Bermoothes. The world lay wrecked behind him: Raynham hung in mists, remote, a phantom to the vivid reality of this white hand which had drawn him thither away thousands of leagues in an eye-twinkle. Hark, how Ariel sang overhead ! What splendor in the heavens! What marvels of beauty about his enchanted brows ! And, O you wonder! Fair Flame! by whose light the glories of being are now first seen. . . . Radiant Miranda! Prince Ferdinand is at your feet.”
We have delayed at some length on this matter of language, because it seems to us of vital importance, — as vital, for instance, as color to a painter, — and because in Meredith particularly an appreciation of his style carries with it a pretty general understanding of his work as novelist. There is the same lack of graceful ease, the same labored ingenuity in his narration and character-drawing.
His characters do not stand forth smoothly or naturally, so that we comprehend them and live with them without effort. We seem to be with the author in his phrontistarion, or thinkingshop ; there is continual evidence of the intellectual machinery by which his characters are created. To some this creaking of the wheels and pulleys is so offensive that they throw away the books in disgust, while others, themselves professional writers in large part, take an actual pleasure in seeing the whole process of construction laid bare before them. We have in Mr. Meredith’s works the analytical novel par excellence, and it would be hard to exaggerate the contrast between these and the perceptive novel, or novel of manners, of which Thackeray is the great exemplar. There is undoubtedly a certain legitimate joy of the intellect in pure analysis ; yet it should seem that in the novel, as in every other form of art, the true master imitates nature more unconsciously, more objectively, if you will. The actions and thoughts of his characters present themselves to his mind as a concrete reality, and so he reproduces them. It is rather the part of the scientist to evoke a character from conscious analysis of motives. I have heard an eminent critic censure Thackeray as shallow, and extol Meredith for his profundity, without perhaps pausing to reflect that the same logic would condemn Shakespeare. Indeed, such a question would resolve itself into a debate over the respective profundity of art and science, — surely the idlest of all possible questions. More to the point is it, to observe that the highest pleasure, such as comes with a sense of inner expansion, and which art aims above all things to bestow, is largely dependent on that sprezzatura whose lack is felt as much in Mr. Meredith’s character study as in his style.
Despite the admirable narrative powers displayed in Rhoda Fleming and elsewhere, the same lack of ease is too often manifest in the construction and plot of Mr. Meredith’s stories. So difficult is it, for example, to follow the events in the closing chapters of The Egoist that the pleasure of a first reading of that inimitable book is considerably diminished. But in the construction of these novels there lurks a deeper error than mere want of facility. We cannot but feel that the author has shown unusual genius in a wrong direction ; and in fact, strange as it may seem, any sound criticism of Mr. Meredith must continually reprobate his methods, while at the same time admiring his powers. To this is partly due, no doubt, the extreme divergence of opinion in regard to his work. It is easy to retort, as Mr. McCarthy retorted long ago, that the great advantage of the novel lies in the very fact that it has not been subjected to literary canons, and remains free to follow any direction. Epic has been strangled by epic law ; tragedy was for a long time suffocated by the three unities ; and so it has been with other branches of literature ; but in the novel there is no form admitted to be of itself right or wrong. There is truth in this idea, and the nature of the novel has kept it free from many useless restrictions. Yet, however we may welcome every form of narration, and even rejoice that all novels are not all cast in one mould, still our judgment must distinguish, and must regard one form as higher than another in so far as it is capable of arousing greater and more satisfactory interest in the reader.
Apart from the story of pure adventure, which as a reaction has come into favor of late, but which can never touch the reader’s deeper feelings, there have been from the beginning two classes of novels ; and, although the terms may be slightly misleading, since the rules of prose and poetical narration can never be quite the same, I would distinguish these two classes as the epic and the dramatic. Tom Jones is epic in its aim ; Clarissa Harlowe is dramatic. The two schools still persist side by side, and a clear understanding of their different aims is of prime importance in estimating the works under question.
It is rather a far cry from latter-day fiction to Homer and Sophocles ; yet in distinguishing between the aims of epic and dramatic narration I am tempted to appeal to Greek rather than to modern poets, for the very reason that in Greece the various genres were more sharply defined in practice. The theme of the Iliad is ostensibly the wrath of Achilles, but in reality the effect of the poem is double. The central theme is heightened and diversified by the picture of its influence on a great series of events, while at the same time a wonderful panorama of war and life is unrolled before us, to whose varied scenes unity of effect is lent by the main subject. During a considerable portion of the poem Achilles is almost forgotten. No drama remains which deals directly with the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon, but from the other dramas of Sophocles it is not hard to conceive how the action would appear on the stage. The attention of the audience would be concentrated throughout on Achilles’ passion ; the language employed would enhance its intensity ; and all the details of life not bearing directly upon it would be omitted. In a sense, the aim of the epic is breadth of view, the aim of tragedy is intensity ; the one proposes to offer a large picture of life artistically disposed, the other to express a brief passion or conflict. The drama which should attempt to concentrate its passionate discourse upon such a series of events as those depicted in the epic would be intolerable. It would at once seem out of proportion, for existence is not normally narrowed down to one grand passion, and the throwing of such intense light on the little details of life would affect our emotional nature very much as close confinement would affect the body : we should gasp to be free. Besides keeping out of view the trivial features of life, the tragedy must further idealize by the generalizing influence of highly wrought metaphorical language. Compare, for instance, one of Ibsen’s plays with Macbeth. Ibsen has violated the law of tragedy by descending to trivialities and by using prosaic language. The result is evident. He affects our emotional nature strongly, more poignantly than Shakespeare; but we lay down such a play as Ghosts with a sense of inner suffocation, whereas Macbeth gives a feeling of expansion, and so, as Aristotle would say, purges the passions. Ibsen is as false to life as he is to art. Deep emotion in reality tends to evoke general ideas, though in the dumbness of our heart we may need a poet to give them utterance. And all the while the daily trivial events of existence go on about us as it were in another sphere. We are conscious of a great gap between them and our inner experience; and when at intervals the two spheres touch, the shock is like a bitter awakening. Any artist who confounds these regions of experience is false to life and to his art.
And what has this to do with the novel ? Everything. Despite its elasticity of form, the novel which would do more than offer the lightest and most transient amusement must in aim be either epic or tragic, — tragic not because of its disastrous dénouement necessarily, but in the way it treats the deeper passions. Now, whatever else fiction may be, its first purpose is to entertain; and its power of entertainment becomes of a higher and more lasting character in so far as it succeeds in enhancing our sense of life and in purging the emotions. Tom Jones and the works of that class down to the great novels of Thackeray offer a picture of the large currents of life; the passions and struggles of the hero are used, like the wrath of Achilles, to give unity to the narrative ; and we rise from perusing such books with a feeling of expansion. Clarissa Harlowe and its successors, including modern problem novels, follow in part the laws of tragedy. Everything revolves about a single emotion ; and the longer and more complicated the plot which the author is able to concentrate upon this one emotion, the more contracting and painful is the result. And this, we maintain, is not an arbitrary question of literary procedure, but a matter of psychology.
In the tragedy proper this sense of expansion is obtained by purging the passions,— by liberating them from the sphere of petty details, and so depersonalizing them, — and further by the use of lofty thought couched in language far removed above the speech of daily intercourse. Who ever wept over Macbeth or Antigone ? Indeed, the story is well known that the Athenians actually fined a dramatist for putting on the stage a tragedy which appealed too strongly to their sympathies, and forbade the play ever to be presented again. But the novel which is denied the employment of these tragic means must proceed in another manner. Even more than the epos it must purge the passions by enveloping them in the free current of life, which proceeds serenely on its way untroubled by the anguish and complaints of the individual, — and thus lighten the emotions of their personal poignancy.
Were space at our disposal, it would be possible to analyze in detail each of Mr. Meredith’s novels, and show how they turn for their effect to the laws of the drama rather than the epos, and how, in consequence, they leave the reader with a sense of contraction. So, in brief, Richard Feverel holds the mind from first to last on a single problem (and that, by the way, a fairly disagreeable one), and every incident is made to bear upon its development. There seems to be but one aspect — the sexual relation — to human life ; and this is presented without any of the alleviating circumstances of genuine tragedy. The point is made clear at once by comparison with Tom Jones or Pendennis, where the infinite variety of human activity is unrolled before us. So too in The Egoist a single problem, as the name implies, is studied with unflagging persistence. Not even a complete character, but one predominant trait is made the centre about which all the incidents of the book revolve. The novel is unquestionably a most astounding piece of analytical cleverness, yet is it true to nature ? Hardly, we think. The final impression is one of mental and emotional contraction ; and however useful such an impression may be in a sermon, it is not altogether amusing in a work of art. Compare the book with Pride and Prejudice, where again a single trait in hero and heroine is the central theme, but where this theme is used rather to lend interest to a picture of life, a picture in miniature yet complete in its way, and the difference is immediately apparent. The one contracts, the other expands. Nor should it be supposed that this difference depends to any large extent on the tragic or non-tragic ending of the plot; although the formal law of the epic demands a peaceful conclusion, and the novel, to give the highest pleasure, would seem to follow the epic rather than the drama in this respect also.
So much may be said to explain why a writer of such extraordinary genius as Mr. Meredith fails to produce works of art that can be ranked with the greatest. And we would repeat that these artistic laws which he transgresses are not conventional rules imposed arbitrarily. They are inherent in the medium which the novelist must use ; any infraction of them means that the author does not adopt the best and highest method of giving pleasure at his disposal, and his error is more likely to be condoned by the half-informed critic than by the unreflecting reader of native good taste.
In the case of Mr. Meredith the artistic fault is more or less intimately connected with a still deeper error, which concerns his mode of regarding human nature, and which associates him to a certain degree with the naturalists. The weakness of the naturalistic novel has been exposed more than once, but never, perhaps, so exhaustively and competently as by Juan Valera in his Nuevos Estudios. Naturalism is an outgrowth or degradation, he would have it, of romanticism. The romantic movement reflected an abnegation of the will as controlled by reason, and a substitution in its place of the emotions guided by the vagaries of fancy. From this untrammeled use of the fancy, naturalism, following in the wake of the materialistic advances of science, turned to the boasted study of reality, thus leaving room neither for the free will nor for the imagination. The novelist, according to Zola, “ is one who studies man experimentally, mounting and dismounting piece by piece the human mechanism by which, under the influence of environment, he performs his functions.” Here is no account of man as a free agent; his acts are the inevitable outcome of his inherited disposition and surrounding circumstances. As Paul Alexis forcibly expresses it in his book on Zola, “ man is, fatally, the product of a particular hereditary temperament, which unfolds itself in a certain physical, intellectual, and moral environment.”
It would be neither critical nor just to class Mr. Meredith unreservedly with the naturalists. In many respects he is widely removed from them. Naturalism can flourish only where the audience itself has become enfeebled in its willpower, and the Anglo-Saxon race is too healthy to permit one of its greatest writers to fall completely under this decadent influence. Nevertheless, it is true that such novels as Richard Feverel and The Egoist do belong in part to this category. So long as the free will is paramount, a novel tends to depict a full character, and to unfold a picture of life wherein the individual acts upon the world, and the world reacts upon him. So soon as the will is dethroned, the novel tends to become a treatise on the influence of environment upon character or an analytical study of particular inherited traits of character. Just this has happened in the case of Mr. Meredith. Like his own Captain Baskelett, “ the secret of his art would seem to be to show the automatic human creature at loggerheads with a necessity that winks at remarkable pretensions, while condemning it perpetually to doll-like actions.” Richard Feverel is a long and patiently elaborated monograph on the development of character under peculiar circumstances. Given a lad of normal temper, how will he be affected by a certain systematic course of training ? It will be noticed, however, that the modifying influence is here the active personality of his father; we are still a wide step from regarding man as a mere mechanism. Justice will further add that, despite the delicacy of its theme, the book remains perfectly decent throughout. In The Egoist a particular trait of character is analyzed and expatiated on with vast ingenuity and, it must be confessed, rather tedious monotony. Indeed, the ordinary fault of naturalism is its lack of interest, so that we see the genuine naturalists constantly seeking to attract readers by all sorts of illegitimate allurements of the animal senses. Juan Valera curtly asks : “ How can such novels interest, when they present a temperament, and not a character ; a mere machine which moves in obedience to physiological laws ? ” Mr. Meredith is again far from portraying man from the purely physiological point of view, although parts of Richard Feverel and others of his novels do approach perilously near this view, and always there is in him a tendency to confuse things of the body and of the spirit. This is seen in his treatment of love and women, and more generally in his analysis of the emotions. Now, apart from the bald statement that a character feels such and such an emotion, the novelist has at command two modes of description, — conversation and physical action. Readers of Plato will remember that philosopher’s scathing denunciation of the poets, and of Homer in particular, because of their portrayal of passion by means of physical attributes. Their heroes weep, rend the hair, roll on the ground, and give way to other demonstrations which excite the critical Athenian’s scorn. Plato in this is consistent, for his dismissal of the poets is but a part of his sweeping condemnation of art in general, in so far as art must depend on the body for its power of expression. There is undoubtedly in all art an insidious lurking danger, which, as Plato clearly sets forth, lies in its tendency to relax the moral fibre by translating things spiritual into corporeal symbols. If this be true, we ought to be the more jealous of any false encroachment of physical methods into its realm ; for there is a right and a wrong method, and unfortunately Mr. Meredith has not always kept in the narrow path. Physical actions, which are under control of the will and thus remain to a great extent voluntary, are legitimate; physical states, which do not depend on the free agency of the individual, must be used with a sparing hand, for frequent recurrence to such means of expression at once tends to confuse the spirit with the body, and to offer us the study of a temperament in place of true characterization. This pathological mode of description is distinctly a sin of modern times, culminating in the nauseous abuse of the naturalists. It would be easy to take all the great emotions of the heart, — fear, revenge, love, jealousy, hate, rage, despair, — and show how differently they are treated in this respect by Fielding or Thackeray and by writers of the modern school. Here again the translation of these passions into physical acts that depend on the energy of the will leaves us with a sense of expansion and mental relief, whereas the pathological method disturbs and contracts. I cannot emphasize this truth better than by quoting several brief passages from Meredith, and allowing them to speak for themselves. So he says of one of his characters : “ His head throbbed with the hearing of a heavy laugh, as if a hammer had knocked it.” Elsewhere : “His natural horror of a resolute man, more than fear, made him shiver and gave his tongue an acid taste.” And again: “ Emilia thought of Wilfrid in a way that made the vault of her brain seem to echo with jarred chords.” It is not, of course, the occasional recourse to such means which is objectionable, but their perpetual use. Every one will admit with our novelist that “we are all in submission to mortal laws.” but a stancher belief in the power of the will hesitates to accept his declaration that " our souls are hideously subject to the conditions of our animal nature ! ”
In one respect Mr. Meredith has carried this passive physical expression to a fantastic extremity, which I mention as much for its amusing absurdity as for its real significance. Apparently he has found a new seat of all the emotions : this is no longer the heart, or the Biblical bowels, or the brain, but — the eyelids. Let me justify the statement by quotations : “ Hurt vanity led Wilfrid to observe that the woman’s eyes dwelt with a singular fullness and softness void of fire, a true ox-eyed gaze, but human in the fall of the eyelids.” “ She had reddened deliciously, and therewith hung a dewy rosy moisture on her underlids.” “ We are creatures of custom. I am, I confess, a poltroon in my affections ; I dread changes. The shadow of the tenth of an inch in the customary elevation of an eyelid ! ” These are not isolated cases. After a while one begins to believe that hope, fear, humor, love, hate, anger, horror, friendship, cunning, timidity, modesty, — all the passions of human nature are bound up with the flutter of an eyelid. It is the very ad absurdum of passive physical description.
Mr. Meredith’s psychological attitude may be further traced in his characterization of women. It is, in fact, noteworthy that the present race of novelists are wont to take more interest in, and succeed better with, their feminine than their male characters. But here we tread on perilous ground. After all that has been written by women on the failure of the masculine mind to grasp the subtleties of the female heart, what man is rash enough to step forward as a judge ? Fortunately for me, a clever woman has settled the matter. Miss Adeline Sargent has left on record that “ George Meredith is one of the few novelists of any age or time who see not but man but woman as she is.” Strange that, after such an avowal, she should object so vehemently to Mr. Meredith’s psychological analysis of woman ! We may perhaps explain the discrepancy by supposing that he depicts women as they are, though not as they are to be. But let us hear Miss Sargent again. She quotes from Meredith as follows: “ Women have us back to the conditions of the primitive man, or they shoot us higher than the topmost star. But it is as we please. Let them tell us what we are to them : for us, they are the back and front of life : the poet’s Lesbia, the poet’s Beatrice, ours is the choice. They are to us what we hold of best or worst within.” Miss Sargent’s comment on this theory is naïve: “In these sentences there is an assumption of woman’s want of consciousness or want of volition in the matter.” So delicate is this subject that I may be pardoned for again taking refuge behind authorities, — this time a man, but a man of the most feminine genius. Mr. Le Gallienne is enthusiastic in his praise of our novelist, as will be seen : “ In his delineation of them [women] his fearless adoption of the modern conception of the unity of body and spirit finds its poetry. No writer with whom I am acquainted has made us so realize ‘ the value and significance of flesh,’ and spirit as the flower of it. In his women we seem to see the transmutation in process.” It is in the last analysis just because Mr. Meredith discovers this “ want of volition ” in human nature, and adopts so fearlessly this “ modern conception of the unity of body and spirit,” that his feminine characters are complete ; whereas his studies of men, though wonderfully keen and incisive, always leave something to be desired. Clara Middleton and Diana, with their feverish attempt at revolt, and their final succumbing in marriage with a character of placid but undeveloped strength, are perhaps his most perfect creations. But we hasten to take leave of this perilous subject, and with it of Mr. Meredith.
In the end, I see that my criticism, whatever its value may be, has been almost entirely destructive ; yet I would not leave this as the final impression. In spite of the error of his methods, Mr. Meredith is a writer of extraordinary and, to me at least, fascinating genius. If he cannot stand with the three great novelists who were almost his contemporaries, this is due rather to perversion than to feebleness of wit; and at the least he ranks far above the common herd. One might say of him, distorting Gray’s familiar line, —
There are many reasons, and alas that it should be so, for believing that the novel, like other literary forms in the past, has reached its highest perfection and is already declining in excellence. Mr. Meredith, if compared with Thackeray and his peers, shows only too clearly a decadent tendency ; yet what a treasure of enjoyment his wit and imagination have left to the world ! And so refreshing at times is his obstinate originality that one is almost tempted, when reflecting on the tameness of lesser men, to extol his faults as added virtues.
Paul Elmer More.
- The Works of George Meredith. 16 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1898.↩