Blog #200: On Why Meredith Was Not Allowed to Go the Way of Calprenede and Scudery

Will you at any rate write to me? I hardly think so. You always say you love writing letters, but you never do it. The inconsistency of your sex, I suppose. Yours would be more soothing to read than George Meredith’s. What do you think? I opened that volume just before I left Belsize yesterday, and was so nauseated by the few sentences that met my eye, that I shut it up, put it down, and deliberately left it behind, so if you want it you must ask them to send it you. Nothing will induce me to read another word the man wrote. Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren, as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don’t believe it. Thackeray and G. Meredith will go the way of Calprenede and Scudery.

Letter from Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf, Nov. 8th, 1912

Even if research is often clouded with anxiety and frustration, there can be powerful moments of pleasure. Research is occasionally akin to scanning a pebbly beach for pieces of sea smoothed glass. The eye and the mind are trained to spot the glint of unexpected treasure. Just so, sometimes, among the vagaries and uncertainties of research, a new and entirely unexpected piece of information surfaces. The information need not be profound or revolutionary to be exciting. Even a small new fact can deepen or reshape the subject of study. For me, Lytton Strachey’s letter is a case in point.

Before finding and reading this letter, I hadn’t thought too hard about the broader context of Virginia’s engagement with Meredith. His close personal connections to the Stephen family were of more interest to me than his wider cultural importance. Strachey’s letter, though, pushes me to think more deeply about Virginia’s relationship to Meredith as a Victorian. Strachey’s letter is a reminder of how hard the Edwardians and the Georgians wrestled with the Victorians. They were constantly reassessing them and constantly recalibrating their own efforts against Victorians legends and accomplishments.

For Virginia, Meredith was more than just a close family friend or uncle figure. As a late Victorian, and as a member of the patriarchy, no matter how enlightened, he was someone to be fought against. Virginia and her friends, along with many Modernist thinkers and writers, were, in part, defining themselves against the Victorians. More than that, they were working to cut the Victorians down to size and to reduce or to dispel their shadows. Eminent Victorians is but one famous example of the mythbusting and historical renovations which took place. One of the chief goals of Modernism was to break with, or, at the very least, disavow the Victorian past, and it is a measure of their revisionist success that we sometimes don’t properly appreciate the degree to which they were indebted to the Victorians.

Virginia was no exception. So far in my blogs I’ve looked at ways in which she was indebted to, and in conversation with, Edmund Gosse, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Violet Paget; and in future To the Lighthouse explorations I want to survey Thomas Hardy and Henry James influences. So often, these relationships with the Victorians are covert or masked, perhaps in part because Virginia wanted to conceal influences or because she was working towards erasure through silence. More likely, though, Victorian ancestors were kept in the shadows because Virginia understood the suggestive power of hints, traces, and subtle allusions. Also, in ghosting the Victorians, she could both honour and tame the past.

Virginia’s relationship to Meredith made him particularly hard to handle. As well as being a close family friend, he had taken an interest in her and Vanessa as children, and he had shared their deep love for Thoby. Also, in the public sphere, his ideas and his writings had challenged aspects of the patriarchy and had helped to advance the cause of women. With The Egoist and with Diana of the Crossways, in particular, he had loudly and clearly championed the cause of women. Not only that, Virginia was indebted to him for stylistic experiments and genre challenging innovations in his novels. As Gillian Beer has written, “Meredith’s intensely experimental approach to the novel is always a part of his moral concern with human personality,” and Virginia, as her essays about Meredith make clear, learned much from Meredith’s experiments.

As with the other Victorians, much of what Meredith stood for had to be erased or reshaped. Many of his contributions had to be concealed. All the same, Virginia owed Meredith too great a debt, both personal and literary, to cast him completely into darkness. Her essays about him are often generous and kind. She refers to him favorably in A Room of One’s Own. His strong, structural and thematic influence is boldly flagged in The Voyage Out. Finally, in To the Lighthouse, Virginia pays homage by using him as the pattern for Mr. Carmichael. Through Mr. Carmichael, she gives Meredith the last words in the novel, and has him, as he stands with Lily on the edge of the lawn, crown the occasion. Even if–perhaps taking her tone from Strachey–Virginia could describe Meredith as being “hard as an old crab at the bottom of the sea,” for her he was too wise and too loved a man to be allowed to go “the way of Calprenede and Scudery.”

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

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