Page images
PDF
EPUB

went up above her, all song, to the smooth southern cloud lying along the blue; from a dewy copse standing dark over her nodding hat the blackbird fluted, calling to her with thrice mellow note; the kingfisher flashed emerald out of green osiers; a bow-winged heron travelled aloft, seeking solitude; a boat slipped towards her containing a dreamy youth, and still she plucked the fruit, and ate and mused as if no fairy prince were invading her territories, and as if she wished not for one, or knew not her wishes.' The Miranda of the water and the woodland woke up from her maiden meditation to see her fate in the approach of the ‘Magnetic Youth.

""O Women !” says the “ Pilgrim's Scrip,” in one of its solitary outbursts; “ Women, who like and will have for hero a rake! how soon are you not to learn that you have taken bankrupts to your bosoms, and that the putrescent gold that attracted you is the slime of the Lake of Sin !"! The mutual magnetism works swiftly in stolen meetings. The eloquent eyes betray their bashful mistress, and the sweet sorrow of one of the partings precipitates the inevitable crisis :

"" You will not go ?” Mechanically he drew the white hand nearer his thumping heart.

"" I must,” she faltered piteously.
"" You will not go ?
6"Oh, yes ! yes!”
«« Tell me. Do you wish me to go ?”

'Her hand became a closer prisoner. All at once an alarming, delicious shudder ran through her frame. From him to her it coursed, and back from her to him. Forward and back love's electric messages rushed from heart to heart, knocking at each, till it surged tumultuously against the bars of its prison, crying out for its mate. They stood trembling in unison, a lovely couple under these fair heavens of the morning.

Strange, that now she was released she should linger by him. Strange, that his audacity, instead of the executioner, brought blushes and timid tenderness to his side, and the sweet words, “ You are not angry with me?”

The sweet heaven-bird shivered out his song above him. The gracious glory of heaven fell upon his soul. He touched her hand, not moving his eyes from her, nor speaking; and she, with a soft word of farewell, passed across the stile, and up the path way through the dewy shades of the copse, and out of the arch of the light, away from his eyes.'

That seems to us an exquisitely poetical, yet truthful imagining, and there, as often elsewhere, we admire the dexterity with which Mr. Meredith treads the edge of extremely delicate ground. The passages must quicken the pulses of a girl's heart, yet there is nothing that is mischievously suggestive or that need bring the blushes to her cheek.

We may not dwell on the rest of the novel or on the ordeal to which Feverel succumbs. He marries, to the not unnatural disgust of his sire, a woman who in every way except rank is far more than worthy of him. The author of the · Pilgrim's Scrip’resents the signal failure of his system, and there are misunderstandings which facilitate the infamous plot of which Richard and his adored Lucy are the victims. If Feverel was to blame, the penalty is signal, and, unfortunately, the blameless are involved in the punishment of the guilty. Mr. Meredith as a rule loves to take leave of his creations with a laugh, but here we have a terribly melancholy ending. We have been carried away from sylvan scenes to the wild whirl of the dissipations of fashionable London, where Richard is caught in the snares of a Circe. Some of the heroes of vicious frivolity are powerfully delineated, and Mr. Meredith invites us to lively banquets at the 'Star and Garter,' and introduces us to luxurious apartments in Pimlico, where strict morality is by no means de rigueur. We recognise the manner of Charles Reade and his bluff Saxon speech, only redeemed from indecency by its blunt honesty, in Mrs. Berry, the good lodging-house keeper. She is a species of Dame Quickly, who puts the refined ‘Lady Blandish's thoughts in bad English.' Yet Mrs. Berry, in her motherly tenderness for the forsaken girl-wife, is winning as the fair Lucy herself.

We have been tempted to linger over Richard Feverel,' and we can only speak briefly of `Evan Harrington,' which also in its manner belongs to the earlier period. It is less of a novel of actualities than Feverel,' and really more of a comedy than . The Egoist,' which so styles itself on the title-page. It is comedy rather in the English than in the Italian meaning of the word. The incidents are extravagant, and the dénouement wellnigh impossible ; nevertheless, we are carried along in incessant illusion by the inexhaustible verve and the vigorous stage effects. Evan, for his misfortune, is the son of a provincial tailor, and, more unfortunately, of a tailor who has made himself notorious by talents, eccentricities, and airs as a man of fashion. Evan, with his accomplishments, graces, and native dignity, might have been the Prince Charming of the fairy tale. He inherits nothing but the paternal debts and the business to which his mother wishes to tie him. He is introduced, though scarcely through any fault of his, under false pretences into good society. He is alternately helped and hindered by a sister, who has married a noble foreigner, who feels that her new noblesse oblige, and who is the most mendacious and audacious of women. The heredity of the tailor's shop burns on Evan like the robe of Nessus—the rather that he resolves to tell the whole truth, even if he shame the sister who represents him as a personage. His honesty proves the best policy; he finds a most eccentric benefactor, whose humours furnish continual fun; he has had the good luck to give his heart to a well-born girl who is in every way worthy of him, and as pecuniary and social difficulties melt away, the curtain comes down on a happy marriage. We can scarcely be intended to take the story seriously, but when Mr. Meredith wrote it he was in his most genial vein, and, without pausing to let his thoughts crystallise, abandoned himself lightly to frolic.

Thenceforth we turn to the novels with subdued spirit and solemn apprehension. We may be entertained, or our feelings may be much the reverse. We have entered upon the era of endless monologues and dialogues of minutely irritating psychologicalanalysis, and the perverse mannerisms which further obscure the dinnness of the meaning upon which at the best we can but speculate. Yet we must reiterate, in simple justice, that Mr. Meredith, in spite of the foibles of his genius, always commands respectful attention, as he encourages us to persevere in our study, by brilliant interludes in his earlier manner. We need not attempt to follow chronological sequence, for almost all his subsequent novels have suffered a sad sea change, and their undeniable brightness and beauties are swamped in the surging flood of turbid thought and obscure phraseology. For, perhaps, there is something of an exception in ‘Harry Richmond' and in Vittoria,' the sequel to ‘Emilia in England,' where there is an embarrassment of swift and melodramatic action. Yet even in · Vittoria’ the novelist overcrowds his scenes, multiplies irrelevant episodes, and barely indicates inscrutable motives, while, nevertheless, snatching leisure in breathless pauses to offer insoluble conundrums in cryptogrammatic ellipsis. But to indicate the transition from the earlier style to the later and confirmed manner, we may contrast with the quotations from Richard • Feverel' some passages from the introduction to ‘Diana,' which is entitled | Diaries and Diarists. It is as eminently significant of Mr. Meredith's self-confidence as it is gratuitously outraging to his unfortunate readers. A novelist should indeed be sure of himself who deliberately raises such a barrier on his threshold, for many people will turn back in sheer alarm. Even should they slip past, they will find themselves confronted by bristling chevaux de frise in the first chapter. Browning and Carlyle must have breathed inspiration on the composition, where the fragments of bright-coloured marble are shaken up and cast down at haphazard to form a strange mosaic. Perhaps we are infected by Mr. Meredith with his wild mixing of metaphors :

'A witty woman is a treasure; a witty beauty is a power. Has she actual beauty, actual wit?-not simply a tidal, material beauty that passes current among pretty flippancy or staggering pretentiousness ? Grant the combination, she will appear a veritable queen of her period, fit for homage, at least meriting a disposition to believe the best of her, in the teeth of foul rumour ; because the well of true wit is truth itself, the gathering of the precious drops of right reason, wisdom's lighting : and no soul possessing and dispensing it can justly be a target for the world, however well armed the world confronting her. Our contemporary world--that Old Credulity and stone-hurling urchin in one, supposes it possible for a woman to be mentally active up to the point of spiritual clarity, and also fleshly vile-a guide to life and a biter at the fruits of death—both open mind and hypocrite.'

We can imagine the reviser of proofs being puzzled over imaginary misquotations, and annotating thein with frequent marks of interrogation. Again Mr. Meredith, in uneasy self-consciousness, makes another of his indirect apologies for the eccentricities of his fiction :

Instead, therefore, of objurgating the timid intrusions of Philosophy, invoke her presence, I pray you. History without her is the skeleton map of events; Fiction, a picture of figures modelled on no skeleton-anatomy. But each, with Philosophy in aid, blooms and is humanly shapely. To demand of us truth to nature, excluding philosophy, is really to bid a pumpkin caper. As much as legs are wanted for the dance, philosophy is required to make our human nature credible and acceptable. Fiction implores you to heave a bigger breast and take her in with this heavenly preservative helpmate, her inspiration and her essence. There is a peepshow and a Punch's at the corner of every street, one magnifying the lace-work of life, another the ventral tumulus, and it is there for you, dry bones, if you do not open to Philosophy.'

That mystical preface introduces the beautiful and brilliant Diana-an orphaned waif in the world, with a will and individuality of her own. Strong in the sense of irresistible charms of mind and person, she is wayward, imperative, and capricious. Mr. Meredith is fond of selecting for sympathetic analysis the Celtic types from either side of the Channel. Diana is an Irishwoman, with all the Irish verveemotional and impulsive, with the desire to sparkle, and a thoroughly Irish indifference to the future and to consequences. She would chain social and political celebrities to her car, that they may drag her into political and social influence. Venit, vincit. By sheer power of beauty, and with scarcely a perceptible effort, she has half-a-dozen notorieties of all sorts at her feet. Mr. Meredith's skill comes into play in contrasting her various admirers. Her first conquest is the veteran hero of a Dublin fete, breathing the incense of the admiration of his war-loving countryfolk; her second is a hot-headed fire-eater, who thenceforth becomes her champion in season and out of season, and who begins by quarrelling with her third, a practical and hardheaded Saxon. Afterwards she becomes the Egeria of a venerable peer and statesman, at the cost of cousiderable, though groundless scandal; and then her affections and intelligence pass, as by inheritance, to his Lordship’s favourite nephew, a rising politician. In nothing does Mr. Meredith show his power more than in substituting what we may call effective mental sensations for the more commonplace sentiments of actual peril. In ‘Diana' there are two situations which specially merit notice, as displaying the strength and the weakness of a self-contained and yet passionate temperament. In the first she is suddenly taken aback by the ardent declaration of the husband of her dearest friend, whom she has hitherto regarded as a sort of guardian and protector. Thence arises a strange variety of painful embarrassments and incoherent complications. In the second her pride and self-respect are humbled by having to plead guilty to a shameful indiscretion; and so much does she feel it that the blow is softened which separates her from the lover who has hitherto reverenced her as an angelic familiar. In the first instance she poses as the goddess outraged; in the second she must renounce the pretensions to divinity, when the idol is trampled under foot by its adorer. Perhaps it is somewhat out of character, but, under severe pecuniary pressure, the haughty beauty, though in a moment of aberration, has sold a State secret to an enterprising journalist. It is surprising that Mr. Meredith should have made this high-souled heroine succumb to such paltry temptations as debt and the fear of distraint. Money,

« PreviousContinue »