The Congress of Women: George Meredith's Novels
George Meredith's Novels
Miss Margaret Windeyer is a native of New South Wales, Australia. She was born in 1866 at Sydney. Her parents are Sir William Charles Windeyer, LL. D., Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, and Mary Elizabeth Windeyer daughter of Rev. R. T. Bolton. She was educated at home and afterward attended university classes by H. C. L. Anderson, M. A. at Miss Hooper's school, and passed junior public examination in five subjects in 1882. She has traveled in Europe; Canada and the United States. Miss Windeyer was honorable secretary Department Educational in the Exhibition of Woman's Industries held in Sydney in 1888; honorable secretary Woman's Literary Society, August, 1890, to August, 1892, honorable secretary Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales, December, 1891, till March, 1893; representative New South Wales, World's Congress of Representative Women, Chicago, 1893, and was honorable commissioner for New South Wales at the World's Columbian Exposition. In religious faith she is a Unitarian. Her postoffice address is Roslyn Gardens, Sydney, N S. W.
It would be a difficult task to criticise George Meredith's novels in such a manner as would seem to his admirers adequate to their marvels, and as would not seem extravagant to those readers who have not had time to study these books, or who have not given their keenest sensibilities to the understanding of them. Able reviewers of England and America have given their doughty opinions upon them in phrases of literary worth, and with a wealth of diction which is not at my command. So to criticise is not my intention, but merely to draw your attention to Meredith's comprehension of the intuitions, idiosyncrasies and sensibilities of women, and to his knowledge of the difficulties of their environment, which stand between them and their perfect development. It might be questioned whether he always has pity for women; I think he always has, and paints them with a master hand. As it may enable you to recall as to whether you have read any of Meredith's books or not, I will give a list of them: "Evan Harrington," "Harry Richmond," "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel," "Vittoria," "Rhoda Flemming," "Beauchamp's Career," "The Egotist," "Diana of the Crossways," "The Shaving of Shagpat," "One of Our Conquerors," and "The Tragic Comedians." In these books there are such instances of the insight and self-denial, the tenderness and devotion and faithfulness of women, that they should be more read by women than they are, and, besides this, they are enriched with a humor that is fascinating in its variety; for instance, "The phantom half-crown, flickering in one eye of the anticipatory waiter," or, "Dacier has a veritable thirst for hopeful views of the world, and no spiritual distillery of his own." "To see insipid mildness complacently swallowed as an excellent thing is your anecdotal gentleman's annoyance." "A women's 'never' fell far short of outstripping the sturdy pedestrian Time to Redworth's mind." "A rough truth is a rather strong charge of universal nature for the firing off of a modicum of fact."
One of the Scotch reviewers, J. M. Barrie, I think, says that a course of Meredith's novels should commence with "Rhoda Flemming;" but I do not agree with him. Though less intricate in its relationships, it is so painful a lesson upon the danger of family pride that some readers would not read other books by an author who produced so dismal an impression. In this book we have before us Mrs. Margaret Lovell, who belongs to that company of women at whose head stands Becky Sharp. "Boys adored her. These are moths. But more, the birds of the air, nay, grave owls (who stand in this metaphor for bewhiskered experience) thronged, dashing at the apparition of terrible splendour." Mrs. Fryar Gunnett, the Countess of Saldar and Mrs. Marsett, Lady Blandish and Lady Grace Halley are all different species of the siren genus of woman. Rhoda and Dahlia Flemming are sisters. Dahlia falls into the toils of Edward Blanscove, and Rhoda, to save her sister's reputation, she says, but really to save and spare her own and her father's name, arranges a marriage between Dahlia and Nicholas Sedgett. After the marriage has taken place it is then discovered that Sedgett has a wife elsewhere. Poor, broken-hearted Dahlia, doubly wronged, will not marry Blanscove when he urges it. "There was but one answer for him, and when he ceased to charge her with unforgiveness, he came to the strange conclusion that, beyond our calling a woman a saint for rhetorical purposes and esteeming her as one for pictorial, it is indeed possible, as he had slightly descried in this woman's presence, both to think her saintly and to have the sentiment inspired by the over-earthly in her person. Her voice, her simple words of writing, her gentle resolve, all issuing of a capacity to suffer evil and pardon it, conveyed that character to a mind not soft for receiving such impressions."
"The Tragic Comedians" contains a highly dramatic love story. Alvan is the hero, the incidents taken from the life of Ferdinand Laysalle. The lesson it teaches is that one should accept what is nearest to perfection within our reach, and not lose by striving for the unattainable that joy, beauty and honor which comes to our hand. Alvan would not accept his bride unless she came to him dowered with the sanction of her parents to her marriage, and she, her mind narrowed and cramped by conventional surroundings, lacks the power to seize the highest happiness offered to her. When we contemplate Alvan's scorn of Julia's want of moral courage, the thought that women are what men have made them seems borne in upon one's mind. Men have not sought in woman straightforwardness and moral courage. They have decried both. They have rather desired them to be "educated for the market, to be timorous, consequently secretive, etc." So when to a woman of fertile brain there comes an opportunity for the exercise of power, it is perhaps exerted by finesse, by dexterous underhand play, and then are women held up to scorn as not having the honesty of men-so the world says. "Men create by stoppage a volcano, and are then amazed at its eruptiveness."
"Diana of the Crossways" is the story of a beautiful, clever, generous, high-spirited girl, who at nineteen is an orphan. She acquires that difficult position known as social success, and finds, to quote our author, that "there are men with whom it is an instinct to pull down the standard of the sex by a bully-like imposition of sheer physical ascendancy whenever they see it flying with an air of gallant independence." Then Sir Lukin, the husband of Diana's friend, Lady Dunstane, by his behavior in what he terms "a momentary aberration," closes for her the house that should be her home. We learn how Diana concluded that in marriage was her only safety, and here the reader will find passages surcharged with weighty ideas, and we are brought face to face with that man of men, Thomas Redworth, who has waited to tell Diana that he loves her until he shall be able to give her a home which shall be a worthy setting for such a jewel. Mr. Warwich, "the gentlemanly official" whom Diana married, after two years of wedded life tries to obtain a divorce from her, with Lord Dannisbrough in the position of defendant. The hearing of the case resulted in that the plaintiff was adjudged not to have proven his charge. About a year after this Diana meets Percy Dacier, Lord Dannisbrough's nephew, at the Italian Lakes, and a pronounced friendship results. Six months after, he and she keep watch by the mortal remains of his uncle. Then their friendship is remarked, and we come to the stage where they agree to unite their fates. Her trunks are packed; the tickets for Paris are taken; he waits at the station for her; she does not come, because her friend, Emma Dunstane, has sent for her in the extremity of illness. The author says that afterward, on the safe side of the abyss, it wore a gruesome look to his cool blood. A year after, Diana and Percy are friends again. How she betrays a political secret; how cruel, yet how comprehensible, is Dacier's conduct, the reader will learn in chapters full of charm. The last is called the "nuptial chapter," and relates how a barely willing woman was led to bloom with the nuptial sentiment.
Meredith portrays the modern villain unsparingly, "men who are not free from the common masculine craze to scale fortresses for the sake of lowering flags." He gives some noted and titled examples, and in treatment of such characters we find these words: "Men appear to be capable of friendship with women only for as long as we keep out of pulling distance of that line where friendship ceases. They may step on it, we must hold back a league."
"The Ordeal of Richard Feverel" I do not advise many women to read, as it is likely to produce a sense of helplessness, with which will come hopelessness, which we must avoid. But in the main, from reading Meredith's sermon-novels, there comes the wish not to leave the world, but to set it straight. The light of every soul burns upward. Of course, most of them are candles in the wind; and then Meredith says: "The less ignorant I become, the more considerate I am for the ignorance of others. I love them for it;" which speech is the essence of the charity "that suffereth long and is kind," the pity which is akin to love. The author who wrote, "The something sovereignly characteristic that aspires in Diana enchained him. With her, or, rather, with his thought of her soul, he understood the right union of woman and man, from the roots to the flowering heights of that rare graft. She gave him comprehension of the meaning of love, a word in many mouths not often explained. With her wound in his idea of her, he perceived it to signify a new start in our existence, a finer shoot of the tree planted in good, gross earth, the senses running their live sap, and the minds companioned, and the spirits made one by the whole-natured conjunction," must of necessity be able to write a love-passage with tenderness and grace, so I quote the following: "It was not in him to stop or to moderate the force of his eyes. She met them with the slender unbendingness that was her own, a feminine of inspirited manhood. There was no soft expression, only the direct shot of light on both sides, conveying as much as is borne from sun to earth, from earth to sun." Passages such as these lend interest to the life-loves of Evan Harrington and Rose Joselyn, Beauchamp and Renée, Richard Feverel and Lucy, Rhoda Flemming and Robert Eccles.
There is such painting of nature in Meredith's novels that we behold the scenes he describes instead of dimly imagining them, and the metaphors he employs have always a quaint conceit, which makes his style so peculiarly his own. This picture of a sunrise from "One of Our Conquerors:" "Now was the cloak of night, worn threadbare and gray, astir for the heralding of golden day visibly ready to show its warmer throbs. The gentle waves were just a stronger gray than the sky, perforce of an interfusion that shifted gradations; they were silken, in places oily gray," may be fitly hung beside the sunset picture in "Diana of the Crossways:" "The sunset began to deepen. Emma gazed into the depths of the waves of crimson, where brilliancy of color came out of central heaven, preternaturally near our earth, till one shade less brilliant seemed an ebbing away to boundless remoteness."
In "The Egotist," Sir Willoughby is the central figure, who, in his lofty conceit, rejoices in the knowledge that Lí¦titia Dale pines for love of him. The vicissitudes of his love affairs make a charming book, in which wit is ever sparkling, and although the keynote of woman's subjection is sounded, there is no undertone of tragedy. "One of Our Conquerors" is remarkable for its complete presentation of the Meredithan style, and the lessons to be learned from the characters are profound; existing relations between men and women are diagnosed thoroughly, and one comes from the reading with a longing to leave the world a little better than he found it. Metaphors, similes, analysis, all the fraternity of old lamps for lighting our abysmal darkness, are scattered through the pages of this book. I shall close this paper, so unworthy of this interesting subject, with Meredith's own words: "The banished of Eden had to put on metaphors, and the common use of them has helped largely to civilize us. The sluggish in intellect detest them, but our civilization is not much indebted to that major portion."