Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1116

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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 life but ascribed it to human failure. As he wrote in Modern Love, “no villain need be. We are betrayed by what is false within.” The falseness may spring from self-deception or from unquestioning acceptance of what “the world” proclaims. What can save people is the ability to be honest with themselves and to see the world as it is, as well as the courage to act on their perceptions even in defiance of social norms.

Many of Meredith’s contemporaries shared his belief in a continuing evolution of human beings’ spiritual and intellectual capacities, but few besides Robert Browning were as ardent in affirming also “the value and significance of flesh.” For Meredith, the goal of life was to realize one’s full potentialities in a vital balance: “The spirit must brand the flesh that it may live.”

Meredith’s Diana fully exemplifies his philosophy of life. The central metaphor of the novel is the “dog-world” in hot pursuit of its quarry, a beautiful woman too intelligent and sensitive to play the role society demands of her, that either of “parasite” or of “chalice.” Diana is, however, no spotless, perfect victim of malign persecutors. In precept and practice, Meredith scorned sentimental melodrama. Young and inexperienced, Diana brings much of her trouble on herself. She marries for protection and position, a prudent move by worldly standards but disastrous in its consequences. Achieving a measure of independence, she endangers it by her extravagance, and she is finally almost destroyed by an impulsive, desperate act. Although elements of the “dog-world” are moved by envy and malice, most of Diana’s adversaries act “honorably” in their own eyes; it is the conventions of honor, of respectability, and—most important—of the place of women in Victorian society that nearly overpower her.

The resolution of the plot would seem to be a compromise if the novel were the feminist tract it has been called: Diana does not finally triumph as a fully independent person, accepted by society on her own terms and admired for her wit and nerve. Only rescued from despair by her friend Emma, she proves herself capable of standing alone but chooses instead to marry again. As Meredith presents her choice, however, it is not compromise but fulfillment. Her marriage to Redworth, who truly understands and values her, represents the ideal wedding of flesh and spirit, achieved not by good luck but after a process of striving, blundering, learning from mistakes, and finally seeing and accepting life as it is.

Diana of the Crossways was an immediate success upon publication, probably because its theme had been taken from a recent scandal involving a brilliant and beautiful Irishwoman, Mrs. Caroline Norton, who had been accused (as it proved, falsely) of selling an important government secret. Critics have generally tended to rate the work high among Meredith’s works, often second only to his masterpiece The Egoist, and its themes are of perhaps even broader interest in the twenty-first century than they were in 1885. However, later readers have experienced some difficulty with Meredith’s famous style, the joy and the despair of his admirers.

From his first work of fiction, The Shaving of Shagpat (1855), to his last, the prose of this admirable writer became progressively more poetic in its richness, precision, compactness, and indirection. In the earlier novels, it is a beautiful addition to plot and characterization; in the later, it sometimes detracts from or even obscures them. Oscar Wilde may not have been entirely fair in claiming that as a novelist Meredith could do everything but tell a story, yet in Diana of the Crossways and other later novels he often seems fastidiously averse to saying anything directly. The texture of his prose makes demands that not all readers are willing to meet, but the attentive reader is richly rewarded in beauty, wit, and subtlety of thought and expression. The very dazzle and density of Meredith’s style, embodying as it does his vigorous and invigorating vision of life, continues to delight new generations of readers.