S. M. (Stewart Marsh) Ellis.

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

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sad and painful trial continued, until the end came,
on 17th September. It was an irreparable loss.
Meredith, after his son went to Normandy and his
daughter to Mr John Morley's house at Wimbledon,
was alone in the home of sad memories.

This was the time in which he wrote his beautiful
poem, A Faith on Trial. At first, in sorrowful
reminiscence, he recalls the past. He pictures his
wife's early home in Normandy, and the happy
days at Box Hill. So far Nature has been unable
to blot the bitterness of his personal grief, but
the sudden vision of beauty of the wild-cherry tree
in flower ^ strikes a message of hope through the

^ See also chap. xi. of The Egoist.


darkness. Now all is clear, despair is vanquished,
and Faith in the ultimate good of all things restored.
The rest of the poem is devoted to the profession
of the Faith of the God of Nature, whose truths
are unlocked by the handmaiden Earth. Change
in Recurrence also voices Meredith's loss of his wife
and his now empty home.

Many other poems, of this date too, reflect the
poet's great sorrow, and his ultimate consolation,
as in Hymn to Colour ; and the epitaph M. M.
(Marie Meredith) gives it final expression.

The poems we have been noticing, together with
twenty-four additional pieces, including The South-
Wester and The Thrush m February, appeared in
the volume entitled A Reading of Earth, published
by Macmillan in 1888. The same firm had issued
the previous year Meredith's volume of verse,
Ballads and Poems oj Tragic Life, containing nineteen
items. These books are characteristically alluded
to by their author in a letter, to Mr George Steven-
son, of February, 1887.

All through his life Meredith would have preferred
to be a poet, and it was his poetry that he regarded
as his best work. He told Mr Clodd :

" Chiefly by that in my poetry which emphasises
the unity of life, the soul that breathes through the
universe, do I wish to be remembered : for the
spiritual is the eternal. Only a few read my verse,
and yet it is that for which I care most. ... I
began with poetry and I shall finish with it." ^

Mr W. S. Blunt relates that Meredith was much
pleased when he said that he regarded him only as
a poet.

1 The Fortnightly Review, July, 1909.


But Meredith had to pay for his preference. Until
1896 his books of poetry were pubhshed at his own
expense ; and he would not have the later ones sent
out for review. Meredith's least attractive poetry
was written about 1892, the period of The Empty
Purse, which the author himself, in later years,
admitted to be prosy and didactic. He told Mrs
Sturge Henderson so, in a letter of 1906. Even in
1892, however, there were poems that contained
much of the old beauties of thought and imagery,
such as The Lesson of Grief, Night of Frost in May,
and Breath of the Briar. ^

The curious production, Jump-to-Glory Jane, be-
longs to 1889, and by some is regarded as a burlesque
on the methods of the Salvation Army, whose
activities and persecutions were prominent at that
date. It will be remembered that Meredith intro-
duced a Salvationist, Matilda Pridden, in One of
our Conquerors, written in 1890. The published
version of Jump-to-Glory Jane differs very much
from the original manuscript. The poem appeared
first in The Universal Review, and to the editor,
Harry Quilter, Meredith vouchsafed some " ex-
position " of Ju7np-to-Glory Jane which may be
taken seriously or, more advisedly, as a typical
example of intense and strained Meredithian humour
at its slyest. He said it was a grave narration of
events in English country life. Jane, though a
jumping, was a thoughtful woman. She had dis-
covered that the circulation of the blood is best
brought about by continual exercise, conducing to
happy sensations, which were to her as the being
of angels in her frame. She had wistful eyes in a

1 This book of verse seems to have sold well ; hundreds of bound
copies being all sold out.


touching but bony face. It might be a Satire, but
it was a picture of England as well. Such were
Mrs Girling and her followers, and the sensations
of Jane, with her blood spinning with activity,
warranted her feeling of exaltation.

Originally it was proposed that Linley Sambourne
should illustrate Jump-to-Glory Jane, but he did
not see his way to do so ; then Bernard Partridge
was engaged for the work, but, according to report,
" his heart failed him " and he resigned the com-
mission ; eventually Laurence Housman executed
some very fine and sympathetic designs, which were
reproduced in the 1892 edition of this remarkable
poem, dedicated to Meredith's friend, John Morley,
by Mr Quilter, who also furnished a foreword on
Meredith's " unpopularity."

Meredith's Odes in Contribution to the Song of
French History belong to the year 1896. His
object, he said, was to make History sing. The
Odes were not published until 1898, when they
appeared in Cosmopolis and in book form.

His last volume of verse, A Reading of Life, was
published in 1901. This contained twenty-five
poems, and among much that was harsh there
sounded an echo of the poet's early and musical
note from the past in the beautiful little Song in
the Songless.

To revert briefly to the decade of the eighties.
In August, 1886, Meredith had the pleasure of a
visit, at Flint Cottage, from R. L. Stevenson.
Although some of his older friends were passing,
Meredith had new friends he much valued, one of
the most intimate to the end being Mr Edward
Clodd, whom he first met in 1884. He much appreci-
ated tlie society of the Misses Lawrence and Mrs


Walter Palmer. Grant Allen and his wife, who
were then living at Dorking, were always welcome
at Flint Cottage. They introduced, on one occasion,
William Watson, who, despite his article. Fiction —
Plethoric and Anaemic, was welcomed graciously by
Meredith. Various politicians also came to Box
Hill : Haldane, Dillon, and, later, Mr Asquith. In
April, 1887, Meredith dined with the Eighty Club,
when he was introduced to Gladstone. In June,
1888, Meredith mentions an engagement to dine with
Haldane and Asquith at the Blue Posts, sitting
between A. J. Balfour and Morley.^ In the follow-
ing year Meredith attended several of the sittings of
the Parnell Commission.

In the summer of 1887, he and his family stayed
for a month at 4 Draycot Terrace, St Ives, Cornwall,
where, in addition to fine scenery and good bathing,
there was the pleasure of the society of the Leslie
Stephens. The following summer he and his
daughter went to Wales, where his son, W. M.
Meredith, was then working as an electrical engineer,
in partnership with Mr J. C. Howell, of Llanelly.
Seventeen days were spent at Tenby, and subse-
quent halts were made at Llanelly, Llandilo, Llan-
drindod, and Brecon. Apart from the scenery,
Meredith did not enjoy his sojourns in Welsh hotels.

At Ferndale, Meredith and the rest of his party
went down a coal shaft, accompanied by the owner,
Mr Frederick Davis, and Mr Frank Edwards, M.P.
The novelist had some conversation with the miners
below the surface.

1889 found him at work on One of our Conquerors.

1 A little sketch of Meredith at this dinner, by Sir F. C. Gould, was
reproduced twenty-one years later in The Westminster Gazette, 4th
January, 1909.

Gkou(;k MKKKDnii

Fioiii I he photograpli hy I liciiison


Sir William Hardman died on 12th September,
1890, and the previous year Meredith had lost his
other old friend and neighbour at Norbiton a quarter
of a century before — Frederick Jones. He felt the
snapping of these firmly forged and trusty links
with the past. He wrote to Mrs Jones a finely
expressed letter of sympathy.^ Meredith could write
very exquisitely in times of sorrow with real heart-
felt words of sympathy, though he had the sensitive
artist's horror of death and the grim ceremonies
that follow it.

His son Arthur Meredith's death on 3rd
September, 1890, preceded Sir William Hardman's
by nine days.^ It was a sad coincidence that the
two personalities most intimately associated with
the old days at Copsham should have passed almost
together, and it must have struck poignantly the
chords of memory. Perhaps his Ode to Youth in
Memory was an expression of what Meredith felt in
this retrospective time.

• Mrs Jones survived her husband for thirty years, and remained
at Kingston Lodge until the end.

- Browning's funeral at Westminster Abbey, on 31st December,
1889, was one of the few services of this description that Meredith
ever attended. He was also present at Tennyson's funeral in the same
building in October, 1892.



THE decade 1885-1895 is supposed, popularly,
to be the most " difficult " of Meredith's
literary output : it was the period when he
accomplished his literary vengeance on his critics,
of whose hostile activities, as we have seen, he took
a perversely exaggerated view. But now that he
was financially independent, and had a considerable
following both in America and England, as even he
was constrained to admit, he resolved to flail those
reviewing animals, or insects rather, who had bitten
and tormented him in the wilderness. As an
acknowledged literary force and influence, the critics
would be obliged to wrestle with his verbal mystifica-
tions and perverse juggling with the English language,
and to swallow the indigestible preliminaries of Diana
of the Crossways and One of our Conquerors by way
of hors d'oeuvre before the meat he deigned to offer
them was served. Such was the author's intention
in his last, and so-called " difficult," novels. There
is an interesting reference to one of these books.
One of our Conquerors, in a late letter (1906) of
Meredith's to a critic of his work.

When M. Photiades visited Meredith in 1908, and
spoke appreciatively of One of our Conquerors, he
was complimented by the author for having ven-
tured upon his most difficult book. Meredith went
on to say :



" I had discovered at the start of my career that
nothing upset the critics so much as anything that
was out of the common and required an extra meed
of attention. When 1 was about sixty, and I had
inherited a small sum of money which made me
independent, I took it into my head to serve these
critics a strong dose of my most indigestible pro-
duction. I presented to them, slyly, Diana of the
Crossways and the novels which followed. But
nothing drove them so crazy as One of our Con-
querors. The poor fellows knew not what saint to
call upon or how to give an account of the accursed
volume. It was necessary to commence by under-
standing it, and these blind men were groping in
the thickness of their shadows."

The critics must answer for themselves. One
certainly, Mr J. M. Robertson, confessed : " With
the exception of Zola's La Terre — hard reading for
a different reason — One of our Conquerors was the
hardest novel to read that I ever met with." ^

Without in any way seeking to pose as a person
who vanquishes difficulties admitted by more ex-
perienced critics, I may say that, personally, I find
no difficulty in reading One of our Conquerors : on
the contrary, owing to the extreme interest of the
problem presented and the flow of incidents, re-
garded as a novel I find it easier to read than some
of Meredith's earlier work, such as Sandra Belloni,
where nothing in particular happens beyond the
mental convolutions and consequent actions and
reactions of the characters, whereas there is full
store of dramatic happenings in One of our Con-
querors, particularly at the close, and the final inter-
view with Mrs Burman is astonishingly vivid.

1 Concerning Preciosity. The Yellow Booh, April, 1897.


Possibly the effect is gained by contrasting the
intense emotions of the actors in the scene with the
famiUar setting, which Victor Radnor finds the same
after the absence of long years : the white and gold
furniture ; the scent of Marechale ; the French
clock, with the swinging gilt Cupid, which was always
wrong as to time — as momentous and sinister a
horologe as the French clock, with its alarmed tick-
ing and cheerful brass group of the sacrifice of
Iphigenia, appeared to Amelia, of Vanity Fair, when
she found herself in the drawing-room of Osborne's
house in Russell Square, another funereal mansion
like Mrs Burman's in Regent's Park.

There is indeed a sort of Thackeray-London
atmosphere throughout One of our Conquerors, per-
meated as it is by the odours of Armandine's super-
lative cookery and the sound of popping corks of
Old Veuve. How picturesque is the opening scene,
the view from London Bridge — " London's un-
rivalled mezzotint " ; and then the smoky splendours
of sunset over Trafalgar Square in " The Walk

In contradistinction to The Egoist, the char-
acters of One of our Conquerors are almost without
exception lovable and delightful. Surely Nesta
Radnor is the most charming of all Meredith's
heroines. Though gifted with intellect and musical
talent, she is ever an unaffected and affectionate
girl— the symbol by whose acts and words Meredith
expressed his noble compassion for women who
have erred and suffered. Very real and human, too,
are Victor Radnor and Nataly, the two Fenellans ;
most amusing Skepsey, Beaves Urmsing, the
Duvidney ladies and their disconcertingly perfumed
lap-dog, Tasso. The unctuous parsons of the book,


the rival confessors of Tunbridge Wells, that Para-
dise of the Elect, and the Rev. Septimus Barmby,
and the Rev. Groseman Buttermore, give another
Thackeray touch, for they belong to the school of the
Rev. Charles Honeyman. The character of Dartrey
Fenellan may have been suggested by Colonel
Frederick Burnaby, author of The Ride to Khiva,
who was killed at Abu Klea in 1885. In Colney
Durance, I imagine, Meredith provided a ventrilo-
quist's doll who could enunciate his own satiric
observations at the expense of England and the
English ; Durance's serial, The Rival Tongues,
appeared in a magazine unappreciated and mis-
understood, much in the manner accorded, in his
own estimation, to Meredith's work in The Fort-
nightly Review. Certainly Durance speaks with the
tongue of the Celtic Meredith as revealed in the
letters of the latter when alluding to the English.
Colney Durance utters many pungent sayings in
the manner of Meredith's table-talk, as when he
advises love as a cure for stoutness. Other typical
Meredithian remarks are uttered by Victor Radnor.
In this book, too, Meredith tilted at his favourite
windmill of the inefficient British Army ; voiced
his views on conscription and the scandal of young
officers who, as soon as they were trained, resigned
their commissions ; and he alluded to the rank and file
of the army as consumptive louts. All this, in view
of recent history, now seems strangely out of date,
and here, for once, Meredith was not a true prophet.
But, as I have said before, depreciation always finds
its mouthers in England, even from Downing Street
with sneers at " kilometric advances " against
" impenetrable barriers," and from Episcopal
Palaces with rescripts announcing that never again



will We tolerate the spectacle of healthy young
men serving as footmen or drapers' assistants.
Perhaps : perhaps not. Anyway, the despised
lackey and counter-jumper, who managed to fight
all right for the protection of the spouters, decides
for himself whether he resumes, or not, his former
employment. He requires no direction or inter-
ference from those whose knowledge of battle and
sudden death was confined to rides in motor cars
behind the lines for purposes of exhortation, and to
seeing from the windows of a special train "shrapnel
bursting " over London — a spectacle not vouchsafed,
it would seem, to other dwellers in the city.

Although a bishop might find confirmation of his
views upon the young men of England in One oj our
Conquerors, he would also find speedy cause for
corybantic commination at the sympathetic laxity
expressed in the same book for breaches of the
marriage law and the Seventh Commandment. The
whole problem of the novel is concerned with those
matters, and it was in One oJ our Conquerors that
Meredith first adumbrated his quasi-humorous and
much reprobated plea for "leasehold marriages"
determinable by the contractors after a term of
years if so desired.^ Elsewhere he expressed his
theory for marriages of ten years' duration more
seriously, but probably he was still half in jest, so
ineradicable always was the Comic Spirit within him.

One of our Conquerors has its faults, of course, like
all other books. The extracts from Colney Durance's
imaginary work, The Rival Tongues, are intolerably
dull— to me, the dullest thing Meredith ever wrote ;
and it is curious that his sense of humour did not
save him from making the villain of his story,

1 Chapter xxiv.


Worrell, a Major. Wicked Baronets and Majors !
Who shall ever compile the full list of you in fiction
and drama and the indictment of your villainies for
the entrapment of Female Virtue ? And who were
the progenitors of your long lines ?

One oj our Conquerors commenced a triple serial
appearance in October, 1890, in The Fortnightly
Review, The Australasian, and The Neiv York Sun.
It was published in three volumes by Chapman and
Hall in 1891.^ One of the few references to the
story in Meredith's correspondence is contained in
a letter, dated 16th June, 1891, to an admirer of the
author living in Glasgow — Mr George Stevenson,
who was dubbed " Glasgowgo."

Having declared war with the critics, the veteran
set about preparing his next bomb for their con-
fusing in the shape of Lord Ormont and his Aminta.
But for those who have read Meredith in his literary
progression, this book and The Amazing Marriage
can have no difficulties. '^ Compared with the didac-
tics of Beauchamif s Career and the subtleties of The
Egoist, they are simple — tales merely of vagaries in
the Holy Estate of Matrimony. Why Swinburne,
for instance, could not read them is inexplicable.
Perhaps the real objection to these books is not
directed to any obscurity of plot or tortuosity of
narrative, but rather to the perverse use of words
and simile. This point of view has been very
trenchantly expressed by Mr J. M. Robertson in his
article, Concerning Preciosity, before mentioned :

' The original draft of the manuscript was entitled A Conqueror
in our Time ; 440 pages of this were sold for £260 at Sotheby's in

* Meredith himself seems to have regarded Lord Ormont and his
Aminta as " easier ''reading than One of our Conquerors, judging by
a letter to C. K. Shorter, dated 25th May, 1891.


" It is indeed impossible for a reader who respects
Mr Meredith's genius to read him— or at least his
later works —without irritation at his extraordinary
ill-usage of language. Old admirers, going back to
his earlier works, never free from the sin of preci-
osity, recognise that there has been an almost con-
tinuous deterioration— the fatal law of all purposive
preciosity. In the earlier novels there were at times
signal beauties of phrase, sentences in which the
strain towards utterance was transmuted into fire
and radiance, sentences of the fine poet who under-
lay and even now underlies that ever-thickening
crust of preciosity and verbal affectation. Even in
One oj our Conquerors there seemed, to the tolerant
sense, to be still some gleams of the old flame flash-
ing at long intervals through the scoriae of unsmelted
speech. But in Lord Ormont and his Aminta neither
patience nor despair can discover in whole chapters
aught but the lava and cinders of language. . . .1
After a few chapters I no longer sought to read Mr
Meredith. I made a hand-to-mouth precis of nearly
every page, and soon got over the ground, only
pausing at times to reassure myself that all was ill.
Hardly once, so far as I have read, do we find an
important sentence really well written ; never a
paragraph ; for the perpetual grimace of expression,
twisting the face of speech into every shape but
those of beauty and repose, is in no sense admirable."

Mr Robertson showed no mercy to the famous

" Marine Duet " chapter of Lord Ormont and his

Aminta, which he said was merely " the imagination

of a man who either never knew what swimming is

I John Payne, who styled Meredith " a cramp jargoneer," refers in
his Humoristica to " the rolhcking enjoyment with which the author
of Lord Ormont aud his Aminta disports himself among the ruins of
his unfortunate native language."


or has forgotten what he knew. The oeeurrence,
as related in the novel, is an impossible dream.* In
this, indeed, there is pathos, and perhaps the ideal
reader would only see pathos or literary picturesque
in the kindred aberration of the novelist's prose."

For thirty-five years Meredith's female creations
had been " swimming " metaphorically in his works,
and now, according to this critic, when, at last, a
lady takes to the water in reality and kicks out and
splashes and swims for miles, talking the while, the
whole thing is an impossibility. Meredith's fond-
ness for the simile of a woman swimming is surely
the most irritating of his recurrent affected phrases ;
it can probably be found in every one of his stories,
and even in Love in the Valley " she swims to me
on tears," which suggests anything but a romantic
experience and inclines to raise the spectacle of
a damp nightmare. When Mrs Doria or Diana
" swim " to the door or the tea-tray the mental
picture conjured up is not graceful or dignified : one
seems to see the ladies face downwards, kicking
out their heels and sprawling on the floor. Only on
one occasion do I find the expression tolerable, and
that is when the Countess de Saldar " swam in the
pleasure of a nobleman's compliment." Here we
can picture the harassed dame, splashing about and
diving and bobbing up again, and showing olT, so to
speak, during one of the few pleasant moments of
that unlucky dinner at Beckley Court.

In Lord Ormont and his Aminta Meredith again
attacked his favourite problem of a woman placed in
an invidious and dubious position by some flaw in
her matrimonial chains, thougli the thesis in this
book that the heroine's marriage might be irregular

*The swimming scene was placed off Felixstowe, where Meredith
used to stay, over forty years previously, with his first wife.


owing to the ceremony having been performed in
a British Embassy abroad is not very convincing.
Provided the necessary formalities had been carried
out and an authorised clergyman or official had
performed the service, a marriage in an embassy
abroad, a place regarded as " British soil," should
be as legal as any other, whether contracted in
church or registry or drawing-room. Meredith
seems to have based his presentment of the relations
between Lord and Lady Ormont on the celebrated
case of Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough
(1658-1735), Admiral and General, who, after a
stirring and stormy Service career, was supposed
to have married Anastasia Robinson, the singer, in
1722. The lady quitted the stage and lived in a
villa at Parson's Green provided by the Earl. Be-
ing very ill in 1735, and perhaps pricked by the re-
collection of the three capital crimes he owned to
committing in his youth, Lord Peterborough at
length acknowledged his wife and" remarried " her
before his death in October, 1735.

But the characteristics of Lord Ormont were un-
doubtedly drawn from the Earl of Cardigan (1797-
1868), the gallant leader of the Light Brigade of
Cavalry at Balaklava, and the most popular hero of
his time in England. He was very wealthy, and a
noted duellist, his most notorious affair being that
with Harvey Tuckett, whom he wounded, on
Wimbledon Common, in 1840, as by that date duel-
ling was going out of favour. In his later years Lord
Cardigan was inclined to pose as an ignored hero.
All this, it will be seen, coincides with the career of
Lord Ormont, " our general of cavalry, whose charge
at the head of fifteen hundred horse in the last great
battle shattered the enemy's right wing, and gave


us the victory." Lord Ormont was married in
the British Embassy at Madrid. Lord Cardigan's

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Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 20 of 23)