As I Was Saying/Essay XVI
|Essay XV|| As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XVI: About Meredith
I HAPPENED to meet again, recently, after many years, a very brilliant and distinguished Italian professor who specializes in the study of English literature. And almost the first words he spoke to me, with more than Italian vivacity, and even agitation, were: "What has happened to George Meredith?"
He said it as if George Meredith were still alive, but had been missing for three days from his Surrey home; as if fears were entertained that he might have fallen off Box Hill or been battered featureless by the traffic in Guildford High Street; as if all England were searching for the missing novelist and Scotland Yard was believed to be in possession of a clue. But I knew my Italian friend's meaning much better. What puzzled him was not that all England was searching for George Meredith, but rather that all England was not searching for George Meredith; or even searching for George Meredith's books. And it gave me an increased respect for the acumen and vigilance with which he followed our island literature, to know that he had noticed this very curious blank and even oblivion that has followed on so much admitted brilliance and fame. To any one who remembers, as I do, the days when Meredith was not merely the idol of the intellectuals, but regarded by all the intelligent as one out of the two or three really great men who could be regarded as leaders of the literature of England in the face of Europe, there is something very extraordinary about this capricious and sudden silence. It is all the more extraordinary because of the ideas for which Meredith stood and the qualities which his admirers chiefly admired. It seemed to most of us, in our boyhood, that he was not only the greatest literary artist then present, but that he was prophetically the first literary artist of the future. He was not only the greatest English author alive, but the only English author who would live. And yet he has not really lived; certainly he has not yet really triumphed. He was the champion of all the things that were expected to triumph; nay, the things that many people tell us have already triumphed. He was, for instance, the champion of Feminism. I do not say that his "Ballad of Fair Ladies in Revolt" could actually have been sung as a marching song by the well-drilled battalions of Mrs. Pankhurst. For Meredith's literary style did not always lend itself to being used as a roaring chorus for the march or the camp-fire. But, in its philosophy, it expressed almost everything that the Suffragettes wanted to say, and was, in form, more philosophical and intellectual than most of the things they did say. He anticipated the reaction against the Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling type of Imperialism, and urged the sympathetic comprehension of the Celt against the more arrogant nineteenth-century nonsense about the universal superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. True, he was enough of a nineteenth-century man to trace these differences almost entirely along the lines of race, and to be entirely ignorant, for instance, of the extent to which they followed the lines of religion. But that was not so much because he had the limitations of a nineteenth-century man as because he had the even narrower limitations of a free-thinker.
Anyhow, in a score of ways, the modern world has followed the Meredithean model for the world, and one could have sworn that he was safe for a much frequented shrine in the Pantheon of Progress. A much more frequented shrine, in fact, is that of Thomas Hardy, who was also a free-thinker, but a much less practical friend to freedom. Hardy was, indeed, full of the sense of numberless things that ought to be done, but it was somewhat softened and mellowed by a persistent doubt about whether they could be done. But Meredith was the sort of nineteenth-century Liberal who was full of a flaming certainty that they would be done; and they were done. But he has no particular credit now for having helped to do them. And it seems, in some strange sense, that it is Meredith himself who is done. I would not disgrace my own older generation by saying for a moment that he is done for, but there seem to be large numbers of the newer generation who act on the assumption that he is done with.
I am well aware, of course, that these political and sociological aspects are quite secondary in the estimate of a great master of imaginative fiction; a man who could create men, and especially women. But such things as his failure to figure, even as a memory, in what many would call the victory of women really is part of a whole comparison that is something of a puzzle. Nothing was more puzzling, for instance, than the strange story of the two funerals, the funeral of Meredith and the funeral of Hardy. Enthusiasts, if I remember rightly, demanded a grave for Meredith in Westminster Abbey; and it was refused. Enthusiasts demanded a grave for Hardy in Westminster Abbey; and it was at least partially, or by some compromise, granted. I cannot imagine why. If it were a question of literary fame, Meredith stood then even higher than Hardy. If it were a question of incongruity of religion or irreligion, the objection was infinitely stronger against Hardy than against Meredith. Hardy, with all his virtues, or possibly as one of his virtues, was quite frankly provocative atheist and pessimist. Meredith was not a provocative atheist and not a pessimist at all. A man might read five volumes of Meredith and not find a single direct taunt like that about the President of the Immortals delighting in the torture of Tess.
It was not so much that Meredith did not worship God as that he did worship Nature. And perhaps that is where the breach has come between him and the new sceptics, who are often more bitterly at war with Nature than with God. There are even hints in the work of later sceptics, like Mr. Aldous Huxley and others, that, if they were absolutely driven to the alternative, they would rather take refuge with the supernatural than with the natural. Perhaps Meredith inherited even too much of that sentiment, which was spread all over that century, from Wordsworth to Whitman, that the earth is itself a healer and all its green and growing things are a hope. Yet Meredith was sound and sincere in his own particular version of this vision--that of the wilderness as a sort of garden of medicinal herbs; nor is he proved wrong by the mere fact of another generation of the young, with quite exceptionally sour stomachs, thinking that the physic is nasty. But even if this be granted as a fair difference of opinion, it does not explain the decline of interest in all that once made Meredith most interesting. It does not explain the lack of memory or allusion concerning the real business of the novelist as a novelist. His character drawing surely remains unquestionably lively and sympathetic. Moreover, though he delighted in a sort of sophistication, it is by no means true that he only wrote about the sophisticated. Following the sad habit of the times, it is long since I have read the greater part of Meredith; but I think the thing that stands out with most startling veracity in my memory is his description of ordinary schoolboys. I shall never forget the moment when some boy-- Harry Richmond, I think--is challenged by another boy to repeat the word "fool," and then to repeat it twenty times. And, "with a seriousness of which only boys and such barbarians are capable," Harry actually recited the word with precisely the required number of repetitions. There is nothing perverse or euphuistic about that; and we are always certain, in Meredith's books at least, that boys will be boys. The truth is that Meredith was both full-blooded and also foppish and even foolish. He was affected because he was vain, but he was vain because he was natural. We might understand him better as an artist of the Renaissance.