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100 years ago: Our greatest man of letters

20 May 2009

May 21st, 1909.

THE death of Mr Swinburne has been quickly followed by that of his friend and contemporary, Mr George Meredith. With the passing of those two distinguished men of letters the Victorian age of liter­ature seems to have been brought to a close. Of Mr Meredith’s genius as a writer it is impossible to speak in such a way as to satisfy all readers. There are those to whom it is a weariness of the flesh to be asked to penetrate through the obscurity of his style and thought in order to get at his meaning. Others there are who revel in the intellectual toil which such a quest entails. And there is a third class, of those who profess to find him lucidity itself — but these, it must be said, though with bated breath, are suspect of self-deception. Meredith’s later works, at all events, are not lightly to be taken in hand. It is to be regretted that, in his closing years, he allowed himself to be treated by the Press as Sir Oracle. What Mr Meredith said or thought about this or that public question was accepted with a deference that was ludicrous, and, on one occasion, that was mischievous. We refer to his advocacy of a lax view of the sacredness of the marriage-tie, and his proposal that the contract should be terminated, like a lease, at stated intervals of time. Such an opinion coming from the greatest man of letters in our day had a powerful influence for evil, the effect of which will not be interred with his bones. It certainly should weigh with those who are the guardians of Westminster Abbey, when they are asked to find a burial-place for him within its walks.

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