The Amazing Victorian: A life of George Meredith

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9780094798007: The Amazing Victorian: A life of George Meredith

Though little read today, at the turn of the century the works of George Meredith were ranked with those of Thomas Hardy. This biography contains plot summaries of 14 of his novels, and highlights his sympathy for women and his attacks on class.'

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Mervyn Jones has a mission. George Meredith was once hailed as the greatest of Victorian novelists and poets; now he is almost unheard of. This biography rolls up its sleeves and gets vigorously to work introducing Meredith to a new generation and constructing a defence of him as unjustly neglected.

So obscure have Meredith's novels become that Jones feels obliged to include a 40- page appendix of plot summaries of all of the novels. These read as clogged and weirdly twisted, partly (presumably) because of the awkward construction of summarising a 400-page novel in a page and a half, but also--undeniably--because Meredith's novels just are densely convoluted. Trollope described Meredith's intricate experiments in prose as writing "twisted into curl papers", and his myriad-charactered plots are similarly byzantine. Jones reprints an amiable Punch cartoon of Meredith as a bearded bull in a china shop ("Meredith Destroying Literary Form"), with the shattering vases and cups labelled "Grammar", "Construction" and so on. But a novelist who declares proudly that "narrative is nothing!" is going to have a hard job winning a wide audience.

Jones is just about able to convince us that Meredith deserves the "amazing" tag of this biography's title, but it's uphill work. He does a good job of linking events in Meredith's life to his writing, but doesn't make the connection that the constipation which "plagued him throughout his life" might have had its own influence on Meredith's writing. His most famous novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel was renamed by one anonymous critic: "The Ordeal of Reading Richard Feverel". There's a stolid difficulty to Meredith the writer that no amount of biographies labelling him "amazing"--even if written with the energy and brio Jones lavishes here--are ever going to be able to reverse. --Adam Roberts

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