Any novel by George Meredith requires attention not only to the actual work but also to the wider aspects of the technique of fiction. Meredith was an original writer of deep concentration and mature force. His Diana is a character who is head and shoulders above most nineteenth century fictional English heroines, offering the charm of femininity as well as the portrait of one perplexed by convention and yet aware of its force. Her predicament involves errors in judgment but becomes a glory to her, and her career compels the reader’s belief that a life that will not let go its harvest of errors until they are thoroughly winnowed is a human drama of deepest interest. Diana, beautiful, witty, and skeptical of social convention and moral expediency, is the embodiment of Meredith’s philosophy and art, and she shows that an individual can extract wisdom from life’s experiences.
Diana of the Crossways is the most emphatically feminist of Meredith’s novels, but a woman too intelligent and spirited to accept willingly her “place,” as defined by Victorian society, figures prominently in virtually all of his fiction. Some, such as Diana’s friend Emma Dunstane or Lady Blandish of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), manage to confine their protest to witty commentary while playing their assigned roles; others, like Diana, are forced by circumstances into active rebellion.
It is generally agreed that Meredith’s chief model for his beautiful, brilliant, hard-beset heroines was his own first wife. In the fine poem sequence Modern Love (1862), he traces, thinly disguised, the course of their marriage from its happy and passionate beginnings through the conflicts that led to his wife’s running off with an artist friend of Meredith. Although bitter at first, Meredith learned much from the experience of his first marriage and came to accept major responsibility for its failure. His novels repeatedly depict a loving and loyal woman virtually driven into the arms of another man by the blind egoism of her husband or lover. Asked by Robert Louis Stevenson on whom the protagonist of The Egoist (1879) was modeled, Meredith replied that his fatuous hero was drawn “from all of us but principally from myself.”
Meredith believed that his society was dominated by egotism, chiefly that of men, and was both fearful and suspicious of anything bright and beautiful because of the threat that it posed to complacency. He shared the Victorian belief in progress, but he defined progress in terms of intelligence and sensibility. Choosing the comedy of wit as his preferred mode, he attacked the dull and smug and called for “brain, more brain.” He recognized the tragedy of...
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