Mr. Meredith in Little

Mr. Meredith in Little

By

G. S. Street

I

IN addition to its possible concealment of irrelevant motives,
anonymous criticism has this certain advantage, that it is not
of necessity ridiculous. When the anonymous critic is confronted
with such a question as that put, a trifle rudely but quite con-
clusively, by Charles Lamb to Dr. Nott—" You think : who are
you ? " " I," he may answer proudly, " am The North Boreshire
Inquisitor." Being that, he may go on to protect the interests of
our hearths and homes, or to point out the approaching end of the
century, without danger of seeming superfluous or impertinent.
To do these things is felt to be part of the duty of The North
Boreshire Inquisitor. But when Jones—I hope nobody is really
called Jones—implies a supposition that the world will be glad to
read what he, Jones, thinks of some great contemporary, he runs
a risk of humorous eyebrows. Even when the critic is somebody
whose name is a household word for eminence, one of those
distinguished few before whom generations of intruders have
trembled or basked, and the criticised only "a Mr." So-and-so—
there is a deal of national character in that use of the indefinite
article—one suspects that the judgment, however instructive, has

in

By G. S. Street 175

in it some possibility of the absurd. And it may be supposed that
if a beginner in the dodge of scribbling should essay to estimate
the greatest among living writers in his country, the proceeding
would be something worse than ridiculous.

But it may be argued that such a critic would be in a less
obnoxious position than any other. If he had a mind to patronise,
somebody might be amused and nobody could be hurt ; whereas
the patronage of a superior rankles, and that of an inferior is not
to be borne. Or if he set out to damn, it would be nothing ; but
your eminent critic, sitting heavily upon a writhing novice, has
an air of cruel exclusiveness.

For such reasons as these, I have far less diffidence in making
Mr. Meredith's last published book a little more than the starting-
point of a few digressions, than I should have in criticising Mr.
Max Beerbohm : I name, for example, an author whose works
are of a later date and even less in bulk than my own. I should
fear the satire of Mr. Beerbohm's eulogists or detractors : from
Mr. Meredith's, I may hope for indulgent indifference. I was
compelled in my youth to weigh the philosophers of ancient
Greece in the balance of my critical intelligence, and I began to
read Mr. Meredith at about the time I was deciding the com-
parative qualities of Plato and Aristotle. To me he was, and is,
as much a classic as they : I approach him with as little personal
feeling, and if I have to say that all of him is not, in my
apprehension, equally good, I can say it with as little disrespect.




II

The Tale of Chloe and other Stories gives you Mr. Meredith in
little. In The House on the Beach you have him, as it were, in

his

The Yellow Book—Vol. V. L

176 Mr. Meredith in Little

his bones. In The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper you
have him alive and imperfect. In The Tale of Chloe you have him
consummate.

If Mr. Meredith were one of those sympathetic writers who
can write only when they are drunk—and is not art life as
expressed by a finely drunken intelligence ?—I should think he
wrote The House on the Beach after a surfeit of tea. The appre-
hension, the phrase and the mechanism of conveyance are there ;
the quickening fire, the " that," as Sir Joshua Reynolds said, is
absent. " You shall live " Mr. Meredith seems to have said to
his potential puppets, and so they live—under protest. As has
happened before, when lack of customary inspiration has been felt,
he seems to have tried, in over-vehement self-justification, to do
what the fullest inspiration had hardly made possible. He has
offered you a caprice of feminine emotion more incredible than is
to be found in any other of his books. A middle-aged man,
grotesquely vulgar and abnormally mean-minded, asks, as his
price for not exposing an old friend, this old friend's daughter to
wife. The daughter, having set herself to make the sacrifice, had
to find in this treacherous cad, Tinman, some human merit for
her comfort, and for a prop of her obstinacy towards a seemlier
wooer. She found it in the fact that Tinman, being knocked
down by her father, did not return the blow. " She had conceived
an insane idea of nobility in Tinman that blinded her to his
face, figure, and character—his manners, likewise. He had
forgiven a blow ! . . . Tinman's magnanimity was present in her
imagination to sustain her." The play of emotional fancy which
follows on this motive is delightful to read, and you are fain to be
persuaded, for your enjoyment, of its truth ; but when you have
shut the book the perversity is plain. Perversity is, I think, the
word. The caprice is gratuitous. When Mr. Meredith tried

our

By G. S. Street 177

our powers of faith most severely before, in Diana of the Cross-
ways, he was essaying, as in The Tragic Comedians, the almost
superhuman task of fitting a creature of his imagination to
historical fact. I cannot help fancying that Mrs. Norton, albeit
a wonderful member of a wonderful family, was a thought less
fine than the lady of the book—that when she sold her friend's
secret to The Times, nature was doing a less elaborate trick than
Mr. Meredith in the case of Diana. But there the attempt,
though almost foolhardy, was successful. Mr. Meredith had set
himself a most difficult but a possible task. He was a rider
exulting in his skill, and he forced his horse up a flight of stone
steps. In this House on the Beach he has attempted to fly, and in
my opinion has had a tumble. The heroine of the story, then, is
incredible to me as a whole ; but that point set apart, the workings
of her mind are instructive to the student of her creator, because,
while characteristic for certain, they are not very subtle, and are
expressed with notable simplicity.

I cannot agree with some critics that Tinman is a glaring
failure. The effects of the whole story are those of farce rather
than comedy, and the most farcically funny of these, the rescue of
Tinman from his falling house in his Court suit, is only possible
because of the grotesque vanity and smallness of his character.
For all that, I do not think Mr. Meredith can create people like
Tinman and his sister, with such fulness and enjoyment to himself,
as he can create people whose folly is finer and whose manners are
more agreeable. He overdoes silliness of a vulgar type. I have
lately, I confess by the way, reflected with much gratification on
the fact, that of his greatest creations, the most—the exception
readiest to mind is the immortal nurse in Richard Feverel—are
people of breeding and even of affluent habits. Nobody admires
more than I, certain writers among us who take for themes

"humble"

178 Mr. Meredith in Little

" humble "—the satire of that word is growing crude—" humble "
and uneducated people. But I notice a growing tyranny
which ordains that people who speak in dialect, people who live
in slums, and the more aggressive and anachronistic order
of Bohemians, and none but these, are fit subjects for books. I
read a story the other day which began, somewhat in the
manner of Mr. G. P. R. James, with two men leaving a club—a
sufficiently democratic institution nowadays, one would have
thought—and I happened to see a criticism thereon which
objected, not that the story was bad, but that the author was a
snob for having anything to do—any "truck," should one say ?—
with "clubmen." Surely there is more to be said for the blatant
snobbery of an earlier time, than for this proletarian exclusive-
ness. The accident of Mr. Meredith's choice of material is a
consolation.


III

The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper is a brilliant and
delicious farce spoiled, and the uselessness of criticising it may be
mitigated by suggesting the question : Why did Mr. Meredith spoil
it ? It is one I cannot answer. You are presented to a General,
stupid, respectable, complacent. He has been a conqueror of
women in his time ; he is enormously pleased with himself. A
keenly humorous and delightfully malicious woman has reason to
punish him. The punishment she devises is a series of carica-
tures, the mere description of which is irresistibly comic, and the
wretched General is driven by outraged vanity, to show them
appealingly to his friends. The farce is furious as it proceeds, and
you wonder what fitting climax to the ludicrousness is to end it.
And lo ! the climax, a simple intensifying of the torture, is passed,

and

By G. S. Street 179

and you are faced by a terrible anti-climax, which is the marriage
of the torturer to the tortured ; nothing less, in fact, than a
command to your common sympathies and canting kindliness
of heart, which the farce had artistically excluded, to rush in
pell-mell. It is a slap in the face to a worthy audience,
and I cannot understand why it was done. Mr. Meredith is
far above all suspicion of truckling to the average reviewer,
who insists that everybody be happy and good. Can it have
been—for the apparent revulsion in the lady's psychology, though
not incredible, is carried with the high hand of mere assertion
—that Mr. Meredith was sorry to have been cruel ? Certainly
he was cruel : pain was inflicted on the ass of a General.
Most satire and most farce involve pain, actual or imaginary,
to some victim—if you think of it. But you should not think
of it, and if you are a unit of a worthy audience, you do not
think of it. If it be the art of the inventor, to exclude so
far as possible, a tendency to think of it, by his presentation of
the victim, Mr. Meredith is here completely successful. The
General is credible and human, but he is absurd, and the absurdity
is duly emphasised to the point of your forgetting his humanity.
And Mr. Meredith, as an artist here of farce, has prevented any
feeling of rancour in you towards the General, rancour which
would have made your appreciation of his punishment, a satis-
faction of morality, and not a pure enjoyment of farce. There is
a pair of lovers to whom the General's folly brings temporary
disaster, but they are made—and surely the restraint was wonder-
fully artistic—so merely abstract, that you care nothing for their
sorrow. The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper is, in fine,
as artistic and as abundantly laughable a farce as was ever made,
until you reach the end, which to me is inexplicable. But how
many farces are there in English, for the stage or for the study,

where

180 Mr. Meredith in Little

where you laugh with all your intelligence alert ? I think they
may be counted easily.




IV

It is to be noticed that both these stories are simple in diction.
The charge of obscurity, that is brought by nine of ten reviewers
against Mr. Meredith's books, is one that may be supported with
facility. Indubitably he is, as Mr. Henley has said, " the victim
of a monstrous cleverness that is neither to hold nor to bind."
Over and over again, he is difficult when he might have been easy.
He compresses impossibly, like Tacitus, or presents a common-
place in crack-jaw oddities of expression, like Browning. But
more often still, the obscurity is in the reader's intelligence, not in
the writer's art. We are accustomed to novelists of little indi-
viduality, or no individuality at all : Mr. Meredith's intellect is as
individual as that of any poet in the English language. Neces-
sarily, therefore, he is hard to understand. We are accustomed to
presentations of the clothes of men and women, and of the baldest
summary of their thoughts and feelings : Mr. Meredith has
penetrated further into character, and has exposed minuter
subtleties of thought and feeling than any writer of English
poetry or prose. Necessarily, therefore, he is hard to under-
stand.

I think this opinion is very well supported by these two stories.
In them he is not concerned with any fine studies of feeling or
thought, and he is quite simple. There are a few pomposities, a
few idle gallantries of expression ; but in the main he is here to be
understood without a second thought.


Mr. Meredith's

By G. S. Street 181




V

Mr. Meredith's prose does not satisfy my ideal. The two
qualities of prose that I value above all others are ease and rhythm.
He can be easy, but in his case ease has the appearance of a lapse.
He can be rhythmical, but he is rhythmical at long intervals. That
quality of rhythm which seems to have come so commonly to our
ancestors before the eighteenth century, seems hardly to be sought
by the prose writers among ourselves. Were it sought and found,
I am assured it would be hardly noticed.

Mr. Meredith is often neither musical nor easy. But as a
manipulator of words to express complexity of thought he has no
peer. It was by this complexity, this subtlety, and penetration of
his, that he was valuable to me when first I read him. I imagine
there must be many in my case, to whom he was, above all things,
an educator. It was his very obscurity, another name, so often, for a
higher intelligence, that was the stimulating force in him for such
as myself. Youth can rarely appreciate an achievement of art as
such. But youth is keen to grind its intellect on the stone of the
uncomprehended. That was the service of Mr. Meredith to those
in my case. We puzzled and strove, and were rewarded by the
discovery of some complexity of thought, or some subtlety of
emotion unimagined aforetime. Fortunately for us, advance of
years and multiplying editions had not yet earned him the homage
of the average reviewer ; for youth is conceited, and does not care
to accept the verdict of the mass of its contemporaries. Mr.
Meredith was sometimes an affectation in us, and sometimes the
most powerful educator we had. In the passage of years, as we
grew from conceit of intelligence into appreciation, in our degrees,

of

182 Mr. Meredith in Little

of things artistic, we perceived that he was also a great artist, and
sympathy was merged in admiration. The Egoist is perhaps the
most stimulating, intellectually, of Mr. Meredith's books, the
fullest interpreter, perhaps, of the world in which we live. In my
declining years, so to speak, I value it less than The Tale of Chloe.
For in a world that is become, in a superficial way, most deplorably
intelligible, achievements of art are rare.




VI

When I first read The Tale of Chloe it was in an American
edition, and I thank my gods I had not read any summary of its
plot in a review. But from the third chapter I felt that tragedy
was in the air, for I seemed to have the impression of an inevitable
fate drawing nearer, until I reached the end, where the fate comes
and the thing ends sombrely. In other words, I had the im-
pression of a perfect tragedy. I fancy it is the most perfect in form
of Mr. Meredith's works of fiction, except Richard Feverel. And
from its length it is even more impressive of its order, for the
air of tragedy is closer. When you had finished Richard Feverel
you felt the tragedy had been inevitable, but you did not, unless
you had a far keener sense than I, feel the tragedy all along. In
The Tale of Chloe the tragedy is with you all the time. The
elect and wise humours of Beau Beamish, the winsomeness of the
dairymaid duchess, the artificial sunshine of the Wells, are perceived
only as you glance away from the shadow, where stand Camwell,
Chloe, and Count Caseldy. One may divide them in this way,
because Duchess Susan, though a wholly realised creation in herself,
stands, as it were, in the plot for an abstract contrast to Chloe ;
another beautiful child of English nature would have served as well.

That

By G. S. Street 183

That the tragedy is inevitable you feel altogether. And yet,
when you think it out, you perceive that it is the wonderful art of
the telling, which makes it so. That is more the case than even in
Richard Feverel ; suicide is, in itself, less credible and likely, than a
catastrophe following on a very natural duel. It is the art of the
telling, that brings the truth home to you.

And the force of the tragedy is more wonderful for another
reason. Mr. Meredith has created for it a very artificial atmo-
sphere, or has reproduced a society which was, on the surface, as
artificial as can be imagined. Beau Beamish, the social king of
the Wells, compelled the rude English to conduct themselves by
ordinances of form. He ruled them with a rod of iron ; he
must have inspired an enormous deal of hypocrisy. With a com-
pany of bowing impostors for background, and with some of them
for actors, is played a drama of intense strength. The strongest
emotions of our nature are presented in terms of bric-à-brac.
Everybody is " strange and well-bred." Chloe, tying the secret
knots in her skein of silk to mark the progress of an intrigue which
must end, as she has willed, in her death, is gay the while, and talks
with the most natural wit. She discusses the intrigue with Camwell
in polite enigmas. Camwell, who sees the intrigue and foresees the
unhappiness, though not until the end, the death of his mistress,
carries himself as a polished gentleman. Caseldy is none of
your dark conspirators. The guile of the duchess is simple hot
blood.

This delicacy of the setting assists the exquisite pathos of the
central figure, surely one of the noblest in tragic story. The
strength of will, so admirable and so piteous, which enables her to
impose blindness on herself for the enjoyment of a month, and
finally to die that she may save her weaker sister and the man she
loves, is relieved by curiously painful touches of femininity. When

Camwell

184 Mr. Meredith in Little

Camwell is telling her of the purposed elopement, she knows well
that Caseldy, the traitor to herself, is the man, yet she says, " I
cannot think Colonel Poltermore so dishonourable." By many
such touches is the darkness of the tragedy made visible.

Chloe's words to Camwell in this last interview, are for the
grandeur of their simple resignation, in the finest spirit of tragedy.
" Remember the scene, and that here we parted, and that Chloe
wished you the happiness it was not of her power to bestow,
because she was of another world, with her history written out to
the last red streak before ever you knew her."


        θάρσει · σὺ μὲν ζῇς, ἡ δἑμἡ ψνχἡ πάλαι
        τἑθνηκεν.


Antigone went not more steadily to her grave.

I fear I have been something egotistical in this attempt of mine,
and would permit myself some apology of quotation to conclude.
Mr. Meredith has found room in The Tale of Chloe for some of the
happiest expressions of his philosophy, and some of his most perfect
images in description. Of the ballad, which relates the marriage of
the duke and the dairymaid, he says : " That mischief may have
been done by it to a nobility-loving people, even to the love of our
nobility among the people, must be granted : and for the particular
reason that the hero of the ballad behaved so handsomely." I can-
not think what the guardians of optimism have been about, that
they have not cried out on the " cynicism " of this remark. Here
is a vivid summary of observation—Beau Beamish "was neverthe-
less well supported by a sex, that compensates for dislike of its
friend before a certain age, by a cordial recognition of him when it
has touched the period." There are many such pregnant generalisa-
tions, and never do they intrude on the narrative.

" She smiled for answer. That smile was not the common smile;

it

By G. S. Street 185

it was one of an eager exultingness, producing as he gazed the
twitch of an inquisitive reflection of it on his lips. . . . That is
the very heart's language ; the years are in a look, as mount and
vale of the dark land spring up in lightning." I question if that
can be matched for beauty and force of imagery in Mr. Mere-
dith's works.

And this of Chloe's musings : " Far away in a lighted hall of the
west, her family raised hands of reproach. They were minute
objects, dimly discerned as diminished figures cut in steel. Feeling
could not be very warm for them, they were so small, and a sea
that had drowned her ran between. . . ."

"Mr. Beamish indulges in verses above the grave of Chloe.
They are of a character to cool emotion."

As I said in beginning, my eulogy in prose must be impotent
for such disservice.





MLA citation: Street, G.S. "Mr. Meredith in Little." The Yellow Book 5 (Apr. 1895): 174-85. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2011. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV5_street_meredith.html