meredith

155 meredithA figure whom my father in some ways paralleled is George Meredith, who is seldom read now except by those who study Victorian literature. Meredith, like Jack, moved in literary and artistic circles. Both wrote poems and novels, and both, in old age, confined themselves to poetry. They were good conversationalists and storytellers, right to the end. Jack knew almost everybody who was involved in the country’s literary and artistic scene. Meredith’s friends included Swinburne, the Rossetti brothers and Robert Louis Stevenson. Both had to wait until their fifties to achieve a measure of popular success. They were influential in their circles, and en-couraged younger authors. Jack nurtured writers like Rive and Jonker. Meredith ‘discovered’ and nurtured Hardy, Gissing and others. Both became ‘grand old men’ of their country’s literary landscape.

Like Jack, George married an intelligent and not uncritical woman and, like Jack, his self-absorption and obsessive attention to literary endeavours cost him a marriage. George Meredith wrote about his disintegrating relationship with his wife Mary Ellen in Modern Love, a long poem published in 1862. The shocking idea that lurked in Modern Love was that if faith in one’s spouse goes, then the marriage goes, and with it religion, morality and everything else.

Then, as midnight makes  Her giant heart of Memory and Tears 
Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat 
Sleep’s heavy measure, they from head to feet 
Were moveless, looking through their dead black years 
By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall. 
Like sculptured effigies they might be seen 
Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between; 
Each wishing for the sword that severs all.

Had Jack read Meredith? You bet. When I was twelve, in 1964, I went into the musty cellar beneath the stone farmhouse that my ancestors had built near Mooi River, and there by the light reflected from the open door with its faded blue paint, I examined the remains of the library which my great-grandparents had assembled. All of the Victorian poets and novelists were there: Tennyson, Browning, Meredith, Arnold, the Rossettis, Dickens, and many others. Jack, a voracious reader, had read every book in the house by the time he left high school.

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