In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section George Meredith

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Letters
  • Uncollected Work and Archival Holdings
  • Collected Works
  • Individual Editions of Prose Works
  • Selected Editions of the Poetry
  • Bibliographies
  • Reception and Reputation
  • Critical Overviews
  • Collections of Essays

Victorian Literature George Meredith
by
Jacqueline Banerjee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0199

Introduction

“Ah! Meredith! Who can define him?” asked Oscar Wilde in his essay “The Decay of Lying.” Highly influential in his own time, George Meredith (b. 1828–d. 1909) was a larger-than-life figure. Novelist, poet, occasional essayist, journalist, and dramatist, he was also, for over three decades, a reader for the great London publishing house, Chapman and Hall. As a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, he even cut a figure in the art world, modeling for Henry Wallis’s well-known The Death of Chatterton. He voiced his opinions on many issues that exercised the Victorians, from evolution to feminism. Through all these avenues Meredith made an immense contribution to the literature of the age, and to its broader cultural context. Seen at the time as the last Victorian sage, in 1905 he was among the second batch of those appointed to the Order of Merit, becoming the first literary figure to receive this honor. By then his work had inspired the succeeding generation of writers. Yet his reputation with the wider public had grown slowly and was already waning. The major barrier to popular recognition had always been his self-consciously condensed and figurative style; now its experimental nature marked him as an early modernist. Nevertheless, during the early twentieth century, only the confessional sonnets of his “Modern Love” sequence (1862), and a few of his novels, principally The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), The Egoist (1879), and Diana of the Crossways (1885), along with his Essay in Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit (1877), continued to be read and studied. In the 1950s, however, signs of new interest appeared, followed by a more significant surge in the 1970s. Important critics were now discovering why, in another of his essays (“The Critic as Artist”), Wilde had described Meredith as the one “incomparable novelist” of his time. The twenty-first century has brought Meredith to the forefront again, with recent scholars finding fresh points of entry into his work. In particular, they have been bringing new critical theories to bear on his innovative narrative techniques, and demonstrating that his unique style was much more than a reflection of his energetic, opinionated cast of mind: it expresses with rare immediacy and subtlety the workings of the psyche, and its engagement with others, with society, and with the larger world. Studying Meredith today is exhilarating, and enriches our understanding not only of the Victorian age, but of ourselves.

Biographies

Meredith has attracted a range of biographers. Both Hammerton 1909 and Ellis 1920 are useful as near-contemporary accounts—J. A. Hammerton delivered his original manuscript to the publishers before Meredith’s final illness, and S. M. Ellis was Meredith’s second cousin. Thanks to Meredith’s own reluctance to talk about his past, not much more is known about his forbears and early life, even now, but Stevenson 1954 and Williams 1977 do help to uncover the individual behind the persona. Williams in particular focuses on the years of his first marriage to the young widow Mary Ellen Nicolls, daughter of the novelist Thomas Love Peacock. An often-quoted local history monograph, Pulford 1989, also looks closely at this period in Meredith’s life, including details of the couple’s lodging with Mrs Maceroni and her daughters, and therefore the genesis of Meredith’s Italian novels. But the book that sheds most light on Meredith’s first marriage, and is most critical of his behavior at this time, is Johnson 2020, reissued as a New York Review Books Classic in 2020 from the original published in 1972 (New York: Knopf). Before that reissue, Jones 1999 had also captured something of the man through his relationships, but in a more objective, contextual and less challenging way. This is the most balanced of the biographies, exploring his friendships, his stance on the great debates of the day, and the rise and fall of his reputation. Essential reading, again with a focus on his first marriage, but with recently discovered material on it, is a series of articles by Nicholas Joukovsky, the most pertinent here being Jokovsky 2007, Jokovsky 2009, and Jokovsky 2018. The additional insights provided here indicate that the time has come for a new biography of Meredith.

  • Ellis, S. M. George Meredith: His Life and Friends in Relation to His Work. London: Grant Richards, 1920.

    Ellis skates over some key years of his childhood and early manhood, but is a good starting point, setting out much that is widely accepted about his family history and later life. Available online.

  • Hammerton, John Alexander. George Meredith in Anecdote and Criticism. New York: London: Grant Richards, 1909.

    A thorough compendium of what was known and thought about Meredith and his work during his lifetime, and just afterwards. Gives some useful accounts of his journalism in the first two chapters, and concludes with a chapter on his illustrators. Available online.

  • Johnson, Diane. The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives. New York: New York Review Books Classic, 2020.

    Working with a new cache of letters and papers, Johnson was the first to tell Mary Ellen’s side of the story. Her groundbreaking but often conjectural work is sympathetic towards both Mary Ellen and Henry Wallis, the artist for whom she left Meredith. Meredith himself is faulted as husband and father, especially for his harshness toward Mary Ellen—Michita 1989 (see Character Formation and Self-Discovery) helps us to reconcile this with the sympathy for women in his novels.

  • Jones, Mervyn. The Amazing Victorian: A Life of George Meredith. London: Constable, 1999.

    Still the best, most balanced, and scholarly biography to date. Note that the useful summaries of the novels at the end do need checking for omissions and errors: for instance, the tragic ending of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is unaccountably missing, and Flitch in The Egoist is not dismissed for drunkenness.

  • Joukovsky, Nicholas A. “Mary Ellen’s First Affair: New Light on the Biographical Background to “Modern Love.”” The Times Literary Supplement (15 June 2007): 13–15.

    The focus here is on Mary Ellen’s relationship with the scientist, Charles Mansfield, who died a tragic death from chemical burns—not mentioned even in Jones 1999.

  • Joukovsky, Nicholas A. “New Correspondence of Mary Ellen Meredith.” Studies in Philology 106.4 (2009): 483–522.

    DOI: 10.1353/sip.0.0034

    A new tranche of eighteen letters (in addition to the ones obtained by Diane Johnson) is introduced here by a detailed sketch of Mary Ellen’s life, including the key years after her marriage to Meredith.

  • Joukovsky, Nicholas A. “The Early Meredithian Milieu: New Evidence from Letters of Peter Augustin Daniel.” Studies in Philology 115.3 (Summer 2018): 615–664.

    DOI: 10.1353/sip.2018.0023

    Daniel was an artist, and a friend of both Meredith and Henry Wallis. This article rounds up the various recent discoveries about the first marriage, including Joukovsky’s own (see Jokovsky 2007), and adds more evidence of the strains on it. There are copious notes.

  • Pulford, J. S. L. George and Mary Meredith in Weybridge, Shepperton & Esher. Walton & Weybridge Local History Society: Paper No. 27, 1989. British Library, General Reference Collection YD.2004.a.2246.

    Well-researched paper by a local historian closely tracing Meredith’s movements and relationships in this area, with his father-in-law Thomas Love Peacock, and others (this includes the genesis of Meredith’s Italian novels). Also available at other major libraries, including that of Harvard University and the New York Public Library. See also Able 1933 in Critical Overviews; but this has more precise local knowledge.

  • Stevenson, Lionel. The Ordeal of George Meredith. London: Peter Owen, 1954.

    Gathers all that is known of Meredith by this stage, making plausible, well-documented attempts to fill the gaps left in earlier accounts. Speculates convincingly, for example, that Meredith’s first love pre-dated his meeting with Mary Ellen, a suggestion that later biographers like Jones 1999 have also considered. Stevenson combines his biographical findings with insights into the writings. No notes, but several pages of wide-ranging bibliography.

  • Williams, David. George Meredith: His Life and Lost Love. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977.

    The “lost love” in this rather journalistic account (no notes, and rather a short bibliography) is very definitely Mary Ellen, and this biography makes it clear how and why Meredith lost her (Williams acknowledges a debt to Johnson in his Prefatory Note). Some of his conclusions, notably, that Mary Ellen never loved Wallis), have been contradicted by later research.

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