The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XIV. George Meredith, Samuel Butler, George Gissing

§ 4. His characterisation

There are two main kinds of structure in Meredith: one, a highly individual form in which an outstanding character appears constantly in the centre of the stage in a succession of loosely connected scenes, for which the focus and angle of vision are determined by the comic spirit. The method is exemplified in miniature in The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper, and, at full length, in The Egoist; the model is evidently that of comedy;The Egoist is called a “comedy in narrative”; if Le Misanthrope could be magnified to the proportions of the novel, we should have an exact counterpart. The alternative kind of structure is, however, more common in Meredith. In it is outlined a prolonged situation depending upon delicate adjustments of honour, passion and aspiration in many characters; very often, some kind of problem lies behind the story—educational in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, political in Beauchamp’s Career, social in One of Our Conquerors. The play of influences from nature is, also, unremitting. Action and the older sort of plot can almost be dispensed with; they are exchanged for large organic conception, knowledge of the subterranean processes by which idea and will gather force and externalise themselves, intuition as to the time and places at which the tension and the disturbing vibrations will work towards dramatic conjunctions —such, for instance, as Beauchamp’s final encounter with Renée de Croisnel, where we witness the long-impending collision between incompatible French and English customs; or the deep-founded misunderstanding which precedes the apology of lord Romfrey to doctor Shrapnel. The former kind of novel, the comedy in narrative, presents figures, such as Sir Willoughby, who are both individual and typical, after the fashion of Molière’s Tartufe or Harpagon; the latter kind, the novel of highly charged situation, presents its characters in more relations and with a more vivid sense of complex personality. In both kinds, we draw our conception of character chiefly from two sources: the first, speech and dialogue, which are idealised and extended so that they offer the largest sensitive surface whereon character may leave its impress; the second, the analysis, sure, delicate and exhaustive, of motive and feeling. In this analysis, Meredith is a realist (though there are occasional failures, such as the central incident of Diana of the Crossways), and his figures are distinguished from the pleasing shadows of romance. At times, we feel, as in George Eliot’s works, that the novelist is helping us by lucid and dispassionate reasoning to understand a figure viewed as through a glass window; but, in the more notable characters, especially those of women, we feel ourselves continually in the presence of personalities quick with nervous and spiritual vitality and having the power on their own account to engage our concern and memory. Lucy, Rose, Kiomi, Vittoria, Renèe, Clara Middleton, Nesta, Carinthia, are as vivid in gesture, speech and movement, in varied mood and in the quality they impart to our own humour, as any figures in nineteenth-century fiction. Meredith’s boys are creations of profound insight; his men, even those cast in the mould of Vernon Whitford, do not, in general, lodge so securely in the memory. A rare gift of characterisation, which Meredith possesses in the highest degree, is that of calling into being figures belonging to other nationalities; his Welsh and French and Italian creations are marked both by completeness and by subtlety; this is the basis of the historical power which gives abiding value to the picture of the rising under Mazzini in Vittoria, and to that of Napoleon in Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History. It is worth notice that, in the main, the analytical method is only practised upon the complex, sophisticated people of the leisured world; the simpler classes are delineated in other ways; for instance, Mrs. Berry, who is alive, and Jack Raikes, who is moribund, are in Dickens’s manner of humorous exaggeration. Meredith’s rustics are apt to savour chiefly of beef and beer. The exception to the avoidance of psychology in the case of humbler folk is in the part of Rhoda Fleming which deals with the yeoman’s family; the age-long moulding influence of the Kentish soil, the inveigling of the weaker sister, Dahlia, and the savage virginal pride of Rhoda Fleming are set forth in the way of analysis.