Copyright
S. M. (Stewart Marsh) Ellis.

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

. (page 6 of 23)
Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 6 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the keenest enjoyment, and half-laughingly declared
that he would like to have forged the phrase him-
self." And on another occasion he said to Mr
Clodd : " George Eliot had the heart of Sappho ;
but the face, with the long proboscis, the protruding
teeth as of the Apocalyptic horse, betrayed anim-
ality." But Meredith, probably, never contem-
plated the careful preservation and publication of
these post-prandial witticisms and criticisms, or he
would scarcely have committed himself to such an
absurd literary judgment as this : " Not much of
Dickens will live, because it has so little correspond-
ence to life. He was the incarnation of cockneydom,
a caricaturist who aped the moralist ; he should
have kept to short stories. If his novels are read
at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw
in them, save some possible element of fun meaning-
less to them. The world will never let Mr Pickwick,
who is to me full of the lumber of imbecility, share
honours with Don Quixote." ^ If such a thing were
possible, a plebiscite on this point a century hence
would be of interest. To-day it would probably be
found that where ten people prefer Don Quixote^
fifty would vote for the greater pleasure they have
found in Pickwick ; and there would not be absent
some who consider Cervantes's masterpiece a greatly

» The Fortnightly Review, July, 1909. On the other hand, Meredith
wrote, in 1899, to Mrs Meynell, concerning her article on Dickens,
that he was converted by her pleading and owned that Dickens had
merits beyond Cockney realms.



82 GEORGE MEREDITH

overrated work. Another of Meredith's perverse
literary judgments concerned Gray, whose famous
Elegy was alluded to as The Undertaker's Waltz.

To return to The Shaving of Shagpat. It will ever
be matter for debate and divided opinion as to how
much of allegory is contained in that immortal
fantasy. At first, Meredith denied that the work
contained any allegorical signification, as can be
seen in his note to the second edition (which also
contained the fine drawing by his friend, Frederick
Sandys, of " Bhanavar the Beautiful "), for he said
there the allegory must be rejected altogether.

But writing in 1906 to the Rev. James McKechnie,
who has expounded his own reading of the allegori-
cal significance of The Shaving of Shagpat in book
form very ably, Meredith certainly modified his
original disclaimer. He said that as an allegory
was objectionable to the English lie had given his
attempt garments to conceal its body, but both that
and its signification failed, for but very few of his
friends cared to read the book and only two of them
gave it a word of praise. In another letter to Mrs
Bovill,! 1892, he admitted Shagpat did wear a kind
of allegory in the form of a loose dressing-gown, but
he had been so abused for writing the book that he
wished to forget all about it and its possible alle-
gorical meaning.

All readers of the original work should study
Mr McKechnie's most interesting exposition of The
Shaving of Shagpat, even though they may not see,
eye to eye with him, the profundities of allegory and
symbolism and philosophy he presents for con-
sideration. Personally, I think Meredith intended
his book to be primarily an opulent and gorgeous

* Now the Hon. Mrs Richard Grosvenor.



THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT 83

piece of romantic story-teiling ; and having adopted
the Eastern method and setting, artistic considera-
tions impelled a certain amount of allegory and
symbolism, as in The Arabian Nights and all Eastern
stories. Allegory of an obvious kind there certainly
is in The Shaving of ShagpaL Its finest portion,
" The Story of Bhanavar the Beautiful," is simply
a superlatively picturesque version of the world-old
parable of the temptation of Woman by the Serpent,
and how she immolates Love on the Altar of Beauty
and Ambition, and sends lovers to death for the gain
of a jewel. And the quest for the mystic Sword of
Aklis, with the preliminary tests and trials of the
Well of Paravid, the magic Horse Garraveen, and
the Lily of the Enchanted Sea ; the Wiles of
Rabesqurat ; the Pit of the Roc ; and the fatal
lures of the Palace of Aklis— all these suggest
analogy with Bunyan's immortal Allegory, for in
both stories the Attainment of the Ideal is only
achieved by passing through much temptation and
pain. Endurance for Victory.

Mr McKechnie suggested that Meredith would
have reached supreme heights as an allegorist if he
had been encouraged to continue his work on these
lines : "I am prepared to believe that on none of
his works did Meredith, to begin with, build such
high hopes as on The Shaving of Shagpat, and that
to the keenness with which he felt the shattering of
those hopes is due the fact that though the heart
of his genius lay in that direction he never wrote
anotlier allegory."

It is certainly matter for regret that Meredith
never pursued his course further as an Eastern
story-teller, for if The Shaving of Shagpat be con-
sidered merely as a fantasquc tale it is in the front



84 GEORGE MEREDITH

rank of that category. Take the scene where
Bhanavar calls the serpents to her aid. Mrs Ross
records that Meredith had the idea of this story of
the Queen of the Serpents suggested to him by the
talcs of a certain M. de Haxthausen, whom he met
at the Duff Gordons' house, Nutfield Cottage, Wey-
bridge : " He had fought with the Queen of the
Serpents, whose crown he wore in a little red silk
bag that hung round his neck from a gold chain.
With flashing eyes and vehement gestures he de-
scribed how he fought with the Queen. ' She called
her subjects to her aid with loud, shrill hisses, and
the earth became alive with snakes. I killed, and
I killed, and I killed, and then ran for my life out
of the burning hot gully, followed by hundreds of
gliding, writhing, venomous creatures. The owner
of this crown is the ruler and the head of all the
serpents,' said he, proudly tossing his head. By
dint of much persuasion, M. de Haxthausen was in-
duced to show his treasure, which was inside a small
gold box in the red silk bag. It looked like a minia-
ture crown fashioned out of dark amber, and a
doctor, who was present, said, after careful examina-
tion, that it undoubtedly was a bony excrescence
from a reptile, and probably from the head. M. de
Haxthausen was uneasy until his crown was once
more safely hung round his neck, and said it had not
been taken out of the gold box for more than twenty
years. Meredith never took his eyes off M. de Hax-
thausen while he told his weird tale, and when next
he brought me home he told me a marvellous story
about the Queen of the Serpents, which was after-
wards developed into Bhanavar the Beautiful in
The Shaving of Shagpat.'''

And what vivid word-painting, too, conjures up



THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT 85

the Genie Karaz at a touch ; but that final scene
of the great conflict in the air between Karaz and
Shibli Bagarag (mounted on the league-long wings
of Koorookh as the moon sits on the midnight) is
almost too overcharged with wild imaginative descrip-
tions of fantastic happenings — a pagan apocalypse.

The wealth of simile in this story is prodigal.
When Meredith was asked by H. M. Hyndman what
suggested his particular comparison of a woman to
a palm-tree, he replied : " The hair falling over
her shoulders and her slender shape." Throughout
this work picture succeeds picture. There is a fine
one of sunset blending with moonrise.

In amusing contrast are little saws of Eastern
philosophy, and following the Eastern fashion too,
there are many snatches of song and illustrative
verse in The Shaving of Shagpat. One has a distinct
echo of Tennyson's Tears, Idle Tears, which had
appeared a few years earlier (1847). It is in the
pathetic scene of the death of Zurvan, when, with
dimming eyes, he sighs, and sings to Bhanavar.

Enough has been said to demonstrate that The
Shaving of Shagpat can be read either for the pleasure
it gives as a story of romance and magic or as a
profound and subtle allegory ; and it is this element
of elusiveness and mystery, truly Eastern in char-
acter, which enhances in no small degree the piquant
charm of Meredith's solitary excursion into the en-
chanted realm of faery.

During 1856 and 1857 the Merediths were living
mostly at Seaford, then a dull and stagnant little
place (as it was even thirty years later, when fowls
promenaded the grass-grown streets with leisured
calm), with the nearest railway station at Newhaven
— another Stygian " seaport." But the glorious



86 GEORGE MEREDITH

range of Sussex Downs at the back were an immense
attraction to Meredith, the mighty walker of those
days. Further, he had here the society of a friend
he much appreciated, Maurice FitzGerald, who
owned property at Seaford. Son of the eccentric
and rehgiously fanatical John Purcell FitzGerald,
of Boulge Hall, Suffolk, and nephew of Edward
FitzGerald, the translator of Omar Khayyam,
Maurice FitzGerald was at this period, though only
just of age, the ideal bachelor. Sir Francis Burnand,
whose intimate friendship with him commenced
at Trinity College, Cambridge, has described him
as " a first-rate scholar,^ a gentle Sybarite, and a
skilled gourmet y Violent sports and long walks he
disliked, so literature and the art of cuisine were
the bonds that united him to Meredith, who gave
him the name of " The Young Mauritius " and took
this friend as the model for The Wise Youth in
Richard Feverel. In these pleasant days at Seaford
the Merediths and FitzGerald used to lodge at
Marine Terrace with the village carpenter and wheel-
wright, Richard Ockenden by name, whose wife was
a wonderful cook — and the chief attraction for a
prolonged stay in Sussex. Mrs Ockenden's culinary
fame has been recorded by her distinguished lodger's
pen in several places. In a dialogue sent to Miss
Janet Duff Gordon, FitzGerald voices the nice con-
siderations of one of the Ockenden dinners (for, as
Sir Francis Burnand states, " his well-thought-out
arrangement of every meal, breakfast, lunch, and
dinner, was the result of calm study, guided by such
sound common-sense "), whilst Meredith himself
enacts " Poet."

* FitzGerald translated The Crowned Hippolytus of Euripides, among
other work.




'O
o


z


Oj


^


— •







^


z


H








e^








^


z


.n


<


A










>;


to


LT;




v;












o


U


LO


<


cc


^



z a



<


,




H


^


^


tn








A


, ,


>


as
ci:


u


z

Ed


I-*




'^


M


D


-


a


u


a:





as


<


H





a


Z


^^


u


o


H


5


a






CO


^


"


D


id




O


as


c


•th


w


hl^








w


^


^


^






^


z




.^


<




„'















<




c


z




<;


2




-^






X


■^




u^






o


t2




<


H




OS


o




as


b!




w


is




r""*


^










>'.








U:




a;


=t£





THE HOUSE ON THE BEACH 87

But Mrs Ockenden's fame is chiefly preserved in
Meredith's excellent little story, The House on the
Beach, wherein she and her husband figure under
the slightly changed name of Crickledon, the village
carpenter and his wife, with whom lodged the
Van Diemen Smiths and Herbert Fellingham at
Crikswich, which place is, of course, intended for
Seaford. In Fellingham may be detected some
resemblance to Meredith himself with his qualities
of satire and laughter, his similar profession and
pleasures — such as a long walk and a good dinner
to follow.

Although The House on the Beach was not pub-
lished until 1877 (in The New Quarterly Magazine),
it was commenced some sixteen years earlier, in
the days when Meredith frequently stayed at Sea-
ford. Writing to Mrs Ross in May, 1861, he men-
tioned three literary works he then had in hand :
Emilia Belloni ; A Woman's Battle {Rhoda Flenmig ?) ;
and Van Diemen Smith — which he said was inter-
esting as a story. It is a most entertaining story,
too. The absurd Mr Tinman, with his bad wines,
is an early study in egoism, a subject later to be de-
veloped so consummately. Truly humorous is this
precious person's practice preliminary in the de-
livery of his Address to the Throne when his sister
Martha sat vice-regally to receive his loyal con-
gratulations ; and truly mordant is the brush which
paints the picture of melancholy little Seaford.

Apparently, Meredith, having commenced and
then laid aside Van Diemen Smith in 1861, was in-
duced to resume and complete the tale on hearing
of the Great Flood at Seaford in 1876, an incident
which forms the dramatic denouement of The House
on the Beach. During this encroaclimcnt of the



88 GEORGE MEREDITH

sea, Richard Ockenden's wheehvright shop, adjoin-
ing Marine Terrace, was much damaged, and his
timber floated about as battering rams, one great
wheel entering a house in IMarine Terrace. The news
of Neptune's escapades at the expense of old friends
gave Meredith the suggestion for the remarkable
ending of his story of Seaford as he knew it sixty
years ago.

Seaford and gastronomy were ever allied, and
consequently, on the strength of the cook, Meredith
entertained many visitors during his sojourns in
Sussex, including one of his aunts and her son,
which seems to have been the last occasion on which
he had any intercourse with his blood relations of
the older generation. There is an invitation to
Eyre Crowe, A.R.A., which gives a good idea of
Meredith's life at Seaford, which, for recreation,
included boating, bathing, fishing, long walks and
picnics.

Meredith spent Christmas of 1856 alone at Seaford.
He remained on as he was busy with literary work.
Here he wrote Farina and some further portion of
Richard Feverel, for, writing to Edward Chapman,
of the firm of Chapman and Hall, who were the
publishers of the last-named work, he said, in
December, 1856, that despite the appalling dullness
of Seaford he could work better there than in any
other place, and that he was resolved to remain in
Sussex till his book was concluded. The name
of his novel he then decided was to be The Fair
Frankincense — which no doubt adumbrated the
sacrifice of Lucy Feverel. He also asked to be
supplied with books dealing with the dialect and
local provincial ballads of Hampshire, which were
probably required for the evolving of Farmer Blaize,



FARINA 89

Tom Bakewell, and the Bantam in the pages of
Richard Feverel.

The spring of 1857 found Meredith still at Seaford ;
and in the autumn of this year Farina : a Legend of
Cologne was published by Smith, Elder and Co.^ This
short romance met with no initial success financially,
and it has never been widely popular among ad-
mirers of Meredith's later work. Even George Eliot,
who reviewed the story in The Westminster Review,
October, 1857, despite her desire to help Meredith,
admitted some disappointment in the matter of
Farina as a story. And as for the style and grammar
she said : " The author has sacrificed euphony, and
almost sense, to novelty and force of expression " —
an early example of tilting at Meredithese, which
became quite a cult with later generations of critics.
Still, George Eliot concluded : " Farina is both an
original and an entertaining book, and will be read
with pleasure by all who prefer a lively, spirited story
to those dull analyses of dull experiences in which
the present school of fiction abounds."

A liking, or the reverse, for Farina is entirely a
matter of individual taste. Those who desire an
analytic and philosophic novel can leave it un-
opened : but those who like a Gothic romance, with
a dash of demonology and ghosts, can read it with
pleasure and find a welcome niche for the volume
beside Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Lewis's Monk,
Mrs Radcliffe's Italian, and that fascinating volume
of 1826 entitled Legends of Terror and Tales of the
Wonderful and the Wild, to say nothing of the essays
in the same school of romance by Walter Scott,
G. P. R. James, and Harrison Ainsworth. The

* A presentation copy, from the author, of this first edition has
realised £2^ in the sale-room.



90 GEORGE MEREDITH

siipernatviral scenes in Farina are not very successful
and convincing, because they are not treated im-
pressively or with due seriousness : ghosts and
humour never blend well. The best parts of the
book are those describing the doings of Werner and
his men, either in Cologne or in the Robber Baron's
castle. There are picturesque descriptions of old
Cologne and the Rhine, and the vivid presentment
of the storm on the Drachenfels is worthy to rank
with the magnificent storm in Dickens's Martin
Chuzzlewit ; with that in Hardy's Far from the
Madding Crowd ; with that in De Morgan's An
Affair of Dishonour ; and with those to be found in
the romances of Ainsworth— pre-eminently the word-
painter of storms.

The year 1858 brought tragedy to Meredith at
Seaford. For some time past the brief happiness
of his marriage had been overclouded. The bitter
analogy with the Bulwer Lyttons' disastrous
marriage was complete. In each case husband and
wife were too much alike in temperament and char-
acter and gifts to find permanent happiness to-
gether : if one partner in either of the inauspicious
unions could have submitted to the stronger will
of the other, final catastrophe might have been
avoided. But Meredith and his wife were equally
strong-willed, equally talented. Both were highly-
strung, nervous, emotional, restless in mind and
body. Both were hot in temper, satirical and
violent in argument and dispute, quick to imagine
offence. Consequently, peace was never of long
continuance in that unhappy " home " in lodgings.
Terrible quarrels and scenes took place, and yet in
their own strange way these two sad people had
loved each other.



DOMESTIC TRAGEDY 91

In 1858 came the irreparable breach, when ]Mrs
Meredith went to Capri with Henry WaUis, the /
painter. He found her alone at Seaford, in diffi-
culties and debt and distress of heart. He helped
her— and she yielded. But the poor woman never
found happiness, and her short tragic Hfe was nearing
the end. She seems to have had a prevision that
death was approaching, for she constantly repeated
aloud certain verses which she said she desired to
have inscribed on her tombstone. Ever restless,
she wandered from place to place, seeking to drown
bitter memories and regrets. Her supreme sorrow
was the loss of her little son, Ai'thur Meredith, now
five years old, who had, of course, been claimed by
his father : the passionate devotion of both parents
to the child was intense, and deepened the tragedy.
The unhappy mother, in the hope of seeing her son,
returned to England in 1859, and lived at 4 Crown
Crescent (just opposite Orleans House), Twickenham.

All those who remember Mrs Meredith in the last
years of her life state that she was always sad and
constantly in tears. Her warm, vehement nature
could not meet sorrow with resignation, or be soft-
ened by it. She would pace up and down the room
in uncontrollable emotion. She treasured up every
little relic that had belonged to her son, and always
wore a lock of his hair against her heart.

Mrs Meredith went to Seaford again, and to Hast-
ings, but in 1860 she was living at 2 Sussex Villas,
Cambrian Road, Richmond Hill. Like her husband,
she seems to have been devoted to Surrey, and her
last home was at Grotto Cottage, Oatlands Park,
Weybridge— not far from where she had spent the
first years of her married life with Meredith. Here
she died in October, 1861, at the age of forty-one.



92 GEORCxE MEREDITH

The curious analogy between the tragic fate of
Lady Lytton and that of Mrs Meredith was preserved
to the end. Lady Lytton died alone, with no
relatives near, and devoted friends were her only
mourners. vShe desired that the text, " The Lord
shall give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy
fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast
made to serve," should be placed over her grave.
But no tombstone has ever been erected over the
spot where she lies in the churchyard of Shirley,
Surrey (though her name is recorded on the neigh-
bouring vault of her friend, Miss Devey). Mrs
Meredith died alone, and her only mourners were a
Mr Howse, and a Miss Bennett, and her former maid,
Jane Wells. No tombstone has ever been placed
over her grave, and the spot, to the left, near the
top of the main path in the churchyard of Wey-
bridge, Surrey, is not marked even by a grass mound.
The lines which she hoped might have been inscribed
over her grave were these :

Come not, when I am dead,

To drop thy foolish tears upon my grave,

To trample round my fallen head,

And vex the unhappy dust thou wouldst not save.

There let the wind sweep and the plover cry ;
But thou, go by.

I am sick of Time,
And I desire to rest.
Pass on, weak heart, and leave me where I lie :
Go by, go by.

Thus ended the sad life of Mary Ellen Meredith.
There is no condemnation for her, for, whatever her
errors, they were blotted out by her tears. Meredith
himself never blamed her, for he realised his own
share in the mistakes and misunderstandings that



MEREDITH AND WOMEN 93

finally led to ruin. All he permitted himself to say
was : " No sun warmed my roof-tree ; the marriage
was a blunder ; she was nine years my senior."
And " Peacock's wife became mad, and so there was
a family taint." But these words do not explain
all. Meredith, after his bitter experience, sub-
jected himself to a rigorous mental ex.amination,
and the expression of his regret and remorse is to
be found in Modern Love, written soon after his wife's
death. In that fine poem can be traced the whole
and gradual course of his marriage tragedy.

The whole tragedy of Meredith's first marriage
was a grievous experience for such an acutely sen-
sitive and proud spirit. The iron entered into his
soul, and, for some years after, he eschewed the
love of women. His attitude to the sex at this time
is expressed in a letter to a friend, Bonaparte Wyse,
wherein he caustically asserts that women in their
physical attributes approximate to the vegetable
creation, and that morally they are no better than
the animal ; consequently in a chemical sense they
were beneficial to the other sex. He added that he
respected a good many women and did not hate any,
but all the same he hoped he would never fall in
love with one. In chapter xxii. of Richard Fever el
woman is also compared to the vegetable creation,
and in another passage (subsequently suppressed in
later editions) to a wild cat. In Rhoda Fleming
also, chapter xxviii., Edward Blancove inveighs
against the animal vagaries of the sex.

But this caustic mood was only a passing phase,
and, a few years later, with a new and happier female
influence came a complete revolution of views.



/



w



CHAPTER V

*' THE ORDEAL OF RICHARD FEVEREL." ESHER AND

COPSHAM DAYS

AFTER his marriage debacle, Meredith re-
turned to London with his son Arthur, who
was now, and for the next six years, the idol
of his life, the object on whom he showered all the
wealth of his love ; for his sensitive and stricken
heart, in the first bitterness of domestic tragedy,
recoiled, as we have just seen, from any intimate
association with the other sex. They lodged at 7
Hobury Street, ^ Chelsea ; and it was in this rather
drab house, a tjq^ical London building in the second-
rate style of its period, that The Ordeal of Richard
Feverel was resumed and completed in the course of
a year.^ The story was published in 1859 by Chap-
man and Hall, and attracted more attention at the
outset than the author's previous works had secured.

* Mr Clodd has stated it was at No. 7 ; but Mr Thomas Seccombe, on
the authority of two old friends of Meredith, changed the number to 8
in his memoir of Meredith in The Dictionary oj National Biography.

2 It was probably during this period that Meredith and Arthur also
visited Lynmouth, for Mr F. B. Barwell recollects meeting the two
there about the year 1859. He had previously met Meredith, about
1855, at the table of Mrs Edward Chapman. Mr Barwell states : " I
was staying in lodgings at Lynmouth. Meredith and his boy came to
stay there, and he and one or two other men often spent an evening
together at my rooms, and his conversation was very amusing and
often witty. Meredith had his boy with him at Lynmouth but no
nurse, for he considered that a good lad who could wash and dress
the child was better than a woman. He was himself devoted to the


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 6 of 23)