The story behind Surrey-based novelist George Meredith and his turbulent love life
PUBLISHED: 10:16 13 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:48 13 February 2018
Writer George Meredith was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature no fewer than seven times while living in Surrey but his love life wasn’t quite as successful...
If you posed for a painting by a famous artist, you’d be feeling (rather smugly perhaps) that you’d made it. If your wife subsequently ran off with the artist, you’d be feeling slightly less smug. Such was the fate of writer George Meredith, who spent most of his life in Surrey.
Meredith was born 190 years ago, on February 12 1828, but not in Surrey. He came into the world across the border in Portsmouth, Hampshire, but spent so much of his life in our county that he’s regarded as an honorary Surrey-ite. Born the grandson of a famous tailor (the ‘great Mel’), his early life was tinged with sadness rather than celebrity, as he lost his mother when he was just five and was educated privately, then sent away to school in Germany.
His childhood was something he spoke little of, just a tad ashamed perhaps of a family that lived beyond its means, trying to match its wealthy patrons. Being perennially short of cash must have been an embarrassment for a lad brought up to believe he was of the gentry. Then there was his father re-marrying his housekeeper. Marrying below oneself was a theme Meredith would later explore. Meredith was both a poet and novelist, whose life was never dull. He trained in law, and was articled to a solicitor in London but abandoned that in favour of writing, making use of an ability to view the English class system with detachment (possibly because of his childhood, which alienated him from his own country).
While still in London he began writing journalism and letters, dipping his first toe in the water in 1849 with a contribution to Chamber’s Journal. This was also the year in which he married Mary Ellen Nicolls, a widowed daughter of one Thomas Peacock. There was an early tilt at Surrey, as the couple appear to have taken lodgings in Weybridge.
This marriage can best be described as disastrous with Meredith’s precarious financial position playing a factor. Tensions built up as Mary suffered still-births and miscarriages, while George developed nervous and digestive disorders, restricting him to a highly specialised diet. Mary may have borne the brunt of this if she was doing the cooking, although she did turn carrots into cash by writing a successful cookbook! The couple nevertheless had to move in with George’s father-in-law when they hit rock bottom financially.
And what of that painting? Well, Meredith posed for a painting by artist Henry Wallis, then saw his wife and said artist elope. The Merediths had been living apart since 1856, and Mary vamooshed to Italy in 1858 with our artist friend. There’s something Shakespearean about a wordsmith losing his amour to a man armed with brush and canvas. Not only did Meredith not discuss his childhood; the subject of his first marriage was also off limits now too.
The matrimonial denouement certainly gave Meredith an insight into relations between the sexes, which he employed as a theme of his future writing, that, and his growing interest in natural selection (this was the era of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace). Nature had a way of perfecting man; the survival of the fittest. For Meredith it must have seemed the artist was fitter than the writer.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Meredith’s writing was not exactly making him a fortune, in fact, his works weren’t bringing him much financial reward at all. He relied on articles in The Fortnightly and proof-reading in the publishing house of Chapman & Hall, to survive. Meredith’s first volume of verse (1851) was nothing special, but there would be better stuff in the future.
His prose works began with The Shaving of Shagpat (1855), which has been described as a burlesque Oriental fantasy. He was starting to get his own back on folk though, as he lampooned polite society’s conventions and social climbers. His follow-up, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), looked at parental tyranny and the falsity of private education – semi-autobiographical maybe? It is a hard read today because of the mawkish extramarital love affairs that feature. Sales suffered at the time because of this risqué content.
Meredith drew on his own experiences, for example Evan Harrington (1860) reveals much about his origins while Modern Love (1862) was a novelette in which he grappled with folk’s incompatibility. He had much experience to fall back on.
It was when Meredith remarried in 1864, to the Anglo-French Marie, that he swapped single lodgings for a matrimonial home, settling in Surrey. It was in our county that Meredith did most writing. Unlucky in love, he also seems to have been unfortunate with his award nominations – he always lost out to someone else. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature no fewer than seven times.
Success didn’t come immediately with the Surrey air. Sandra Belloni (1864) and Vittoria (1866) were historical novels centred round the Italian revolution of 1848, but sadly both books were unsuccessful.
Meredith’s Georgian home at Box Hill still exists today and has changed little since Meredith’s time. Flint Cottage is where he lived from 1868 to 1909, when he died, having become known as the ‘Sage of Box Hill’. Better work was coming now, such as Harry Richmond (1871) and Beauchamp’s Career (1875), a well thought-out tome where Meredith looked at class and party. Meredith is best known today for a pair of novels, The Egoist (1879) and The Tragic Comedians (1880). The Egoist might not be to everyone’s liking though. It’s a study of refined selfishness but is comedic too, Meredith successfully indulging in self-effacing humour, getting his audience to laugh at its own ridiculous foibles.
If you’ve heard of one piece of Meredith’s work, it is likely to be one that will surprise. It is his 122-line The Lark Ascending (1881), a hymn-cum-paean extolling Earth’s majesty. You’ve heard of it not because of Meredith’s words, but because the poem inspired Ralph Vaughan Williams to compose his piece of the same name in 1914, which was not performed until 1921 due to the First World War.
Reverting to poetry with Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883), Meredith was once again pondering what earth’s life was all about and where the battle between the sexes fitted. He was also borderline atheist. His writing is full of his belief that life itself was an evolutionary journey. It was cryptic stuff.
The Surrey countryside provided the inspiration for much of Meredith’s later nature poetry. Having moved to the county, it took Meredith another 20 years, or so, before he achieved his first really successful novel Diana of the Crossways (1885) in which Meredith appears to be an advocate of women’s rights. He gained general popularity as a fiction writer as it seems that having tried to write what he thought the public would like, and failed, he focused on writing what he liked, only to find that his public liked it too.
The Amazing Marriage (1895) was another powerful novel, but, like The Egoist, was undone by artificiality and laboured wit, which often plagued not just his prose, but his attempts at poetry.
Meredith was moving with –or ahead of – the times though. While his earlier works had been conventional, he was now a precursor of modernism in his writing, as he explored his characters’ psychology, amidst emerging social problems. He wasn’t averse to experimenting, with narrative told from shifting perspectives: it was an uncertain world of both motivations and events that Meredith explored.
Meredith had a number of famous friends, including Robert Louis Stevenson, JM Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which is how he came to be mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Oscar Wilde also mentioned him in one of his dialogues, implying he was a favourite novelist of his. Meredith also knew Thomas Hardy, who tried to help him get his first book published. He clearly moved happily in the circles of the literati, but also the pre-Raphaelite painters and poets.
Meredith died on May 18, 1909 and is buried in the county, at Dorking Cemetery. His grave is a stone in the shape of an open book. Some of Meredith’s own words are on the left-hand page: “Life is but a little holding, lent / To do a mighty labour.” On the right-hand page is his name and date of birth.
Meredith’s legacy has grown since his death as re-evaluation of Victorian writers has led to his fame being enhanced, rather than diminished – although there is still a feeling that his novels contain too much dialogue and not enough action.
Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending has featured at number one in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame Top 100. Meredith would be pleased I’m sure.
And he’d also be pleased that he has an extensive entry in my biographical dictionary, while artist Henry Wallis does not!
10 FACTS ABOUT MEREDITH
1. Meredith was slightly built, athletic and very handsome and aristocratic in manner.
2. His personal tastes and manner of living were almost Spartan in their simplicity.
3. Meredith, perhaps unsurprisingly, believed that marriage should be for a 10-year trial period!
4. Alfred Lord Tennyson said he wished he had written Meredith’s Love in the Valley.
5. The name Meredith is Welsh in origin, the family believed descended from kings and princes.
6. Meredith enjoyed walking holidays on the continent and communing with nature.
7. George Eliot praised The Shaving of Shagpat as “a work of genius, and of poetical genius.”
8. To relax Meredith used to hurl about a heavy weight he called “the beetle”.
9. Meredith would suffer both from deafness and ataxia, which finally rendered him immobile.
10. The first recorded use of the verb to tweet came courtesy of George Meredith.