Benjamin Orange Flower (1858-1918) was an American journalist who founded the liberal Arena magazine, which ran from 1889-1909. With his "Jeffersonian faith in the perfectibility and divinity of man " (Fairfield 237), Flower was bound to appreciate Meredith's work, and in March 1909 he wrote appreciatively of this recent critique of his fiction: Elmer James Bailey's The Novels of George Meredith: A Study, published in New York by Scribner's in 1907 — a Library of Congress copy of which is available in the Internet Archive here. Flower's review has been formatted, linked and illustrated for this website by Jacqueline Banerjee, as an example of the critical reception of Meredith in America. Click on all the images to enlarge them, and (after the first) for more information.
THE AUTHOR of this valuable critical work is a member of the faculty of Cornell University, where he is instructor in literature. The present volume is an important contribution to contemporary criticism dealing with the literary work of leading Anglo-Saxons of the last century.
Mr. Bailey is at once critical and sympathetic. He is broadly judicial and has the grasp of a master in treating his subject — something all too rare in the studies of literature by most of our American writers in the present strenuous day, wherein the work of the superficial and uncritical, when it is bright and epigrammatic, frequently shoulders out the more painstaking and authoritative criticisms. It must not be inferred from this, however, that this book is prosy or pedantic. Far from it. The treatment is such as to delight even the general reader, if he has a taste for literary subjects and any knowledge of the fiction of the Victorian era.
After an introduction in which the probable permanence of Meredith's fame is considered and the distinctive periods of his literary career are pointed out, Mr. Bailey passes to the discussion of his writings. The body of the work is mainly concerned with Mr. Meredith's career during the periods which the author aptly divides into those of "The Apprentice," "The Journeyman," and "The Master-Workman."
Walter Crane's frontispiece for Farina.
In his chapter considering Mr. Meredith as an apprentice, we have a brief but illuminating and informing pen-picture of the literary England of the first half of the nineteenth century; or, to be more exact, a description of the poets and novelists of this period. Here also is a brief discriminating examination of Mr. Meredith's early poems; and in passing let us note that though the volume only claims to be a study of Mr. Meredith's novels, many pages are enriched by criticisms of his poetry, with numerous charming illustrative selections. The Shaving of Shagpat and Farina are noticed somewhat at length as being the two principal works of the apprentice period.
In the chapter on the journeyman period, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Evan Harrington, Sandra Belloni, Vittoria and Rhoda Fleming come in for the author's critical consideration. The pages devoted to the first two of these works are of special interest, although the entire treatment of the novels of Mr. Meredith cannot fail to prove a genuine delight to lovers of good literature; for here is seen the careful and firm grasp of one who is not only a master of subject but whose knowledge of the great characters in the contemporary fiction of England is such as to enable him to make j£ most interesting comparisons and thus assemble a number of old friends to the general reader in such a way as to materially add to his interest in Mr. Meredith's creations. In the following lines we have Mr. Meredith's two great early novels briefly compared and characterized, or at least the dominant note of each clearly sounded in such a way as to afford the reader an idea of the style of our author and the succinct manner in which he summarizes after he has considered his subjects in detail:
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is a tragedy — a tragedy, indeed, in the Shakespearean manner. This means not simply that the reader is led into the presence of death, but that the heart-racking catastrophe of the end is foreshadowed at the very beginning. The tragic note sounds with no uncertain tone in the earliest pages, and from then on it is persistently repeated with increasing intensity until it becomes the knell tolling the few years of Lucy's troubled life. Not for a moment in reading the book, not even in its humorous scenes, is one allowed to deceive oneself with the hope that in some miraculous way the out- come may be happy. Instead, there seizes upon the reader that kind of frenzy which [385/386] lays its grasp upon him as he watches the unrelenting advancement of the plot against Cordelia, or the ravening progress of the feud which deflowered the houses of Capulet and Montague. Convinced for the time that the woes of Richard and Lucy are real, one feels that one must turn back the wheels of fate, that the inevitable must not be.
"In which Evan's light begins to twinkle." One of Charles Keene's illustrations for Evan Harrington.
Meredith's second novel, therefore, Evan Harrington, stands in almost as great contrast with the book immediately preceding it as that with the writings of its author's apprenticeship. The tragic element is practically eliminated, for although Juliana Bonner's death brings about the union of the man whom she loves with the woman of his choice, her story awakens no more than a quickly-passing im- pulse of pity. The woes of the unfortunate Susan Wheedle are but faintly outlined, and are included probably for no other reason than to show the kindliness of Evan's heart; and finally the unhappy lot of the beautiful and attractive Caroline Strike is perhaps purposely but little more than mentioned, that the story of her temptation and escape may not seriously interfere with the gradual unfolding of Evan's rise to true manhood, or with the mirth-provoking treatment of the complications surrounding the Countess de Saldar. The book, indeed, is pervaded by humor of every sort, the extravagant, the grotesque, the refined, the delicate, the subtle, and the funny, until it would seem that Meredith is on the point of breaking through the bounds of what in the drama would be called legitimate comedy, and of permitting himself to revel for a time in the fields of hilarious farce. But as a matter of fact, he is ever mindful of the demands of true proportion; and consequently, never degen- erating into the harlequin, he can force home, despite his fun, the serious lesson of the hollow foolishness which lies in attempting to appear what one is not.
And in the following we have an excellent illustration of a characteristic of the work to which we have referred — Mr. Bailey's comparison of the Meredith characters with those of well-known volumes by leading novelists of the day:
Different as Meredith's first two novels are in most respects, however, the second is like the first to the extent of presenting three or four characters somewhat suggestive of those found in the writings of other authors. John Raikes, for instance, it has been said by some critic, might easily have been created by Thackeray; but such a statement shows a strange forgetfulness of the words and ways of Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop; and certainly the solicitous care and the defer- ential respect which Evan's old school friend has for his much-worn hat vividly recalls the outward appearance though not the swindling nature of Mr. Tigg, the shabby-genteel gentleman in Martin Chuzzlewit. The Coggesby brothers, too, unlike the Cheeryble twins as they are in many respects, must still suggest Nicholas Nickelby's benefactors, in their kindness of heart, their delight in dry jokes, and their sly plans for helping the deserving and circumventing the insincere. The chapters in which these two men carry out a conspiracy to reduce the pride of old Harrington's daughters — a conspiracy only too successful since Andrew found himself caught in his own trap — is like Dickens almost at his best in the humorous; and the first chapter, also, in which the inn-keeper, the butcher, and the confectioner discuss the death of the tailor is reminiscent of Dickens, but of Dickens rarified, sublimated and refined.
In summarizing the chapter dealing with the journeyman period, our author observes:
To regard Evan Harrington and the three novels succeeding it as no better than the silt washed down by the gold-bearing river would be to do them manifest injustice; yet it is little doubtful, that in many respects, each of these stories, when viewed in its entirety, is inferior to The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. That book, far from successful as it was in attracting readers at the time of its appearance, now stands out even among the great novels of Meredith's famous contemporaries as a piece of rare workmanship. Still, the later books, when taken in contrast with the first, exhibit in matters of detail a greater firmness of touch, a more confident breadth of sweep, a surer consciousness of power, indicative of growth in both strength and wisdom. Furthermore, however much or little the influence of other novelists may be truly assumed to have dyed the earlier textures woven in the looms of Meredith's thought, the last fabric which he drew out as a journeyman was beyond all question or suspicion wholly his own. The five years of silence which followed have been mistakenly regarded by some as a period of dissatisfaction and contempt with a world which would not [386/387] read his books. Rather should it be looked upon as a time of rest preceding great achievement. At all events, when The Adventures of Harry Richmond appeared in 1871, a change had occurred in its author: the journeyman had become a master-workman.
These lines are interesting not only for what they say, but as illustrative of the critical spirit that marks the volume and the fine sense of proportion that continually delights the discriminating reader. The book is full of helpful suggestive hints for the earnest and ambitious young reader, which, however, form a natural and indeed a necessary part of a volume at once comprehensive, critical and philosophical in character. The following lines introducing Mr. Bailey's consideration of Mr. Meredith as the master-workman afford an illustration in point:
The career of the artisan is largely determined by the continuous cooperation of two forces — power and ambition. Either without the other scarcely ever produces a resultant of any appreciable value, but when the two forces are properly balanced, they are mutually corrective, since the possession of power tends to prevent idle dreaming, and a clearly perceived goal is an incentive to perseverance. Now, not all of those whose fortune it is to become journeymen preserve the balance of inner forces, which leads eventually to masterworkmanship. Either there is a lack of true proportion between their ambition and their power, or their vision for some reason becoming dull, they are content to sit down by the highway rather than to follow it to the end. Others, however, press on to complete success. Now and then, a man reconciles himself in the days of his apprenticeship to the hard labor, the disciplinary task, and the irksome command, because he is wise enough to see that endurance of these things is necessary to his training. In the succeeding years, when as journeyman he is to a large extent his own master, but still has to listen to the orders of an employer, he does not fall into discouragement because of harsh and perhaps unjust criticism, nor does he permit himself to rest satisfied with his past accomplishments because they have called out approving or flattering commendations. On the contrary, too self-confident to be over-depressed, and too sane to be unduly elated, he gathers strength from within and from without to strive still for the full realization of his purpose; until at last having reached the goal, he has the right to say, with that mingled humility and pride which is true greatness, "I stand on my attainment."
George du Maurier's illustration of Harry Richmond and his friend with Harry's father, Richmond Roy, in The Adventures of Harry Richmond.
The two long chapters containing the careful studies of Meredith's work after he became in the critic's judgment a master-workman, are exceptionally interesting because of the fine discernment and breadth of thought which mark every page. We have now entered a period of realized ambition. For over two decades Meredith's novels will be richly worth the while. It, too, is a period that is susceptible of division into two parts: the time when his invention allowed itself full play, followed by a period in which his interest "concentrated itself upon problems presented by ill-assorted marriage." Earlier in the work the author has admirably characterized the novels which marked these master-workman days, as follows:
The third decade, separated from the second by two years of silence, began in 1871 with The Adventures of Harry Richmond, and was still further marked by the publication of Beauchamp's Career in 1876, The Egoist in 1879, and The Tragic Comedians in 1880. These novels show almost no traces of any other writer's influence, and may therefore be regarded as belonging to a period of free invention; but if emphasis is laid upon their philosophical content, since they present studies of selfishness or, to use Emerson's term — "selfism," they may be looked upon as having been produced during the period of attack upon egoism.
After the publication of The Tragic Comedians, Meredith permitted a lustrum to pass before he entered upon the final period of his activity as novelist. Like the novels of the preceding decade, those of this time, Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885, One of Our Conquerors in 1891, Lord Ormont and His Aminta in 1894, and The Amazing Marriage in 1895, present no striking instances of outside influence; but since they center themselves around a single problem, the unhappy marriage, they may be said to belong to the period of concentrated interest. Furthermore, since each of the novels in this group is a study of the separation of a husband and a wife through troubles arising from incompatibility of temper, disparity of age, or inequality of rank, and since Meredith apparently approves of the [387/388] parting of man and wife under such circumstances, the works of the last decade belong to the period of attack upon conventional ideas of marriage.
In his later criticism he observes:
The eight novels of the whole period are alike in that they show their author to be completely emancipated from any obvious outside influence; but, none the less, the grouped works of these two decades of later composition are so strongly distinguished from each other in many respects, that either may be made the subject of separate observation.
The third period of Meredith's literary production, then, may be characterized as "free" in two senses of the word: free, in that the writer was no longer hampered by the study of models; free, also, from the much higher and more important point-of-view that he showed himself possessed of a range of vision, a power of analysis, and an originality of style, which gave him a unique place among English novelists.
The criticism of each of the great novels, the brief but illuminating characterization of the leading characters, the comparisons of certain personages with notable figures in contemporaneous or preceding master-works, are only second in interest to the author's keen analysis of Mr. Meredith's ethical thought and artistic treatment.
"He is a realist," observes the critic,
in the sternest sense of the term; and his problem is the presentation of man and woman in the making, of man and woman struggling, albeit with many reverses, toward that perfection of soul which Meredith himself believes is the purpose and secret of this world's existence.
His hope was to make mankind see that passion must be subdued to intellect before there can be any great growth of soul.
It is of some interest, then, to know that Meredith is an extreme Liberal in politics and is wholly out of sympathy with the existence of an aristocratic class and of an established church. He even goes so far as to speak in approval of women being granted the right of suffrage, thus taking ground in advance of many of his own party.
In his study of The Egoist the author makes this illuminating observation touching one characteristic of Mr. Meredith's work, which we cite because it is one of the few striking features of his novels which cannot be ignored if one would understand his work and also the reason for the extremely divergent and positive opinions in regard to it entertained by able thinkers of recognized ability:
The story is vouched for by Stevenson, that a sensitive youth went to Meredith with the complaint that he had been held up to ridicule in the person of Sir Willoughby Patterne. "You are mistaken," said the great novelist in reply, "the Egoist is not you, he is all of us." This fact, that Meredith's readers are almost always driven to self-analysis, is perhaps the chief cause of his being called a pessimist and a cynic. To see our neighbors under the lash contributes mightily to our amusement no doubt, and goes far to awakening a spirit of thankfulness that we are not as others are; but our laughter grows hollow and our satisfaction ceases, when we feel the flick of the whip upon our own shoulders. Yet it is to a full realization of the value of looking upon oneself in a humorous or even a ludicrous light, that Meredith would bring every man. In that, he believes, rests the hope for the future, whether of the person or of the race; for if a man can look upon himself and his deeds with healthy laughter, there is little danger of his becoming sour or morbid; and whatever his failure, he will be able to learn from his mistakes and to determine with renewed strength not to bequeath to posterity a tumbled house.
The reason, therefore, why The Egoist gives us pause is, not that it is unreal, but that it is too real. It is a scourging, a flagellation, a cutting to the quick.
In making a sweeping survey of the fictional work of Mr. Meredith, which concludes his review of the third decade of his literary labors, Mr. Bailey says:
With the publication of The Tragic
Comedians in book form, late in 1880, Meredith closed the third decade of his literary
career, the period of free range. From many
points of view the ten years thus designated
may be looked upon as the most important
part of his life as author. The several works
then produced evinced a sense of proportion, a
consciousness of mastery, a disregard of arbi-
trary methods, which could not be unreservedly
predicated of him in 1869 when his work as a
journeyman was brought to an end. On the
other hand, although it cannot be denied that
he remained in full possession of all his powers
through that later period which may be termed [388/389] the decade of concentrated interest, the very
fact that there was a limitation of range made
it clear that in all probability the time of expansion was over, and that thereafter whatever
energy remained in store would endeavor to
put itself forth not in outspreading branch nor in
upreaching stem, but rather in leaf and fruit
and flower. At all events, the following
decade of Meredith's literary career was not
noted for the production of any such remarkable story as The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, or
of any such unusual study of character as
The Egoist; but it was marked by the publication of Diana of the Crossways, a novel which
gained immediate popularity, and by the
appearance of three other sustained works of
fiction which attracted a respectful audience,
if they did not earn undivided admiration.
The battle had been long and hard, but few
felt safe in denying that Meredith had proved
himself a conqueror. Clearly his rightful
place was among the leaders, in company with
Dickens and Thackeray and
The Final Period
In the early part of the concluding essay, in which the novels of the final period — the time of concentrated thought on the marriage problem — are considered, Mr. Bailey says:
During the decade beignning in 1885, he felt moved to produce four sustained pieces of fiction which may be said to belong to a period of concentrated interest, inasmuch as each of them dealt with complexities rising out of an unsuitable marriage. In Diana of the Crossways is given the story of a woman, who, marrying without love, was afterward separated from her husband and made to take an anomalous and unhappy position before the world; in One of Our Conquerors is presented a study of the attitude taken by society towards a man and woman living together in a union unsanctioned by church and state, but regarded, none the less, as sacred by the two chiefly concerned; and in Lord Ormont and His Aminta and also in The Amazing Marriage, the reader is confronted with the unhappiness which results from a marked discrepancy between husband and wife in matters of rank, age or inclination. With the possible exception of the second, these four stories amply repay those who read simply to be amused, but for others who look upon the novelist as having a mission beyond that of giving mere pleasure, they furnish in addition much food for thought.
It may be concluded from these facts that Meredith found in certain phases of the marriage relation some of the gravest problems furnished by modern society. That he looked upon the questions as being more than a mere source of material for the novelist, is certainly shown by the fact that long after he had ceased the formal writing of fiction, he permitted himself to speak upon them at some length.
The author is by no means blind to Mr. Meredith's shortcomings. Here, for exam- ple, is an excellent criticism of the novelist's faulty style:
Meredith, however, seemed often to prefer the involved to the simple, the ornate to the plain; and in One of Our Conquerors the tendency certainly became an obsession. The reader is not told in so many words that Radnor kissed his wife, but that "he performed his never-omitted lover's homage"; Mr. Fenellan did not drink the Old Veuve, but "crushed a delicious gulp of the wine that foamed along the channel of flavor"; Skepsey, instead of feeling the size and hardness of the butcher's arm, "performed the national homage to muscle"; and in giving a cordial greeting to Lady Grace, "Victor's festival-lights were kindled, beholding her; cressets on the window-sill, lamps inside." Such writing, it cannot be denied, is both bewildering and exasperating to almost every reader; and Mere- dith, therefore, had no just cause of complaint if his own joy in weaving such fantastic garments for his thought was his chief reward. Certainly after the publication of One of Our Conquerors, many of his old readers fell away or at most contented themselves with memories of what he had written before, while the younger generation who, like Sarah Battle, occasionally found time to turn aside from whist-playing and to unbend the mind over a book, took no special pleasure in anything which Meredith had to say."
Framed bronze commemorative medallion of George Meredith by Theodore Spicer Simson (1871-1959).
The closing pages are devoted to a consideration of the probable permanence of Mr. Meredith's fame. Space prevents our quoting more than the following brief fragments of this admirable piece of criticism:
In general, of course, it is always hazardous to prophesy the permanence of any man's fame; still, from at least one point-of-view, it can be asserted without hesitation that Meredith's name must be remembered as long as English literature shall endure. Unlike most other writers whose real influence has been [389/90] felt only by some subsequent generation, Meredith has permeated the work of his contemporaries. By this is meant that he has awakened such general respect as to make him acceptable without envy to the other novelists of at least his later years. They acknowledge his superiority, they look upon him as unapproachable, they call him Master. In evidence of this, one may note the fact that in present discussions of novels the critic nearly always refers to George Meredith as a standard of measurement. Nor, indeed, is that the only use to which the great writer and his novels are put.
But to not a few of his readers, Meredith seems deserving of much more than the kind of immortality which rests upon the mention of his name by other authors and upon the formative influence obviously exerted by his writings. The knowledge of what must be is greatened in the minds of many by faith in what will be: and when that faith is put to trial, they are far from feeling that it is without a substantial basis in reason. Still, if such have learned anything from their reading of the man whom they delight to honor, they hesitate to name his absolute place. Whatever the impulse of the heart, they know that it should be tempered by the working of the brain; and they therefore do not undertake to assert more than that Meredith must be regarded as no unworthy companion of the greatest English novelists. If the sneer of the critic accuses them of having but faint confidence in their belief, they are not betrayed into fruitless wrangling or loud defense. Serenely unmoved, they let Meredith speak for himself. Surely no just man can find fault with the intermingling of honest pride and sincere humility behind that sonnet, to which Meredith, writing in his middle age, gave the name of "Internal Harmony."
Assured of worthiness we do not dread
Competitors; we rather give them hail
And greeting in the lists where we may fail:
Must, if we bear an aim beyond the head!
My betters are my masters: purely fed
By their sustainment I likewise shall scale
Some rocky steps between the mount and vale;
Meanwhile the mark I have and I will wed.
So that I draw the breath of finer air,
Station is naught, nor footways laurel-strewn,
Nor rivals tightly belted for the race.
Good speed to them! My place is here or there;
My pride is that among them I have place:
And thus I keep this instrument in tune.
Truly such calm self -analysis explains the remarkable patience with which Meredith awaits the decision of the wise years. If in the words of Lowell,
Some innate weakness there must be
In him who condescends to victory
Such as the present gives and cannot wait
Safe in himself as in a fate.
Meredith through the absence of such weakness, shows himself endowed with noble strength and manly power. A prophet, it has been said, is not without honor save in his own country; and with equal truth, it might have been added, save in his own time. It is the privilege of Meredith's friends, therefore, to keep silence; for, looking back from the present through the long period of his activity, and realizing once more the calm confidence which enabled him to go on with his work in the face of indifference, opposition and contempt, we well may say:
He knew to bide his time,
And can his fame abide.
The work as a whole is one of the most excellent and informing short volumes of literary criticism we have read in months. It will doubtless tend to create a new interest in George Meredith's novels on this side of the Atlantic. To us it is the source of genuine pleasure that America is producing young men capable of such fine work in literary criticism as marks this volume.
B. O. Flower.
Fairfield, Roy P. "Benjamin Orange Flower: Father of the Muckrakers." Vol. 22, No. 3 (Nov. 1950): 272-282 (available via Jstor).
Flower, B. O. "The Novels of George Meredith: A Book-Study." Arena. Vol. 41 (January-August 1909): 385-390.
Created 1 September 2016