Monday, August 29, 2016

Something Old

  Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“DIANA OF THE CROSSWAYS” by George Meredith (first published in 1885)

            As I’ve stated before on this blog, there was a time when for some reason I read my way through all the novels of George Meredith (1828-1909). At first I was puzzled. Why was he once esteemed as one of the greatest Victorian novelists? And why has he subsequently dropped out of the canon, to the point where he now tends to be read only by specialists and thesis-writers? There are periodic attempts by enthusiasts to bring him back into popularity, but they are always unsuccessful.
            It didn’t take me long to understand why this eclipse happened. With some honourable exceptions, Meredith’s novels are too self-consciously intellectual in a way that has dated badly. Meredith often deals with issues that would once have seemed innovative and daring, but that no longer hold the interest. Worse, he tends to confine himself to a very limited social milieu (basically upper-class intellectuals) and to write in a convoluted prose style, too addicted to sentences running on in complex and impenetrable subordinate clauses.
            And yet I greatly admire and enjoy his first real novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (see post thereupon), written before his worst mannerisms set in; and his incisive political novel Beauchamp’s Career (ditto); and there are things to be said for his poetry (see posting George Meredith as Poet); although I have already chastised what was once seen as one of his two greatest novels The Egoist.
            Diana of the Crossways was once his other most esteemed novel, and I am now going to chastise it by first giving you one of my dreaded synopses and them donning my black cap to pass judgment.
            Short synopsis: A talented and beautiful young woman, separated from her jealous husband, fails to find happiness with a rising politician, but is eventually won by a plodding, faithful admirer.
            Real synopsis: The daughter of the late Dan Merion, Diana Antonia Merion is an adornment of the Anglo-Irish social scene. This is established in the early chapters in which, aged only 19, she is the cynosure of a ball in Dublin, vocally admired by the old soldier Lord Larrian and the Irishman Sullivan Smith. Crossing back to England, young Diana wishes to regain possession of the family seat, the Crossways, which is tenanted by the Warwicks. Is it the stately house or the man which leads her to become betrothed, and then married, to 34-year-old Augustus Warwick?
            Whatever the case, the marriage is not a success. Augustus Warwick becomes ridiculously jealous and possessive, and the marriage breaks down when he absurdly accuses her of infidelity on the basis of her platonic friendship with the aged Lord Dannisborough.
            All this is sympathetically observed by Thomas Redworth and by Diana’s best friend Emma Dunstane, who lives at her own mansion, Copley, with her husband Captain Sir Lukin Dunstane. [The good captain is once so overcome with Diana’s beauty that he can’t forebear to kiss her!]
            Now separated from her husband, and having to make her own way in the world, Diana travels to Italy and begins to make a living in journalism and as the writer of popular novels.
She returns to London. She is in the unusual situation of being married-but-single; not available for the marriage market, and not fully respectable either. Says Meredith: “The men and women of her circle derisively, unanimously, disbelieved in an innocence that forfeited reputation.” (Chapter 29) However, she becomes friendly with a number of young men, and is still admired, especially by the Honourable Percy Dacier, a young relative of old Lord Dannisborough. Percy is a rising politician – apparently a Liberal. [In the background, very dimly recorded by Meredith, there seem to be Liberal manoeuvres to outbid the Irish Land league in the Liberals’ Irish policy – and it is here that Meredith uses some rather twee and patronising imagery to suggest Diana’s impulsive Irishness and Percy Dacier’s rational Englishness.] The friendship between Diana and Percy develops apace, as does Diana’s writing. But the relationship eventually shipwrecks when Diana hears some confidential political information from Percy, and passes it on to the editor of the Times, who splashes it through his paper. Although by this stage Diana’s husband has died (conveniently offstage) and Diana is free to marry, Percy now turns his back on her and marries a socialite.
            Diana has failed with two men. She retreats into herself, protected in part by her maid Danvers. But finally she returns to the world and accepts as her husband the faithful Tom Redworth, who has admired her throughout the course of the action.
(In making this synopsis, by the way, I have deliberately left out other admirers of Diana such as one Arthur Rhodes and the diarist Henry Wilmers, who is the narrative voice of the novel’s pompous opening chapter.)
What are we, as early 21st century readers, meant to make of this?
Sticking out like a bloody spear is the novel’s symbolism. Diana is the goddess who hunts – an exquisite ideal for the men who pursue. From the diminutive of her middle name Antonia, she is known as “Tony” by her best friend Emma Dunstane, and the novel calls her “Tony” whenever she expresses her sensual side.  So modern women, says the late Victorian novelist, are both practical idealists and have sensual needs. Ah yes, dear Victorian readers, but modern women are different from their mothers and grandmothers. Which direction will this modern woman take? Please note that she lives at the Crossways…
Meredith puts into Lukin Dunstane’s mouth praise for Diana which shows the combination of brains and sex that attracts men: “A woman like Diana Warwick might keep a fellow straight, because she’s all round you; she’s man and woman in brains; and legged like a deer, and breasted like a swan, and a regular sheaf of arrows in her eyes.” (Chapter 26)
Symbolism and the intentions of the nomenclature are overt in this novel. Consciously and deliberately, Meredith is writing about the “problem” of the single and divorced woman. Such a daring thing to do in 1885. Of course he, as a sympathetic male liberal, identifies with Diana and her plight. Indeed he seems to identify with her to the point of telling us that she writes novels very similar to the ones he writes. We are told that Diana’s first novel was a fantasy called The Princess Egeia (Meredith’s first novel was a fantasy, The Shaving of Shagpat). Diana writes a political novel The Young Minister of State (i.e. Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career). She writes a novel about a singer The Cantatrice (Meredith wrote two novels about a singer Sandra Belloni and Vittoria). Diana writes a novel about an indecisive man The Man of Two Minds (i.e. Meredith’s The Egoist). This is a case of “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” pushed to absurd extremes and it is hard to see the point of it, except to create a big in-joke.
Those elements that might once have made the book seem “modern” are now particularly faded. Here is a novel which glances at politics, yet does so in a comforting and complacent way as it puts those restless and irrational Irish at a distance. Its advocacy of divorce is tepid to say the least. But the chief problem in Diana herself. We are frequently told she is witty, but rarely hear her being witty. She is observed from a distance. After the tedious opening chapter in which the diarist Henry Wilmers gives his impressions of her, we only hear about her first marriage and its failure as it is reported to Emma Dunstane and her husband. This seems to be a “set-up” on Meredith’s part. It is necessary to his plot that Diana be estranged from her first husband, but Meredith doesn’t want to take on the hard work of showing how her marriage broke down by making it psychologically credible.
Why was this novel Meredith’s first big popular success? I suspect because it gave an idealised image of a “pure” woman unsullied by sex, and it has a happy ending in which the plodder Tom Redworth (with whom most male readers could identify) wins out. (“I taught this old watch-dog of a heart to keep guard and bury the bones you tossed him”, says faithful Fido Tom Redworth in the last chapter.) And yet it seems to deal with serious and grown-ups issues of the day which are now of only historical interest to us – the Irish Question; highbrow Victorian novels; the “problem” of divorce and the role of the “single-married” woman; a woman having a career; “Whither the destiny of Woman?” etc. etc. [These latter issues are enough to have had it re-published as a Virago Modern Classic.] Though I certainly think Meredith has more going for him, I can’t help comparing this novel with a forgotten bestseller I once analysed on this blog – Stephen McKenna’s Sonia (1917), which gave its readers the illusion that they were dealing with serious, grown-up themes while in fact doing very little to challenge their prejudices.
As a subjective reaction, I found Diana of the Crossways a tedious piece of work. Does the term “vapid” apply? Or maybe “tepid”? Among Meredith’s novels I would rank it alongside Rhoda Fleming and The Egoist for dullness in the way it overanalyses events rather than providing a robust narrative. I found myself frequently losing interest and had to force myself to read it to the end. Only two sections caught my fancy – one being Tom Redworth’s ride to the Crossways in an early chapter, an episode which takes on an appropriately eerie quality; and the other being some of the political machinations in the plot concerning Percy Dacier. Otherwise I found both characters and situations thin, contrived and unconvincing. And is it prejudiced of me to be always suspicious of books which rhapsodise over country homes (Crossways, Copley etc.)?

Eccentric footnote: There is an interesting metaphor used in Chapter 5 where Diana is lamenting the way the new-fangled railways are carving up and defacing rural England. She says: “This mania for cutting up the land does really cause me to pity those who are to follow us. They will not see the England we have seen. It will be patched and scored, disfigured… a sort of barbarous Maori visage – England in a New Zealand mask. You may call it the sentimental view. In this case, I am decidedly sentimental: I love my country. I do love quiet, rural England.

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