The English novelist and poet George Meredith (1828-1909) concentrated on detailed character development and witty intellectual discussion. His narrative style is often highly metaphorical, allusive, and aphoristic.
George Meredith was born on Feb. 12, 1828, in Portsmouth, the grandson of a prosperous naval tailor. George's father, brought up as a gentleman, was unable to manage a declining business successfully, but with the help of his wife's small fortune he was able to maintain genteel pretensions and indulged his son sufficiently to set him apart from other tradesmen's children. But in 1833 his father went bankrupt and moved to London, where half a year later he married his housekeeper. This episode no doubt contributed to Meredith's remarkable lifelong secretiveness about his social origins. After a few years at a school in Germany, he was, in 1845, articled to a London solicitor in whose circle he discovered a new world of racy intellectual and literary talk, which soon determined his aspirations. Here he also met Thomas Love Peacock's widowed daughter, a well-educated and independent woman 8 years his senior with whom he rapidly fell in love; overcoming her well-founded reluctance, he married her in 1849. A volume of poetry published at his own expense earned him a letter of recognition from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, but nothing else, and so he turned to the more lucrative medium of prose.
The Shaving of Shagpat (1855) is a quasi-allegorical Oriental tale with a fantastically complex plot and much grotesque and supernatural incident. It establishes several of the persistent themes of Meredith's fiction: the ridiculousness of many social conventions and values and the blind vanity of those who are elevated by them; the young man who must undergo a series of maturing trials precipitated by his own egoism; and the woman who, for better or worse, inspires and guides his actions. Shagpat did not sell, however, and the continuing financial crises compounded the strain developing in his marriage. In 1858 his wife eloped to France with a young painter. She soon returned, alone and ill, but Meredith refused to see her again until her death and tried to prevent all contact between her and their son, to whom he became jealously devoted. These events lend a particularly personal significance to his next novel.
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) is the story of the only son of a rather too strong-minded baronet whose wife had eloped with a minor sentimental poet. His father raises him with jealous strictness according to a "system" which is thwarted when Richard, following his natural instincts, falls in love with and secretly marries a farmer's niece. But more in love with himself than either his system or his son, the baronet puts Richard through a trial of estrangement for his disobedience, and in his romantic impatience with his situation the boy demonstrates an egoism of his own that finally leads to his wife's death. The relationship of reason, natural instinct, romantic illusion, and the demands of society examined here is the theme of many of Meredith's later novels.
Evan Harrington (1860) is about a prosperous tailor's son who, having been raised as a gentleman, is forced to reenter the shop upon his father's death in order to pay his debts. The action consists of a number of ordeals through which Evan, in love with a daughter of gentry, learns to resist the temptation to pretend to the empty name of gentleman. The characters are clearly derived from Meredith's family and friends.
After Sandra Belloni (1864), Rhoda Fleming (1865), and Vittoria (1865), Meredith returned to the pattern of Evan Harrington in The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871). Brought up under the opposing influences of his romantic, self-deluded father, who believes he has a claim to royal blood, and a conservative country squire grandfather, Harry learns to free himself of illusion and make a rational adjustment to the realities and duties of life. Beauchamp's Career (1875) explores these themes further through a study of contemporary English politics. The hero stands for Parliament as a Radical, but under the rational surface his actions are motivated by passion and romantic impulse, which finally lead to his death.
An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit (1877) analyzes the philosophy and technique of Meredith's matured art. Human civilization is maintained against barbarism by the rational "common sense" of a cultured elite, aided by the comic spirit, which uses irony to expose the basic human motive force of egoism when it degenerates into self-delusion and the empty habit of domination. Literary comedy deals with the conflict between decadent egoism and reality and concentrates upon a small number of characters in a clearly defined situation.
The Egoist (1879) perfectly embodies the principles of the Essay and is Meredith's most brilliant and finished work. The novel is the story of the self-defeat in love of a rich and fatuous country gentleman; its defense of the heroine's emotional and intellectual independence shows a development in Meredith's conception of women. Diana of the Crossways (1885), the novel which finally brought him popularity, continues the study of woman's condition. Taking a more radical situation than in The Egoist, Meredith has Diana run away from an incompatible husband; but this only marks the beginning of a series of trials through which she at last gains true inner independence.
Modern Love (1861), a cycle of augmented sonnets depicting the breakdown of a marriage with relentless candor, marked the final act of Meredith's early literary exorcism of his own past. Ranging in tone from cool irony to bitter pathos, it carried poetry into hitherto unexplored territory. The bulk of Meredith's verse, however, is devoted to nature.
Further Reading on George Meredith
A standard biography of Meredith is Lionel Stevenson, The Ordeal of George Meredith (1953). G. M. Trevelyan, The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith (1906), was endorsed by Meredith himself. Good studies of Meredith's work are Walter F. Wright, Art and Substance in George Meredith (1953), and Norman Kelvin, A Troubled Eden: Nature and Society in the Works of George Meredith (1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Jerrold, Walter, George Meredith: an essay towards appreciation, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.
Williams, David, George Meredith: his life and lost love, London: H. Hamilton, 1977.