Monday 18 May 2009

George Meredith's Shed

Not bad, is it? It's Meredith's 'writing chalet', built in the grounds of his home, Flint Cottage on Box Hill. He would spend hours in the chalet, in a fug of tobacco smoke, writing, pacing about and conversing with his characters at length. And in Flint Cottage, on this day 100 years ago, he died.
Meredith loved Box Hill - 'I am every morning at the top of Box Hill,' he enthuses, '- as its flower, its bird, its prophet. I drop down the moon on one side, I draw up the sun on t'other. I breathe fine air. I shout ha ha to the gates of the world. Then I descend and know myself a donkey for doing it...' He was forever walking the Surrey hills and downs, even into old age, and in his work he rhapsodises frequently over the Surrey landscape - here, for example, in Diana of the Crossways: 'Through an old gravel cutting a gateway led to the turf of the down, spring turf, bordered on a long line, clear as a racecourse, by golden gorse covers, and leftward over the gorse the dark ridge of the fir and heath country ran companionably to the south west, the valley between, with undulations of wood and meadow sunned or shaded, clumps and mounds, promontories, away to the broad spaces of tillage banked by wooded hills, and dimmer beyond and farther, the faintest shadowiness of heights, as a veil to the illimitable. Yews, junipers, radiant beeches, and gleams of service-tree or the whitebeam, spotted the semicircle of swelling green down black and silver...'
When he died, Meredith was heavy with honours - President of the Society of Authors (in succession to Tennyson), Order of Merit - and very much a (if not the) Grand Old Man of English letters. But he was an unlikely candidate for G.O.M. status. Little of his work was truly popular, some of it was scandalous, and most of it tended towards the freakish and difficult, borne aloft by sheer fizz and gusto and language intoxication into realms where it was often not easy to follow his thread, if there was one. 'His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning,' said Oscar Wilde, and that's about right (Wilde also described Meredith as 'a kind of prose Browning' - adding, typically, 'but then, so is Browning'). Meredith's reputation declined quite rapidly after his death, and he is unlikely ever to be very widely read again - his prose is too much, far too much, for readers used to the steady undemanding plod of contemporary fiction.
But then there's the verse. For myself, if I had to save just one work of Meredith's from being thrown out of the balloon, it would be Modern Love. This great 'mock sonnet' sequence inverts the traditional use of the sonnet as a proclamation of love, using it instead to trace the course of a relationship collapsing in bitterness, grief and mutual recrimination. The sequence is of course partly autobiographical - Meredith lost his wife (who was Thomas Love Peacock's daughter) to the painter Henry Wallis, who famously painted Meredith as Chatterton in The Death of Chatterton. Modern Love is, I think, rather wonderful - technically brilliant and full of beauty and intense sadness. Who could resist a work that begins like this -

'By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
That, at his hand's light quiver by her head,
The strange low sobs that shook their common bed
Were called into her with a sharp surprise,
And strangled mute, like little gaping snakes,
Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay
Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away
With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes
Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat
Sleep's heavy measure, they from head to feet
Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,
By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.
Like sculptured effigies they might be seen
Upon the marriage-tomb, the sword between;
Each wishing for the sword that severs all.'

- and ends, 50 sonnets later, like this -

'Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:
The union of this ever-diverse pair!
These two were rapid falcons in a snare,
Condemned to do the flitting of the bat.
Lovers beneath the singing sky of May,
They wandered once; clear as the dew on flowers:
But they fed not on the advancing hours:
Their hearts held cravings for the buried day.
Then each applied to each that fatal knife,
Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole.
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life! -
In tragic hints here see what evermore
Moves dark as yonder midnight's ocean force,
Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!'


  1. "I shout ha ha to the gates of the world!"


    and as ever a very good read Nige, your posts always send me scurrying around the web looking for more info on the lives you illuminate!

  2. .. leading me to discover such gems as the fact that Meredith's first published book is called

    "The Shaving of Shagpat"

  3. It's a bit thick,Nige,"that strange
    low sobs"seem to have been all
    that "shook the common bed".
    Perhaps she was no great loss.

  4. Nige, have you read "The Egoist" yet? One of my all-time favorite novels.

    Utterly love that line about Browning & prose -- c'est vrai!

    Now, must go give a presentation to a hundred people and hope I acquit myself reasonably well....Or at least not embarrassingly badly.

  5. I read it years ago Susan - so long that rereading it soon is definitely something I mean to do -The Shaving of Shagpat will have to wait!
    And Kenny I suspect that bedwise he might have been the one who was no great loss...

  6. My French version of "By this he knew she wept with waking eyes":

    Alors il sait : sans dormir, elle pleure;
    Quand d'une main son visage en sursaut
    Est effleuré, prennent fin les sanglots
    Qui murmuraient dans le lit tout à l'heure;

    Tels des serpents, on les étrangle, ils meurent,
    Serpents mortels pour l'auteur de ces mots.
    Toute immobile, elle écoute le flot
    Dont deux coeurs sourds à minuit savent l'heure

    Du grand milieu de mémoire et de larmes
    Buvant le gris et sourd poison qui bat
    Lourde mesure au sommeil sans ébats
    Contemplateur d'années mortes, sans charme.

    Un vain regret qui ces deux coeurs désarme
    Les fixe au mur, où ils semblent des bas-
    Reliefs, gisants qui ne se touchent pas:
    Epée entre eux, mais, mourir de cette arme?

  7. link to Meredith shed on you blog NG for me.

    Here is one:

  8. To my mind everybody have to glance at it.