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 The end of the century found Meredith looking as out of date as Restoration Comedy, while remaining almost hieratically respected by his peers as a grand old man of letters.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.

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