S. M. (Stewart Marsh) Ellis.

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

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wide outside public which takes its instruction from
the Press and reads what its neighbour recommends.
As we have seen, Meredith had always had the
approval of a select band of cultured readers, even
if the professional critics were adverse. And young
Oxford had discovered him without any extraneous
introductions. " My dear boy, we read Meredith
in the early seventies at Oxford," York Powell said
to Professor Oliver Elton ; and a decade later, Mr
F. T. Bettany relates : " We were all madly in love
with George Meredith in my undergraduate days
at Christ Church. . . . For us youngsters George
Meredith was what Dickens had been to our seniors,
and our joy in him was, I fear, just a little enhanced
by his being — then, at least — caviare to the general." ^
Oscar Wilde was at Oxford in the seventies, and
it would be interesting to know if he was of the
company who read and appreciated Meredith. Most
probably he was, for it was only some ten years
later (1889) that he wrote his famous criticism in
The Decay oj Lying :

" Ah ! Meredith ! Who can define him ? His
style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As
a writer he has mastered everything except language :
as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a
story : as an artist he is everything except articu-
late. Somebody in Shakespeare — Touchstone, I
think — talks about a man who is always breaking

1 Mr F. Schiller tells me that Meredith was also widely read by
the undergraduates of Cambridge at this date.


his shins over his own wit, and it seems to me that
this might serve as the basis for a criticism of Mere-
dith's method. But whatever he is, he is not a
realist. Or rather I would say that he is a child of
realism who is not on speaking terms with his father.
By deliberate choice he has made himself a roman-
ticist. He has refused to bow the knee to Baal, and
after all, even if the man's fine spirit did not revolt
against the noisy assertions of realism, his style
would be quite sufficient of itself to keep life at a
respectful distance. By its means he has planted
round his garden a hedge full of thorns, and red with
wonderful roses."

And two years later, 1891, Wilde wrote in The
Soul of Man under Socialism :

" One incomparable novelist we have now in
England, Mr George Meredith. There are better
artists in France, but France has no one whose view
of life is so large, so varied, so imaginatively true.
There are tellers of stories in Russia who have a
more vivid sense of what pain in fiction may be.
But to him belongs philosophy in fiction. His
people not merely live, but they live in thought.
One can see them from myriad points of view. They
are suggestive. There is soul in them and around
them. They are interpretative and symbolic. And
he who made tlicm, those wonderful quickly-moving
figures, made them for his own pleasure, and has
never asked the public what they wanted, has never
cared to know what they wanted, has never allowed
the public to dictate to him or influence him in any
way, but has gone on intensifying his own person-
ality, and producing liis own individual work. At
first none came to him. That did not matter.


Then the few came to him. That did not change
him. The many have come now. He is still the
same. He is an incomparable novelist."

This passage, I think, is one of the most acute
observations ever penned on Meredith's art and his
attitude to himself and the public. Unfortunately,
Meredith was not able to offer any appreciation in
return to the poet who had termed him " a prose
Browning," and whose poetry was so often akin
to his own in its passionate expression of beauty
in Nature. On one occasion, in September, 1892,
Meredith met Wilde. He was staying with the
Walter Palmers at Reading for a couple of days,
and another guest was " Oscar Wylde (sic), who is
good company," he stated to a friend. The two
authors were photographed together in a group.
But Meredith was not favourably impressed by the
paradoxical man himself, so Watts-Dunton told me,
and apparently in view of the fact that he mis-
spelled Wilde's name, he was not very familiar with
the work of the author of Dorian Gray.^ Otherwise
his critical judgment should have given a guerdon
of praise to The Garden of Eros and The Burden of
Itys, poems which were inspired by the same spirit
that had found expression in song in the older
poet's Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth.

1 Mr Frank Harris, in his Contemporary Portraits (1915), states that
Meredith regarded Wilde as a poseur and by no means in the front rank
of hterature, and that he peremptorily refused to sign a memorial for
the remission of some portion of Wilde's sentence in 1895.



IT was in the early spring of 1877 that the
chalet in the garden of Flint Cottage was
ready for occupation, and the first-finiits of
this ideal work-place were The Tale of Chloe, and then
The Egoist — the most brilliant of all Meredith's novels,
wherein a spirit like that of champagne — or shall we
say the tonic air of Ranmore and Box Hill ? — bubbles
and froths and scintillates in a prodigal outpouring
of wit and epigram, comedy and mordacity . His
surroundings were the scenic setting of The Egoist.
" Patterne Hall " is not far from Denbies and
Ranmore and Dorking (" Rendon "), and in this
book Meredith gives his grandest picture of his
beloved South-West in stormy mood and his own
joy in his own Surrey hills. ^

Commenced in 1877, and said to be on the way to a
conclusion in June, 1878, The Egoist was in reality
not completed until February, 1879. During the last
three months of composition he wrote hastily and late
into the night, with ill effects to his health. Appar-
ently Meredith was a little doubtful of the effect the
blinding brilliance of his cleverest work would have
upon his friends, for he wrote dubiously to Stevenson /

on the subject. The work was j^ublishcd in three
volumes, by Kcgan, Paul and Co., in October, 1879,''
and without tlic author's leave it made a serial

^ Chapter xxvi.

^ A second edition, in one volnme, followed in 1880.



appearance under the title of Sir Willoughhy
Patterne, the Egoist, in The Glasgow Weekly Herald,
With the publication of The Egoist Meredith took
possession of his kingdom. He could no longer
complain of ignorant and unappreciative reviewers.
There was a chorus of praise in the Press. Within
a few days The Spectator, The Examiner, The Pall
Mall Gazette, and The Athenceum all paid their
tribute of warm appreciation.^ The reviews in the
two last-named papers were written by W. E.
Henley, who also contributed the notice in The
Academy — all three appearing in November, 1879.
He and Stevenson were, of course, radiantly de-
lighted that their perspicacity concerning Meredith's
genius was at length justified and admitted. The
two kept up their airy Badminton of praise of their
idol, and particularly of The Egoist, until the end of
life. It was in April, 1882, that Stevenson wrote
that well-known letter :

" My dear Henley, — . . . Talking of Meredith,
I have just re-read for the third or fourth time The
Egoist. When I shall have read it the sixth or
seventh, I begin to see I shall know about it. You
will be astonished when you come to re-read it ; I
had no idea of the matter — human red matter — he
has contrived to plug and pack into that strange
and admirable book. Willoughby is. of course, a
j)ure discovery ; a complete set of nerves, not her e-
tofore examined, and yet running all over t he
human body — a suit of nerves . Clara is the best
girl I ever saw anywher e. Yernon is almost as

1 As James Thomson put it in his Diary : "At length ! Encourag-
ing I A man of wonderful genius and a splendid writer may hope to
obtain something like recognition after working hard for thirty years,
dating from his majority I "-




The CHAI.KI in Tllli CiAKHliN Ol- ll.INl COTTAi;i:. llKKIi

"TiiK Ec.oisi," -'Diana ok the Crossways," and i hi: iaii-k

Photogiafih by ^fr. II 'ood


v^[ood. The manner and faults of the book greatly
justify themselves on further study. Only IVTv
- ^iddleton does not hang together ; and Ladies
Busshe and Culmer sont des monstrnosities. . . .
I see more and more that Meredith is built for
immortality. . . . /

" I am, Yours loquaciously,

R. L. S."

Certainly The Egoist must be immortal, for despite
i ts cold glittering artificiality and inteneetufll ^ nd
philosophical preciosity, the sheer cleverness of th e

hook, its wealth of epigr am ^ fhe riot, nf mitrflgpnng

s imile, the concatenation of antithesis and an ti-
pgfistasis, make it unique, a towering alpine peak
in literature, crested with eternal gleaming snows .
This is the most quotable of Mer e dith's hon ks.
Open it anywhere at random and an acute phrase
will spring to light.

To revert to the history of the book. There was
some question of dramatising the story for the stage
as late as 1898. Forbes Robertson, who fancied
the role of Sir Willoughby, commissioned Mr Sutro ^
to interview Meredith on the subject. The matter
went so far as Mr Sutro taking the synopsis of the
play to the author of the novel. But the project
was abandoned later.

It is curious that the work has not appealed to
actor-managers more, for it would make a super-
lative comedy of manners, and the part of Sir
Willoughby could be made very picturesque in
appearance, due attention being given to his " leg."

To pass to the prototypes of the novel. It is

» Alfred Sutro, subsequently to be well known as the author of The
Walls of Jericho (1904) and other successful plays.



unnecessary to seek for an actual original of Sir
VVilloughby Patterne (a lthough Meredith said he
had a certain man in mind), for he is a universa l
ty pe, a lay-figure from which everyone can study
c ertain traits and qualities common to all humanity.^
He is as accurately constructed from the original
(up to a certain stage) as Tartuffe, and is, as Henley
said, " a companion figure to Arnolphe and Alceste
and Celimene ... a compendium of the Personal
in Man." There is the story, told by R. L. Steven-
son, of how a young friend of Meredith's came to
him in a rage and cried : '' This is too bad of you ,
Willoughby is me ! " " No, my dear fellow," re-
p lied the author of The Egoist, ''he is all of u s . ' '
To which Stevenson added the comment : "I am
like the young friend of the anecdote — I thin k
Willoughby an unmanly but a very serviceab le
exposure of myself. "

We are all egoists, and consequently we can
all see some aspects of ourselves in Willoughby
Patterne ; and all those who have loved — or desired
— as he, where love — or desire — was not responsive,
but only toleration or repulsion, can realise the
pangs he suffered in his relations with Clara Middle-
ton, whom at the same time he adored and yet
longed to punish and wound in his baffled agony of

This universality of Willoughby Patterne makes
him a veritable mirror wherein poor humanity can
see itself in the manner desiderated by Burns ; but
he-is a figure of pathos rather than one of comedy.
Pe is almost tragedy sometimes, as in the scene

1 Mr Louis Wilkinson, in his lecture on Meredith, has suggested
that the name Willoughby Patterne was intended as a pun on willow-
pattern plate — a common type .


^where he is foiled in obtaining possession of the
letter Clara has le ft with her maid on the morning
fii her intended flight .

I see nothin g comic in W illoughby , this u nhappy
nian without a true friend, except h is stilted piu'ase-
ology, which is where he fails to resemble uiitversal-
jty, and in the ridiculous final imbroglio, which is
■.{jimply farcical and unworthy of Meredith . As we
have seen, h e finished the story hurriedly and wit h
health affected . Unhappily, many of Meredith 's!
novels go to p ieces an d improbabilities at the close/
for he did not possess the craft of the real cohesive ^
tale-teller, and in this case the art which had em-
bellished the earlier part is smashed into as many
fragments as Colonel De Craye's unlucky porcelai n]
\;ase. The behaviour of Lady Busshe, Lady
Culmer, and even Mrs Mountstuart Jenkinson is a
preposterous perversion of the type they are sup-
posed to represent ; Clara Middleton's acquiescence
— in view of her previously obstinate character — to
Willoughby's arrangement to marry her off alter-
natively to Whitford is a hard strain on the prob-
abilities ; and Willoughby's fin al loss of all _sense
of dignity and decency in his desperate attem pt to
Sjecure the faded and ailing Laetitia is in complete
contradiction to the presentment, up till then, o f
his proud and sensitive nature . 1 ^ may be charg ed
tQ be a cynical reflection on the female sex, but in
actual life a baronet, good-looking and gene rous , with
fifty thousand a year, would not have to look far fo r
a^wife, and would not be reduced to implore, on hjs
l a).ccs. a poor and plain and middle-age d spinster i n
i U-health, and a disappointed "" poetess " to boot ,
J,a_: fcake pity on his unmarried situation and thereb y
save his face in the eyes of the world. As a work of


art - The Egoi st should have ended with Willoughby 's
Joss of Clara Middleton, and he left alone with th e
(jiead sea fruit of his reflections . Meredith, speak-
^^^y^ ing perhaps from experiences of his own first
marriage, thought to condemn him to an even
{jitterer retribution : a woman with intellect for

What all the commentators of The Egoist seem to

[have missed is the fact tha t almost the whole gallery

of characterisation in the book is a study of egoism :

young Cross jay Patterne, Dr Corney, and the Ladies

Eleanor and Isabel are the only exceptions. In this

/ moi'dan t unveiling of people seeking their own benefit

and the gratification of personal desires, h ere is Dr

. J!diddleton looking out for his own ea se and quiet

j ^nd superlative port, and a great establishment fo r

I his daughter ; the same ambitions, in other aspec ts.

,aff ect the valetudinarian Mr Dale ; J Lgtitia D^e

merely marri es her shattered idol to obtain wealth

a^|d power : Wil loughby's disloyal friend, the de-_

spicable De Craye. plots to rob him of his nffif^n^H

wS£-X V ernon Whitford is selfishly immersed in his

4>jiyn studious ambitions, and does not show much

^' solicitude for the cause of his cousin and benefactor,

v ^om he criticises slightingly ; Flitch longs only for

the port and flesh-pots of the Hall kitchen ; the aim

of the ^great " ladies " is to gratify their love of

meddling in other people's affairs and their love o f

r* gossip ; and Clara Middleton is as complete an

\ egoist as Willoughby himself . Jnie^ sh e V>as tlip

J graop tp admit it at the end {aUer she has got he r

o wn way in every desire) ; truly does she say she

l E^as the Egoist, and needed purification by fire .

T do not subscribe to the general e nthusiasm an d
admiration for C^lara Middleton which places her as


* t3Ieredith's mos t perfect heroine," If she be so,
it is a strange reflection on his other admirable and
true female creations, such as Rosamund Culling,
Nesta Radnor, Cecilia Halkett, Ottilia, Sandra
Belloni, Chloe, and Diana. A selfish , wayward ^irl,
moody a nd unreasonable , never knowing her own
jnind; an undutiful and disobedient daughter; decei t-
_ful and prevaricating ; ungrateful — even to Vernon
■Wiiitford when she dubs him a Triton ashore ; sh e
is always seeking her own mental and physical co m-
fort, untruthful whenever occasion require s. And
yet this is the perfect character described b y the
late^issjl annah Lynch, in her study of Meredi th,
thus :


" In all fiction there is not another girl so enchant-
ing and healthily intelligent as Clara Middleton —
none described like her. In addition to the attrac-
tions of birth, breeding, and beauty . . . are those
of . . . singular good taste and tact, and honesty
of soul . . . without any shabby tricks oj mind or
habit r 1

The italics are mine. The fact is, the cold brilli-
ance, the scintillating arts and crafts of The Egoist
have blinded the partial critics to the irony that
imderlies the whole conception of the work. They
perceive the beauty and youth, so artistically sug-
gested, of Clara Middleton, the wit of Dc Craye,
but they do not see that these and other prominent

» It is perhaps superfluous to regard Miss Lynch seriously as a
critic, as it was this lady who committed herself, in reply to Mr Le
Gallienne's suggestion that Mrs Berry, of Richard Feverel, would have
been a feather in the cap of Dickens, to the egregious statement :
" Doubtless, but that is not a compliment to Mr Meredith, for what
would do honour to Dickens cannot be said to be worthy of him."


characters are as egotistical as Willoiighby, and
more contemptible than he, inasmuch as they lack
his generosity and strength of will. Otherwise
how could even Henley write : " Its characters,
from Sir Willoughby downwards, are brilliantly
right and sound ; it has throughout the perfect
good - breeding of high comedy." Perfect good
breeding : Horace De Craye and Lady Busshe !

Dr Middleton often suggests an echo of Meredith's
father-in-law, Thomas Love Peacock, with his
scholarship, his fine taste in food and wine, and his
love of ease and quiet. It is through the Doctor
that Meredith pays his most anacreontic tribute to
the King of Wines.^

In Lieutenant Patterne, the officer of Marines,
Meredith vented another attempt at ridicule upon
his uncle by marriage, S. B. Ellis ; but that officer
was now long dead, and the passing years had
softened the bitterness he felt towards his relative.
In The Egoist he freely acknowledges my grand-
father's bravery, particularly in China, and there
are several sentences like " Captain Patterne is as
brave a man as ever lived. He's a hero ! " But
the Royal Marines are always brave and ready to
save a desperate situation, per viare per terrcmi, as
their motto proclaims ; consequently, Meredith's
humours at the expense of that gallant Corps are
a trifle obscure and can only be attributed to
unfamiliarity with naval and military history.

Cross] ay Patterne the younger, one of the most
natural boys in all fiction — for he talks and acts
like a boy, which is rarely the case in novels — was,
as I previously mentioned, a very accurate picture
of Meredith's first cousin, George Hasted Ellis, a
1 Chapter xx. : "An Aged and a Great Wine."-


troublesome, high-spirited lad. The young original,
George Ellis, spent his boyhood at Stonehouse,
which is part of Devonport (mentioned in the novel
as Crossjay's home), and no doubt he and his brothers
and sisters were " all hungry " there at times, for
at that date the family of Sir S. B. Ellis were de-
pendent on his pay as a captain. Owing t^^ tlip in -
ar tistic haste with which The Egoist was concluded ,
Cx ossjay suddenly vanished from its pages ; hi s
future naval career was not adumbrated. But
George Ellis duly entered the Royal Navy, and,
after roving adventures in all parts of the world,
eventually fought as a volunteer in the Southern
Army during the American Civil War, when he was
killed at the Battle of Bull's Run, in 1861.

The most interesting portrait in The Egoist is,
of course, Vernon Whitford, drawn from Leslie
Stephen, who, born in 1832, came to London from
Cambridge in 1864, to follow a literary career.
He was editor of The Cornhill Magazine, 1871-1882,
and wrote the first volume, on Johnson, for the
English Men of Letters series in 1878. He was
also the first editor of The Dictionary of National
Biography, 1882-1891. He married Thackeray's
youngest daughter, Harriet, in 1867, and, after her
death, in 1875, Miss Duckworth became his second
wife. Leslie Stephen was always a redoubtable
pedestrian. He walked from Cambridge to London,
fifty miles, in twelve hours, and was a famous
Alpine climber. His walking prowess is recorded
in The Egoist, and it was in the autumn of the year
the book was published (1879) that Stephen founded
The Sunday Tramps. This was a pedestrian coterie
which met every other Sunday from October to
June, the walks taken being generally in Surrey,


Kent, and Hertfordshire. The original members
included Lord Justice Romer, Sir Frederick Pollock,
Sir Herbert Stephen, John Collier, R. B. (subse-
quently Lord) Haldane, Cotter Morison, D. MacColl
of The Athenceiim, and, of course, Leslie Stephen,
who acted as leader. His was an " unlimited
paternal despotism " ; and when collecting his
tramping flock at the railway station he had " the
solicitous look of a schoolmaster." Meredith was a
kind of ex-officio member. His health was beginning
to fail now, and he was not able often to accom-
plish the full distances essayed by the Tramps, but
whenever they came to his part of Surrey he would
meet them at an appointed spot on the hills and
escort them back to his house. After dinner at
Flint Cottage the guests started for London by train
at ten p.m. These pleasant excursions are often
mentioned by Meredith. Thus he tells Stevenson,
in June, 1880, that the party of Sunday Tramps
comprised Morison, Frederick Pollock, Croom
Robertson, Edgeworth, and Leslie Stephen. Mere-
dith and his son met them at Dorking station,
and all proceeded to Leith Hill, where they par-
took of a picnic, including Hock and cold sausages
brought in a sack from Flint Cottage. He adds
that Stephen had commemorated the outing in
philosophic style.^

1 Peripatetics, I. Pall Mall Gazette, 12th June, 1880. Leslie Stephen
did not forget to refer to the cold sausages brought by Meredith : ' ' The
most brilliant passage in our annals was the discovery by our poet —
for it need hardly be said that without poetry and philosophy one could
never attain the essence of commonplace existence — of the singular
harmony between lovely scenery and cold sausages." He goes on to
speak of the view from Leith Hill : "In front of us rises the old mansion
of the Evelyns, in such perfect harmony with its surroundings, that for
the moment I feel myself a cavalier in spirit, and a loyal subject of
Charles IL I look round instinctively for an oak-apple to stick in my



/: -^




■ y


The occasion of the Tramps' Centenary Walk was
celebrated by a dinner at Flint Cottage. Professor
James Sully, in his account of these meetings, says
of Meredith :

" From his occasional participation in a part of
the walk and still more, perhaps, from the readiness
to fall in with our mood of playful lawlessness, we
grew accustomed to regard him as one of ourselves.
It seems to some of us now that we were never more
penetrated with the essence of trampdom than when
in one of those delightful summer evenings we sat
and smoked after dinner in the Swiss Chalet above
the Box Hill Cottage, and listened to our host as
with exuberant force and brilliant wit he richly
clothed our poor attempts to ridicule the ways of
the over- serious." ^

But the ever fleeting years and the toll of
advancing age all too soon brought these pleasant
walks and talks to an end both for Meredith and the
founder of the Tramps. Leslie Stephen resigned,
owing to reasons of health, from the leadership in
1891, but he sometimes joined the band up till 1895.
After that he walked no more with them. Nothing
can exceed the pathos of those last letters exchanged
between Stephen and Meredith — those two mighty
walkers of hill and dale in good days gone — when the
former lay dying, and his friend, in hardly better
case, weak and prostrate after long illness, wrote

hat." Albury suggested some inevitable humour at the expense of
Martin F. Tupper, whose complacent " philosophy " has made him
the butt of many gibes.

' The Cornhill Magazine, January, 1908. Meredith appreciated this
article, which recalled happy days of a quarter of a century before, and
wrote complimentarily to Professor Sully-


that they wlio had loved the motion of legs and the
sweep of the winds had come to this pass.

Shortly before his death, in February, 1904,
Stephen wrote to Meredith :

" My very dear Friend, —I must make the effort
to write to you once more with my own hand. I can-

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Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 18 of 23)