Such a Husband

John Bayley

  • Selected Letters of George Meredith edited by Mohammad Shaheen
    Macmillan, 312 pp, £47.50, April 1997, ISBN 0 333 56349 2

The two most interesting letters in this selection are not by Meredith: a fact suggestive of the Meredithian tendency to evade evidence or embodiment of a personal sort, and disappear into the airier world of ideas about him – his own or those of others. His personality, like that of his creations, is of a gaseous nature. Max Beerbohm once wrote a memorable little sketch of a visit to the Sage of Box Hill, and of hearing Meredith’s voice addressing the air as he approached, and recommencing the conversation as he walked away. In mid-century Meredith dazzled his friends and public, but the bubble eventually burst. Had there ever been anything in his coruscating characters and their sprightly utterance? Even old loyalties turned a bit sceptical. In her Memories of George Meredith one of his fans, Lady Butcher, recalled how he had thrilled her with his first inspiration for One of Our Conquerors, as they walked together on Box Hill.

As I listened to his wonderful voice telling of the tragic history of Nathalie and the dawning wonder of Nesta, I thought it must surely prove to be the greatest novel in the world, but ... when the novel was published I was disappointed: it seemed as if the ‘gleam’, ‘the light that never was on sea or land’, had departed from it, obscured by the whirl of words.

It was a whirl of words that vanished like the colours of the rainbow, leaving the future of the novel in the hands of down-to-earth realists, who knew their business, and their new public. The end of the century found Meredith looking as out of date as Restoration Comedy, while remaining almost hieratically respected by his peers as a grand old man of letters. The egregious banker Edward Clodd, a hanger-on of literary men and a candid friend, who observed of Hardy at the time of his second marriage that he was ‘a great writer but not a great man’, recorded Meredith’s presence at the Omar Khayyam Club dinner, where both Hardy and George Gissing spoke in his honour. They spoke of Meredith’s severe but kindly judgment on their first attempts at fiction, when he had been Chapman and Hall’s reader, and both acknowledged that they had profited from the experience.

Mohammad Shaheen makes good use of Clodd’s account in a revealing footnote: but the letters he includes in his selection that are not by Meredith provide a superbly well-timed revelation of matters which the letter-writer never wrote about, and probably never spoke of either. Shaheen’s new discoveries, and the admirable way he has arranged his material, go some way towards correcting, if not entirely refuting, the domestic image of Meredith’s marriage to Mary Peacock concocted by Diane Johnson in her True History of the First Mrs Meredith. In a spirited way, and with a good deal of apparent justification, Diane Johnson signed up Peacock’s daughter in the league of clever persecuted women suffering from horrible Victorian husbands. Meredith’s poem Modern Love, for all its shrewd bravura, she presented as a typical piece of masculine self-extenuation.

  In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be: passion spins the plot.
We are betrayed by what is false within.

The interesting thing about this famous climax in Meredith’s most notable poem is that it is not only in deadly earnest but soberly true. Compared, say, to the hero of Tennyson’s ‘Maud’, Meredith’s spokesman is fully aware not only of the complexity of his amatory situation but of his absolute need to rhetoricise it, in order to make the complexity itself stand out in bold relief, and be melodramatically visible. Posturing is needed to disclose the full extent and ticklishness of the trouble that he’s in, or rather that he and the woman are in as a couple. Naturally she cannot share in his making of it into a work of art except as his Muse; and there is every sign that when Mary left Meredith his most potent source of inspiration abandoned him too. Happy marriage and family life a few years later with Marie Vulliamy provided no sort of substitute.

Mary Peacock was older than Meredith, and had been briefly married before, to a naval officer. She married Meredith in 1849, five years after her husband was drowned. The intervening time she had spent mostly in France, where, as Diane Johnson neutrally observes, she had probably ‘been up to something’. In fact, she seems to have been doing her best to mend her father’s shaky finances, writing on his behalf to Byron’s old friend Sir John Hobhouse, and almost, if not quite, soliciting him for a handout. She was close to her father, probably much closer than she ever was to either of her husbands, or to the lover who succeeded them. Her marriage to Meredith went wrong almost from the start, as is revealed by the first and most significant of the external letters which the editor includes. It was written by his wife Catherine to Richard Hengist Horne, a rather rackety literary man, author of the forgotten epic ‘Orion’, who had been a friend of the young Meredith; and it describes, with that striking domestic vividness of which even the most commonplace Victorians seem to have been capable in their correspondence, a three-week stay recently undergone in the Meredith ménage. It is clear that Catherine Horne was a little in love with Meredith herself, and correspondingly jealous of his wife, but she is quite prepared to share both these feelings with her husband, then in Australia, and – unknown to his wife – himself on the verge of an entanglement with a young Scottish girl, by whom he was to have a child.

‘Now goodbye for the present dear Ganner,’ she concludes the letter, using her pet name for her husband. ‘What would you do with such a wife?’ As Shaheen dryly observes, Catherine Horne had reason before long to exclaim to Meredith, her companion in misfortune: ‘What would you do with such a husband?’ But for all the parti pris in her letter, a vivid picture of Mary’s contrarieties emerges which could well have put the most devoted and civilised of husbands under an intolerable strain. He had nowhere to write other than a corner of the room in which she and her friends sat, and her mode of enlivening any matrimonial difference of opinion – she habitually spoke ‘at him’ – was to scream and threaten to throw herself out of the window. These venomous domestic exchanges were soon over, according to Catherine, and Mary would return to being ‘the proper cold hard Mrs M’. ‘What a strange nature he must have,’ Catherine artlessly reflects, ‘to bear this and still retain his affection for her.’

One would say, rather, a sensitive and unusual nature placed in a desolatingly commonplace household situation – one more suited to the novels of Dickens or Gissing than to the romantic ordeals of Richard Feverel, and the anguished pair in a tragic love poem. Ironically enough, we learn from Catherine Horne that he is writing a poem, ‘some of which he read to me, and I like very much’. This may well have been an early version of Modern Love, in which case Catherine would have been the first to witness the transformation of the wrangling couple into ‘two rapid falcons in a snare/Condemned to do the flitting of the bat’. A striking and sardonic image. There is also involuntary comedy, which would hardly have appealed to Meredith, in such a time-honoured and even tedious domestic farce being dignified with the new and urgent name of ‘modern love’.

The most engaging thing about the young Meredith is the diffidence and vulnerability which came from an insecure class background – the paternal tailor’s establishment in Portsmouth – and the exaggerated brilliance he adopted as a mask. His personal myth was that of a young prince in exile, and it must have dazzled Peacock and his daughter on first acquaintance, until the unsure, frightened, but surely more sympathetic real man began to show through. Such a young man seen through would bite back like a cornered rat, rather than like a ‘rapid falcon in a snare’. The Peacocks, father and daughter, must soon have been disagreeably aware of their young prodigy’s complex and evasive personality. The prince in disguise was not going to reveal himself as he was if he could help it, and certainly not in his correspondence.

It is hardly surprising that another of her husband’s young friends, the painter Henry Wallis, must have seemed to offer to Mary the possibility of a simpler and more chivalrous devotion. In painting her husband as the doomed Chatterton, gracefully draped in his purple breeches against the background of a Bristol dawn, Wallis might seem to have endorsed the romantic conception of his subject while disclosing with unexpected shrewdness the more commonplace frailties of the actual model. Between Kate Horne’s graphic account of the Merediths’ home life and an anxiously loving letter from Mary to Wallis, bidding him take care of himself, comes a gap of several years, in the course of which Mary produced Meredith’s son Arthur, while he seems to have limited his correspondence to requests to publishers for money for poems. If any letters passed between him and Mary he must have taken good care later to see they did not survive. By the time Mary was in love with Wallis, spending the summer of 1857 in Wales with him and finding herself pregnant with his child, she and Meredith were virtually separated. A year earlier he expresses a devoutly hypocritical hope that she will remain comfortably in London while he is hard at work down in Sussex. Mary’s love letter to Wallis was written soon after this critical time, when she was uncertain whether her husband wanted a legal separation, and even – it would seem – whether her lover really wanted to elope with her, two months pregnant as she was. It is a touching document, but it also gives an impression of care and adroitness, its mode of appeal well calculated: any sensitive young man receiving it could hardly have done other than the honourable thing. She knows he is not well (‘three times in the night a gentle knocking, which did not in the least alarm, told me I should be with you’) and longs to nurse and look after him. No reference to her own state, though the suggestion of a supernormal awareness of his – the ‘gentle knocking’ – indicates that he might equally be expected to have heard her, needing him. He had written to her dreading a parting, and she dreads one too.

I am always dreading to lose you because I feel I have no right to you, and I love you so really, so far beyond anything I have known of love, that there are ways in which I believe I could bear to lose you ... I shall in no shape lead you Dalilah-like to Death, since it is my one aim to add to your strength ... as for weariness and anger, if we begin to tread either of those paths we will part before they possess us.

She would consent to lose him in life ‘to one more worthy ... but oh I would so work to have you mine again through all eternity’ – a gentle reminder, and clearly a potent one at the period, that whatever happened he could not get away from her for ever. Wallis in fact made no attempt to escape; and since Meredith seems to have wanted to hear nothing about the matter the lovers eloped together to Italy (the Brownings a precedent and good omen), where Harold Meredith, as he became and was always called, was born. The relationship with Wallis did not last, however, and Mary herself fell ill of a kidney complaint, dying not long afterwards, and just before the publication of Modern Love. One wonders what she would have thought of it. The tone of her letter to Wallis shows how well she could write, and her own life and personality are far more fascinating than anything in the poem: but the poem shows all the skill – ultimately perhaps a barren one in his case – with which Meredith the husband turned their life into a new sort of art.

That may be the trouble with his correspondence, which in spite of all the ingenuity which Shaheen has managed to put into displaying it remains in itself a disappointing affair. Letters are about living after all, or should be, and Meredith as a writer and conversationalist seems to have created for himself what for better or worse amounts to a fantasy world, an ‘Arabian Entertainment’ like The Shaving of Shagpat, which came out in the middle of his troubles with Mary, and whose cool reception by the critics was a bitter blow to the author. The main interest in his later correspondence, well presented by the editor, who includes a letter of Sutro’s, is about the efforts of William Archer and John Sutro to produce a dramatised version of The Egoist. This could well have proved a remarkable piece of theatre, had it ever come off. Between the Fifties and the Nineties Meredith had, in his own way, come to know himself; and it is possible to view The Egoist not only as his most successful theatrical entertainment but as a self-portrait far more searching in its panache than the one a younger self had presented in Modern Love. However sensational its transformation into the personae of Sir Willough by Patterne and Clara Middleton, the author is still inspired, indeed obsessed, by that fateful relationship of himself and Mary, still in a sense attempting to exorcise its trauma by means of art. (Gillian Beer has explored this brilliantly in Meredith: A Change of Masks.) Dramatised on the stage, the relationship could have shown a conflict of almost Ibsenian power, presented in terms of modernised Restoration Comedy.

Sadly, the fine project was never fulfilled. The highly distinguished actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson, by general consent the only man for the part, understood as clearly as did Meredith himself that Sir Willoughby was a challenge which, instead of enhancing the style and persona of the actor who played it, would tend subtly to undermine them. The great man ‘shrank from the part of Sir Willoughby’, as Sutro sadly informed Meredith, since it was ‘a character not likely to be pleasing to his public’. Pity. Had Forbes-Robertson had the courage, as he certainly had the skill, he might have created a classic play, and a part which Laurence Olivier or Ralph Richardson could later have made their own. A dramatised version of The Egoist was written by Sutro, but by then time and fashion had moved on. The turn of the century was the moment either for Ibsen’s realism or Maeterlinck’s poetic mysticism. It was Meredith’s misfortune as an author to have always been either too late or too early in making his own bid for fame.