S. M. (Stewart Marsh) Ellis.

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of The Letters of George Meredith.

3 Though he was two years younger than Price I

D v 1 ij i


He gave a single knock to the side door and when a
servant came he said, ' Please, we are come ! ' We
were the first of the visitors, and were shown into
the drawing-room, and all four of us sat down on
a sofa. Shortly after, knocks came continually, a
lady received the company, and introduced the
later comers to those who were there. We were
removed to a rout seat, many of these being round
the room. Tea and coffee and cakes were handed
round by servants. I did not know many of the
people, but I did some of them, viz., the Harrisons
of The Hampshire Telegraph, the Dudleys, the
Pineos, and the Hintons, as they all lived quite
near us. There must have been over fifty altogether,
but mostly ' grown-ups.' After tea the lady an-
nounced that the company were to go to the next
room, and that Mr Macnamara ^ would be M.C.
The musicians soon struck up, and a first set was
announced. I was given a ' grown-up ' as a partner
and pushed through the figures, but I was such a
failure that I had to sit the rest of the evening — a
mere spectator. At intervals I was regaled with
quarters of oranges, almonds and raisins, and weak
negus. T got very sleepy. Supper was announced,
and there was a rush to the front drawing-room.
I got near my sisters and brother, and was pressed
to partake of tarts and cake. At last the lady said,
' It is time those children went home,' so my brother
took us home, and as regards myself I was very glad
to be there. At this birthday party George was, of
course, made much of by everyone. He was then
out of the frock-petticoat period. He and I often
met after this, but we did not fraternise much. He

1 Presumably Mrs Augustus Meredith's brother, who became a
clergyman and lived for some time in Southsea at a later period.


used just to say, ' How de do,' and nod. I did the

It could not have been long after the date of this
party that Mrs Meredith died, at the early age of
thirty-one. The event is noted briefly in The
Hampshire Telegraph of 15th July, 1833 : " Ports-
mouth. Died on Thursday morning, after a short
illness, Mrs Meredith, wife of Mr Meredith of this
town." She was buried at St Thomas's in the vault
of her Macnamara and Dale relatives. To George
Meredith in after years his mother was only a
shadowy memory. As he told a friend mourning a
mother, he had this shock when he was a little boy,
and merely wondered. But Mrs Meredith's early
death probably had a share in the mental develop-
ment of her son, for had she lived during the period
of his adolescence he would have been happier and
his home conditions very different ; and conse-
quently he would not have been so introspective
and lonely in spirit, or so soon have propounded the
truth of the words, dear to poets : " They learn in
suffering what they teach in song."

The family at No. 73, Augustus Meredith and his
small son of five, being now destitute of feminine
influences, George was looked after, as far as possible,
by his adult cousin, Mary Meredith Burbey, from
across the road, and his aunt, Mrs Ellis, at such times
as her own family duties enabled her to be in or
near Portsmouth. He was now of an age to take
notice of things, and his surroundings offered inter-
esting and lively material for his first impressions
of life.

The Portsmouth of Meredith's childhood was a
vastly different place from the town of to-day.


Owing to the removal of the Admiralty offices to
Port sea, all trade and traffic are now centred there,
and naval life congregates round the Dockyard and
Whale Island, leaving the High Street stranded and
quiet. Eighty years ago the sea end of High Street
was almost entirely composed of shops : now they
are converted into private residences, including No.
73. But George Meredith's early years were passed
in the very heart and whirl of English maritime life.
His home was just at the edge of the world, so to
speak, for here at the Sallyport and Point all sailors
then landed and took their pleasures without delay,
both officers and men. He must have seen many
famous seamen, for close by were all the popular
resorts of the officers : the George Hotel and the
Fountain (where Mr Midshipman Easy routed the
first lieutenant) were both in the High Street ; and
the Blue Posts (rendezvous of Peter Simple and every
other midshipman) was in Broad Street — all in close
proximity to the Meredith shop, where an officer
could be " fitted complete." As before stated,
almost every house in Broad Street was a tavern,
and the adjoining purlieus of East Street, Bathing
Lane, Bath Square, and Tower Street were devoted
mainly to houses of ill-fame. On the site of what is
now Tower House (the home of Mr W. L. Wyllie,
R.A.) stood a particularly lively tavern where
music — of a sort — was provided. Off the High
Street, too, w^ere similar places, and in St Mary's
Street (now Highbury Street) a most notorious
music hall, eventually abolished. All kinds of ex-
citement, from murder downwards, were at hand
for the delectation of the boys of the neighbourhood.
And there were numerous barracks and much
military pomp and circumstance. Portsmouth was

High SiKiiET, I'oktsmouth

From Charpentier's lithogta'ih, 1S30


then strongly fortified, and defended by walls,
bastions, moats, guard-houses, and gates. These
last were closed at a certain hour at night, and, after
that, belated inhabitants could only obtain ad-
mission by giving the countersign to the sentries on
guard. A mounted officer went the " Grand Round"
of the town, and the conditions were entirely those
of a strictly guarded garrison. To stray beyond
St James's Gate into Broad Street after dark was
to court many dangers, including the activities of
the Press-gang.

Opposite the Merediths' house was held, on the
Grand Parade, in July, for the most exciting fort-
night in the exciting year, the annual Fair, a verit-
able pandemonium which it became necessary to
abolish in the forties. Richardson's Show always
had the best pitch, by the Bank at the corner of the
High Street, and adjoining it was Wombwell's
menagerie of wild beasts. Probably young George
Meredith disdained these vulgar entertainments,
and he does not seem to have been much interested
in the naval and military life that surrounded him,
although he came into personal contact with officers
who could have given him accounts of their experi-
ences at Trafalgar, Cape St Vincent, the Baltic and
in the sinking of the Royal George. For his uncle by
marriage, S. B. Ellis, and this uncle's brothers, came
to Portsmouth and 73 High Street, and a friend of
the Ellises was the Commander-in-Chief at Ports-
mouth in 1837, Admiral Sir Philip Durham, who had
been a lieutenant on the Royal George when she went
down. To illustrate the social conditions George
Meredith was familiar with as a young boy, I give
a few extracts from the journal of my grandfather,
S. B. Ellis, who, en route to service in India, had


ancliorod at Spithoad wlicn he took the opportunity
to SCO much of his brother-in-law and other relatives
in Portsmouth.

'' 6th September, 1837. Landed after breakfast.
Walked with IMrs Burbey ^ and daughters to their
garden at Southsea.

''7th September. Landed in the afternoon, and
dined with the Commandant of Royal Marines,
Colonel Hornby, at his house in St Thomas's Street.

'' Sth September. Remained on shore, and dined
with Mr Thomas Burbey ; in the evening there was
nuisic and dancing. Returned at a late hour, and
slept at Mr Meredith's in the High Street.

" 9th September. Had the unexpected pleasure
once more to shake by the hand my kind brother
Frank, who had come to Portsmouth to see me
before my final departure for India.

" 12th September. Accompanied my brother to
Gosport and visited with him the Britannia, the
flagship of Sir P. Durham, the Commander-in-Chief
at Portsmouth. Returned and dined with Mr
Meredith in Portsmouth."

As befitted the original of Evan Harrington,
Augustus Meredith was more addicted to the society
of those in higher circles than that of his neighbours,
the tradespeople of the High Street, a characteristic
which his young son inherited or very soon copied.
But the real Augustus Meredith was a very superior
man, and scant justice has been done to him by those
who merely echo the crushing dictum of his son that
he was " a muddier and a fool." If George Meredith

' This was Thomas Burbey 's second wife, Mary Bradley. Her
son, George Burbey, born 1829, was one of the few boys George
Meredith cared for at this date.


really used these words, it must be remembered that
he delighted in imparting a freakish touch of ex-
aggeration to his statements, and, like all great men,
he suffers the penalty of too meticulous records of
his conversation, whether in grave or light mood.
Augustus Meredith and his son were alike physically,
and thev both had the love of walking many miles
in the country over hill and dale. Augustus was a
great chess-player and very fond of reading. He
was a member of the Portsmouth Literary and
Philosophical Society. There is other evidence that
he was a cultured, generous man : "a perfect
gentleman and not in the least like a tailor " is the
report of one who knew him well, though, in view
of the fact that he never wanted to be a tailor, the
latter part of the statement is not surprising. But
why the highly honourable and necessary calling
of a tailor should bring any discredit or opprobrium
upon its professor, and a hatter, a hosier, and a boot-
maker be exempt from disgrace and disdain and
division into a fractional ninth of a man, with con-
comitant goose and cabbage, is a profound sartorial
mystery which neither Sir Piercie Shaft on nor the
Harringtons satisfactorily explain. ^

It must be admitted that, like his father before
him, Augustus Meredith was very careless in money
matters, and very hospitable. He entertained his
friends often, and he had a curious habit of retiring
from the head of his table early, leaving his guests
with wine without stint — certainly not an economical
plan in those days of two-or-three-bottle men.
Money was accordingly short at No. 73, for the in-
cubus of the Great Mel.'s debts still remained, and

' John Accutus, the warrior, was originally a tailor, and so were
John Stow and John Speed, the topographists.


the income from the neglected business was much
reduced. So it was found necessary to let off part
of the house, and the drawing-room and a large back
room (over the workshop) were duly rented by Sir
Edward Synge, an eccentric Irish baronet.^ Per-
haps this arrangement enabled Augustus Meredith
to provide better schooling, clothes, and amuse-
ments for his son than fell to the lot of the other
boys round about their home. It is strange that
the father never succeeded in winning the affection
and sympathy of his uncommon son, for undoubtedly,
to the best of his ability, Augustus did all he could
to give his child a good education and such pleasures
as he liked. He sincerely loved the boy.

About 1837 George Meredith was sent as a day
scholar to St Paul's School, Southsea, a seminary
— to use the word beloved of pedagogues of that
period— which existed from 1825 to 1850. (Long's
Memorial Hall, at the corner of St Paul's Square and
King Street, is said to be the original school build-
ing, though adapted to the purposes for which it is
now used.) After becoming a pupil at this superior
Fount of Learning, young George was more aloof
than ever from his boy neighbours in the High
Street— Jem Price from next door, Ned Gait from
No. 63, Joe Neale from the Coffee House at the
corner of Grand Parade, and many others, for all
these lads imbibed knowledge at the far humbler
stream of Frost's Academy in St Thomas's Street.
Mr Price, before mentioned, related some amusing
reminiscences of these schooldays :

' Sir Edward Synge was a first cousin of the grandfather of
J. M. Synge, dramatist and poet. Sir Edward later took a house
farther up the High Street. His youngest son, General Millington
Synge, remained faithful to Portsmouth, and died at 6i High Street,
where also his widow lived until her death in 1 915.



" The boys of St Paul's looked down upon us,
Frost's boys, but George Meredith and I when we
met always exchanged salutations : ' How de do.
Price,' in his usual drawling, patronising way. He
was certainly a good-looking youth, with bright blue
or grey eyes, and a nice, light, curly head of hair,
and always well dressed, much better than any of
us boys, all sons of tradespeople. We were, how-
ever, a jolly lot of boys — trundled hoops, played at
marbles, whip and peg-tops, rounders, prisoner's
base, pitch-hat, and on winter nights at ' nickey-
night,' with flint and steel to strike when told to
' show your light.' To these sort of things George
Meredith never stooped, and, in consequence, he got
the name of ' Gentleman Georgy ' amongst us boys.
We often waited for the Convict Guard to come to
the Guard House on the Parade, where the soldiers
had to draw their cartridges, and we boys collected
the powder and made what we called ' Devils ' by
mixing our saliva with the powder and working it
into a pyramid, and then set light to it at the top —
it was really a pretty bit of fireworks. Need I say
George Meredith did not join in this ?

" It was in 1839 that I saw the last of George
Meredith. We Frost boys had been running races
on the Governor's Green, and several of us were
together talking when George Meredith joined us
just opposite the Parade Coffee House, kept by a
man named Neale, who owned a racehorse. G. M.
was on this occasion very affable to us, as a boy,
Joe Neale, son of the Coffee House keeper, was with
us. George Meredith said to Neale : ' I was at
Stokes Bay races last week and I saw your father's
horse come in second, but I think he is a grand horse.
By George ! he's got some blood in him ! ' N.B.~


This young gentleman was at the most eleven years
old ! "

Despite this dashing comment on horseflesh,
evidently a Mendclian eeho of Melchizedek, it is to
be feared that George Meredith's young contem-
poraries regarded him in the main as " a cocky prig "
— for how could these normal, healthy, common
little boys be expected to understand, or sympathise
with, the manifestations of a dawning genius as
exemplified in the character of this uncommon boy
all too conscious of his own rare personality and
superior gifts. He looked down upon his young
companions and analysed them disdainfully. As he
stated in after years, he had the faculty in boyhood
of reading the characters of his friends consum-
matelv. He lived in a romantic world of his own
imagining, and all normal, conventional things bored
him. He has left a vivid picture of the Sunday
devotions of his childhood.^

He relates how all love of the apostles and scrip-
tural celebrities in general was knocked out of him
by three services every Sunday of appalling length
and drowsiness. Corinthians, he said, would always
be associated in his mind with rows of candles and
a holy drone overhead. He invented a mental
serial story, which ran from. Sunday to Sunday
during the sermons, concerning the adventures of
St George, the while the young " author " fidgeted
on the hard seats of St Thomas's Church.

As for books, he found his chief pleasure in The
Arabian Nights, which, as he said, doubtless fed
an imagination which took shape in The Shaving of

^ See letter to Dr Jessopp, 23rd December, 1862.


But in boyhood, as in all the future, Meredith
found his greatest delight in Nature, though in his
Portsmouth days the country was somewhat distant
from his home. In several of his early poems,
written a few years subsequent to the period we are
considering, there are allusions to the joys he ex-
perienced as a boy amid the beauties of Nature and
wild life. Particularly is this so in the Song (" Under
boughs of breathing INIay ") ; in To a Skylark ;
and in his lovely Spring Song.

In these speaks the real youthful JMeredith. A
wonderful thing, for this was not a country-bred boy
imbued in earliest days with the wonders of Nature.
He had to discover and recover them himself, un-
aided and alone. For, as we have^ seen, this was
a town-bred boy, the son of tradespeople, born,
reared, and schooled in a great seaport; distant from
woods and country-side. True, he had the sea, but,
unlike the case of Swinburne, the " fair green-
girdled mother " did not influence him in any degree.
The sea and naval history, so paramount in
Portsmouth, never inspired the youthful muse of
Meredith. His love of Nature, birds and flowers,
mountain and woodland, was innate, and he had
his own secret dreams and delights amid the mari-
time and commercial surroundings of his boyhood,
to him so uncongenial and sordid.

In 1841 came many changes in the life of George
Meredith, now thirteen years old. His father mar-
ried a second wife, Matilda Buckett, who, it seems,
had previously been housekeeper at No. 73. His
financial position not improving, Augustus Meredith
decided to leave Portsmouth and make a fresh start
at tailoring in London. He accordingly disposed
of his business to his neighbour, Joseph Gait, who


figures as the occupant of the old Meredith house
in the Directory of 1842. What became of Augustus
during the next three years is not clear, but from
1846 to 1849 he carried on a tailor's business at
26 St James's Street, London, which ought to have
been a profitable speculation, for it may be pre-
sumed that many naval officers who had patronised
the Portsmouth establishment in past years would
return to their old tailor now that he was located in
the midst of Clubland. ^ But Augustus Meredith's
lack of business aptitude always nullified his schemes,
and the London venture was not a success. Upon
the break-up of the home in Portsmouth, George
Meredith was sent to a boarding-school in the
country for a year. Personally, I think this school
is depicted as Rippenger's in The Adventures of
Harry Richmond, and that some of the youthful
adventures of Harry were in fact an echo of those
of George Meredith, for he endows his hero with the
same airs of superiority and penetrative capacity ^
for reading the characters and motives of his
companions that he himself possessed even from
boyhood, as we have seen. And just as young
Harry Richmond went later to Germany, so did

Meredith parted from his birthplace and the only
home he had hitherto known without any regrets.^
Portsmouth, apparently, had no happy memories for

1 The original house and shop at 26 St James's Street are now
gone ; the site is covered by the building known as Ormonde House,
adjoining Ryder Street.

'" Chapter ix.

^ The tablet placed on No. 73 High Street, at my suggestion, by
the Corporation of Portsmouth, in 1913, bears the words : '- In this
house was born on the 12th of February, 1828, George Meredith,
Novelist and Poet, who Uved here until his thirteenth year.'-


him : only those of sad or painful things magnified
from trifles by his super-sensitive imagination and
temperament. He never spoke in after years, with
regretful reminiscence, of his childhood, as do most
men of the only golden time (if it is happy) of life.
Inscrutably he put those " days and dreams out of
mind," and Portsmouth never furnished scene or
incident for his literary work beyond that bitter
transcript of family history in Evan Harrington.^
His father he never cared for, and he did not keep
in touch, after boyhood, with many relatives. They
— commercial and naval people — were not in a
position to help him to a congenial livelihood, or
likely to sympathise with romantic, literary aspira-
tions, and he, proud, reserved, and intellectually
their superior, mutual misunderstandings, and pos-
sibly dislike, were not unlikely to ensue. Con-
sequently, Meredith faced life in the outer world
friendless, poor, and desolate in spirit.

He had inherited a little money from his mother,
and the trustee of the small estate was now charged
with the educational arrangements of the boy, who
accordingly entered the Moravian School at Neuwied
on the Rhine, 18th August, 1842. Here his educa-
tion really commenced, for at his previous schools,
as he said, " I learned very little." The influences
of his experiences in Germany were very strongly
stamped on his subsequent mental career. His
poetry, Farina (particularly). The Adventures of
Harry Richmond;- The Tragic Comedians, and One
of our Conquerors, all beary the. impress of his ad-
miration for Germany and the good qualities of the

' The only passage, that I recall, in Meredith's other work that
might be construed as an echo from early influences in Portsmouth
is in chapter two of The A mazing Marriage, relative to the swearing
habits of sailors of the old days.



people, though he was equally observant of their
absurdities and faults. Although in late sad days
the German character has been overwhelmed by a
flood of false culture and savage megalomania, it is
childish and futile to deny the many charms that
the country j^ossesses or has created in the past.
German music, some portion of German literature,
German wine, German scenery — the stately curves
of the Rhine bordered by ruined castles, or the wild,
wooded mountains of the north and south, all per-
meated with legend and romance — such things are
essential and will survive the madness of any passing
German ruling caste. And these were, primarily,
the things that appealed so vividly to the plastic
imagination of the youthful George Meredith, and
to which he gave such beautiful expression in his
early poem, Pictures of the Rhine.

George Meredith was fourteen years of age when
he became a pupil at the Moravian School at
Neuwied, on the romantic Coblenz-Cologne section
of the Rhineland scenery. The school had been
founded in 1756, and it was ever famous for its ex-
cellent liberal education, and for the installation of
true Christian and social ideals in the minds of its
pupils. During the first fifty years of its existence
the scholars were mainly Swiss. Many German
boys came later, but from 1832 to 1842 British
youths formed the majority, and this decade was
known as " The English Period." The late Pro-
fessor Henry Morley preceded Meredith as a pupil
by a few years, and throughout his life retained the
greatest interest in his old school. Fifty-five years
after his time there he was editing a magazine which
aimed at keeping in touch with the pupils, past and
present, of the various Moravian Schools abroad ;


and at a meeting of " Old Neuwieders " in London,
1889, he paid this tribute to the particular estab-
lishment which had included Meredith among 'ts
scholars : " No formal process of education had
acted upon their lives so thoroughly or so much
for their good as the little time they had spent at
Neuwied. It had taken all the bitterness out of their
lives, all envy and hatred and uncharitableness
having been so thoroughly removed from them by
contact with the gentle spirit of the old Moravians."
Mr J. A. Hammerton in his useful work, George
Meredith in Anecdote and Criticism, gives an ex-
cellent verbal picture of Neuwied and the school
which claims quotation here :

" We may reasonably assume that Meredith's
schooldays at Neuwied represent a period of the
utmost importance to his after life, and the scene of
this early influence on one of the greatest figures in
modern literature is worthy of some little notice,
for one so observant and vigilant as Meredith must
have been, even as a boy, could not have lived there
long before he had absorbed the spirit of the place,
and doubtless that passion for long walks and hill-
climbing, which later characterised his days of lustj^
manhood, first awoke among the historic heights
along the right bank of the Rhine from Neuwied
to the Drachenfcls. The Moravian Schools at
Neuwied have long been famous throughout Europe,
and many notable Englishmen have passed through
them. Their origin dates from the time of Prince
Alexander of Neuwied — the town was formerly the
capital of a little principality — who was a shining

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Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 3 of 23)