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George Meredith: An Obscure Comedian

ISSUE:  Autumn 1925

When I was very young, people used to tell me—good people all of them, but ill advised— that some day I would close my Byron and take up my Wordsworth, and that some day I would give over my Meredith and take up my Hardy. Well, I was a perverse child; I dug up the crocuses in the back lawn because somebody wanted to plant them and watch them grow, and I never ate spinach because I was told it was good for me. So, it took a long time to close my Byron; indeed, today there are still times when all Wordsworth’s seeing into the heart of things cannot give the kindly ache that Byron’s growing pains leave with me.

“The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung”

has my fancy, and the old perverseness may be the cause, for I can remember that fine old Englishman—my teacher —waggling his funny little goatee at me and letting his voice boom in the empty class room and saying, “Ah, you are young, and Byron is young, but the day for your Wordsworth will come, and he will mean more to you—much more.” And so I determined never to let it come, but it has, like age; for it slipped upon me when I thought least about it.

So it is with my Meredith flair, but not quite. My love for “The Egoist” came late, because of necessity it began late, and so it is more of the mature Me than the Byron mood. I see now, of course, that Meredith would never do, if he were alone in the world of the novel, and Hardy might,

although I had rather die than live to see that come. I can readily admit that nobody talks in real life like Sir Will-oughby or Clara, and I can see that Meredith writes description as it should not be written—with a full measure of self in his trees and his hills and his people. I know all this is true, and I admit it, but I do not think that the old perversity is the reason I say that to me, Meredith, with all his faults, is great as Hardy and Dickens and Wells and May Sinclair never can be. He is unreal: he is great because of it, and he is obscure because of it. Let me explain.

To the critic, George Meredith seems to have been—and he is still—a perennial puzzle, almost as great a mystery as Laurence Sterne and his infamous “Tristram Shandy.” It seems that the reviewers of Meredith’s novels come,—as most critics do and should never do,—with a definite idea of the way Meredith should have written his books, and when they find he has not followed their ideas of comedy, or novel writing, or description of person or place, or what not, they judge with the peculiar severity of men who feel they have been laughed at. To look at life and writing with the eyes of Meredith they refuse, and the acceptance of his viewpoint is the one thing needed for an understanding of the man. Obscure he is, at times, but the major obscurity of the reviews comes from a failure on the part of the critic to adjust himself to the task at hand. Such criticism is like an English churchman of the zealot sort giving his opinion of that delightful rattle-brain, Laurence Sterne.

There has been much discussion of the comic spirit in Meredith and how he uses it to reduce abnormality to sanity; there has been wise and unwise talk of his feminism, with little understanding of what it means. There has been unthinking praise for his boy portraits; his ability at descriptive analysis has been cheered, but all is far wide the mark and yet quite near. It seems to me that there is a better solution for these questions.

As one reads the novels of George Meredith, there comes a growing sense of the utter uselessness of judging him as a novelist on the old terms of romanticist and realist, writer of romance or manners, builder of characters or plots. He seems somehow aloof from the grasp of the pigeon-hole cataloguer. There grows a sense that he must be read as poetry is read and judged, and more particularly, that he must be read as we read (or should read) Theocritus, “Da-phnis and Chloe,” “Aucassin et Nicolette,” “Gawain and the. Green Knight,” “Astree,” “Shepherd’s Calendar,” < “Hermann and Dorothea,” “Idylls of the King,” and the rest of that literature of unreality that we call “pastoral.” Poetry takes its rise from this old field of writing; the play instinct, or rather the pleasure instinct, the looking to the beautiful, the smiling attitude towards life and what passes as living, in short, the true art attitude of life remoulded by retrospective artistic mentality, is found in pastoral verse and prose pictures. Pastoral verse was great because it was free from life as life is really lived; it looks at life as it has been lived, and the knocks and bumps on the nose that come from being too near the actual living are all far enough gone to seem pleasant, valuable to think about, and just a bit trifling after they are gone. In true pastoral literature, there is a looking back on youth and young love as something which is funny, but which dare only be gently smiled at, because it is real, and the most beautiful thing the observer has ever known. It is middle age, wise and tolerant, looking back on twenty-two; it is the spirit that makes grown women like rather mawkish stories when they should know better. “There hath passed away a glory from the earth.” It may not have been a very flaming glory, but while it lasted it meant everything. This pastoral quality is what I find in Meredith; he would sneer at this, politely, but it is true. Men do not usually know themselves, or care to admit themselves revealed. The world of Meredith is a pastoral hillside; there are bows on the sheep and on the trees, and he put them there because they meant something.

He has not lost his good sense in painting a play world; he is showing the real world by means of it. He looks back on youth and finds it pleasant; he sees very young love and is not dismayed.

In serenity, aloofness, playing with reality and so being unreal, making the picture perfect and beautiful in defiance of truth and simplicity, smiling and laughing gently at human passion and extra-serious endeavour, George Meredith was a man who viewed life, in his novels at least, with pastoral vision. This is the unity of attitude that, I believe, offers some means of understanding and appreciating George Meredith. Meredith demands, as every writer does, that we look at men and women with him. Doing that, obscurity due to our own perverseness dies. To read Meredith well, we must accept his detached attitude.

Meredith has the pastoral attitude, even if he does lack the ancient pastoral machinery. He has tranquility and a comic sense that arises from events as they happen, not as they are made comic by the sharp brilliance of the writer. This brilliance he has been accused of, but it is a false accusation. He sees the essential humor in situations, even serious ones, and by his art he draws that humor out. He decorates, but that is for the atmosphere of his world, not for making funny a thing that is not essentially so. His is a philosophic humor, and his phrases only give us this humor; they do not grin apishly.

Having this tranquility, having this aloofness that sees the true essence of situations, having an art that is, like the pastoral, based on a reshaping of events from their real dimensions into those of the art world, Meredith approaches greatness.

The change of reality to a convention of the artist’s is to some degree always a necessity and commendable as such. The pastoral picture is not wrong because it has its set form or its artificiality. All art is by nature artificial, and the reason for the production is the pleasure that the artist takes in the creation. Pleasure, individual delight, is the reason that we get artistic work done. There is relief in reshaping ugly reality into art forms and that relief is pleasure.

The comedy in the prose of George Meredith, in fact, the whole comic machinery which is the background for his stories and their ideas, springs from the attitude in the mind of the author, the attitude which has arbitrarily been designated “pastoral.” The attitude in the mind of the writer is given expression in what we call “Meredithian comedy;” to know the attitude is the first step in understanding that comedy which has seemed so difficult to know.

It is a commonplace of conservatism in literary judgment to-day that we are afraid of novels that do not show life as it is. In everything else but our world of letters, we are trying to forget reality, by vacations from real work, by amusements when the day’s work is over. Motion pictures and the automobile ally with each other to make us feel that unpleasant and even accepted reality are far, far away. In the churches we talk about the vanity of this world and not setting our hearts on the things that are really round about us. But let the novelist say, “I am not painting life as it is; I am painting life as it looks to me; I have distorted that man’s face to let you know him better. I have made a pretty world to show how comic men would be if they lived in it,” and we are suspicious. If it is a play, we laugh with Pierrette and we love Harlequin. But we are severe with the novelist. We say, “Sir, stay at your pile. We want kindling, not shavings.”

Meredith refused to chop kindling. He is, as a writer, not interested in the details of life; if we have not observed it enough to recognize it, he throws the burden of our lack of knowledge upon us. His is a strange world but very simple. If we see this, if we fit ourselves to the convention, Meredith in his bigger phases will not be incomprehensible. The realist objects, “People do not act that way.” No, but let them, and see what results. “There never were trees like that.” No, but it might have been better if there had been. “People are never so wholly one thing.” But you never cleared away enough of the details to find out. In a hall of mirrors, do not look for likeness. Art is a hall of mirrors, a world of unrealities that tries to show, in Meredith’s way, human traits, frailties, abnormalities, and the comedy of these rather stupid beings that we call men—stupid, roughshod, but interesting, appends the writer of “The Egoist.”

To have Heaven, we must postulate a hell. To show how comedy, a laughing at pose, at ridiculous pretence, can clear away the worst personal abnormality, we must allow the evil to run unchecked to its peak. Then follows reversal, correction, the full picture of the joke in the evil, and the excess seems all the greater and the more ridiculous. We are interested in seeing egoism at work. What is it? How does it thrive? What is its chief trait? How do we know an egoist? To find this, build the perfect world (unreal) for the production of egoism at its worst. Let us have Sir Willoughby, a man of many inherited aristocratic progenitors. Let him have money and a sense of family pride. Let him be handsome, and let him excell in brain and brawn. Let women worship and men applaud. Then let the egoist fall in love and win, and cast the gain aside. Let him then love again, and let him be cast aside but let him seem to win, and thus save his self-respect. Let him, wary, hurt in pride, love again and meet what—? A mere woman, a handful of feminine grace would never do. Let him meet a perfect woman, but a young girl, beautiful and with her eyes open, untricked by infatuation or inherited adulation. Let her love him—almost—and then let her make the egoist look himself—almost—in his unpleasantly satisfied face. This is the very seat of comedy, life as it might be if we watched close enough, life with its laughable upsettings that lie so near to disaster that we are not sure what we are feeling. Why do we enjoy Sir Willoughby philosophically riding to his fall? It is true that he would never have ridden so in George meredith real life, but within him, in his real self, in his real world, unobjectified, he rode and does ride, hard to his tripping. So runs an outline of “The Egoist,” and its method suggests the method used in all the novels.

Comedy, in Meredith’s view, has some of the elements of the “pastoral;” it is a “game played to throw reflections upon social life.” Comedy, in the Meredith sense, has no thesis beyond his curiously Faust-like conception of the Earth Spirit which broods over affairs in a non-deistic, unalterable governance. Comedy comes from any discrepancy between the normal which the Earth and its pure workings would have and the abnormal which man in his foolish pretension puts up as a gratification to himself. It is the emanation of earthly things; it comes, when it is perceived, as a correction of departures from the sane world of living; it gives earthly things their true importance and allows them their dignity; it limits emotion of the delicate sort to sentiment and emotion of the passionate sort to authenticity and sanity. It is, once again, an emanation of earthly things, and is so concerned with unreal atmospheres finely drawn from reality. Its language is the language of conceits (in the word’s oldest and best sense) because anything intellectually perceived after it is emotionally over is a conceit. It re-creates not for play but for reality. By being a realization of the subtle undercurrent which moves details it is more significant, in its true power, than the details themselves can ever be. Doing this it is back with the world of sheep and shepherdesses, where cultivated society of a simple sort played with reality and so learned its inner meaning, and saw by an enjoyable use of its leisure time what life and living can be to thoughtful men. This is the pastoral element in George Meredith and his Comic Spirit.

Style and subject matter are irrevocably linked in Meredith, and in looking for errors in one it is imperative that we look for their reason in the other. Style is the man in the very genuine sense that it is his most intimate disclosure of himself to an outer world. What he says is no more important than how he says it; the thing he is thinking about usually determines his method of articulation. This is where we need an understanding of Meredith’s unified attitude towards life and his art to see through the technical obscurities. The pastoral attitude, we have seen, is an artificial shaping of reality, it is art transfusion in its most severe form; it implies by its very nature a set style, formal, involved, artificial, to make its idea adequately presented to a disbelieving world. It is not any more possible to present an art conventionality of thought in bald, true-to-nature style than it is to present a strong picture of glaring realities of passion and sentiment in terms of “Euphues.” Meredith must frame his picture with a style that makes it appear beautiful and real; to make his convention seem real, he must use a conventional style. In an office building we do not notice as unfitting the click of a typewriter; in a church or cathedral the machine is blatant and conspicuous.

Knowing and believing as we do, that the art of Meredith is a convention and that the style must agree, we see his complexity and his playing with an idea and decorating it with elaborate metaphors and witty aphorisms are not out of place or unreal: they concur in the thing to be done. Meredith seldom comes clearly to the point and says a simple thing simply. He twists, intellectualizes an unintellectual idea, if this be possible. Speaking of Laetitia, Meredith tells us that she gave up hope of marrying Willoughby. He says, “she quietly gave a wrench to the neck of the young hope in her breast.” This has been blamed stylistically; it is ugly, unsympathetic. It takes time off for a smart figure. But we are not weeping with Laetitia or over her at any time. She is slavish in her adoration of Willoughby. She needs comic scourging and she gets it. After all, dirt-eating love is humorous. It may be real, painful, but viewed from the detachment of “well, what does it matter in a hundred years,” it is comic, and Laetitia herself would be the happier if she could laugh. We are in reading aloof with the author, and the style supports the attitude of the art Meredith deals in. Meredith tells us by his attitude, as expressed by his style, “Let us bandy words and see how funny pompousness is.” And so the style plays and decorates simplicity to show that, after all, simplicity is not the end hoped for. Simplicity and straightforwardness in “The Egoist,” would be like Meredithian involutions in “The Village Blacksmith.”

There is a time for weeping and a time for laughter; there is a time for simplicity and a time when an embroidered style is good. To the realist the love scene in “Feverel” is a sentimental exhibit of triviality. Of course it is, but granted the attitude of the writer, such a scene is in keeping, and in terms of Meredith’s gentle comedy is the very antithesis of sentimentality. It is sentiment; it is an almost perfect pastoral, but it does not drip. Young love always did border on the boundary of sentiment and sentimentality, but being in that borderland it is not posing or getting over-sweet. This Meredith saw. By changing the tone of the scene to a delicate burlesque through his own twitches of the words, Meredith says something about eighteen and twenty. He doesn’t enter in, except by feeling with the young people keenly enough to know the world in which they are living. In attitude he has passed forty, but he does not mimic with the heavy-footed chuckle of the boy story, typified by Booth Tarkington’s “Seventeen,” which lacks the intellect to be graceful. Meredith is too much of a gentleman to do the last and too wise to enter in. His pastoral reconstruction says, “It is beautiful for this to happen to Lucy and Richard,” that is, for Lucy and Richard, but it is comic or very near it in its hyper-intensity and its extravagance. If Richard poses in his love, Meredith goes a step more. “Fool, you are comic in trifling with what you feel.” And down comes the imp host to plague a posing Richard, who is, then, by the way, Sir Willoughby Patterne.

Meredith is a feminist because it is, for the most part, only women who are able by natural sensibilities and perceptions to see the world on play terms, to look at living as something to be enjoyed as a strange art, instead of something which must be fought because it is difficult. Women have by nature the pastoral attitude; a woman can enjoy an embarrassing situation because she sees it in terms of its ultimate value in the general scheme of things. A man resents embarrassments; he is a hard person to make see the fun in it; he can never quite free himself from the immediate sting of the incident. Some few men, with larger capacity for imagination, can, and Meredith is one of these. He turns to the world of woman for his attitude—this world and the pastoral are nearly one—because he finds there understanding and a large field for artistic imagination. He is by nature feminine; whatever he may say in favor of the new feminism that meant so much in the mid-nineteenth century and earlier is above and beside this first essential of character. For its very life, his art was dependent upon the cultivated society that woman demands and gets.

It is this love of the society which women are capable of producing that makes Meredith a feminist in the active sense of the word. He has the intuition, the analytic probing, the delicacy of wit and understanding, the fineness of feeling, the subtle sting, the cold sufficiency in looking an ugly situation in the face, the love of play that we commonly call feminine. The pastoral separation from the engrossing realities is hard for a man to get; a woman gets it rather easily—or rather, it is born in her. She has, too, the love of looking back on pleasant scenes and happenings. She is more tolerant of youth because she got more enjoyment from it. All this is in Meredith. His feminism lies in his mental make-up. The other side of the feministic argument—that of a definite thesis for feminist reform—is a corollary to this. One cannot have the feminine point of view without understanding women keenly. Meredith knows his women and feels with them—hates their dependence, their necessity for keeping quiet when they should have the right to say something. This is why his studies of women: La3titia, Constantia, Clara, Renee, Rose, Cecilia, the Countess de Saldar, Mrs. Harrington, Rosamund, Mrs. Mountstuart, are great portraits. They may not be real as objective portraits by which you could identify them on the street; Meredith cared little for such identification. But they are real, wholly understood beings from within. If it were possible for us to meet the mentalities and spirits of people walking down the street, we could always say, “Why, there is Clara Middleton. . . . Look, don’t you see Constantia?” The people are real because they are so thoroughly understood as thinking beings. They act, they react; given an impulse, we know how they will respond to it. The sense of well-rounded knowledge never leaves us in our looking at Meredith’s women. Clara Middleton is a tragic person because she is painfully and sensitively known by us. The situation is not emotionally startling in the old sense of a theatrical dilemma, but her feeling made emotionally real to us is exquisite torture. There is the semi-comedy situation; Willoughby is a fool, and his heavy love making is funny, but here is a real woman who is bound by the conventions of the thing she is about to undertake to accept this overgrown, spoiled youngster as serious. Seeing his faults, she is asked to look up and adore. There is the feminism of Meredith—knowing women and knowing what they dislike, and being able to make that dislike poignant to a reading world that is apt to discount such over-refined cruelty. We have a term now in the divorce courts that shows a Meredithian sympathy—mental cruelty. Meredith knows his men, too, as a woman knows them. He knows their crudeness as it is manifest to women; he understands their ridiculousness in terms of a woman’s knowing smile. Vernon is kind and lovable—to women’s way of thinking; Willoughby is worthy of reverence and worthy of excoriation—to women, that is, to different kinds of women. There is a world of subtle feeling that is hard to approach, and it has its delicate joy and its keen sorrow. It is the world of wpmen and few there be that find it. This is Meredith’s feminism. Feminism as a system of subtle thought makes Meredith a feminist rather than his advocacy of feminine advance, although he does that, too, with force and grace. But his attitude has the repose of women who see into the heart of things and who are not troubled by the externals of situations. This is the pastoral attitude, and it is very near the courtly, gallant pastoral which gave women the center of the stage and romance the first place as theme of themes, except that the Euphuistic stories of the past flattered where Meredith appreciates.

Within its conventions, such an art as Meredith’s has its own reality. With the exception of a case-book record of events, every record of things that happen is colored by the writer to a large or small degree. Every fact observed, every detail selected, every picture, every word spoken shows the hand of the writer. One cannot write without self revelation. Art is not photography. We see this doctrine rather clearly in the world of painting, but we do not commonly see it in the world of writing. In color art, we believe this truth so much that our exhibits tend to look like mad-houses or like the scribbling of children—all because the artist tells us that his painting is the way the objective reality looked to him. And yet in the novel, we try to believe the opposite. We aim at recording minute details; we try to keep the author back out of sight. Meredith puts the author to the front. He must. He chooses to talk about life actions as he sees them and as he wants us to see. He is not interested in teaching his way of looking, but he evidently believes there is pleasure and understanding if we watch things his way. Otherwise, he would not write. Meredith has chosen the conventionalized world of human experience. The question is not, should any one do this or applaud it? It is rather, this having been done, has it been well done? His work may not be great; something else nearer to the infinite sweep of human feeling may be demanded for greatness in the absolute, but, in the scale of the absolute, he stands high.

Meredith stands off and looks at life as it might be and as it is if we take time off from the intense business of living to think through realistic details to what they mean in terms of motives and mental moods and subtle emotion. Realism, with all its virtues as the way to greatness, too often gets lost in itself. A writer has something to say or he should not write. When his technique and his matter get beyond him and make him lose himself, there are dangers. Meredith never runs this risk. Being a realist is not a sure sign of knowledge of life and people; too readily it passes for such. That is why Meredith’s classic tendency toward un-located, unfixed pictures has its charm. It reduces facts to their place—and they are important—but spends most of its time with the human motive and desire back of facts. This can be done to excess, and it is a matter of individual judgment and liking whether or not Meredith errs in this particular. With this neglect of facts is coupled Meredith’s tranquility, which seems aesthetically sound. It takes great art to write from repose. Any one with strong emotions can write powerfully when he is wrought up. It takes a great man to make vivid emotion come to artistic birth when he is emotionally sane. Divine madness is not unnecessary; but it is only a prelude to the best artistic expression. It is easy to say strong things when a man is angry; it is hard to say those strong things after he is himself again. What remains in repose is important; it is vital because it persists, and its emotional appeal is the stronger because it came out of repose. From quiet the artistic faculty does its best work —it reshapes, it orders, it selects in clear judgment, and it gets beauty. The flash of inspiration comes to the painter, but it is in purpose and sustained effort that the artistic product is done. The fire of emotion, the concentration upon the flash of beauty cannot endure over a long period. The artist would go crazy and lose his own power to create, if the first fever lasted as a mania. This is why Meredith’s books, written consciously with an eye to style and conventional reshaping and interpretation, approach greatness. They are the fine work of a fine man who can handle his tools. They take life seriously, but they show how comic it is at the same time. Indeed, they picture life by comedy, by showing incongruities and absurd actions on the part of grown men and women. They make life worth while, but they lessen the tension by giving proper values. All this Meredith does. Out of quiet is born beauty and we need beauty. Clear minds and keen spirits will always turn to Hardy and Dickens and Thackeray and Fielding and Sterne and Stevenson and James and Meredith, for they can see in these many ways of saying the same true things, and they are willing to give each the honor that is due. The complexity of life needs many explanations. Meredith gives one view, one idea. For that he is worth our knowing. He thinks in quiet and he loves beauty. What he has to give is beautiful, for it is born of his own love for perfection.


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