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Thursday, 29 November 2012

Byways of literature

Tuesday, November 29th., Paris.

Dinner at Mrs. Devereux's last night. Schwob there. (See 'Parisian Life' - September 27th.) We talked a good deal about Meredith, and Schwob showed an extraordinary knowledge of the byways of English literature. He said Meredith was certainly the son of a tailor and quoted a passage from "Peter Simple" where two characters go to "Meredith the tailor", and he said this was George's father. It appears that Meredith now talks in aloud voice, but continually interrupts the conversation by talking to himself, mere senility of course, a 'softening of the brain'. He has 'ataxy' or something of one leg and limps and always tells any visitor that he had the misfortune to hurt his ankle that very morning. Schwob heard this from Oscar Wilde and didn't believe it. However, when Schwob called on Meredith, sure enough he had hurt his leg that very morning. Schwob's enthusiasm for Meredith's last book was magnificent. He looked ill, but he was in his best form, and speaking beautiful English.

George Meredith (1828-1909) was a major Victorian novelist whose career developed in conjunction with an era of great change in English literature during the second half of the nineteenth century. While his early novels largely conformed to Victorian literary conventions, his later novels demonstrated a concern with character psychology, modern social problems, and the development of the novel form that has led to his being considered an important precursor of English Modernist novels. Meredith was born in Portsmouth, England. His father inherited a seemingly prosperous Portsmouth naval outfitters and tailor shop from Meredith's grandfather. Meredith was sent to private schools and quickly learned to say nothing of his family's position, instead encouraging the assumption that he was of the gentry. Meredith remained secretive about his origins all his life, and much is unknown about his childhood because of his unwillingness to disclose details of this period. As he entered his early twenties, Meredith began writing poetry, influenced in particular by John Keats and Lord Tennyson. Meredith's lifetime of reticence about his early years carried over into a stolid refusal to discuss his first marriage, which was a failure. He lived alone or with male friends for years, but married again in 1864, and settled at Box Hill, Surrey, where he lived the rest of his life. As a part-time reader for Chapman and Hall publishers, Meredith was able to observe literary trends and to employ them in his early novels. Once he despaired of reaching a large audience, Meredith began to write primarily to please himself and the small circle of admirers who had defended and praised his works from the first. It was then that he found his works more popular than at any other time in his career. Meredith was most concerned with writing psychological novels that portrayed the tangled motivations of individuals and explored the disparity between the public and private aspects of self. At the time of his death Meredith was considered one of England's premier men of letters. In the years since, his critical reputation has undergone several reassessments, although he has never enjoyed the resurgence in general popularity enjoyed by such Victorian novelists as Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope. However, as has been true throughout the history of commentary on Meredith, there remains a dedicated group of admirers who contend, with J. B. Priestley, that Meredith's difficult style, requiring as it does the full and undivided attention of the reader, paved the way for the public acceptance of much subsequent serious fiction, helping to shape "the modern attitude towards fiction and the modern novel itself."

Mrs. Devereux had been to hear the trial of a crime passionel. A man had cut his wife's throat with a razor from ear to ear, but, through some fortunate movement of the woman, had only severed the skin. "A close shave!" said Schwob at once. I could see that he was extremely pleased with this really admirable comment. He beamed after he had said it.

On Monday I was trying to find a leading idea for the concert scene in "Sacred and Profane Love", but could not. I read late, and dreamed about the scene all night, and got it all mixed up, and generally wasted a vast amount of energy with no result at all. Today I continued to search after that idea with no success. I stayed late at Mrs. Devereux's and then read a lot afterwards, and I didn't go to bed till nearly two. I dreamed of the chapter all night and woke up at 6.30 after which I didn't go to sleep again. Today, I received the "Fantasia" of Chopin from Tertia. This is the clou of the chapter if only I can make it so. (see 'Love in Liverpool' - September 19th.)

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