Sue Young Histories

George Meredith 1828 - 1909

August 08, 2008

George Meredith 1828-1909 ‘… was an English novelist and poet of the Victorian era… ’ and he was a close friend of John Chapman.

George Meredith wrote for John Chapman’s Westminster Review, and he was an enthusiastic advocate (George Meredith, Letters collected and edited by his son vol 1, (1912), Page 125) of homeopathy. George Meredith often referred to homeopathy in his personal correspondance (George Meredith, Donald Roland Swanson (Ed.), Three conquerors: Character and method in the mature works of George Meredith, (Mouton, 1969). Page 29) and writings (Lionel Stevenson, The ordeal of George Meredith: a biography, (Scribner, 1953). Page 13) and novels (George Meredith, Novels: One of our conquerors, (1902). Page 219), he used homeopaths as characters in his novel One of Our Conquerors.

From George Meredith supplemented his often uncertain writer’s income with a job as a publisher’s reader. His advice to Chapman and Hall made him influential in the world of letters. His friends in the literary world included, at different times, William and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne,Leslie Stephen, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, George Gissing and J. M. Barrie.

Oscar Wilde, in his dialogue The Decay Of Lying, implies that Meredith, along with Honore de Balzac, is his favorite novelist, saying ”Ah, Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning“.

Before his death, Meredith was honored from many quarters: he succeeded Alfred Lord Tennyson as president of The Society of Authors; in 1905 he was appointed to the Order of Merit by Edward VII.

In 1909 he died at home in Box Hill, Surrey.

From  George Meredith was born on February 12, 1828. His first home was in Portsmouth, where his father was a tailor. When George was only five years old, his mother died. His childhood after her death was not happy.

His father, Augustus Meredith, had inherited a failing business and heavy debts from his own father. In 1837, Augustus was forced to declare himself bankrupt. He went to London to earn a living, and George was sent to stay with relatives in the country and eventually to boarding school. In 1841, partly to protect George’s small inheritance, Augustus made him a ward in Chancery.

In 1842, when George Meredith was 15, he attended the Moravian school at Neuwied on the Rhine. Although he was there for less than two years, Meredith was to refer to this period as the only real education he had. The school stimulated his intellect and taught him to respect rationality, self respect, sincerity and courage. The time spent there also left him with a love of German music, poetry and the German countryside. It marked the end of his formal schooling.

Although George Meredith was apprenticed to a solicitor, Richard Stephen Charnock, there is no evidence that Meredith studied law or did any work towards entering the legal profession. Instead, with the encouragement of Charnock and his literary friends, Meredith began to write poetry and helped organize a monthly manuscript magazine.

Among the people in Charnock’s circle, Meredith met Edward Peacock and his beautiful sister, the widowed Mary Ellen Nicolls. All accounts agree that this daughter of Thomas Love Peacock had the lively intelligence and wit that was to characterize many of Meredith’s heroines. Even though she was 7 years his senior and he was in no position to support a family, Mary Ellen and George married on August 9, 1849.

The marriage was not a success. They were both intelligent, demanding and impatient. Meredith, though he greatly admired witty women as social companions, did not find in Mary Ellen the uncritical support that he craved. Mary Ellen, for her part, certainly needed more from the marriage than a self-absorbed husband who could not even earn a living. Frequent pregnancies and miscarriages cannot have added to the Merediths’ happiness. Their one child, Arthur, was born on June 13, 1853.

Meanwhile, George Meredith was doing his best to make a career for himself as a writer. His first poem had been published by Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal in 1849, shortly before his marriage. From that point on he earned a small, irregular income from his contributions (both verse and prose)to various magazines.

His first book of poetry came out in 1851. In 1855 he published The Shaving of Shagpat, a fantasy, which got fairly good reviews even though it did not achieve popular success. He followed this with Farina (1857) which was even less successful.

The Meredith marriage continued to deteriorate until, in 1858, Mary Ellen Meredith eloped with the artist Henry Wallis. Interestingly, although he never forgave Mary Ellen, Meredith nevertheless seems to have understood what drove her to elopement. In the Modern Love poems (1862), which are largely autobiographical, he does not push blame on the woman but rather shows how both partners contribute to the failure of the marriage.

In his novels he more than once portrayed sympathetically the witty woman trapped in a relationship with a self centered man. Throughout his career, Meredith was to display in his fiction insights that he implicitly denied in his real life. Self knowledge was perhaps too painful unless he contained it in a work of the imagination.

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, which came out in June 1859, was the first of Meredith’s novels with a strongly personal psychological component. Sir Austin Feverel’s wife elopes at the beginning of the novel, hurting Sir Austin’s pride and leading him to become completely absorbed in the rearing of his son, Richard, much as Meredith himself was, for a time, absorbed in raising Arthur.

Though Sir Austin is far from being a portrait of Meredith himself, the issues raised by the novel are issues that Meredith must have been confronting in his personal life around the time that he wrote the novel. That he is able to distance himself from Sir Austin and deal with both him and Richard critically is an example of Meredith’s ability to distance himself, through his fiction, from intensely painful incidents in his life.

Unfortunately, the public was not ready for The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. Mudie’s library, convinced that the novel displayed a “low moral tone” and would not be appropriate reading for families, refused to circulate the book. Several book clubs followed Mudie’s lead. Although there were some positive reviews in the press, the suggestion that the work might be indecent effectively destroyed its chance of success.

Meredith’s next novel, Evan Harrington, was published as a serial in Once a Week from February to October 1860. The novel draws heavily on Meredith family history for its characters, and it is generally considered one of the most readable of Meredith’s works. Though it was not a huge success, _Evan Harrington_ brought the author a decent income and made his name better known than before.

From 1860 onwards, circumstances began to improve for George Meredith. It was around 1860 also that Meredith took on the job of reader for Chapman and Hall. Until 1894 it was Meredith who read every manuscript submitted to the publishers and advised for or against publication. Although he made some mistakes —he rejected Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, for example — he also “discovered” and encouraged such writers as George Gissing and Thomas Hardy. In later years Thomas Hardy told of the excellent advice that Meredith had given him — advice which, Thomas Hardy couldn’t resist mentioning, Meredith himself did not always follow.

In 1861, Mary Ellen Meredith died from what was probably a form of Bright’s disease. George had never forgiven her for her desertion, but he grudgingly allowed Arthur to visit his mother, especially during her last days. It has been argued that Mary Ellen was the great love of Meredith’s life. Certainly his relationship with her inspired some of his most insightful work, from _Modern Love__ _ to The Egoist.

Meredith’s second wife, Marie Vulliamy, was as unlike Mary Ellen as possible. Marie was a practical, domestic woman who was willing to put her husband’s needs and interests ahead of her own. Though by no means stupid or uneducated, she did not have the demanding intelligence and sharp wit that had characterized Peacock’s daughter. They met in 1863 and were married (after some difficulty persuading Marie’s father that Meredith would make a good husband) on September 20, 1864.

The marriage seems to have been very successful. Marie was a good housekeeper and a competent hostess. In 1868 they settled in Flint Cottage on Box Hill, near Dorking which was to be Meredith’s home until he died. They had two children, William (b. 1865) and Mariette (b. 1874).

Though Meredith wrote sympathetically of women who, like the heroine of _Diana of the Crossways_, went beyond the traditional domestic roles, he apparently realized that for a man of his demanding temperament, the right wife was one whose sense of self worth lay in the role of helpmeet.

While it is tempting for modern readers to be critical of Meredith for wanting a wife who would cater to his ego, we should remember not only that he lived in different times, but that this was a man who had been deprived of maternal care at a very early age. Publicly, Meredith gave an impression of self confidence and ease, but many who knew him well recognized that it was only a mask. Creative, insecure people of either sex are generally happier with a spouse that supports rather than competes.

From 1862 when Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside was published to 1885 when Diana of the Crossways finally brought him popular success, Meredith published seven novels, one more volume of poetry, and countless short works. At the same time he continued his work as a reader for Chapman and Hall, and he kept up with a growing circle of friends which at various times included Algernon Charles Swinburne, the Rossetti brothers, Leslie Stephen, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, George Gissing and many others.

An extremely energetic man, he was fond of long walks and physical exertion, including, as a release for tension, the throwing around of a heavy weight that he called “the beetle. “Towards the end of the 1870s he began to develop symptoms of the locomotor ataxia which eventually crippled him, but he managed to conceal these from most of his acquaintance until the 1890s.

Of the seven novels published during this period, two are worthy of special attention. The Adventures of Harry Richmond appeared in The Cornhill from September 1870 to November 1871. The only one of Meredith’s novels written in the first person, it has picaresque elements underlying the romantic comedy. The book, when published in October of 1871 was successful enough to go into a second edition. The critics said mildly positive things about it. Though not a great success, it got the best response of any of his novels up to that point.

Meredith’s most carefully crafted novel, The Egoist, was published in 1879. If, as he described it shortly before publication, the novel was “a Comedy with only half of me in it,” that half was surely the best half. The novel was written under the inspiration of a talk that he had given on February 1,1877 at the London Institute: On the Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit and published in the April, 1877 issue of The New Quarterly Magazine.

In An Essay on Comedy, as it later became known, Meredith emphasizes the importance of intelligence and insight to comedy. Focusing mainly on Moliere and Restoration drama, he identifies central elements of high comedy, speaking highly of the role of women in comedy and defining comedy as “the fountain of sound sense.”

“Comedy is a game played to throw reflections upon social life,” begins the “Prelude” to The Egoist. In many ways a continuation of the Essay, the “Prelude,” sets the tone for the whole novel. The Egoist is the most unified, controlled and carefully structured of Meredith’s novels. It is pure comedy with a rich psychological component. For once his style was subordinated to and in harmony with his purpose. The ornate prose of the narrator works to emphasize the contrast between the trivial and the essential which is a central theme. The dialogue — always one of the things that Meredith did best—is both witty and convincing. The comment on society is sharp and delightful.

Though it was not the commercial success that ___Diana of the Crossways_ would be six years later, The Egoist earned Meredith the approval of the most influential critics. It was the beginning of a growing fame which, some would argue, eventually grew much greater than the bulk of Meredith’s work deserved.

___Diana of the Crossways_ was a success in 1885 for three major reasons. One was that it displayed many of Meredith’s strengths: good dialogue, a well-developed, psychologically believable main character, an emotionally intense plot. Another reason was that the public in the 1880s was more ready to appreciate Meredith’s “cerebral” writing than it had been thirty years earlier. Lastly, the novel was based on a real person and a real scandal. ___Diana of the Crossways_ went through three editions before the end of the year and revived an interest in Meredith’s earlier works. In response, Chapman and Hall came out with a nine-volume uniform edition. The edition secured Meredith’s reputation as a major writer.

Unfortunately, around this same time, Meredith was facing personal bereavement. Marie Meredith died of cancer on September 18, 1886. Meredith’s own health was not good. In addition to being increasingly crippled by locomotor ataxia, he had poor digestion and gradually had to give up his physically active life. The death of his son, Arthur, in 1890 was another sorrow.

He did not stop writing. In the ten years after ___Diana of the Crossways_, Meredith produced three more volumes of poetry, two novels, and some short fiction. Though little of this work was outstanding, his literary reputation continued to grow. By 1895 Meredith was much respected, one of the major literary figures of his age. He acquired disciples and literary followers. Writers like J M Barrie were later to tell of their pilgrimages to Box Hill to see the “great man.”

In 1892 he was elected president of The Society of Authors (a position that Alfred Lord Tennyson had held before him). George Frederick Watts, painter of celebrities, painted his portrait in 1893. The publication, in the late 1890s, of a complete, revised edition of Meredith’s work brought new critical attention to his work. An Essay on Comedy, for example, appearing in book form for the first time, was greeted with applause by George Bernard Shaw and other drama critics.

Even in old age, Meredith was known as a great conversationalist, a riveting storyteller who could talk for hours without boring his listeners. Although, as he grew older, Meredith became increasingly deaf and so crippled that at times he could not stand up, visitors to Box Hill continued to come until the end of his life.

After 1895 he stopped writing prose, but he continued writing poetry. His last collection of poems A Reading of Life, with Other Poems was published in 1901. In 1905 he was awarded the Order of Merit.

He died on May 18, 1909.


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