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The Ambivalently Modern Master: Hedges Against the Modern in Meredith's The Amazing Marriage Constance Harsh Colgate University IN RECENT YEARS, literary critics have rediscovered many of the once-celebrated novelists of the 1890s. Writers such as Sarah Grand and George Egerton, wildly popular in their own day but subsequently neglected by the critical establishment, have received new attention and respect for their treatment of women's issues. But, perhaps surprisingly , the most revered English novelist in the 1890s, and one of the most outspoken critics of conventional women's roles, has not been similarly resurrected. Despite occasional flurries of interest, most notably in the 1970s, readers in our own age have by and large not warmed to George Meredith. Although he has never completely dropped out of the canon of nineteenth-century fiction, he has remained resistant to critical recovery . The only novel that has received concerted feminist attention is Diana of the Crossways (1885). Yet Meredith warrants another look as a fin-de-siècle writer. An examination of The Amazing Marriage (1895),1 Meredith's last completed novel, exposes some of the fault lines in late-Victorian discussions of modern literature. The novel's complex engagement with issues of gender and psychology gives it unexpected affinities with the advanced fiction that was alarming observers in 1895.2 But Meredith also carefully contains modern impulses through stylistic evasiveness and conformity to cultural norms. To foreground the modern in examining this novel reveals grounds for Meredith's popularity in his own day and his relative neglect in our own. Meredith's widely acknowledged eminence was itself both strongly gendered and ambivalently related to modernity. John Lucas suggests that by the 1890s Meredith had attained a preeminent status for a num436 HARSH : MEREDITH ber of reasons: his difficulty and his history of critical neglect proved his artistic seriousness; his ideas appeared modern in their "radical reappraisal of lines of thought associated with Victorian England";3 his public persona fit the popular stereotype of the grizzled sage. Meredith met a cultural need for a Grand Old Man of letters, but he also provided critics with an opportunity to congratulate themselves for valuing a difficult writer too advanced for a narrow-minded earlier generation to appreciate. As a writer with a notoriously difficult style who appealed to the intellectual elite, Meredith stood apart from 1890s writers whose accessible work had gone into dozens of editions. As an older man with a patriarch's self-presentation, Meredith stood in sharp contrast to the women novelists who were newly arrived on the literary scene.4 He inhabited an identity that Thomas Carlyle, a profound influence, had helped carve out for male Victorian writers: what James Eli Adams has defined as "the prophet [as] a figure of masculine vocation defined in antagonism to the marketplace."5 Unlike Zola and equally frank English writers, Meredith avoided prudishness but did not aggressively challenge standards of reticence in sexual matters. W L. Courtney, reviewing Lord Ormont and His Aminta, praised Meredith's "true literary reserve" in handling the novel's adulterous love story: "In the treatment, too, of a subject which in other hands might well have become coarse or vulgar, Mr. Meredith has shown all his wonted delicacy. To employ his own phrase, he belongs neither to the 'rose-pink' school of early English fiction nor to the 'dirty drab' of French romance."6 Meredith was manly without being risqué, modern without being revolutionary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, original reviewers did not connect The Amazing Marriage to the contemporary literary controversy that raged as the novel was being published in monthly installments in Scribner's Magazine in 1895. Beginning in mid-1894, commentators had identified trends in English literature that struck many as troubling. Of particular concern was the popularity of Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins, Iota's A Yellow Aster, and George EgertorÃ-s Keynotes. These books' frank handling of sexuality and female psychology offended conservatives, and their popular and critical success seemed indicative of a decline in literary taste. The hysteria of 1894-1895 intensified concern over what had become a recognized feature of contemporary literature: an intense interest in psychology at the expense of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 436-458
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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