S. M. (Stewart Marsh) Ellis.

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

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not trust to anybody else to say how much I value
your friendship, and I must send you a message,
perhaps it may be my last, of my satisfaction and
pride in thinking of your affection for me. Your
last bunch of violets is deliciously scenting my
prison house.

" Always your

" L. Stephen."

Thus passed the original of Vernon Whitford.
p^ The decline of Meredith's own health dated from
the arduous work, day and night, which he forced
upon himself in order to finish The Egoist rapidly.
A visit to France in the late summer of 1879 did
not re-establish his health. He left his family in,
Normandy, and crossed Touraine and the Cevennes
country to Nimes, and so to Marseilles and Bordi-
ghera, before proceeding to Dauphine. He came
back to England, and his mental and bodily state
were not improved by the atmospheric conditions
which greeted him.

It was one of the sad perversities of Meredith's
^^life that the same cause. The Egoist, which brought
to him success and appreciation should have sown
the seeds of illness that was fated in his latter years
to develop into chronic invalidism, and thereby
rob him of what he loved best in life, the power
of walking far in the English country-side and of

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"Thk Egoist"

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mountain-rambling in the Alps. His complaint was
bradypepsy engendered by the nervous excitement
of prolonged literary composition. By the end of
1881 his spine was affected, and he began to lose
the power of walking. — -^

Despite his aflected health, Meredith set to work
upon The Tragic Comedians in the year following
that of The Egoist, and arduous work too. He
completed his term of " slavery " within the specified
six months, for The Tragic Comedians — a short book
for Meredith, it is true — was published in December,
1880, after the story had commenced an abbreviated
serial appearance in The Fortnightly Review in
October.^ As usual, he felt dubious as to its

rlt is scarcely necessary to say that The Tragic
Comedians is based on the amazing history of
Ferdinand Lassalle and Helene von Donniges — one
of the great love stories of the world. And yet
there was^more of tragedy thanjo^ve in_tlie_ cjrama,
for both the protagonists failed to rise to the crisis
of their fate and, lacking entire devotion to the
other's need, wasted the golden moments in futile
procrastination and quixotic scruples of duty and
honour. The motto for such as they, amor vincit
omnia, was blotted out in blood. Their story is
more startling and pathetic and dramatic than that
of any invented novel or stage play.

Ferdinand Lassalle was a super-man. But, like
Samson of old, he was brought to death by a woman.
He, a Jew and a great potential force in the political
future of Germany, met, and fell in love with at
first sight, this young girl, Helene von Donniges,

' The original manuscript of i'lftccn chapters (the book contains
nineteen) realised £'220 at Sotheljy's in \<)\o.


who was already engaged to a youthful Roumanian
prince, Yanko von Racowitza. She was swept
away by this new force which enveloped her. But
the race and religion, the political views, and the
past reputation of Lassalle were all abhorrent and
anathema to the parents of the girl, and they
refused violently to listen to even the idea of his
becoming their son-in-law. At first, Helene would
have sacrificed everything for her lover. She fled
from her home, came to Lassalle at his hotel, and
if he had then grasped his fate firmly, all would
have been well. But his wayward temperament
suddenly shot forth egotistical and quixotic decisions.
He, the super-man, would conquer the objections
of the Donniges family, and he, the past profligate,
would wed a wife in the normal way out of her
parents' house. So, he was capable of the incredible
folly of sending the girl back to her home, and then
employing as one of his intermediaries an old
woman, the Countess Hatzfeldt, with whom he had
had an affair in the past. This person now played
a malign role in the drama somewhat akin to that
of the Countess Platen in the great love tragedy of
Konigsmarck and Sophie Dorothea, wife of George
I., which also ended in blood for the man and long
remorseful years and bitter tears for the woman.

When Lassalle sent Helene back to her parents
he lost her for ever ; he never saw her again. The
Donniges family refused to treat with him, and the
father, a typical German officer, broke his daughter's
spirit by confinement and methods of terrorism —
even to physical violence. He actually compelled
her, against her own will, to send letters of renunci-
ation to her lover.

But he — Lassalle — now realised his folly too late,


and yet proceeded to an act of extreme folly. He
had always been opposed to the practice of duellmg :
his lion-like nature placed him above the charge
of physical cowardice. But in his baffled agony of
mind he sent a challenge to Helene's father, who
refused it on the plea of age. But the challenge
was taken up by Racowitza, her earlier lover. The
two men met, and, by the most tragic irony of fate,
Lassalle was mortally wounded by his boyish rival.
He lingered in horrible agony for three days, and
then the end.

Lassalle died on 31st August, 1864, and his slayer
broke the news, with sobs, to Helene : " He is dead."
She had expected confidently that Racowitza would
be the one to fall, and had resolved then to fly to
Lassalle once more. But Fate denying this, she
rose to the supreme height of Tragic-Comedy and
a few months later married the man whose hands
were stained with the blood of her lover. The out-
rageous union was of short duration, for Fate shot
another bolt, Prince Yanko von Racowitza dying
within five months. One need not apportion any
blame to him in this amazing drama : he was
merely a puppet ground beneath the juggernaut of
the Eternal Feminine.

Thus far the story as known to Meredith and
utilised by him. He did not live to learn the last
act of his Tragic Comedy, which befitted what had
been enacted throughout. The widowed Princess
von Racowitza, hated by the populace as the cause
of the death of the idolised Lassalle, and disinherited
by her parents, became a female Ishmael and a
nomad. She went on the stage, witliout much
success, consoled herself witli many lovers, and
married a second husband, Sicgwart Fricdmanii,


an actor. Divorce ended her connection with him
five years later, and eventually she married a third
husband in America, Baron Schewitsch, whose
estates in Russia had been confiscated owing to his
complicity with Nihilism. He and Helene returned
to Munich, and earned a precarious living by journal-
ism.^ The Baron died in October, 1911, and the
dramatic Helene, fearing to face the prospect of
old age, loneliness, and poverty, ended her mortal
career a few days later by means of poison. To the
last, it is said, she retained the inscrutable, Mona Lisa
type of face, and those wonderful masses of Titian-red
hair which had brought so many men to ruin.

She was a profoundly interesting exemplar of
(not to) her sex, and Meredith, with better health
and inclination, might have achieved a greater
study than he did in The Tragic Comedians. He
did not allow himself sufficient time and scope to
develop the characters of the protagonists, and the
work suffers from the unusual fault in Meredith of
being too short. Nevertheless, it needs must hold
attention through the course of perusal, and there
are many caustic sayings. Excellent is the vignette
of Bismarck introduced in this work ; and very apt
the credo of the demagogue and unscrupulous
politician, which might be professed to-day by some
who have, unhappily, risen to supreme power in the
destinies of England.

The Tragic Comedians reminds me of an amusing
discussion I had, both verbally and by correspond-
ence, with Sir Francis Burnand, who, although a
friend of fifty years' standing, could never read
much of Meredith's work. He took exception to

1 The Princess von Racowitza wrote her own astonishing A uto-
hiography. An English translation was published by Constable in 1910.


my statement in an article that Dickens and
Meredith were "two of the most distinguished men
in English literature." He said :

" No, emphatically, no, when Meredith is styled
' one oj the most . . .' He will eventually be nowhere
near the high niche where he placed himself. Will
he be above Peacock ? He had not Peacock's
originality of humour. But I forget we are bounded
and limited by Dickens who, when in his own line of
romance, stands alone. Out of that line even Dickens
is not on a par with Jerrold, nor in pure romance can
he equal Ainsworth (who was of his time) — I do
not mention Thackeray — they stood quite apart.
Thackeray gave us ' living pictures ' — real men and
real women. . . . Meredith's conceit killed him, or
rather his work. ... I wish you would pursue the
subject, but whether worth while is questionable.
Your method and style of treatment make me utter
the wish. I have all Meredith's works but I cannot
read them with the exceptions mentioned. . . .
Last night I made s^woXhev bonne volonte trial attempt
at reading The Tragic Comedians, hnpossihle — for
me at least. I shall try another of G. M.'s : but I
believe that, except with Evan Harrington, a poem
or two, Modern Love, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel,
I shall find them now, as I found them at first, writ
in a ' language not understanded of the people ' and
certainly not of this singular person signing himself,
Yours, F. C. BuRNANU."

Thus the extensive gamut of Meredithian criticism
from Burnand, who found him unreadable and
conceited, to Stevenson, who aligned him with
Shakspere and immortality.



^ M "yHE Tragic Comedians finished, Meredith
/ for some time devoted himself to his

-/ favourite muse, Poetry, though he well
knew the scant rewards it would bring. The dread-
ful curse of Verse was on him, and had been for two
months, he said in March, 1881. " Poetry comes
easier than prose and bedevils me." The result
of this particular bedevilment was made manifest
in the spring of 1883, when Macmillan published
Poems and Lijrics of the Joy of Earth. The volume
was inscribed to James Cotter Morison, and con-
tained twelve poems and twenty-five sonnets. It
included the famous Woods of Westermain, inspired
by the poet's walks in Deerleap Woods, near
Abinger, and also to a large extent by Norbury
Park, renowned for its ancient trees and sylvan
glory. Here, too, appeared Meredith's finest poem,
The Lark Ascending, written in 1881, wherein he trod
the heights with Shelley and as his compeer, both
exquisitely singing the immanence of Nature in all
things beautiful, the lark being but the symbol. The
setting was, of course, the Box Hill Valley, just as The
Orchard and the Heath suggests Ranmore Common.

In the same volume was the revised and extended
version of Love in the Valley (reprinted from Mac-
millan' s Magazine, October, 1878) ; and here, too,
appeared Phoebus with Admetus with its stately



cadences and momentary pictures. Mrs Grant
Allen told me that one of her most memorable
experiences at Flint Cottage was when Meredith
declaimed this poem in sonorous tones to a few
friends assembled in his chalet.

Shortly before the volume appeared, the poet
bitterly anticipated lack of appreciation once again,
but it did more to bring him recognition as a poet
than any of his previous or subsequent volumes of
verse. Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth con-
tains Meredith's best-known and oft-quoted poetry.

To revert a trifle chronologically, in 1882-1883
Meredith was a good deal in London, and went
about and to the theatre more than was his usual
custom. He saw Mrs Langtry in Ours, and Irving
as Romeo. He liked Albani in The Flying Dutch-
man. At Browning's request he dined with the
poet in July, 1883. A year earlier he had the
pleasure of Robert Louis Stevenson's company at
Box Hill again, when the two had several long after-
dinner talks. Later this summer (1882) he went
abroad. He crossed the Simplon and met his son
Arthur at Stresa. They were a week together at
Lugano. Thence they proceeded to Milan.

But he was now planning Diana of the Crossways.
As early as December, 1881, he said he was in
harness to his novel. He wrote to Leslie Stephen
in September, 1882, at the time when there was a
chance the new story might appear in The Cornhill
Magazine (which project, however, was not realised),
that he hoped to have it ready by the spring.

The work was destined to take him over a year
longer than he anticipated.^

' Only about two-tliirds of the story, twenty-six chapters, appeared
in The Fortnightly Review, June to December, 1884.


Diana of the Crossways is, perhaps, the most
psychological of Meredith's books. This was a very
subtle study of the complex personality of his heroine,^
and even the title of the story was allegorically apt.
The character of Diana was mostly Meredith's
creation, for her prototype, Mrs Norton, was erratic
rather than complex, and it was her eventful life
and not her mind that Meredith borrowed. She
wouldn't be a bad heroine of romance, said Percy
Dacier, derisively of the Romantic, after he had
broken with Diana ; and certainly Caroline Norton,
if not a heroine in life, had a romantic career,
tarnished though it was by dust from the sordid
arenas of Grub Street, Politics, and the Law Courts.

Caroline Sheridan was an interesting example of
the warring influences of heredity. Granddaughter
of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, she inherited his
literary talents and espieglerie and Irish carelessness ;
she had the good looks of her father, Tom Sheridan ;
she possessed the musical and artistic gifts of her
Linley grandmother. It was her fate to have her
name coupled with several notable men : her first
husband, George Norton (a younger brother of the
3rd Lord Grantley ), was the least remarkable of them.
As early as 1828, when she was twenty years of
age and a bride of but one year, there was some
gossip in London about the frequent and lengthy
visits the Honourable Mrs Norton paid to 27 Old
Bond Street, to see her young and handsome literary
adviser, William Harrison Ainsworth, who super-
intended the production of her first book of poems,
The Sorrows of Rosalie. In 1836 came the famous
case concerning her relations with the Premier,

^ See the interesting exposition of Diana the author gave to Lady
Ulrica Duncombe, in Letters of George Meredith, pp. 530-532, 542-543.


Lord Melbourne. The accused parties established
their innocence ; and it is possible that political
conspiracy had some share in involving Melbourne
in this scandal, which might well invalidate his in-
fluence in the counsels of the young female sovereign
whose succession was imminent. Mrs Norton's
resultant invidious and uncertain position, and her
conflicts with her husband in the Law Courts and
in print, tended much to ameliorate the laws and
ancient conventions governing the social condition
of women. In 1845 occurred the most painful
incident of Mrs Norton's life, when she was charged
by rumour with having sold to The Times a political
secret concerning the immediate impending repeal
of the Corn Laws — information supposed to have
been confided to her by Sidney Herbert, who had
just joined the Cabinet. The accusation was un-
doubtedly false, for it seems clear by later evidence
that it was Lord Aberdeen who prematurely im-
parted the momentous intelligence to Delane, the
editor of The Times, in the course of what is vulgarly
called " a deal." Obtaining her long-desired marital
freedom in 1875, when she became a widow, Mrs
Norton, true to her illogical temperament, assumed
the yoke again two years after, when she married
Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, who, however, had
been her faithful friend for many years. She died
three months later, in June, 1877.

Such, in briefest outline, were the salient incidents
of the stormy course of this lifelong victim of gossip,
" The Byron of her Sex," as Mrs Norton's contem-
poraries regarded her ; and it will be seen that
Meredith followed rather closely the facts of her life
in his story of Diana of the Crossways, with, of course,
a good deal of author's licence and transposition of


dates and incidents. He commenced his work four
years after her death.

As I mentioned in passing, when dealing with
Copsham days in 1859-1860, Meredith had previ-
ously known Mrs Norton, then a woman of about
fifty, as he met her at the house of his friends,the
Duff Gordons, at Esher. Mrs Ross told me that
Mrs Norton did not much care for the rising author
of Evan Harrington, and this, perhaps, throws some
light on what follows, for Diana of the Crossways
recalls an echo of Meredith's life in earlier years.
Copsham no doubt suggested the name of " Copsley,"
the estate of the Dunstanes so frequently mentioned
and described in the story, though the actual house
and its high situation seems like a picture of Denbies,
near Dorking. Lady Dunstane was another pre-
sentment of Lady Duff Gordon, who was an enthusi-
astic defender of the character of her friend, Mrs
Norton (always called " Aunt Carrie " by the
daughter, Janet Duff Gordon) ; but the foolish
Sir Lukin in no way resembled Sir Alexander Duff
Gordon, who was a man of fine character. Most of
the other personages of the novel could be fitted
with prototypes ; some are obvious, and it will
suffice here to draw attention to the interesting fact
that Arthur Rhodes was more or less an auto-
portrait of Meredith himself in young manhood,
the period of his life of which so little, unfortunately,
is known. To establish the corollary, I must recall
a little of what I have previously related in an
earlier chapter.

When about eighteen, Meredith was articled to
Mr Charnock, a solicitor ; but the handsome boy
disdained the law and gave his time and attention
to the study of literature ; to long rambles in Surrey


devoted to Nature worship ; and to the cultivation
of the society of literary people he met in the circle
of Thomas Love Peacock. Soon after, he published
his first volume of poems. Just so in Diana of the
Crossways Arthur Rhodes was a young poet, rather
good-looking, and well built. Diana said he had
sent her a volume of verse. He was mad for
literature. He was an articled clerk of Mr Brad-
dock's. (A name which is almost an anagram of
Charnock.) When Arthur Rhodes walked out from
London to Copsley, he descanted with rapture on
the beauties of Nature and of the woods he had
seen on his way. When, later, Diana advised
Arthur Rhodes to consider the prudence of his re-
suming the yoke of the Law, he laughed, and said he
had some expectations of money to come. George
Meredith about 1849 inherited a small legacy from
a relative in Portsmouth. Arthur Rhodes, in his
friendship with Diana, treasured her remarks.

Whether it is permissible to deduce from this that
Mrs Norton had some influence upon Meredith's
career is a matter for individual opinion. If it was
so, then it is regrettable that he should have re-
vived in Diana of the Crossways the scandalous
accusation that charged his friend with betraying a
political secret. To Mrs Norton's other and more
staunch friends this matter in his book gave great
offence. It very nearly caused a rift with the Duff
Gordon family ; but it was only subsequent to 1896
that the prefatory note was added to later editions of
the novel stating that the charge in question was a
calumny, and that Meredith's version of the story
was to be read as fiction. This was done at the
urgent insistence of Lord Dufferin and Ava, who
informed Mrs Ross in that year :


" Meredith has promised to introduce an adequate
refutation of the story he has so powerfully helped
to promulgate into the next edition of Diana of the
Crossways, so that I have had the pleasure of vin-
dicating ' Aunt Carrie's ' memory of this atrocious

Much has been written and said about the im-
penetrability of the first chapter of this book. But
as a matter of fact there is nothing very difficult in
it. Inartistic it certainly is, and probably no other
fine novel has such an unusual and untempting
introduction, except The Egoist in a lesser degree.
In brief, it is merely a review of the contemporary
comments upon Mrs Norton to be found in the
Greville and other memoirs, and a plea for phil-
osophy in fiction. Incidentally it contains an apt
and caustic mot on Charles Greville and his famous

In addition to the forbidding introduction, there
are many improbabilities in the story. The con-
versations are often on too pretentious a height
both in the dining-room and in the servants' hall
(Danvers, the lady's-maid, uses the word " invidi-
ous " ) ; and the author's views on the emancipa-
tion and rights of women are introduced at a tan-
gent, without much regard to the unities. But
these are unimportant criticisms, and are forgotten
in the appreciation that must ever be the meed of
the major portion of this brilliant work. There are
many memorable phrases within its pages.

But in his novels Meredith could also paint lasting
pictures with a few vivid strokes. They stand out
pre-eminently in this book and in memory after the
reading — Redworth's November night ride to The


Crossways, the actual house being The Crosswaj^s
Farm, near Abinger Hammer ; Diana lighting the
fire at The Crossways ; Diana's night watch by
the body of her dead friend ; Diana on the wind-
swept ebb-sands beyond Caen ; the great scene of
Diana's confession and parting with Dacier. And
all through the story, like a musical motif, recurs
Meredith's love for Surrey scenery and those
wonderful flaming sunsets which gild the lily of that
county's loveliness of hill and heath and woodland.
With glowing colours he paints the well-known
characteristics of the familiar scenery.

Ever his beloved South-West wind blows upon
the exquisite scenes he pictures. Sometimes, as
when Diana and Redworth walked to Selshall, the
South-Wester dons the robes of rude force ; but
more often he is in gentle mood, as when Diana
drove out with Lady Dunstane on a morning of
June. The South-West winds and Surrey sunsets,
great and worshipped symbols of Nature to Mere-
dith, stir and irradiate the pages of Diana oj the
Crossways, the novel pre-eminently of Meredith's
own county and cloudland.

Dedicated to Sir Frederick Pollock, one of The
Sunday Tramps, and published in three volumes by
Chapman and Hall early in 1885,^ Diana of the
Crossways received full recognition in the reviews
without delay. That in The Academy for 28th
February, written by James Ashcroft Noble, pro-
pounded Meredith as a brilliant social essayist para-
doxically using the form of a novelist ; W. Vj.

* The use of the copyright was for five years. See First Ediliojis oj
George Meredith, by Luther Livingston, and The Sphere, 4th May,
1912, where Mr Shorter mentions the strained relations between
Meredith and his pubhshers in 1893, which led soon after to a
severance of their long association.


Henley, in The Athenceum of 14th March, compared
Meredith's art with Shakspere's and ranked Diana
with Rosalind ; and Cosmo Monkhouse, in The
Saturday Review of 21st March, declared that in
Diana the author had created a living woman
dowered with exceptional gifts of blood and brains.
Nevertheless, in spite of these and other generous
criticisms, Meredith preserved his usual attitude to
the world and professed to believe that his latest
work had met the fate of its predecessors and re-
ceived appreciation only here and there from some
friendly pen.

But he was in no mood to pay attention to reviews,
favourable or the reverse, for his book had appeared
just as his wife was struck down again by illness,
this time to be fatal. After an operation in
February, 1885, Mrs Meredith was removed to
Avalon House, Upperton, Eastbourne, in April, and
her husband was with her there on and off until she
was brought back to Box Hill in June. All hope
was now abandoned. For three months longer the

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Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 19 of 23)