S. M. (Stewart Marsh) Ellis.

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

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written. Beaucham'p's Career is a study of the
combat in a man of his hereditary aristocratic in-
stincts and passions with a sincere, if rather hysteri-
cal, realisation of the wrongs and needs of the de-
mocracy, with various personal feuds and fads as
corollaries. So in the letters are politics (public
and private) and fads — such as Maxse's abstention
at one time from meat and strong drink — pregnantly
or humorously dealt with, followed by many com-
ments on the exemplar's character.

Although Meredith always spoke his criticisms
plainly, only once was he on the point of rupture
with his friend. The passing cloud soon blew over.
Meredith fully realised his friend's fine points and
shared many of his political views. He actively
assisted in canvassing for Maxse, who was the
unsuccessful Radical Candidate in the Election of
1868 for Southampton (the Bevisham of the novel).
As the years went on, the Radical sailor became a
Unionist and moderated many of his early views.
His friendship with Meredith endured to the end,
and when he died, in 1900, the author of Beau-
chamifs Career paid him a fine tribute in a letter
to Maxse's sister, Mrs Duff.

Of course, Maxse must not be identified too
literally with Beauchamp beyond his vivid crusad-
ing nature and his early political and social views ;
though Meredith had a disconcerting way of blend-
ing actual traits and facts and names with the
entirely imaginary doings of his characters.^ As we

' Comyns Carr has a suggestive comment to offer on this matter.
He said, in Some Eminent Victorians : " Meredith could talk and walk
after a fashion that I have known in no one else. Sometimes he would

Frkderick Maxm;, R.N. 'IMk okiginai. oi- Nk\ii. i.n
" BicAUCHA.Mi-'s Career"

Front II conteiiiporayy photograph


have seen, this was brought to a fine art in Evan
Harrington ; and, as in the other novels, it is
demonstrated to a sHghtly lesser degree in Beau-
champ's Career. Putting aside the obvious facts of
the Southampton Election and that Captain Maxse
married a lady named Cecilia, daughter of Colonel
Steel (Cecilia Halkett, in the story, being also the
daughter of a Colonel ^), let us particularly examine
the case of Beauchamp's uncle, Everard Romfrey,
that delightful old Whig, who was drawn, both as
to physical and mental characteristics, from Cap-
tain Maxse's maternal uncle, Grantley Berkeley (a
younger son of the 5th Earl of Berkeley). It will
be remembered that Everard Romfrey thrashes Dr
Shrapnel with " a gold-headed horsewhip." Just
so — for similarly a lady's name was involved — did
Grantley Berkeley act in the famous case of his
assault on James Eraser for the libellous review
which appeared in Eraser's Magazine of his,
Berkeley's, novel, Berkeley Castle, dealing with his
family history in a peculiar manner. Grantley
Berkeley felled the offending publisher to the ground
and beat him savagely with a heavy gold-headed

occupy the whole of our ramble in a purely inventive biography of some
one of our common friends, passing in rather burlesque rhapsody from
incident to incident of a purely hypothetical career, but always pre-
serving, even in the most extravagant of his fancies, a proper relevancy
to the character he was seeking to exhibit. On one occasion I remember
he traced with inimitable humour, and with inexhaustible invention, a
supposed disaster in love encountered by an amiable gentleman we
both knew well ; and as he rambled on with an eloquence that never
halted, he became so in love with his theme that I think he himself
was hardly conscious where the record of sober fact had ended and
where the innocent mendacity of the novelist had begun."

' Miss Alice Brandreth (now Lady Butcher) claims to be the
original, to some extent, of Cecilia Halkett, but only, it would seem,
as regards her conventional training as an only child and her con-
sequent mental outlook, wliich suggested the conduct of Cecilia.


hunting-whip. Less fortunate than Shrapnel, James
Eraser eventually died from an illness brought on
by the injuries he had received. Grantley Berkeley's
brother, Craven, was present when the assault took
place : Meredith mentions the name Craven twice
in his account of the Romfrey family, and he
accurately describes Berkeley Castle, in Gloucester-

Henry Murray detected in Dr Shrapnel a physical
resemblance to Meredith himself, with the same
obstinate tuft of grey hair bristling up over his
forehead — " tlie tall old man whose extreme lean-
ness made him appear of more than his actual height
. . . the face of more than feminine delicacy with
an almost angelic softness of expression." Mere-
dith certainly told Maxse that he as well as his
friend could be seen in this " mirror " of a book.^
However this may be, there is no doubt that in
Blackburn Tuckham we have an authentic and
amusing picture of William Hardman. The very
name at the outset establishes that. Hardman came
from the Bury and Blackburn district of Lancashire,
and was not " Tuck " the name bestowed by
Meredith upon his friend at the very beginning
of their delightful companionship ? And then,
sketched v/ith a few deft touches, is presented the
figure and ruddy complexion, the north-country
energy and assurance of the man ; his personal
traits, his love of life and good living, and that
hearty laughter which echoes through all the letters
that Meredith addressed to Hardman."

Beauchamp's Career was, perhaps, Meredith's
favourite among his own works. He told Mr Clodd :

1 Letter, Christmas, 1875.

2 Chapter xxvi., Beavchamp's Career.


" Sometimes Harry Richmond is my favourite, but
I am inclined to give the palm to Beaiichamp's
Career. There is a breezy, human interest about it,
and the plot has a consistency and logical evolu-
tion which Fever el lacks. Then, a thing that weighs
with me, the French critics liked it ; they said that
Renee is true to life."

Renee was very real to him. He said to Marcel
Schwob : " Was she not a sweet girl ? I think I
am a little in love with her yet." That was twenty
years after her creation.

There was no very remarkable outburst of con-
temporary appreciation to greet this work, written
at the height of the author's power, when it was
published in three volumes by Chapman and Hall
at the close of 1875. It has been stated by one
prominent critic that Meredith's reputation was not
materially advanced by this story, " overlaid by
political disquisition," with " its somewhat mono-
tonous hero." I understand it was at this date that
Mark Pattison warned his readers against opening
a volume which bore on its cover the name of George
Meredith. However, H. D. Traill praised Meredith
in The Nineteenth Century of October, 1875 ; in
later years Beauchamp's Career has been ably noticed
by Arthur Symons and other literary men ; and
both Justin McCarthy and T. P. O'Connor have
declared it to be their favourite Meredith novel.
James Thomson's appreciation I will deal with

Presumably the popular objection to Beauchamp's
Career is that it is neither a tale of mystery nor
a love story with a happy ending. Meredith no
doubt foresaw that profound criticism, for in a
passage in the book, where he says he envies those


happy tales of mystery, he goes on to state his
own case of failure.^

Although Meredith is reported to have said to
York Powell : " Thank God I have never written
a word to please the public," it needs no argument
to prove that even in Beauchamp's Career there
are many good sayings to please the densest

Again this book also, forty-six years old though
it be, is strangely topical and appropriate for recent
events. The very first chapter, with its excellent
allegory of the Spinster Panic aroused from her
bed by letters to the papers and lulled again by
" inspired " leading articles, was applicable to certain
stages of the Great War by merely substituting
Germans for French as the foes possibly invading
these shores. The main thesis of the book, too, the
author's mordant study of the ineffectual character
— fine in its individual elements, but marred and
stultified by waywardness, lack of balance, and the
impossible ambitions of the visionary, as exemplified
in the personality of Nevil Beauchamp — is a signpost
of warning at this time of national stress, when
clarity of reason and stability of character are
essential (and alas ! how lacking) in men of politics
and government and public affairs in general.

There are lovely scenic descriptions in this book
— the night on the Adriatic, and sunrise upon the
Alps, near Venice ; and those vivid, unforgettable
scenes where Beauchamp joins Renee in Normandy,
and they ride through valley and wood till they
come upon the little river at Tourdestelle with its
trembling poplars and rustic bridge and mill bright
in the silver moonlight. That is the picture I

1 Chapter xlviii.


always see when Beauchamp's Career is mentioned;
and no doubt Meredith described an actual landscape
which he had seen during his visit to his Vulliamy
relatives in Normandy during 1872.

Some points open to criticism the story must
plead — such as the failure of Beauchamp to mete
out adequate punishment to his enemy, Cecil
Baskelett ; the seemingly impossible behaviour
(though founded on fact) of Everard Romfrey,
Colonel Halkett, and other " gentlemen," in per-
mitting the private letter addressed to Beauchamp
by Shrapnel to be read and ridiculed in public ; and
the author's annoying method of relating import-
ant incidents, like the flogging of Shrapnel and the
death of Beauchamp, by the conversations of other
characters instead of in detailed and direct narrative.
But these minor objections are blotted out by the
fineness of the literary work. Here, in this book,
Meredith writes primarily for men and of women in
an exquisite way. Singularly subtle is the creation
of Renee's personality — half beneficent, half malign
star when in conjunction with the exemplar's career.
The problem of Beauchamp's relations with the four
women who not so much influenced as intertwined
his life is of absorbing interest ; the tragedy of his
loss of Cecilia Halkett — one of the most lovable
characters in Meredith's great gallery of female
portraiture — brings a sense of personal regret rarely
experienced in the reading of fiction.

Futile was Beauchamp in his wooing — "too
late "—of Cecilia, and futile in his death. Pathos
and tragedy here in full measure. What a flash-
light of genius illumines that last scene by Hanible
river : the drowned Beauchamp and the muddy,
snivelling urchin he died lo save : " This is what


we have in exchange for Beauchamp." Poignant,
splendid futility in excelsis.

But beyond all this, and the sense of Tragic
Fate, and the graphic power of the literary artist
who draws these pictures, there rises paramount a
perception of Meredith's clear, sane outlook upon life,
of the essential robustness of his views upon national
affairs and man's duty to man. Surely Beauchamp^s
Career is the most successful accomplishment of the
goal the author desired to reach ; here he voiced
his message with penetrating notes, not lost upon
the wind of pretentious verbiage as was sometimes
the fate of his winged words.

Before leaving Beauchamp'' s Career it is of interest
to recall that the book brought Meredith into
personal association with James Thomson (" B. V."),
the remarkable poet of the sombre City of Dreadful
Night and the sparkling Sunday up the River, whose
wasted gift of life and talents so sadly resembled the
case of E. A. Poe. Curiously enough, the same
absurd legend which bestowed Bulwer Lytton as
a parent upon Meredith was attached also to the
paternity of Thomson, but probably all three men
were unaware of the lying rumour which propounded
this literary relationship.

James Thomson was the son of a sailor and born
at Port Glasgow in 1834. His profession as an
army schoolmaster brought him, when stationed at
the dreary barrack-village of Ballincollig, near Cork,
the friendship of Charles Bradlaugh, who in those
early days was a trooper in a dragoon regiment.

Bradlaugh afterwards obtained various kinds of
employment for his friend, and as editor of The
National Reformer gave first publication to Thom-
son's poems during the years 18G2-1874. It was in


1874 that The City of Dreadful Night appeared, and
brought some meed of recognition to the poet.
Thomson was one of the early admirers of i\Ieredith's
work, and Beauchmrrp^s Career inspired him to con-
tribute his able and characteristic Note on George
Meredith, in 1876, to The Secularist. This was
followed by an equally appreciative article in Cope's
Tobacco Plant, in May, 1879. At the same time
Meredith was reading with equal appreciation the
poems of Thomson, whom he only knew as " B. V."
Eventually the identity of the poet with the critic
was revealed by G. W. Foote to Meredith.

There was much of Thomson's work in sympathy
with Meredith's outlook upon life and his poetical
expression of thought. Consequently the latter
was able to give very high praise to his new friend's
volume of verse in 1880. The two poets met only
twice in life. In September, 1881, Thomson visited
Flint Cottage and relates :

" Tuesday I spent with George Meredith at Box
Hill ; a quiet, pleasant day, cloudy but rainless,
with some sunshine and blue sky in the after-
noon. We had a fine stroll over Mickleham Downs,
really park-like, with noble yew-trees and many
a mountain-ash (' rowan ' we Scots call it) glowing
with thick clusters of red berries. M. read me an
unpublished poem of considerable length. He says
that having suspended work on a novel, ^ poems
began to spring up in his mind, and I am glad that
he thinks of bringing out a new collection."

Meredith endeavoured to help Thomson and
further his literary prospects by introducing him
to John Morley, the editor of important papers.

» Diana of (he Crossways.


But it was too late ; his efforts were in vain, like
those of Thomson's other friends. The melancholy
poet's intemperance was a form of madness en-
gendered by morbid depression and despair of the
most appalling kind. It was periodical in attack,
and made him too weak and unfit to carry out any
literary employment given to him. The last tragic
months found him wholly in the power of his foe,
and he died in University College Hospital on 3rd
June, 1882, at the age of forty-seven. In subse-
quent letters to Thomson's biographer, Mr H. S.
Salt, Meredith further expressed his appreciation
of the unhappy poet. Meredith's association with
James Thomson, and his unfailing sympathy with
him, is one of the most charming episodes in the
records of literary friendships.

Following the publication of Beauchamp^s Career,
Meredith did not produce very much during the
next few years. He was writing some short stories
and poems, and studying the idea of Comedy, which
was to bear fruit in the Essay on the subject and in
The Egoist. Life at Box Hill was very pleasant in
these days. In the summer of 1874 he would rise
at 5.30 A.M., and revel in the fresh morning air and
lovely ocenery, so solitary and virgin at that early
hour. At this period, too, he would invite his
friends to a late breakfast in the garden, in the
French style, with Hock to drink.

Meredith had always loved choice food and good
wine, as we have seen, but unfortunately he suffered
from a weak stomach, which constrained him to try
for a time the vegetarian regimen he had so stoutly
warned Maxse against but a few years earlier.
Mr Hyndman, in paying a tribute to the merits of
Meredith's second wife, makes amusing allusion to


the vegetarian trial which the victim pursued with
characteristic ardour.

" I have heard some of Meredith's friends speak
rather slightingly of this lady, as if she were in-
tellectually quite unworthy of her husband. Genius
has no mate. But Mrs Meredith was a charming,
clever, tactful and handsome Frenchwoman, a good
musician, a pleasant conversationalist, a most con-
siderate, attentive, and patient wife, and an excellent
mother. Nobody who knew her could fail to admire,
esteem, and like her. Her care of her husband was
always thoughtful but never obtrusive, and Mere-
dith, with all his high qualities, was not by any
means an easy man to live with. Writing men
mostly are not. At one time he would persist in
turning vegetarian. It was well-nigh the death of
him. But he had persuaded himself that that was
the right sort of food to give the highest develop-
ment to body and mind, and persist in it he would.
What was to be done ? Meredith was a man who
took a tremendous lot out of himself, not only in-
tellectually but physically. He was always throw-
ing about clubs or going through gymnastic exercises
or taking long walks at a great pace, not allowing
an ounce of fat to accumulate on his body or his
face. It was the same with his writing. He never
pretended to take matters easily. So poor INIrs
Meredith had a hard time during this bread and
roots period. She saw her husband gradually going
down hill, and becoming every day more gaunt and
hungry-eyed and skeletonic ; yet if she or anyone
else ventured to suggest that this meagre diet was
unsuited to a man of his habit of life and work, and
that— this very gently— his increasing acerbity was


caused by sheer lack of sustenance and his energy
consequently sawing into his exposed nerves — well,
it was a case of ' stand from under ' very quickly."

Mrs Meredith endeavoured to remedy the situa-
tion by introducing shredded meat, with the con-
nivance of the local baker, into the bread intended
for her husband's consumption.

Although Meredith always appreciated good wine,
his enthusiasm for rare vintages, which often sparkle
in his works, seems to have been modified with
advancing age, probably because he found that
stimulants did not agree with him. But as late as
1891 he expatiated on the joys of Old Veuve and
Burgundy in One of our Conquerors ; and in 1908
he said : " I drink wine and I smoke."

During 1876 he wrote several poems for The
Fortnightly Review^ including his fine Ballad of
Past Meridian.

In December, 1876, he received a visit from Bona-
parte Wyse and R. H. Home — his " deep-hearted
friend " in early manhood.

Meredith had now completed his essay On the
Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, and
he was induced to deliver it in the form of a lecture
at the London Institution, Finsbury Circus, on 1st
February, 1877, which was, I think, his first and
last appearance as chief actor at a public function
of this description. The lecture seems to have been
quite a success. The Essay was soon after published
in The New Quarterly Magazine, April, 1877. It is
needless to recapitulate the argument of the Essay
and Meredith's plea that an atmosphere of mental
equality between the sexes is required before pure
Comedy can truly flourish. One characteristically


comic portion is that relating to the national re-
action from the dissolute Restoration comedies.

Meredith had contributed also to The New
Quarterly Magazine, for January, 1877, his first
short novel, The House on the Beach. This story,
as I have previously related, was commenced as far
back as 1861, under the title of Van Diemen Smith,
and contained Meredith's impressions of Seaford.
When he resumed the narrative fifteen years later
he seems to have amplified the character of Martin
Tinman with some particulars of a civic quidnunc,
named Busby, at Kingston, whose doings were
related to him by Hardman.

Meredith's second short novel. The Case of General
Ople and Lady Camper, which followed in The New
Quarterly Magazine, for July, 1877, was also based
on an affair which had occurred in Kingston, when
General Hopkins, a distinguished soldier, living at
1 Park Gate Villas, Queen's Road, Norbiton, was
compelled to take action against his neighbour at
No. 2, Lady Eleanor Cathcart, an eccentric person,
who persisted in annoying him by sending carica-
tures of himself engaged in gardening and other-
wise. Needless to say, the end of the case was not
the matrimonial one of the story. Hardman was
a friend of General Hopkins. Meredith transferred
the scene of the tale to Norbiton Hall and Kingston
Lodge, the houses previously occupied by Hardman
and himself. In General Ople's " gentlemanly
residence " there is a very accurate picture of
Kingston Lodge, with its entrance lodge like " two
sentry-boxes," its garden and privacy. And the
opening description of how the General came to the
place " across a famous common " (Wimbledon)
and by " a lofty highway along the borders of a


park " (the Kingston Hill side of Richmond Park)
is topographically correct.

Meredith's third, and best, short novel. The Tale
oj Chloe, appeared in The New Quarterly Magazine,
July, 1879.1 This little tale of Tunbridge Wells in
the eighteenth century is one of the most perfect
things he ever wrote. It is a masterpiece of con-
struction and accomplishment, and makes one regret
that he did not essay miniatures of this description
again. Both the period of the story and the tragic
end were unusual for Meredith, but he traverses both
triumphantly. The characterisation is admirable.
Beau Beamish is a kind of adaptation of the auto-
cratic Nash translated from Bath, but Chloe is a
brilliant creation. For her, Meredith must have
" dug down to the very roots of human nature,"
as Sir J. M. Barrie said.^

Sir J. M. Barrie has ever been one of the staunch-
est Meredithians. His admiration dated from his
early manhood, and the story of how he went down
to Box Hill to try to get a glimpse of Meredith, and
how he fled when the author appeared on the garden
path, is true. I asked Sir J. M. Barrie if the legend
followed facts, and he replied : " The first time I
went down I sat on the bank gazing at what I was
told was the window, and then he came to the door,
and I drank my fill. Then he slowly came down
the path and then I fled. If that's the story, it is
' gospel.' " That was about 1885, and he later
became one of Meredith's most valued friends.

* The original manuscript was sold for £iyi at Sotheby's in 1910.
It was entitled The Lamentable Tale of Chloe.

- The Lost Works of George Meredith, by J. M. Barrie, in The Scots
Observer, 24th November, 1888. His plea for the republication of
Meredith's short novels has, of course, been carried out in several
editions since then.


Another interesting friendship between Meredith
and a young Scotsman destined for literary fame
was that with Robert Louis Stevenson.

It was in 1878 that Stevenson and his mother
came to pass the summer at the Burford Bridge
Hotel. Through the introduction of Mrs J. E. H.
Gordon he met Meredith, and would listen with
rapt attention to the novelist's talk. Mrs Gordon
relates (in The Bookman, January, 1895) :

" I well remember the eager listening face of the
student Stevenson, and remember his frank avowal
that from henceforth he should enrol himself ' a
true-blue Meredith man.' He was an inspiring
listener, and had the art of drawing out the best of
Mr Meredith's brilliant powers of conversation. . . .
My sister, I remember, was much interested in
Stevenson, and even in those early days expected
great things from him in the future. And I well
remember her satisfaction one afternoon when . . .
Mr Meredith trumpeted down our feeble utterances
by informing us that some day he felt sure we should
all be proud to have known him, and prophesied
success and fame for him in the future."

To Mr W. M. Fullerton, Meredith said : "I knew
Stevenson long before he was known to you all. I
saw what was in him and knew that he would do
good work."

It was Stevenson who was destined also to do
" good work " of another kind in conjunction with
W. E. Henley, Grant Allen, James Thomson, and
others, and that was in compelling public recogni-
tion of Meredith's superlative literary work by means
of forceful and enthusiastic criticism, raising his
standard and proclaiming his title to fame. It is a


mistake, however, to think that these new chann-
pions introduced or " made " Meredith, or even
" boomed " him — to quote the unpleasant phrase of
one of them : they simply made him known to the

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Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 17 of 23)