Meredith’s Swan Song

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/October, 1910

It is but another proof of a lack of intelligible purpose in the cosmic process that George Meredith was not permitted to finish his last novel, “Celt and Saxon,” which has just come from the press (Scribners, $1.50), without tail or hind legs, as he left it when he laid down his pen forever. Meredith was full of years and honors and ripe for the reaper’s scythe, but I am convinced, for all that, that the angels were not so all fired eager to claim him that a wait of a few months more would have tortured them unduly. In so short a time, had it been vouchsafed to him, he might have turned “Celt and Saxon” into the most delightful comedy imaginable. As it is, we must be content with half of that comedy— and a rough draft of the third quarter. The fourth quarter is missing entirely, and we can only guess what elaborate drolleries he intended to put into it. When we part from its people—and one of them is Meredith’s best Irishman—nay, one of the best Irishmen in all latter day fiction—they are unanimously in perilous and interesting postures. One of them trembles upon the brink of marriage; another has just missed a throne; a third faces a battle royal with his wife; a fourth is lost in the Balkans, with a miniature pressed to his bosom; a fifth, having inherited millions, is about to enter the peerage. What actually happens to them? Alas, we shall never know!

The title of the story sufficiently explains its theme. It is a study of the abysmal differences, moral, intellectual and especially emotional, which separate the stolid Saxon from the wild Celt. Who but a wild Celt such as Patrick O’Donnell would ever invade an English gentleman’s country house to plead the cause of his enamored brother? That brother, whose name is Philip, is a captain in the British army, and has just returned from service in Canada, while Patrick himself has just come back from Paris, where the Jesuits have been teaching him philosophy, square dancing and the use of the foils. One glance at Philip is enough to convince Patrick that vain dreams of the beauteous Adiante Adister have been undermining his brother’s constitution ; and so he posts off to the Adister mansion, on the border of Wales, to convince the hunkerous and reluctant Adister pere that a Catholic son-in-law will do him no dishonor. Adister pere is impressed by Patrick’s eloquence and more by his complete self-possession, but it is too late—for Adiante, fickle maid, has bestowed her beauty and fortune, if not her heart, upon a preposterous Balkan adventurer, a claimant to some obscure and loathsome throne, a figure out of an Indianapolis best seller, and is even now looking forward to wearing a crown, and what is more lamentable, to providing that crown an heir.

Patrick, overwhelmed by these tidings, begs for a portrait of the faithless one, to help him break the news of her treason more gently. Philip, to Brother Pat’s surprise, takes it very calmly. It is, in fact, not news to him at all. He has known of Adiante’s incredible alliance with that infernal scoundrel, that noisome hooknose, for nearly a year, and has begun to get over it. As a British officer, he is rather amused by his brother’s playing of John Alden; as an Irishman, he is reduced to tears; Patrick himself takes the anti-climax with tolerable cheer. He has become mightily interested in the young woman of the miniature, and after certain aimless philanderings with other damsels, he disappears from London and is next heard of as traveling somewhat vaguely in Eastern Europe, where lies the kingdom to which the unmentionable hook nose aspires and over which the bright eyes of the miniature may one day shed their penetrating rays.

But we do not miss Patrick, for his cousin Con—Captain Con O’Donnell, of His Majesty’s army, retired—takes his place upon the scene, and Con is a sheer delight. He, too, has aspired to the hand of a she-Adister, but with more success than Captain Philip, for the fair object of his hopes —she is the treacherous Adiante’s aunt—has capitulated, and is even now his wife’s banker and guardian. It is out of the domestic relations of this fantastic couple that Mr. Meredith fashions some of his most delicious passages of comedy. Captain Con, to the outward eye, is a sedate and God-fearing Londoner, a director of companies, an advocate of the Union, the husband of one wife; but inwardly he is a wild, wild Irishman, dreaming of Ireland’s freedom and brooding upon her wrongs. On the roof of his house he has built a small cabin as a theater for his secret treasons. “Here,” he says to his fellow sinners, “you can unfold, unbosom, explode, do all you like, except caper, and there’s a small square of lead between the tiles outside for that if the spirit of the jig comes upon you with violence; and I have had it on me, and eased myself mightily there to my own music—and the capital of the British Empire below me. . . . Here we roll like dogs in carrion, and no one to sniff at our coats. Here we sing treason; here we flout reason; night is our season at half past ten!”

Happy sinner! Happy in his whispered sacrileges, his odes to freedom, his secret palavers with the Irish applewoman from the corner! Happy, even, in his right-angled Saxon wife, with her gray curls, her interminable dinners, her firm faith in the divine right of the Saxon to rule. Toward the end Con plans his grandest and boldest crime. He will sneak into Ireland —lying to his wife about his destination—beat up the peasantry, demand their suffrages as an O’Donnell’s right —and come back to London an Irish M. P., the cloven hoof shamelessly displayed. Thus we leave him, and sorry, indeed, is the parting! The hand of the novelist has been trembling for fifty pages; the curtain comes down abruptly, as it came down upon Macklin’s palsied and speechless Shylock.

But there is no trace of the valetudinarian in the first half of the chronicle. The story of Patrick’s invasion of the ancestral stronghold of the Adisters, of his dialectic encounters with the intransigent chief of that clan, of the latter’s horror when he finds that he is about to become the grandfather of a hooknosed princeling, of Patrick’s trembling return to London, of Captain Con’s cabin on the roof and the sinister doings therein—this story is told with inexhaustible gusto and humor. The characters stand out in the round; they move and breathe; even the lesser ones are so real that there is a pang as each disappears. Mr. Meredith, of course, was never a plotmaster. He always wandered a good deal between cover and cover, and he does so here, stopping at one place for a whole chapter to sketch the habitual emotions and processes of ratiocination of John Bull—capital essay upon English traits. As for the style of the tale, it is infinitely complex and glittering —an intricate fabric of brilliant threads woven in strange but delightful designs. The metaphor which rolls from the Meredith pen is never the one honored by ancient custom. The reader is incessantly tickled by new whimsicalities, unprecedented collocations of ideas, novel and ingenious adjectives. And with it all there is no mark of that painful striving, that elaborate effort to avoid the commonplace, which puts tediousness into so many pages of Henry James. The Meredithian prose is Elizabethan in its apparent naivete, its impudence, its lawlessness. One pictures the author rolling in words as a cat rolls in catnip. Here, indeed, was a man who understood to the full the wonderful fluency and elasticity of that noblest of human inventions, the English language. What joy he must have got out of writing it!

“A Motley,” by John Galsworthy (Scribners, $1.50), is a collection of stories, studies and impressions much like that published under the title of “A Commentary” two years ago. There is great variety in the collection, and its merit is by no means level from cover to cover; but its high places are very high indeed, for Mr. Galsworthy is a man who gazes upon the world and its people with a seeing eye, and he has the faculty of making all of us interested in the things he sees. The first sketch in the book is a remarkably incisive character study of an English solicitor of the old school—“that rather rare thing, a pure-blooded Englishman, having no strain of Scotch, Welsh, Irish, or foreign blood in his pedigree for four hundred years.” We are introduced to this sturdy ancient as he passes into his eighth decade, and in a few pages a strangely rotund and lifelike portrait of him is set before us. The sketch, in truth, is a little masterpiece—a bit of writing more French than English in its exquisite workmanship, its economy of words, its purity of form.

Altogether, there are twenty-eight such fragments in the book: one an acute study of a clergyman at odds with his flock, another a sort of flashlight picture of a Frenchman, yet another a grim little comedy of the literary life. Some are mere footnotes, impressions of the moment, attempts to fix a transient mood. But in every one of them, great and little, one notes a certain delicate artistry, a feeling for form and color, the touch of a journeyman’s hand. Decidedly a book worth reading.

“Neither Do I,” by Elizabeth Adamson Redford {Cochrane, $1.50), is an attempt to make Mary of Magdala one of the most human personages in the Biblical narrative, the bloodless heroine of a moral tale. The book is bound hideously in navy blue, with garish gilt stamping, and is embellished with a portrait of the author, several views of the Holy Land and a number of atrocious drawings. A prefatory note by the publishers imparts the information that the author is the daughter of an eminent Wesleyan ecclesiastic, that she has spent the past fourteen years in globetrotting, and that her story is “full of pathos, fire and fervor.” Nothing of the sort. It is really not half so bad as all that. Here and there, of course, one happens upon the lush, unconscious humor which every Sunday school story shows, but in other places Miss Redford writes very well indeed. Her account of the raising of Lazarus, for example, is done in straightforward, simple and dignified English and is not without a considerable impressiveness.

The Biblical romance, of course, is bound to offend good taste in some way or other, for only persons whose taste is doubtful engage in its manufacture. Those of us who have more delicate literary palates are satisfied to accept the Scriptural narrative as it stands, without any effort to fill up its gaps and reconcile its contradictions. It is, in the authorized English version, the most beautiful piece of writing in the world — not the most scientific, perhaps, nor even the most convincing, but certainly the most beautiful. Its words fall into musical phrases which flow onward and onward in an endless, ever enchanting stream, rising here to passionate fortissimo and falling here to whispering, wavering piano. C

ompared to this, the music of Shakespeare’s blank verse is brassy and blatant, Addison’s prose is a street tune played upon a penny whistle and Marlowe’s mighty line is sheer cacophony. No one will ever write better English than that of the synoptic gospels and no one will ever tell a story better than these nameless ancients tells theirs. All attempts to adorn it and elucidate it, to tell it better than it is told in the sacred text, are so many proofs of a bumptious egotism, a childish folly. The preachers of sermons, the authors of commentaries, the manufacturers of Biblical novels, these folk awaken my awe if not my respect. They are worse, indeed, than that incredibly bombastic and fatuous Viscount Lansdowne, who once made a new version of “The Merchant of Venice” on the ground that the original was lacking in poetry. In literary sacrilege they speak the last word.

Now comes “The Gossamer Thread,” by Venita Seibert (SmallMaynard. $1.25), a series of studies of the imaginative, day-dreaming period of childhood. Velleda, the eldest of five, is the central figure—little Velleda who discovers that Alte Pelznichol is only Onkel in a hempen beard and whose heart swells with elderly pride when she is warned that she “mustn’t tell the children,” but who still finds it perfectly possible to believe in a Different World and to fare into it upon great adventures. Naturally enough, Velleda’s Onkel and her Tante Margarethe and Tante Hildegarde are German folk, for it is out of Germany that all the poetry of childhood has come. The Germans invented Kris Kringle and his spangled tree, the Easter rabbit and his chromatic eggs; they have given the world nine-tenths of its fairy tales; they have been writing its lullabies for ages. A fat, a beery, a booming, a maudlin race—but after all, one may venture, the most human race under the sun!

It is the brisk story of a pushing and successful career that John Adams Thayer tells in “Astir” (Small-Maynard, $1.20), a sort of business autobiography. Mr. Thayer began life as a New England printer, went from the printer’s case to the type foundry, became a virtuoso of typography, set up shop as an advertising man, drove Peruna from the Ladies’ Home Journal, doubled the business of the Delineator, was hired and fired by the founder of Munsey’s, and then became one of the proprietors of Everybody’s and had a hand in snaring Tom Lawson and his famous series of articles on “Frenzied Finance.” Mr. Thayer has many interesting tales to tell of the millionaires who own the big magazines—of Frank A. Munsey, that one-man crowd; of George W. Wilder, head of the $12,000,000 Butterick Company; of Cyrus K. Curtis, father of the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, and of other periodical plutocrats. Naturally enough, as a self-respecting advertising man, he has a low opinion of editors and of the unspeakable drivel they provide for the pages between the advertisements. “Editors,” he says, “do not make magazines financially successful.” It may be, perchance—but all the same, I venture to hang up a purse of $2.50, the which purse will go to Mr. Thayer whenever he supplies me with the name of one successful magazine in all the world which does not owe two thirds of its success to its editors.

Maurice Hewlett is making progress. A few months ago he was elected a charter member of the new British Academy of Immortals along with Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero and Viscount Morley; and now comes a new book, not by him but about him. Very few authors, while they are yet capable of enjoying the sensation, have books written about them. Joseph Conrad still lacks that distinction, and George Moore has so far got no further than half a book, the rest of which, strangely enough, is given over to George Bernard Shaw. This Hewlett volume is by Milton Bronner (Luce, $1.25) and it presents a brief biography of its subject and critical chapters upon all his books. Mr. Bronner, naturally enough, believes that Hewlett is a novelist of high rank, but all the same he is very far from a mere singer of praises. There is blame as well as praise in his criticism, and in more than one place it shows considerable acuteness. Incidentally, the biography reveals the fact that, despite his apparent intimacy with Italian thought and manners, Hewlett has visited Italy but rarely and then only for short periods. Well, why not? The most realistic descriptions of Hell in the language must be credited to ecclesiastics who had not yet got there when they wrote.

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