George Meredith (1828-1909) was never a popular writer; more often than not he had to pay the printer. But for many years he was a presence, if not a persuasive force, in the literary scene. “Meredith is not the great name he was twenty or thirty years ago,” E.M. Forster told his Cambridge audience in 1927, “when much of the universe and all Cambridge trembled.” But he did not indicate who trembled or why.
In Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) Henry James recalled the excitement with which, during a summer in Bonn in 1860, he received the periodicals his father sent him as a relief from the student’s servitude to the German language. The Cornhill gave him Trollope and a sense of the density of “constituted English matters.” Once a Week gave him “the prime of George Meredith and Charles Reade and J.E. Millais and George du Maurier.” “I rioted,” James reports, “all that season, on the supreme German classics and on [Meredith’s] Evan Harrington, with Charles Reade’s A Good Fight, the assured little prelude to The Cloister and the Hearth, thrown in.” James recalled the time as offering happy conditions for authors and readers. The conditions of authorship, until about 1860 but not for long thereafter, were such that
a given product of the press might have a situation and an aspect, a considerability, so to speak, a circumscription and an aura; room to breathe and to show in, margin for the casting of its nets.
By the end of the century, spaciousness and leisure were gone. The tenderness with which James recalls reading Meredith’s novel is warmed by his sense that the book found, on its first appearance in the periodical, an audience, generously spirited if not numerous, and ready with the leisure it required. The occasion at large, as James says, was doubtless shrinking, readers were beginning to run short of time and patience. That the conditions were becoming more difficult is the theme of several of his stories, including “The Lesson of the Master,” “The Death of the Lion,” and “The Next Time,” where James presents the creative imagination in the increasingly crippled conditions it had to meet. The situation is presented from several points of vantage, but they all amount to waste, frustration, and the wretchedness of writing for people more and more unable to bring their minds to the occasion. In “The Next Time,” a novelist, Ray Limbert, tries year by year to write a popular novel but is prevented by the fineness of his imagination, until at last he yields to that beautiful imperative. “He had merely waked up one morning again,” as James says, “in the country of the blue and had stayed there with a good conscience and a great idea” until he died.
Meredith, like other Victorian novelists who tried for popularity and only got fame, turned to poetry for his country of the blue. But the comparison with Ray Limbert is …