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ART. II.-1. The Shaving of Shagpat: an Arabian Entertainment. 1856; 2. The Ordeal of Richard Feverel; 3. Diana of the Crossways; 4. Lord Ormont and his Aminta; and many other novels.
R. MEREDITH's novels are an exceptionally curious and interesting study, because they stand alone in English literature. Whether they excite admiration or provoke censure, they defy any tolerable imitation. Indeed, it is difficult to pass a fair and comprehensive judgment on them, because the reader, unless of frigid and unsympathetic temperament, is perpetually being wrought up into fever fits of irritation. They should be read, or rather analysed, by very moderate instalments. A thousand times we are tempted to toss the volumes aside; but then, on despondingly turning the page, we come upon some passage of extraordinary power, or on some scene which is presented with wonderful felicity. We are delighted by a brilliant epigram, or enlivened by a startling paradox. It strikes us as matter of regret that Mr. Meredith did not flourish in the days of the Patriarchs. When men came to the maturity of their intellect after the lapse of four or five centuries, he might have had time to form a taste, though he could never have originated a school. We are glad to know that the works which had been so long admired and neglected are at last circulating in a popular edition. It is a creditable sign of the progress of the times that there are so many of us who undertake the study of noteworthy fiction as if they were bracing themselves for a course of subtle philosophy. Nor can we withhold our admiration for Mr. Meredith's sturdy independence, and patient and persevering self-sufficiency. He has been content, like Wordsworth, to work and wait, in the belief that he would be appreciated in the fullness of time, or, in any case, that he would make his mark with posterity. As we shall presently show by suggestive passages in his novels, he must have known that he could have assured himself profit and immediate celebrity had he stooped from the serene spheres of his superior intelligence to catch the capricious breaths of popular favour. mission was to elevate his art, even at the cost of misapprehension or martyrdom; he could not bring himself to debase it. He stooped, nevertheless, but it was towards the realms of dark chaos and black night. These realms which he sought to make his own would have been intolerable to less
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impassioned travellers had they not been illuminated by the fitful gleams of radiance which promise to lighten up the sky, but die out tantalisingly in fleeting splendour. The fact is that Mr. Meredith has devoted himself to the study of obscurity with baneful success. We have said that he could never have formed a school, or found successful imitators, and it is because he is only redeemed from being dull by rare and original genius. Nor would that alone have sufficed to secure him a position of his own had he not possessed extraordinary intellectual staying power. We have wondered at such morbidly intellectual tours de force as Mr. Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' which would seem to have been dashed off in the inspiration of a prolonged and horrible nightmare. But it seems to us that Mr. Meredith's brain must be ever in a condition of preternatural activity. He makes us live among incessant bouquets of fireworks, in the blaze of rockets, dissolving in showers of sparks before we have had time to receive a detinite impression, and in the bewildering whirl of catherine-wheels. It is a marvel that he keeps his own head in such surroundings-sometimes we more than suspect that he loses itbut he makes impossible demands on his readers when he expects them to be equally collected.
We have always maintained that the primary function of novel-writing is to entertain, and that no novelist has the right to demand such severe and sustained effort. We resent Mr. Meredith's methods the more, that he gratuitously aggravates our troubles. He might have expressed his profound thoughts and his far-fetched and subtle psychological speculations in intelligible language. In other words, he might have written in the pure English which has been modestly accepted by acknowledged masters of style who have trodden in the footsteps of our famous classics. But Mr. Meredith has adopted a manner of his own, which in most respects is the antithesis of all ordinary rules. There is constant inversion and perverse involution. So much so that when we come on anything simple or natural we are mystified-we suspect that surely there must be some hidden meaning. Before we have well realised that we might have rested our faculties for a few moments, they are again being racked and strained. So that we would wish for our own sake, and still more for his, that he had been cursed with something less of the volatile electricity of genius.
We cannot doubt that 'Diana of the Crossways,' when she betakes herself to novel-writing, is the reflection of her
creator's ideas and aspirations. It is true that Diana makes money, and a great deal of money, notwithstanding her aggressive waywardness and exalted ideas; but then, as Meredith regretfully and wistfully admits, that was owing to her charms and other exceptional causes.
'Antonia,' Diana's pet name, 'whatever her faults as a 'writer, was not one of the order whose muse is the public 'taste. She did, at least, draw her inspiration from herself, ' and there was much to be feared from the work, if a sale was the object. . . . Her aim, in the teeth of her inde'pendent style, was at the means of independence. . . . We have a work of genius. Genius is good for the public. 'What is good for the public should be recommended by the critics.' Diana is exquisitely sensitive to depressing influences, and, as with all writers and orators of the finer fibres, the inspiration comes to her by fits and starts. Because a friend takes moral exceptions to her 'Cantatrice' -because the friend finds a certain realistic scene, not only personal but verging on the vulgar-Diana is paralysed while paying her a visit. She is under stress of pecuniary difficulties, but, though the pressure is painful and intense, the muse of fiction will not be hustled. Were she to try a lower flight, all would be easy, and the prospects of gain would be immeasurably increased. The temptation is great, it is almost irresistible-we dare to say Mr. Meredith may have often experienced it--but she will not succumb. She will work in her own way, according to her fixed determination, or not at all. Yet,
'Strange to think, she could have flared away at once in the stuff Danvers delighted to read-wicked princes, rogue noblemen, titled wantons, daisy and lily innocents, traitorous marriages, murders, a gallows dangling a corpse dotted by a man and a woman bowed beneath. She could have written with the certainty that in the upper and the middle, as well as in the lower classes of the country, there would be a multitude to read that stuff-so cordially, despite the gaps between them, are they one in their literary tastes. And why should they not read it?'
Why not, indeed? If we were to answer it in the sense which Diana and Mr. Meredith seem to expect from the dictates of good taste and calm reason-we should sentence at once to an index expurgatorius great part of Scott, almost all Dumas, the most fascinating chapters in Balzac and Hugo, to say nothing of some of our more fashionable contemporaries who have been reviving successfully, because artistically and with knowledge, the moribund historical novel.
Mr. Meredith has pronounced views, and they claim respectful consideration; but we hesitate to offer, as a sacrifice to his fallacies or fancies, Monte Christo or the Three 'Musketeers,' 'Notre Dame de Paris' and 'L'Histoire des 'Treize.' What a world of pleasure we should be denied were we to conform to the austerely æsthetic doctrines to which he has deliberately elected to sacrifice himself! His own novels, taken in moderation, may be an invigorating literary tonic; but if we were condemned to an exclusive course of them by way of fiction, we should seek recreation, by preference, in the lighter and more lively fields of science, philosophy, and dogmatic divinity.
Yet there was a time, towards the beginning of his literary career, when he stood in evident hesitation at the parting of the ways. "The Shaving of Shagpat,' which we believe to have been the first of his published works, indicates little as to his future course, except that it must be full of brilliant promise; but in Farina,' with all the extravagances of legendary romance, he writes in readable English; and even in Richard Feverel' and Evan Harrington' he condescends to be almost invariably intelligible. Yet Shagpat' must not be summarily dismissed; and it demands attention for many reasons. If it demonstrated nothing else, it displayed the luxuriant exuberance of a glowing imagination and a flow of poetic feeling, which was sparkling and sometimes profound. Shagpat' was original also in many respects, and especially in that presentation of the writer's strong individuality which is one of Mr. Meredith's redeeming virtues. It is difficult to fathom its meaning, or to understand the author's purpose-if, indeed, he had any beyond displaying his versatility in an ingenious freak of the fancies. Superficially, it is the most grotesque of grotesque parodies on the Arabian Nights' and that discursive art of Oriental story-telling where the raconteur is perpetually flying off at a tangent. Mr. Meredith lets his gay imagination run riot, though guided, if not controlled, by his Eastern models, in a world of whims, absurdities, and incredibilities. Perhaps the idea of the adventurous barber's quest, which ends amid convulsions of nature and the deadly conflict of the supernatural powers, in the shearing of the charmed lock which blazes on the head of Shagpat, was borrowed from the mission of Thalaba the Destroyer, who triumphed over the Race of Hell,' and stormed the Domdaniel strongholds of Eblis. The barber fights out the protracted battle by the charm of spells and the aid of potent
magicians, who contend with adversaries almost as formidable as themselves, with arsenals of enchantments at their command. Inevitably, though to some extent there are Oriental precedents, broad comedy and screaming farce are mingled with his marvels and portents that might otherwise impress us, but a little of that goes a long way. We soon have enough of these tales, although pleased and entertained by three or four chapters, and we take leave of Mr. Meredith in gratitude for his timely reminder to renew acquaintance with our good old friends Cogi Hassan and Sindbad the Sailor. But there is a point of view from which we still find Shagpat' consistently delightful. As is always the case with Mr. Meredith, there is much poetry in his prose; but here, and in Farina,' the poetry finds expression in bursts and snatches of melodious song. In 'Shagpat' especially he shows rare flexibility in his command of the diverse varieties of measure. There are philosophical apophthegms appropriately enunciated in stately couplets. There are lofty flights of far-fetched Oriental metaphors in grave and solemn stanzas. But the most lustrous of the many poetic gems, although perhaps the least suited to the setting, are the verses that are simple and abrupt, though still harmonious, and which are modelled on the Old English and Scottish ballads. We fancy that Mr. Meredith may have taken the idea from Love Peacock's half-metrical romance of 'Maid Marian.'
Perhaps the most pleasing of the light and unaffected verse, sounding like the trill of the lark or the warble of the nightingale, is to be found in 'Farina'; but from Shagpat we may quote, as specimens, a stanza or two in more polished and elaborate style, and we take them almost at random. A musical vizier, who has drunk deep of the wine of Shiraz in disregard of the precepts of his prophet, paying his court to the coy houri at his side, breaks out in passionate song
''Tis said that love brings beauty to the cheeks
Of those that love and meet, but mine are pale ;
And hides her visage from my passionate tale :
Bhanavar, unveil !
'I have thee, and I have thee not!
Lifted by spirits to a shining dale
In Paradise, who seeks to leap and run
And clasp the beauty, but his foot doth fail,