George Meredith has been propped up a bit by his biography. After nine years of marriage, his wife ran off with a painter. Whatever might be the usual response by a Victorian of his class, Meredith chose to write a novel (The Ordeal of Richard Feverel) and a fifty poem sonnet sequence, “Modern Love.”
Unusually, in both works Meredith makes the character in his own position, the wronged husband, look as bad as (in the poem) or worse than (in the novel) the straying wife. I thought writers were supposed to use their books for revenge, not self-mortification and compassionate understanding.
Colleen of Jam and Idleness read the new critical edition of “Modern Love.” She is skeptical of the edition, asking good “Who is this for?” questions, but enthusiastic about the poetry. She points out the irony of how Meredith takes “a poetic form traditionally devoted almost exclusively to romantic love, and uses it to present and dissect the recriminations, miscommunications, small pettiness and large jealousies that contribute to the slow cracking of two once loving hearts.”
The story of “Modern Love”: the wife has an affair, then the husband, who mostly narrates, has an affair of his own. The couple attempts to reconcile, but it is too late. The wife kills herself, perhaps to allow the husband to remarry, or so the husband thinks, although I have doubts.
At its best, I think, the story is told through scenes that have some novelistic qualities:
'Tis Christmas weather, and a country house
Receives us: rooms are full: we can but get
An attic-crib. Such lovers will not fret
At that, it is half-said. The great carouse
Knocks hard upon the midnight's hollow door,
But when I knock at hers, I see the pit.
Why did I come here in that dullard fit?
I enter, and lie couched upon the floor. (XXIII)
This could be a scene from a much later American novel, from Revolutionary Road, at a point in the story where the friends do not know how bad things have become for the couple.
Here the husband and wife discuss a novel:
You like not that French novel? Tell me why.
You think it quite unnatural. Let us see.
The actors are, it seems, the usual three:
Husband, and wife, and lover. She--but fie!
In England we'll not hear of it. Edmond,
The lover, her devout chagrin doth share;
Blanc-mange and absinthe are his penitent fare,
Till his pale aspect makes her over-fond:
So, to preclude fresh sin, he tries rosbif.
Meantime the husband is no more abused:
Auguste forgives her ere the tear is used.
Then hangeth all on one tremendous IF:-
IF she will choose between them. She does choose;
And takes her husband, like a proper wife.
Unnatural? My dear, these things are life:
And life, some think, is worthy of the Muse. (XXV)
I should try to summarize plots with sonnets. That could be good for a laugh.
I have read this sonnet enough times that I am no longer sure how obscure it is. The husband is always speaking, The wife’s side of the conversation is implied. The novel is described in a mocking way that is a passive-aggressive bullying of the wife at a point in the story when, ironically, the husband has begun to realize that he is no more committed to the marriage than she is.
What us really interesting to me is that, if you noted the sonnet numbers, you saw that there is only a single sonnet between the Christmas party scene and the novel-reading scene. There is no transition in between. Meredith changes settings with a snap. Sometimes the chronology is scrambled. “Modern Love” does what I take for granted in modern novels, presenting the events of the story in an order that is psychologically meaningful and assuming their readers can leap over the gaps. Another way Meredith was ahead of his time.