S. M. (Stewart Marsh) Ellis.

George Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work online

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promise in the earliest work of William Black, then
about twenty years of age, and wrote : "In its way
very good. . . . The author's mind evinces strong
sense and poetic perceptions ; he has a remarkably
clear style, and a power of giving soft pathetic
touches, which I commend. He does not know
much of life, nor has he the proper artistic feeling
for the development of his characters in an inter-
esting way. Write very encouragingly. Don't lose
sight of him."

In this same year, 1861, he delivered another
perceptive judgment on Poems by Edwin Arnold :
" I should say this man will do something. . . . He


should wait till he has composed a poem likely to
catch the public ear. There is no distinct original
mark in these poems : not enough to rely on."

The most interesting event of Meredith's Reader-
ship was in connection with the commencement of
the literary career of Thomas Hardy, who was
subsequently, in the eyes of the world, to be his
greatest rival ; though, of course, any comparison or
rivalry between the two great writers was as absurd
a suggestion as that which the previous generation
had attempted to establish in the matter of the
alleged competition between Dickens and Thackeray.
Both pairs of men were distinctively original, and
could stand alone as contemporaries of equal merit
without any invidious comparisons. In December,
1868, Mr Hardy, then twenty-eight years of age,
sent to Chapman and Hall a manuscript entitled
The Pool' Man and the Lady. Meredith, although he
did not pass the story for acceptance, saw promise
in it, and Hardy was invited, in the manner of Miss
Humphreys, to come and see the Reader, which he
did, and duly received much good advice : but the
advice and sage precepts were not put into practice
by Meredith himself in his own books. Mr Hardy
has told me that he had his interview with Meredith
in a back room at 193 Piccadilly, a house, now
pulled down, which stood on the site of the Institute
of Painters ; and that Meredith said a novel — or first
novel— should have a " plot." Understanding from
Meredith's further remarks that he meant what is, or
was, called a " sensational " plot, Hardy proceeded
to write Desperate Remedies — " a story quite foreign
to my own instincts, and which therefore, oddly
enough, owed its existence to Meredith." However,
the work was not pubhshed by Chapman and Hall,


but by Tinsley, in 1871 ; and, unfortunately, The
Poor Man and the Lady was never published at all.
This first story of Hardy's is said to have been in
marked satiric vein. Twenty-six years later, when
both Hardy and Meredith were present at a meeting
of the Omar Khayyam Club at the Burford Bridge
Hotel, in July, 1895, they made interesting refer-
ence to their early association. Hardy described
his rejected first story as " Very wild," whereupon
Meredith called out : " Promising." Hardy went
on to say that if it had not been for the encourage-
ment he then received from Meredith, he should
never have devoted himself to literature, and that
from the time of their first meeting he and Meredith
had been friends.

Although not intimate friends, they had a warm
regard for each other. Meredith said Hardy was
one of the few men whose work he could read.
Hardy visited Box Hill in June, 1905, when Meredith
told Mr Gosse that he was always glad to see Hardy,
because he liked him, and his twilight view of life.
Two months before he died, Meredith wrote to
Hardy on the publication of The Dynasts ; and when
his friend lay dead Hardy penned that fine apprecia-
tion in verse, George Meredith, wherein he recalled
their first meeting at 193 Piccadilly and their last
at Box Hill :

Forty years back, when much had place
That since has perished out of mind,
I heard that voice and saw that face.

He spoke as one afoot will wind
A morning horn ere men awake ;
His note was trenchant, turning kind.

He was of those whose wit can shake

And riddle to the very core

The counterfeits that Time will break.


Of late, when we two met once more,
The luminous countenance and rare
Shone just as forty years before.

So that, when now all tongues declare
His shape unseen by his green hill,
I scarce believe he sits not there.

No matter. Further and further still
Through the world's vaporous vitiate air
His words wing on — as live words will.

Another writer who had a personal interview with
Meredith at the publishers' office was George Gissing,
and he related how Meredith pointed out the faults
and merits, and made suggestions for improvement,
of his manuscript, which was published under the
title of The Unclassed in 1884. This was Gissing's
second book, and in his next work, Isabel Clandon,
1886, he received even greater help from Meredith,
who examined the manuscript two or three times
and caused it to be reduced considerably in length.

Olive Schreiner also had interviews with Meredith
about The Story of an African Farm. On 2nd May,
1882, the manuscript had been marked : " Return
to author for revision," and this being done, it was
accepted on 10th August.

Contrariwise, he was not much struck by John
Oliver Hobbes's first book, Some Emotions and a
Moral (1891), which he judged : " Written with
some power to exhibit the emotions of the sex —
mainly in the form of whims." And concerning
The Heavenly Twins, by Sarah Grand, he wrote :

" The author is a clever woman, and has ideas ;
for which reason she is hampered at present in the
effort to be a novelist. Her characters have ideas,
but they are not made to express them, and are


incapable of helping the story to move. Such story
as there is pertains to their individual fortunes.
There is no main current ; Evadne would kill a
better work with her heaviness. It matters little
what she does — she has her ideas ; the objection is
the tedium in the presentation of her. The writer
should be advised to put this MS. aside until she
has got the art of driving a story. She has ability
enough, and a glimpse of humour here and there
promises well for the future — if only she will practise,
without thought of publishing, until she can narrate,
and sketch credible human creatures without harp-
ing on such traits as she gives them."

In 1889 he did not strongly advise the acceptance
of the Letters of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle.
He said : " The authenticity will hardly be con-
tested. But a proof of genuineness that rests so
much on a capitulation of domestic trivialities is
not a recommendation. ... I much fear that a
chorus of reviewers would ^cause the public to shun
this collection.^ The little in them concerning
Carlyle would plead but poorly on their behalf. . . .
I wish I could give a better report. My expecta-
tions were lively, and I am disappointed. But if
you can just see your way to remuneration, I shall
be glad."

Another notable rejection by Meredith was George
Bernard Shaw's early work. The first, Immatirity,
he curtly dismissed with " No." Mr Shaw has given
me an interesting report of the matter, and his own
views on Meredith, in these words :

*' Immaturity was my first novel, written in 1879.
It was refused by every publisher in London, as

' An example of how badly Meredith judged the public taste.


were its four successors ; and, unlike them, it re-
mains in MS. (if the mice have not eaten it) to this
day. George Meredith shared the guilt of its refusal
with John Morley, who read for Macmillan. I fear
he repeated the crime with the other four — certainly
with Cashel Byron's Profession. All my novels
were refused everywhere. I have described the
business in my preface to The Irrational Knot (the
second of the five). For nine years I was rated as
unprintable ; and it was only in the case of this
hopelessly old-fashioned and ' literary ' Immaturity
that there was any hesitation. The better I wrote
the less chance I had.

" Once, when I had achieved the feat of speaking
in the open air at Trafford Bridge (Manchester) for
4 hours at one stretch, a plot was laid by Henry Salt,
Clement Shorter, and others, to take me down to
Box Hill on the understanding that I should start
talking the moment I entered the house and not let
George Meredith get a word in edgeways. But it
never came off ; and I did not make the pilgrimage
and the acquaintance until shortly before his death.
I had thought of approaching him in 1898-9, when
I lived on Hindhead, through Grant Allen ; but I
found that G. A. had given up going to Box Hill.
... I valued Meredith as a poet and as a cosmo-
politan bel esprit of a certain mid- Victorian type
(represented by Dilke, Laurence Oliphant, Hynd-
man, etc.) ; but politically he was a Rip Van
Winkle in the Socialist movement ; and the literary
life in the Surrey hills was contrary to all my rules
of conduct : even as gifted a man as Meredith could
not live it as long as he did without becoming a
walking anachronism. Diana of the Crossways is
fifty years behind Our Mutual Friend : its social

W. T. STEAD 213

values were all out of date. That is why so many

people who, like myself, have a very high opinion

of his natural power, can read nothing of his except

the poems and Shagpat.

" G. Bernard Shaw."

It is a pity that the project of a war of words, if
ever seriously contemplated, between Meredith and
Shaw was not brought to action. The Lord of Box
Hill would certainly have been taken aback by a
visitor w^ho dominated the talk and who did not
wait upon his words.

W. T. Stead also submitted his early literary
attempts to Meredith, without much success. He
related :

" I had the good fortune to know George Meredith
for the last twenty-five years of his life. He was a
true friend, not less faithful in criticism than he
was cordial in his approbation. Of the former, I
remember well the neat way in which he put me out
of conceit with my first attempt to write a story.
... I sent him my little effort with fear and trem-
bling. My trepidation was not without warrant.
' I have read From the Old World to the New,' he
wrote. ' Some of the characters are interesting
and well drawn. One of them especially reminds
me of Cecil Rhodes. But if any of your friends tell
you that he likes the story as a story, don't believe
him ! ' How delightfully Meredithian ! Mr Mere-
dith told me once that he had a novel on the stocks
in which Lord Morley, Mr Fred Greenwood, and I
were treated as types of our profession. It was to
be called The Journalist. But it was probably never
finished." ^

• It has been stated that the manuscript of this work was burnt
at the author's request, and in his presence, by Dr H. G. Plimmer.


As to the question of the desirability or the
reverse of introducing living people and actual
names into works of fiction, there is an amusing
note in Chapman and Hall's book, 1861, relating to
a manuscript entitled George Meredith : a Tale of the
Merchant Service, whereof the Reader commanded :
" Pray, speak to this man concerning the impro-
priety of taking living names as titles for works of
fiction." This was certainly an ingenious com-
plaint from an author who had pilloried his own
relations and used their Christian names in Evan
Harrington the year previously, and who, as we have
seen, habitually drew his characters from his personal
friends with but very transparent disguise. Mere-
dith was the most inconsistent of men, and his
adverse literary judgments on others were gen-
y erally applicable to his own faults of style and

I am reminded of a curious coincidence in names
by the following note of William Hardman's in
1862 : —

" Meredith insisted upon giving me a copy of
Over the Straits, by Mrs Meredith — no relation of his
whatever— but he gets all books published by
Chapman and Hall for nothing, being in some way
connected with that firm. This Mrs Louisa Mere-
dith resides in Tasmania, and wrote to our friend
asking if he was not her husband's long lost brother ;
she was with difficulty persuaded that this was not
the case. Her letters were impassioned and full of
entreaty ; she and her husband were dying to take
him into their arms. At last our friend favoured
them with a sketch of his life and origin by way of
explanation. This settled the doubts, and extin-


guished the hopes, of the Tasmanian Merediths, and
the correspondence terminated with a hope that if
they were not relations they might at least be friends.
I should not say ' terminated,' for he still hears
occasionally from Mrs Meredith."

This colonial Mrs Louisa Anne Meredith thus bore
the same names as George Meredith's aunt, Louisa,
who became Mrs Read and the original of the
Countess de Saldar, and his grandmother, Anne
Mitchell (Mrs Mel.). But more curious still is the
fact that this Mrs Meredith, of Tasmania, dedicated
another of her books. Loved and Lost, to her son,
Owen Meredith. It is surely a strange coincidence
that her son should have borne the name adopted
by the second Lord Lytton — the person who was
so often confused with George Meredith and even
claimed by ridiculous rumour to be his half-brother.

The most eventful incident of Meredith's work as
Publisher's Reader is also connected with family
history. After the death of his wife, Catherine
Meredith, my grandfather. Sir S. B. Ellis, married
again, and by his second wife, Louisa Drayson (sister
of General A. W. Drayson, R.A., also an author of
note and a pioneer in spiritualism), had a son, the
late Sir Alfred Burdon Ellis, K.C.B., Colonel of the
West India Regiment, who died of fever during the
Sofa Expedition in West Africa, in 1894. My uncle,
in addition to his great military ability, had very
considerable literary gifts, and wrote equally well
both as historian and novelist. About thirty-eight
years ago he sent some of his first works to Chapman
and Hall, and the favourable reports of Meredith
procured their publication. The Reader was appar-
ently quite unaware that Colonel — or rather Major


— Ellis was a connection of his own, and a son of his
" Major Strike," for since the days of Evan Harring-
ton there had been no communication with the Ellis
family ; but he had the greatest admiration for
Alfred Ellis's books. Meredith was always interested
in works dealing with travel and foreign countries.
Consequently he perceived the value of my uncle's
detailed studies of the native races of West Africa,
and the immense vocabularies Ellis compiled of
the E^e, Tshi, and Yoruba tongues. The Land of
Fetish, 1883, was the first work he accepted. The
History of the First West India Regiment he sent back
to the author with suggestions, which were adopted
before the book was published in 1885. The History
of the Gold Coast Meredith said was written with
A. B. Ellis's " plain but excellent pen. I should be
of an opinion that it would be a standard history of
the Gold Coast and our possessions about there. It
is the one book on the subject." ^

Later, my uncle wrote a series of short stories
based on his experiences in Africa. South African
Sketches, 1887, proved very successful, but West
African Stories, 1890, brought trouble to author
and Reader and publishers. In his original report
of West African Stories Meredith seems to have
perceived that his unknown " step-cousin " had
followed his example and drawn some sketches too
markedly from living characters, for he wrote :
" Good, charged with local colour : not attractive to

^ As lately as 1914, Sir Hugh Clifford, Governor of the Gold Coast
Colony, approached me on the question of the republication of my
uncle's books. The Tshi-speaking People and The Ewe-speaking People,
at the cost of the Government of the Gold Coast. Sir Hugh Clifford
said : "I should be glad to see these works made a text-book for
all my administrative officers in the Colony and its Dependencies."
So Meredith's judgment of the political value of these books is still


("OI.ONKI, SiK Al.lUKii l;i kliON i;i IIS, K.C.Il.



readers of romance, but curious, and the author's
name as an authority with regard to those parts
should help the book. If accepted, it must be with
the stipulation that Mrs Fitzgibbon be omitted.
It is a sine qua non.^'' I have the holograph manu-
scripts of my uncle's works, and Mrs Fitzgibbon is
the tragic story of an adventuress in Sierra Leone,
which ends with the murder of one of her lovers by
a jealous rival for the lady's favours. The tale was
deleted from the collection, and it was unfortunate
that Meredith did not also ask for the elimination
of another character sketch, entitled James Peacock ^
the story of a West African trader who by sharp
practices acquired a large fortune ; for, on the
publication of West African Stories, a retired West
African trader named James Pinnock conceived this
sketch to represent his own history (the alliteration
in the names gave reason for this supposition), and
he brought an action for libel against the publishers,
Chapman and Hall.

The case was heard on 8th December, 1891, before
Mr Justice Denman. Sir Charles Russell (after-
wards Lord Chief Justice) was leading counsel for
the plaintiff, and Mr Asquith, the late Premier, for
the defendants. It transpired that Major Ellis had
seen Pinnock in Brighton, and that their respective
wives had some slight acquaintance ; but when Ellis
and Pinnock were travelling out on the same
steamer to Africa, in 1888, it seems the Major did
not appear to care for the plaintiff's company.

On behalf of the author it was urged that no
personal description was intended, and that James
Peacock's face was described as being of the pugil-
istic type, which could not be said of the plaintiff's.
On the other hand, it was stated that a Mr Ditch-


field had related the faets of Pinnoek's life to Ellis,
who observed it was a marvel and that a good deal
could be done with it to turn it into a good story.

The examination of Lieutenant- Colonel Ellis,
taken on commission in Barbados, was then read.
He said James Peacock was pure fiction, the ground
plan of the story being made up of two stories
current in West Africa. The first he heard at
Quittah, in 1878 ; and the second at Bonny, in
1879. In order to work in both stories he had to
bring his " hero " from Sierra Leone to Bonny — a
place he knew and could give local colouring to.
The name of James Peacock he had taken from an
old Army List ; all the other incidents in the story
were imaginary. He acquired his knowledge of
trading life in West Africa when he was District
Commissioner and Collector of Customs at Quittah
and Accra. His book was written in 1887, and,
in September, Meredith, the Reader, suggested
alterations. The revised proofs were sent back
in January, 1888, but the work was not published
until 1890.

George Meredith, when examined, said he had
been Reader to the defendants for thirty years.
Major Ellis's manuscript was submitted to him, and
he reported on it on 27th September, 1887. He had
never heard of plaintiff in his life. He had caused a
story entitled Mrs Fitzgibbon to be cut out of Major
Ellis's manuscript. As an expert he considered
the story to be a work of pure fiction.

Cross-examined by Sir Charles Russell, it tran-
spired he objected to Mrs Fitzgibbon as it was not
in good taste. She was a female adventuress. The
description of Peacock's mother he considered the
attempt of a serious man to be humorous. He


objected personally to it, but it went down with the
public, so he had to pass it. (Laughter.) It was a
sort of elephantine humour. He did not like it, but
one would have to object to so much. He was not
aware at the time that the two incidents of the clerk
and the engineer story were founded on fact. He
thought the whole story was fiction. When pressed
by Sir Charles Russell to say whether he had ever
heard of Pinnock, Meredith replied : " Not since
the days of my youth, when I learnt his catechism."

I asked Mr Asquith if he had any recollections
of the case, and he replied : " I remember well my
dear old friend George Meredith's appearance and
demeanour in the witness-box. He had, I think, to
stand the most severe ordeal that any witness could
be exposed to : cross-examination by Sir Charles
Russell, the greatest of advocates ; and he came out

However, Mr James Pinnock won his action, and
was awarded £200 damages. The Times devoted a
leading article next day to the case, sententiously
observing : " We are grateful to Mr Pinnock for
putting limits to the right claimed by certain novel-
ists to mash into literary pulp their friends, acquain-
tances, and the world in general" — which was a
knowing or unconscious slash at Meredith himself.
He, indeed, figured as the chief actor in the case.
His evidence was parodied by, I understand,
Rudolph Lehmann in Punch (19th December, 1891)
in a skit called By George! — a most excellent
simulation of Meredith's style. It was accompanied
by a clever cartoon by E. J. Wheeler of " Georgc-
in-the-Box," showing Meredith popping up as a
Jack-in-the-Box before the catechising counsel with
Pinnock's manual in hand. In the same issue of


Punch was a skit entitled Illegal Fictions, also
dealing with this matter.

Apparently no one engaged in the case was aware
that George Meredith and Alfred Burdon Ellis were
connected by family ties, involving the history of
Evan Harrirt'gton and " Major Strike," and that it
was a curious and unperceived link with the great
novelist's early days.


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MANY pens have described Meredith's house
at Box Hill, and it may seem superfluous
to attempt to picture once again the
situation of Flint Cottage, which became his home
at the close of 1867, and remained his loved and
fitting retreat until the end, in 1909. It was a
fortunate chance that found this ideal setting for
the poet-novelist of Nature during his last forty
years. The lovely surroundings of his home were
reflected and interpreted again and again in the
literary work of this long period ; they inspired
much that will never die : though he who dwelt
there is now dust, the memory of him will attach
to the spot evermore.

Flint Cottage, which is far more ancient than it
looks, stands on one of the lower slopes of Box Hill
against an immediate background of the woods of
Juniper Hill and Mickleham. A white gate opens
from the rough chalk road of the hill-side on to a
garden plot of grass and flower-beds surrounded by
tall yew hedges. A few steps under a trellis porch
give access to a tiny hall with parlour and dining-
room to right and left respectively. When Meredith
first came to the house his bedroom was on the east
side, overlooking the long sloping garden and a little
wooded ravine, and from the window he could see
the sun rise over Box Hill. After 1S76, when his
chalet was erected on the highest slope of the garden,


with a most picturesque woodland path behind it,
he generally slept in the little room opening out of
that wherein he lived and wrote in this ideal garden
retreat. Around him sang the wild music of the
winds he loved, and above floated the wondrous
clouds that his favourite South-West brought.

In front of house and garden and chalet the long
green slope of Box Hill sweeps up to the left in
graceful lines to the tree-crowned summit. The
view from the hill is very lovely, whether to the
south-east over a vast tract of champaign country
to the downs — " greyhounds in flight," as Meredith
imaged them — and almost the sea of Sussex ; or
to west and north where rise, challenging the clouds,
the hills and hanging woods of Ranmore and
Denbies, Norbury Park, with its immemorial Druid's
Grove of yews, and Mickleham Downs. The scene
is always beautiful. In winter, when the woods are
purple under an opal sky, or clothed in gleaming
mantles of snow and frost. In spring, when all the
trees are a shimmering green, and the lilacs and
laburnums bloom in the nearer gardens. Glorious
is the landscape in the full pride of summertide ;
but loveliest of all, perhaps, as I saw it last, when
the woods put on their autumn robes of russet, red,
and innumerable shades of dark green, and the

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Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 15 of 23)