The New Fiction of the 1860s Meredith and Eliot

Andrew Sanders

The early work of George Meredith (1828-1909) created a sensation of quite another order. His first novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, was banned by Mudie’s Circulating Library for its supposed moral offence, and his most substantial volume of poetry Modern Love (1862) tackled the still risqué subject of the disintegration of a marriage. Modern Love may have emerged from personal circumstances and a private crisis, but, as its very title implies, it also expressed a distinctive ‘modernity’ in the circumstances of marital breakdown and the incompatibility of unloving partners. The fifty 16-line poems initially record the failure of a relationship and the venom and irritation that has replaced passion. The tensions are strikingly evident from the very first of the poems: By this he knew she wept with waking eyes; That, at his hand’s light quiver by her head, The strange low sobs that shook their common bed, Were called into her with a sharp surprise, And strangled mute, like little gaping snakes, Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away With muflled pulses ... . . . . . Like sculptured effigies, they might be seen Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between; Each wishing for the sword that severs all. The hypocrisy of the public pretence that all is well is countered at a half way point in poem 25 by reference to the franker moral decisions described in a French novel; thereafter husband and wife lead separate lives, he actively consoling himself with a mistress.

It is, however, as Meredith himself proclaims, the ‘Comic Spirit’ that generally rules in his novels, a comedy that informs his representation of human discourse and his analysis of character. Meredith’s female characters have a particularly distinctive quality, ranging from the calculated social mobility of Evan’s sisters in Evan Harrington (1860) to the impulsive, restless independence of Diana Warwick in Diana of the Crossways (1885). His fascination with political manoeuvre as an extension of amatory interaction (evident enough in the treatment of Diana’s affair with a young politician, Percy Dacier) is considered more fully in the complex contortions and ramifications of Beauchamp’s Career (1874-5). An interest in the political tensions of contemporary Italy shaped both Sandra Belloni (1864) and its sequel Vittoria (1867). Meredith has long been most admired for the substantial dialogue scenes and the tense comedy of English upper-class manners in The Egoist (1879). His once startling free-thinking, free-ranging morality and his dense narrative style held a special appeal for those late nineteenth-century critics and readers who sought to break away from the supposed restrictions of mid-Victorian moral earnestness.