George Meredith (1828-1909)
Champion of women, writer, novelist, and poetThe research carried out for Surrey Heritage’s March of the Women project has discovered much regarding the campaigning activities of Surrey’s women and men on all sides of the Women’s Suffrage debate. One figure stands out who was described by campaigners as a champion for women’s suffrage, namely, George Meredith.
Meredith had little sympathy for the methods used by militant exponents of female enfranchisement and so the importance of his writing to activists in the campaign has been largely overlooked, even though he was an influential writer, novelist and poet who became known for his views on women and their rights. His views, as well as his emotional response to the events in his personal life, were issues for which he found an outlet through his writing. His published works, including his novels, contain strong heroines who often struggled with the confines and restrictions of contemporary society. He was a prolific correspondent contributing to influential journals and newspapers, as well as writing copious letters to his many personal friends and admirers.
George Meredith was born in Portsmouth in 1828 and attended St Paul’s School, Southsea, before he was sent to a boarding school in Suffolk. From 1842 onwards he attended the School of the Moravian Fathers in Neuwied, near Koblenz, on the Rhine. In her biographical entry for George Meredith in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Margaret Harris speculates that it may have been the influence of his time at Neuwied which gave rise to his strong views on the need for women to be educated.
In 1844 he returned to England and took articles with Richard Stephen Charnock, a London solicitor. However, Meredith had little interest in the law and soon began to follow his inclination towards a literary career. In 1849 whilst living in London, he met and married a young widow, Mary Ellen Nicolls, a contributor to the Monthly Observer.
After a long honeymoon travelling in Europe the couple settled in rooms at ‘The Limes’, Weybridge. At first the marriage appeared to be happy, as reflected in Meredith’s debut publication Poems (1851). However later, after the problems in his marriage came to a head, he tried to destroy all the privately published copies of this book. It was around this time Meredith decided to abandon his embryonic career in the law in favour of pursuing his literary ambition.
The couple became estranged and lived apart for a while but they attempted to continue the marriage. They had a son, Arthur Gryffydh, in 1853 and moved to ‘Vine Cottage’, Shepperton, but by 1857 their relationship broke down completely and Mary Ellen left to join the painter Henry Wallis in Wales.
Meredith was an energetic man who often embarked on long walks with his friends. Following the breakdown of his marriage these took on a therapeutic role and among his walking companions were Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. During the time he lived in Weybridge he met the Duff-Gordon family and it is possible that Janet Duff-Gordon was the distraction mentioned in Meredith’s poems in Modern Love (1862).
Meredith and his son Arthur moved to ‘Copsham Cottage’, Esher, in 1859. Mary Ellen died in 1861 and three years later Meredith proposed to Marie Vulliamy (1840-1885).
In A Ballad of Fair Ladies in Revolt (Fortnightly Review, 1 Aug 1876), Meredith deals with the issue of women’s disadvantages in contemporary society. It is in this poem that Meredith gives voice to the aspiration of women to be treated equally with men. He reveals his interest in the subject of female representation and proposes two possible responses to the activities of women campaigners. The first, that men should argue against women’s aspirations and deepen the conflict; the second that men should listen to the women’s case in favour of representation and then support women in achieving these aims. The view advocated by Meredith illustrates how far he was influenced by the ideas of John Stuart Mill (Mill’s essay On the subjection of women had been published in 1869). Notions of chivalric nostalgia seem to pervade the poem, with echoes of the similar ethos underlying the ideals of the pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement. It is not any wonder then that George Frederic and Mary Watts eagerly enjoyed his writings. In her diary Mary Watts is fulsome in her praise of Meredith’s Diana of The Crossways, which she and her husband read together.
Although Meredith’s writing was already highly regarded, it was not until 1885, with the publication of his Surrey based Diana of The Crossways, that Meredith achieved popular acclaim. The inspiration for the novel was the notorious tribulations of the society beauty Caroline Norton with Lord Melbourne and Sidney Herbert. Meredith was introduced to Caroline Norton by Lady Duff-Gordon and was captivated by her situation, intelligence and beauty. She was an educated, literate woman and the grand-daughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, of Polesden Lacy. In 1827 Caroline married George Chapple Norton, a barrister and Guildford MP. Unfortunately, Norton proved to be a drunkard who was controlling and jealous of his wife’s popularity. Of necessity Caroline began to write in order to provide herself with some means of financial support. She challenged the right in which a husband was able to control the money earned or inherited by their wife. As a writer, Caroline was also concerned about the fact that her husband had legal copyright of works which she had written. Caroline’s campaigning on these concerns lead to the passing of the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1882. Crossways Farm at Abinger provided the inspiration for the farm owned by ‘Diana’.
In 1892 Meredith replaced Tennyson as President of the Society of Authors, a sign of how his reputation as a writer had risen. In 1905 he was awarded the Order of Merit for services to literature. His circle included literary luminaries such as J.M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James and Thomas Hardy. He became what we might today view as a celebrity pundit, earning the title ‘The Sage of Box Hill’.
By inclination Meredith was a Liberal. He appears to have had some involvement in the local Liberal Association, when on the 30 March 1904, he wrote a letter to Mrs A.E. Fletcher of the Dorking Women’s Liberal Association that demonstrated his views on the equality of women and his support for the cause of women’s suffrage: “At this present time Women need encouragement to look upon affairs of national interest, and men should do their part in helping them to state publically what has been confined to the domestic circle – consequently a wasted force. That it can be a force men are beginning to feel.”
On 1 November 1906 Meredith wrote a lengthy letter (extracted below), to the editor of the Times on the subject of the increased militancy amongst female campaigners for suffrage:
“Sir, Women, and for this they incur our severe disapprobation, are excitable. They desire to have the suffrage; to that end they storm the House of Commons and clamour for the right to assist in voting for members of the august Assembly. It was unwise on their part; a breach in good manners, an error of judgement, proof that they have not yet learnt how to deal with men. For until men have been well shaken at home, and taught that woman is a force to be reckoned with, they will not only resolutely bar the fortress they hold against feminine assailants, they will punish offenders sharply.”
It is clear that Meredith’s writing was held in high regard and was even recognised by militant suffrage campaigners (even though he opposed militancy as a tactic) as crucial in building support for the women’s campaign for the vote. Following the arrest of fifty suffrage protesters, including Emmeline Pankhurst, at a demonstration in the House of Commons during February 1908, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) held a Women’s Parliament. The Times reported on 13 February 1908 that the sessions were held and decisions reached and it is interesting that the members present decided to send birthday greetings to George Meredith, in acknowledgement that “many ladies engaged in literary pursuits were among the prisoners. It was decided to send a birthday greeting to Mr George Meredith and an expression of gratitude for his lifetime championship of the women’s cause.”
Meredith’s influence was not only significant to the national campaign for suffrage but his endorsement was important to local campaigners too. During the last few months of his life Meredith continued to give the Women’s Suffrage campaign support and encouragement. On 4 March 1909, the Times reported that a letter from George Meredith was read at a women’s suffrage “At Home” meeting, held in Mickleham. The newspaper’s correspondent commented that Meredith advised seekers of votes for women to follow the example of Mrs Fawcett and Mrs Garrett Anderson “who preserved the rule of good manners and understood how the cause was to be won. The combative suffragists played the enemy’s game. I hold that in spite of much to be said in opposition the exercise of the vote will gradually enlarge the scope of women’s minds. Men who would confine them to the domestic circle are constantly complaining of their narrowness. Women have to contend with illogical creatures. The vote will come in time and for a time there is likely to be a swamping of Liberalism and a strengthening of ecclesiastical pretentions that will pass with the enlargement of women’s minds in a new atmosphere.”
Meredith, together with a number of prominent men in the political, scientific, literary, artistic, theological and sporting spheres, signed a “Declaration by men in support of women’s suffrage”. The petitioners were listed in the Times (23 March 1909) and had among them some notable Surrey figures including Gerald Balfour, Sir William Chance, Wilmot P Herringham, Sir Robert Hunter, David Lloyd George, J.M. Barrie, Edwin Lutyens, Halsey Ralph Riccardo, Henry Holliday, K.J. Key (late captain of Surrey Cricket Club), and the publisher, T. Fisher Unwin.
After a brief illness, due to contracting a chill during an outing in his donkey cart on 14 May 1909, George Meredith died at Box Hill. His death was announced in the Times on the 19 May. A longer article about Meredith was published in the same issue. The following day the front page of Common Cause (the official magazine of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, NUWSS), carried the news of his death and a tribute to him (20 May 1909): “George Meredith is dead. The news dwarfs all other. No one has a deeper influence on the thought of the present century than he, and quite peculiarly this thought, affecting ideals of womanhood, has helped on women to freer expression. Not even Mill has done so much, because Mill lacked the two supreme resources of poetic imagination and the comic spirit. Through youthful enthusiasm for Meredith many men have been led to see male prerogative in its ugly nakedness; through sweetening laughter, they have been helped to abandon it. And women, with loyalty and courage shewn them as womanly virtues, have felt their lives enlarged and raised. The petals of his wild cherry are snowing down, but they will come again next year, and in the hearts and minds of English people his work will live. George Meredith is not dead.”
The Times reported Meredith’s funeral in Dorking and the subsequent memorial service at Westminster Abbey in great detail on the 24 May 1909. The correspondent noted that amongst the wreaths was one from the NUWSS carrying the words “In grateful remembrance. True poets and true women have the native sense of the divineness of what to the world seems gross material substance”. Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the Leatherhead Liberal Association and the Leatherhead Women’s Liberal Association also sent wreaths. Following cremation at Woking Crematorium, his ashes were laid to rest beside his wife, Marie, in Dorking cemetery.
On the 24 May 1909 at the AGM of the Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society, Margaret Crosfield spoke of the great loss sustained by suffragists as a result of the death of one of the movements’ famous advocates, the Surrey resident and novelist, George Meredith.
Meredith’s reputation as a literary figure and champion of women’s rights did not diminish immediately after his death, a number of his works were published posthumously, as were other tributes by other prominent literary figures such as J.M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy. Many suffragist entertainments continued to include readings of his poem A Ballard of fair ladies in revolt as part of proceedings. On 9 November 1911, Common Cause reported that the Anti-Suffrage campaign had adopted Rudyard Kipling as it’s laureate, the NUWSS was not dismayed by this as the campaign for women’s suffrage already had it’s own laureate in George Meredith, the Anti’s were welcome to Kipling!
Common Cause on 27 May 1909 published a personal testimony to Meredith’s influence and how he changed the world: “Beyond everything, what he brought to the younger generation of women was hope and self-revelation…Now woman feels that she belongs to herself, that she possesses herself, and unless or until she does so the gift of herself is impossible.”
When some women won the right to vote in the General Election of 14 December 1918, Common Cause published an article designed to encourage all women who could vote to turn out. The article cited the opinion of George Meredith that women in politics were more practical than men.
Today Meredith’s reputation as a leading literary figure has not endured, his novels and poetry are wordy by current standards, but his importance as a key figure and advocate in the fight for women’s rights should not be forgotten.
Contributed by Miriam Farr, volunteer for The March of the Women project.
Sources held at Surrey History Centre
Local Studies Library Collection
George Meredith, Last Poems; Constable, 1909
George Meredith, Ordeal of Richard Feveral, Penguin, 1998
George Meredith, Diana of The Crossways, Constable, 1911
George Meredith, The Tale of Chloe [includes: The house on the beach and The case of General Ople and Lady Camper] Ward, Lock & Bowden, 1894
George Meredith, Sandra Belloni, Chapman & Hall, 1892
George Meredith Letters of George Meredith collected and edited by his son, Vol 1 1844-1881; Charles Scribner’s Son, 1912
George Meredith, Letters of George Meredith collected and edited by his son, Vol 2 1882-1909; Charles Scribner’s Son, 1912
Kathy Atherton, Suffragettes, Suffragists & Antis: the fight for the vote in the Surrey hills, Cockerel Press, 2017
Jacqueline Banerjee, A cut above: George Meredith and the landlady’s daughter, TLS, 4 September 2015
Jacqueline Banerjee, Literary Surrey, John Owen Smith, 2005
J.M. Barrie, George Meredith, Constable, 1909
J.M. Barrie, Neither Dorking nor the Abbey, [including a poem by Thomas Hardy] Browne’s Bookstore, 1911
Peter Brandon, The North Downs, Phillimore, 2005
Lady Butcher, Memories of George Meredith, OM, Constable, 1919
S.M. Ellis, George Meredith his life and friends in relation to his work, Grant Richards, 1920
F.E. Green, The Surrey Hills, Chatto, 1915
J.A Hammerton, George Meredith in anecdote and criticism, Grant Richards, 1909
Mervyn Jones, The amazing Victorian: a life of George Meredith, Constable, 1999
Nicholas A Joukovsky, According to Mrs Bennett: a document sheds a new and kinder light on George Meredith’s first wife, TLS, 8 October 2004
Jack Lindsay, George Meredith: his life and work, Bodley Head, 1956
J.S.L. Pulford, George & Mary Meredith in Weybridge, Shepperton & Esher 1849-61, Walton & Weybridge Local History Society, Papers 27, 1989
George Macaulay Trevelyan, The poetry and philosophy of George Meredith, Constable, 1906
Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage branch scrapbook compiled by Helena Auerbach, c.1908-1913 (SHC ref 3266/1).
Feature of George Meredith in the Abinger Women’s Institute Scrapbook (SHC ref 7744/1)
Letter from Sir Hubert Parry to Susan Lushington, chasing some of Meredith’s poems he wished to set to music, 5 April 1906 (SHC ref 7854/4/29/1/28a-b)
Newspaper article to mark the centenary of birth of George Meredith from The Times, 11 Feb 1928 (SHC ref 3735/2/3 (1-3))
Postcards showing George Meredith’s home ‘The Chalet’, Box Hill, Dorking (SHC ref PC/53/ALB2/59-61)
Photograph of George Meredith’s home, ‘The Chalet’, Box Hill, Dorking, by Frances Frith, 1924 (SHC ref 6316/5604)
Family settlements of the Norton family of Grantley Park, Ripon, formerly of Wonersh (SHC ref 1275/1-2)
Colour photograph of watercolour sketch of Copsham Cottage, Esher, c.1873, by John Lamb primus (1799-1875), (SHC ref Z/412/1)
Full details of all records held at Surrey History Centre relating to George Meredith see https://www.surreyarchives.org.uk/
George Meredith, Diana of The Crossways, Virago, 1980
Lucy Ella Rose, A feminist network in an artists’ home: Mary and George Watts, George Meredith and Josephine Butler Journal of Victorian Culture, Vol 21 no 1, online available at https:/dx.doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2015.1123172 [accessed Jan 2020]
Gale Vault, The Times, accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf
Times Digital Archive, accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf
Common Cause, British Newspaper Archive accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf
Margaret Harris, George Meredith (1828-1909), Online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf
K D Reynolds, Norton [née Sheridan], Caroline Elizabeth Sarah (1808-1877), Online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf
Francine Ryan, Meet Caroline Norton, Open University http://law-school.open.ac.uk/news/meet-caroline-norton-fighting-women%E2%80%99s-rights-it-was-even-cool
George Meredith, A Ballard of fair ladies in revolt, Fortnightly Review, 1876 https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-ballad-of-fair-ladies-in-revolt/ and https://www.poeticous.com/meredith/a-ballad-of-fair-ladies-in-revolt
Maura C Ives, George Meredith’s essay “On comedy” and other New Quarterly Magazines Publications, Associated University Presses, 1998
C L Cline, Nineteenth Century Fiction Vol 16, no 3, Dec 1961, pp 231-243, University of California Press
Houses of Parliament https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-Heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/
Dorking Museum page on George Meredith http://dorkingmuseum.org.uk/george-Meredith/