Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

A highly original writer, perhaps too original and idiosyncratic ever to be very popular, George Meredith has always been one of those unfortunate writers whose work is more praised than read. He did not receive much popular attention until he was past fifty, and after that, though he received most...

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A highly original writer, perhaps too original and idiosyncratic ever to be very popular, George Meredith has always been one of those unfortunate writers whose work is more praised than read. He did not receive much popular attention until he was past fifty, and after that, though he received most of the honors his fellow writers could award, he never attracted the general reader as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, or Anthony Trollope did. An age in which the ability to invent a lively plot was highly valued was not likely to be much pleased by a novelist who, like his equally neglected contemporary Henry James, was almost exclusively interested in the subtle depiction of human motivation. Meredith’s style also gave readers trouble: It was epigrammatic and involved, totally unlike the swift narrative flow of the prose of Dickens or Thackeray. In his poetry Meredith again refused to conform to popular taste; his diction was often rough, his syntax obscure, in contrast to the melodic sweetness of the popular Tennysonian tradition.

His style, however, is admirably suited to his purposes. Because Meredith believed that the purpose of art is to correct the excesses of human thought and behavior, his fiction exposes the flaws that he wished his readers to eliminate in themselves. His celebrated lecture, On the Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, delivered in 1877 but not published separately until 1897, is one of the great expressions of the moral value of literature. To this end he developed a style that is leisurely yet challenging, designed to penetrate to the hidden motivations of character by pithy thrusts and subtle implications. His poetry, too, is highly metaphoric; Meredith’s nimble mind was too impatient always to make the transitions from image to image clear, and the result is a colorful, affecting style that sometimes cannot fully bear the thought of the poem. His observations of nature are fresh and vivid, and his poetry generally tries to reconcile the forces of passion and intellect.

The son of a naval outfitter, Meredith was born at Portsmouth, England, on February 12, 1828. He received a good early education but was forced to support himself rather than go to college, and he took to journalism in order to secure a reasonably steady income. In 1849 he married Mary Ellen Nicholls, a widow almost seven years his senior. The daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, she was a talented and witty woman. Unfortunately, financial and other pressures undermined the marriage, which eventually collapsed; Mrs. Meredith eloped with the painter Henry Wallis in 1858. After her death in 1861 Meredith told the psychological history of their estrangement in the brilliant lyric sequence Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside. In 1864 he married Marie Vulliamy, and two years later he served as a war correspondent in the Austro-Italian War of 1866. On his return to England he edited the Fortnightly Review and worked as a publisher’s reader. A careful and sensitive critic, he gave needed encouragement to Thomas Hardy and George Gissing.

Meanwhile Meredith was slowly gaining a reputation as a novelist. His first important novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, had little success, though it is a fine study of the emotional growth of a young man. The complex characterization and the delicately shaded style of Evan Harrington and Beauchamp’s Career attracted a small but growing group of readers, but it was not until his comic masterpiece, The Egoist, appeared in 1879 that he received much popular attention. Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885, was his first novel to have a great popular success. Like The Egoist, it featured an intelligent heroine and questioned traditional ideas about marriage, thus cementing Meredith’s reputation as a feminist writer.

In that same year his second wife died. Meredith’s health was poor. However, although a spinal ailment confined him to a wheelchair, he became in his last years an intellectual leader of his time. To his home at Box Hill, just outside London, came aspiring young men, and Meredith, grown dogmatic and certain, was free with his literary advice. Following the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1892, Meredith was made president of the Society of Authors, thereby becoming the titular head of English letters. In 1905 he was awarded the Order of Merit and the medal of the Royal Society of Literature. At his death, on May 18, 1909, at Box Hill, he was England’s most honored author and the last of the great Victorians.

Meredith’s technique as a novelist was to use the point of view not of an onlooker but of a particular character. In this way he could describe the peculiar emotion of the character and, with his powerfully figurative style, catch the interest of the reader. As a result, his characters are extremely complex and varied. Meredith is especially noted for his perceptive depiction of women characters and his sympathetic portrayal of the difficulties faced by Victorian women.

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