According to Henley's "Prefatory," which self-deprecatingly descibes Views and Reviews (1890) as "less a book than a mosaic of scraps and shreds recovered from the shot rubbish of some fourteen years of journalism" (vi), this essay was "pieced together" from articles in London, Vanity Fair, The Athenaeum. In editing this text for the Victorian Web, I have retained orginal spelling and punctuation, and I included numbers in brackets to indicate page breaks in the print edition in order to enable users of VW to cite or locate the original page numbers. [GPL].
o read Mr. Meredith's novels with insight is to find them full of the rarest qualities in fiction. If their author has a great capacity for unsatisfactory writing he has capacities not less great for writing [w]hat is satisfactory in the highest degree. He has the tragic instinct and endowment, and he has the comic as well; he is an ardent student of character and life; he has wit of the swiftest, the most comprehensive, the most luminous, and humour that can be fantastic or ironical or human at his pleasure; he has passion and he has imagination; he has considered sex — the great subject, the leaven of imaginative art — with notable audacity and insight. He is as capable of handling a vice or an emotion as he is of managing an affectation. He can be trivial, or grotesque, or satirical, or splendid; and whether his milieu be romantic or actual, whether his personages be heroic or sordid, he goes about his task with the same assurance and intelligence. In his best work he takes rank with the world's novelists. He is a companion for Balzac and Richardson, an intimate for Fielding and Cervantes. His figures fall into their place [43/44] beside the greatest of their kind; and when you think of Lucy Feverel and Mrs. Berry, of Evan Harrington's Countess Saldanha and the Lady Charlotte of Emilia in England, of the two old men in Harry Richmond and the Sir Everard Rolnfrey of Beauchamp's Career, of Renée and Cecilia, of Emilia and Rhoda Fleming, of Rose Jocelyn and Lady Blandish and Ripton Thompson, they have in the mind's eye a value scarce inferior to that of Clarissa and Lovelace, of Bath and Western and Booth, of Andrew Fairserviae and Elspeth Mucklebacket, of Philippe Bridau and Vautrin and Balthasar Claes. In the world of man's creation his people are citizens to match the noblest; they are of the aristocracy of the imagination, the peers in their own right of the society of romance. And for all that, their state is mostly desolate and lonely and forlorn.
For Mr. Meredith is one of the worst and least attractive of great writers as well as one of the best and most fascinating. He is a sun that has broken out into innumerable spots. The better half of his genius is always suffering eclipse from the worse half. He writes with the pen of a great artist in his left hand and the razor of a spiritual suicide [44/45] in his right. He is the master and the victim of a monstrous cleverness which is neither to hold nor to bind, and will not permit him to do things as an honest, simple person of genius would. As Shakespeare, in Johnson's phrase, lost the world for a quibble and was content to lose it, so does Mr. Meredith discrown himself of the sovereignty of contemporary romance to put on the cap and bells of the professional wit. He is not content to be plain Jupiter: his lightnings are less to him than his fireworks; and his pages so teem with fine sayings and magniloquent epigrams and gorgeous images and fantastic locutions that the mind would welcome dulness as a bright relief. He is tediously amusing; he is brilliant to the point of being obscure; his helpfulnes or extravagant as to worry and confound. That is the secret of his unpopularity. His stories are not often good stories and are seldom well told; his ingenuity and intelligence are always misleading him into treating mere episodes as solemnly and elaborately as main incidents; he is ever ready to discuss, to ramble, to theorise, to dogmatise, to indulge in a little irony or a little reflection or a little artistic misdemeanour of some sort. But other novelists have done these things before him, and have been none the less popular, and are actually none the less readable. None, however, has pushed the foppery of style and intellect to such a point as Mr. Meredith. Not infrequently he writes page after page [45/46] of English as ripe and sound and unaffected as heart could wish; and you can but impute to wantonness and recklessness the splendid impertinences that intrude elsewhere. To read him at the rate of two or three chapters a day is to have a sincere and hearty admiration for him and a devout anxiety to forget his defects and make much of his merits. But they are few who can take a novel on such terms as these, and to read your Meredith straight off is to have an indigestion of epigram, and to be incapable of distinguishing good from bad: the author of the parting between Richard and Lucy Feverel — a high-water mark of novelistic passsion and emotion — from the creator of Mr. Raikes and Dr. Shrapnel, which are two of the most flagrant unrealities ever perpetrated in the name of fiction by an artist of genius.
On the whole, I think, he does not often say anything not worth hearing. He is too wise for that; and, besides, he is strenuously in earnest about his work. He has noble sense of the dignity of art and the responsibilities of the artist; he will set down nothing that is to his mind unworthy to be recorded; his treatment of his material is distinguished by the presence of an intellectual passion [46/47] (as it were) that makes whatever he does considerable and deserving of attention and respect. But unhappily the will is not seldom unequal to the deed: the achievement is often leagues in rear of the inspiration; the attempt at completeness is too laboured and too manifest — the feat is done but by a painful and ungraceful process. There is genius, but there is not felicity: that, one is inclined to say, is the distinguishing note of Mr. Meredith's work, in prose and verse alike. There are magnificent exceptions, of course, but they prove the rule and, broken though it be, there is no gainsaying its existence. To be concentrated in form, to be suggestive in material, to say nothing that is not of permanent value, and only to say it in such terms as are charged to the fullest with significance — this would seem to be the aim and end of Mr. Meredith's ambition. Of simplicity in his own person he appears incapable. The texture of his expression must be stiff with allusion, or he deems it ill spun; there must be something of antic in his speech, or he cannot believe he is addressing himself to the Immortals; he has praised with perfect understanding the lucidity, the elegance, the ease, of Molière, and yet his aim in art (it would appear) is to be Molière's antipodes, and to vanquish by congestion, clottedness, an anxious and determined dandyism of form and style. There is something bourgeois in his intolerance of the commonplace, something fanatical [47/48] in the intemperance of his regard for artifice.'Le dandy,' says Baudelaire, 'doit aspirer à être sublime sans interruption. Il doit vivre et dormir devant un miroir.' That, you are tempted to believe, is Mr. Meredith's theory of expression. 'Ce qu'il y a dans le mauvais goût,' is elsewhere the opinion of the same unamiable artist in paradox, 'c'est le plaisir aristocratique de déplaire.' Is that, you ask yourself, the reason why Mr. Meredith is so contemptuous of the general public? — why he will stoop to no sort of concession nor permit himself a mite of patience with the herd whose intellect is content with such poor fodder as Scott and Dickens and Dumas? Be it as it may, the effect is the ssme. Our author is bent upon being 'uninterruptedly sublime'; and we must take him as he wills and as we find him. He loses of course; and we suffer. But none the less do we cherish his society, and none the less are we interested in his processes, and enchanted (when we are clever enough) by his results. He lacks felicity, I have said; but he has charm as well as power, and, once his rule is accepted, there is no way to shake him off. The position is that of the antique tyrant in a commonwealth once republican and free. You resent the domina tion, but you enjoy it too, and with or against your will you admire the author of your slavery. [48/49]
Rhoda Fleming is one of the least known of ths novels, and in a sense it is one of the most disagreeab1e. To the general it has always been caviare, and caviare it is likely to remain; for the general is before all things respectable, and no such savage and scathing attack upon the supestitions of respectability as Rhoda Fleming has been written. And besides, the emotions developed are too tragic, the personages too elementary in kind and too powerful in degree, the effects too poignant and too sorrowful. In these days people read to be amused. They care for no passion that is not decent in itself and whose expression is not restained. It irks thsm to grapple with problems capable of none save a tragic solution. And when Mr. Meredith goes digging in a very bad temper with things in general into the deeper strata, the primitive deposits, of human nature, the public is the reverse of profoundly interested in the outcome of his exploration and the resuhs of his labour. But for them whose eye is for real literature and such literary essentials as character largely seen and largely presented and as passion deeply felt and poignantly expressed there is such a feast in Rhoda Fleming as no other English novelist alive has spread. The book, it is true, is full of failures. There is, for instance, the old bank porter Anthony, who is such a failure as only a great novelist may perpetrate and survive; who suggests (with some [49/50] other of Mr. Meredith's creations) a close, deliberate, and completely unsuccessful imitation of Dickens: a writer with whom Mr. Meredith is not averse from entering into competition, and who, so manifest on these occasions is his superiority, may almost be described as the other's evil genius. Again, there is Algernon the fool, of whom his author is so bitterly contemptous that he is never once permitted to live and move and have any sort of being whatever and who, though he bears a principal part in the intrigue, like the Blifil of Tom Jones is so constantly illuminated by the lightnings of the ironical mode of presentation as always to seem unreal in himself and seriously to imperil the reality of the story. And, lastly, there are the chivalrous Percy Waring and the innscrutable Mrs. Lovell, two gentle ghosts whose proper place is the shadowland of the American novel. But when all these are removed (and for the judicious reader their removal is far from diffcult) a treasure of reality remains. What an intensity of life it is that hurries and throbs and burns through the veins of the two sisters — Dahlia the victim, Rhoda the executioner! Where else in English fiction is such a 'human oak log' as their father, the Kentish yeoman William Fleming? And where in English fiction is such a problem presented as that in the evolution of which these three — with a following so well selected and achieved as Robert Armstrong and Jonathan [50/51] Eccles and the evil ruffian Sedgett, a type of tlse bumpkin gone wrong, and Master Gammon, that type of the bumpkin old and obstinate, a sort of human saurian — are dashed together, and ground against each other till the weakest and best of the three is broken to pieces? Mr. Meredith may and does fail conspicuously to interest you in Anthony Hackbut and Algernon Blancove and Percy Waring; but he knows every fibre of the rest, and he makes your knowledge as intimate and comprehensive as his own. With these he is never at fault and never out of touch. They have the unity of effect, the vigorous simplicity, of life that belong to great creative art; and at their highest stress of emotion, the culmination of their passion, they appeal to and affect you with a force and a directness that suggest the highest achievement of Webster. Of course this sounds excessive. The expression of human feeling in the coil of a tragic situation is not a characteristic of modern fiction. It is thought to be not consistent with thse theory and practice of realism; and the avorage novelist is afraid of it, the average reader is only affected by it when he goes to look for it in poetry. But the book is there to show that such praise is deserved; and they who doubt it have only to read the chapters called respectively 'When the Night is Darkest' and 'Dahlia's Frenzy' to be convinced and doubt no longer. It has been objected to the climax of Rhoda Fleming that it is unnecessarily [51/52] inhumane, and that Dahlia dead were better art than Dahlia living and incapable of love and joy. But the book, as I have said, is a merciless impeachment of respectability; and as the spectacle of a ruined and broken life is infinitely more discomforting than that of a noble death, I take it that Mr. Meredith was right to prefer his present ending to the alternative, inasmuch as the painfulness of that impression he wished to produce and the potency of that moral he chose to draw are immensely heightened and strengthened thereby.
The Tragic Comedians
Opinions differ, and there are those, I believe, to whom Alvan and Clotilde von Rudiger — 'acrobats of the affections' they have as been called — are pleasant companions, and the story of those feats in the gymnastics of sentimentalism in which they lived to shine is the prettiest reading imaginable. But others not so fortunate or, to be plain, more honestly obtuse persist in finding that story tedious, and the bewildering appearances it deals with not human beings — not of the stock of Rose Jocelyn and Sir Everard Romfrey, of Dahlia Fleming and Lucy Feverel and Richmond Roy — but creatures of gossamer and rainbow, phantasms of spiritual romance, abstractions of remote, dispiriting points in sexual philosophy.
Just as Molière in the figures of Alceste and Tartuffe has summarised and embodied all that we need to know of indignant honesty and the false fervour of sanctimonious animalism, so in the person of Sir Willoughby Patterne has Mr. Meredith succeeded in expressing the qualities of egoism as the egoist appears in his relations with women and in his conception and exercise of the passion of love. Between the means of the two men lhere is not, nor can be, any sort of comparison. Molière is brief, exquisite, lucid: clsssic in his union of ease and strength, of purity and sufliciency, of austerity and charm. In The Egoist Mr. Meredith is even more artificial and affected than his wont: he bristles with allusions, he teems with hints and side-hits and false alarms, he glitters with phrases, he riots in intellectual points and philosophical fancies; and though his style does nowhere else become him so well, his cleverness is yet so reckless and indomitable as to be almost as fatiguing here as everywhere. But in their matter the great Frenchman and he have not much to envy each other. Sir Willoughby Patterne is a 'document on humanity' of the highest value; and to him that would know of egoism and the egoist the study of Sir Willoughby is indispensable. There is something in him of us all. He is a compendium of the Personal in man; and if in him the abstract Egoist have not taken on his final shape and become classic and typical it is [53/54] not that Mr. Meredith has forgotten anything in his composition but rather that there are certain defects of form, certain structural fault and weaknesses, which prevent you from accepting aff conclusive the aspect of the mass of him. But the Molière of the future (if the future be that fortunate) has but to pick and choose with discretion here to find the stuff of a companion figure to Arnolphe and Alceste and Celimene.
His verse has all the faults and only some of the merits of his prose. Thus he will rhyme you off a ballad, and to break the secret of that ballad you have to take to yourself a dark lantern and a case of jemmies. I like him best in the Nuptials of Attila. If he always wrote as here, and were always as here sustained in inspiration, rapid of march, nervous of phrase, apt of metaphor, and moving in effect, he would be delightful to the general, and that without sacrificing on the vile and filthy altar of popularity. Here he is successfully himself, and what more is there to say You clap for Harlequin, and you kneel to Apollo. Mr. Meredith doubles the parts, and is irresistible in both. Such fire, such vision. Such energy on [54-55] the one hand and on the other such agitity and athletic grace are not often found in combination.
The Fashion of Art
This is the merit and distinction of art: to be more real than reality, to be not nature but nature's essence. It is the artist's function not to copy but to synthesise: to eliminate from that gross confusion of actuality which is his raw material whatever is accidental, idle, irrelevant, and select for perpetuation that only which is appropriate and immortal. Always artistic, Mr. Meredith's work is often great art.
Last modified 2000