Blog #195: More Meredith Anchor Points in To the Lighthouse

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

A Room of One’s Own

The beauty, strength and intricacy of Virginia’s web continues to surprise and astound me. Meredith connects to To the Lighthouse not just because Mr. Carmichael’s relationship with Andrew parallels his with Thoby Stephen. Mr. Carmichael’s marital situation also echoes Meredith’s unhappy first marriage. Moreover Mr. Carmichael has for first name the name of Meredith’s father (as well as the first name of Diana’s husband in Diana of the Crossways), and Minta Doyle’s first name is a shortened version of Meredith’s heroine in Lord Ormont and his Aminta. Further, Mr. Carmichael’s knowledge of Persian may be a nod to the Meredith’s The Shaving of Shagpat, a story with strong Arabic and Persian elements.

But these are relatively slight connection points. Much stronger is the way in which Mr. Carmichael’s dislike of Mrs. Ramsay relates to Meredith’s relationship with Mrs. Leslie Stephen. Not that Meredith disliked Julia Stephen. On the contrary, according to Maitland, he once told Leslie Stephen that he never “reverenced a woman more,” and in a letter to Vanessa he said Leslie Stephen was the “one man in my knowledge worthy of being mated with your mother.” His letters to her are warm and caring. All the same, he sometimes voices disagreement or disapproval. For instance, in a letter dated August 23, 1884, he gently but directly criticizes her educational methods. He imagines the family at St. Ives, and he disapproves of the way in which Julia is bringing up the young Vanessa and Virginia to be subservient to Thoby.

Dear Mrs. Leslie,

Your letter of inquiry gave the invalid great pleasure, as it is a woman, that leaps to be thought of. Nor has divine Philosophy yet raised even me to the Arctic stage of indifference, a point to which I steadily climb in spirit, dragged down now and again by some one remembering my name, who revives a personal throb or two. Eastbourne air was very serviceable. To-day we drove to Leith Hill. Generally my wife is regaining her strength, though slowly. She lives on fruit, and there is plenty in the present season. I live on hope; a condition resembling a midway station across the abyss, and depending on the winds as well as power of heart ; for now that she has failed, my sense of stability takes wing. However, in footing the tight-rope, one must not look ahead — nor under — nor up ; but steadily at the present support. Your philosopher will expound the state, and one that we started from, and are brought back to by the course of life, with just a little more knowledge of ourselves and half a yard around us. Tell him, I shall be glad when the tramps are gathered hither out of Europe and America. How much I should like to be with him, you and the children on your dazzling blue borders of sea, and observe Thoby’s first recreancy ! — before his father has taught him that he must act the superior, and you have schooled the little maids to accept the fact supposed : for it is largely (I expect you to dissent) a matter of training. Courage is proper to women, if it is trained, as with the infant man. My ‘Diana’ still holds me ; only by the last chapter ; but the coupling of such a woman and her man is a delicate business. She has no puppet-pliancy. The truth being, that she is a mother of Experience, and gives that dreadful baby suck to brains. I have therefore a feeble hold of her ; none of the novelist’s winding-up arts avail ; it is she who leads me. But my delay of the conclusion is owing to my inability to write of late. — I see that the Biographical Dictionary is advertised. I trust that the Master of the Cemetery for this Necrology is content with the Epitaphs on the tombstones ; meekly forethoughtful that his 19th century estimates will have no readers but the moons of the 20th, and the moonstruck. What was thought of their lights by contemporaries, should be good literary burlesque. I regret as much as he that he is bound to such work, and wish he would vary it with some Cornish sketches and the colouring he excels in “touches upon stuff that lives.” We were promised Lowell here at Burford. Morison I have not seen for long, but his girls are at Fellday, and we purpose to drive there. Adieu, dear Mrs. Leslie ; with my love to your lord and all the young ones.

George Meredith.

Meredith was even more plainspoken when, in 1889, Julia Stephen publicly supported Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s “An Appeal Against Female Sufferage.” He was clearly outraged by Julia’s decision to be one of the 104 eminent Victorian women who signed the Nineteenth Century‘s petition in support of Mrs. Ward’s appeal. His conceit of imagining a second Mrs. Leslie is meant to take some of the sting out of his words, but words such as “fatuousness” and “irrational opposition” show how strongly he disagreed with her action.

Even if the novel suggests other reasons for Mr. Carmichael’s dislike of Mrs. Ramsay, this letter provides a strong biographical attachment point for Virginia’s To the Lighthouse web. Pull on this corner of the web, and so much of the Stephen life comes into view. Behind Mrs. Ramsay’s pandering to her husband, for instance, is the tenderness which causes Mrs. Stephen to withhold “the stimulant of opposition” from Leslie Stephen.

To Mrs. Leslie Stephen.

Box Hill, June 13, 1889.

Dear Mrs. Leslie, — I hope I have done right — I can scarcely doubt it. Leslie has a double, and I have had it proclaimed that the Mrs. L. Stephen in agitation against the suffrage for women, is the wife of the False Leslie. For it would be to accuse you of the fatuousness of a Liberal Unionist, to charge the true Mrs. Leslie with this irrational obstructiveness.

The case with women resembles that of the Irish. We have played fast and loose with them, until now they are encouraged to demand what they know not how to use, but have a just right to claim. If the avenues of our professions had been thrown open to them, they might have learnt the business of the world, to be competent to help in governing. But these were closed, women were commanded to continue their reliance upon their poor attractions. Consequently, as with the Irish, they push to grasp the baguette which gives authority. And they will get it ; and it will be a horrible time. But better that than present sights.

Let me add, that if you are the true Mrs. Leslie of the signature, it is a compliment to your husband more touching than credibly sincere, after his behaviour in the bog of Irish politics. This I have likewise caused to be reported, ‘ Enough for me that my Leslie should vote, should think/ Beautiful pasture of the Britannic wife!’ But the world is a moving one that will pass her by.

I send this chiefly with the hope that you will be induced to forward Leslie (the true) to me for a rest of three of four days. Here he could lie on our lawn, stroll over the woods, and always have the stimulant of opposition so good for the Stephen race, — which your tenderness (if one has to trust what is rumoured) withholds from him. Put it to him seriously to come to me and hear political and social wisdom.

Your devoted,

George Meredith

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