George Meredith Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

George Meredith was the son and grandson of tailors of modest means whose good looks, social graces, and personal proclivities enabled them to move in higher social circles than most tradespeople did. When Meredith was about eighteen, he became a clerk to a solicitor who introduced him to a circle of writers and artists. Through his friend Edward Peacock, the son of novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock, Meredith met Mary Peacock Nicolls, a widow six years older than he. She was beautiful, witty, sophisticated, and artistic, and Meredith fell passionately in love with her. He had his good looks to offer her, along with the promise of his talent—and poverty. He proposed, and she refused him several times. Finally, in 1849, they were married.

They had a son, Arthur, but the marriage was stormy. They were both strong-minded, and they were stressed by poverty. Mary was volatile and independent. After seven years, the marriage was failing, although the couple kept up appearances. Then she initiated an affair with Meredith’s friend, the artist Henry Wallis, with whom she had a child. She abandoned her husband and Arthur to go with Wallis to Capri, Italy, in 1858. Soon Wallis abandoned her, and she returned to England in ill health. After she left him, Meredith never saw her again. She lived in poverty, loneliness, and misery until her death in 1861. Some of the emotion of his courtship is reflected in Meredith’s “Love in the Valley” and The Ordeal...

(The entire section is 467 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born the son and grandson of tailors, George Meredith appears to have rejected his humble origins. Indeed, he once threatened that he would “most horribly haunt” any who attempted to reconstruct his biography. Despite his modest heritage, legacies from his mother and an aunt permitted him to attend private schools, St. Paul’s Church School, Southsea, and the Moravian School of Neuwied, Germany. His objective in formal training was to become a lawyer, and he was apprenticed to a London solicitor in 1845. Young Meredith soon became dissatisfied with the legal profession, however, and began to seek a career as a journalist, a vocation that he pursued throughout most of his life, since he was never quite able to survive financially as an author of novels and poems.

From at least 1845 until his marriage in 1849 to Mary Ellen Nicolls, a widow and the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, Meredith appears to have read widely and deeply in the literature of Greece, Rome, Germany, France, and England. The first few years of his marriage appear to have been ones of continued intellectual growth. The Merediths lived either with or near the aspiring young author’s famous father-in-law. Meredith made good use of Peacock’s extensive and often arcane library, whose shelves included volumes on such Near Eastern religions as Zoroastrianism, a faith that was later to have a profound influence on Meredith’s novels and poems.

The first few years of apparent bliss were soon terminated, however, when Mary eloped in 1858 with the painter Henry Wallis to the isle of Capri. Meredith was consequently left alone to rear his son, Arthur; the author later wrote about these unhappy times both in the novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and in the lyric sequence Modern Love. After Mary’s death in 1861, Meredith married, within three years, Marie Vulliamy; this match proved to be both enduring and much happier. After serving as war correspondent, he and Marie moved to Flint Cottage, Box Hill, Surrey. Box Hill is where admiring and enthusiastic young authors went to seek Meredith’s sage counsel.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207099-Meredith.jpg George Meredith. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 entire section is 821 words.)