At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: August 6, 1892


       I had the misfortune to first read "Diana of the Crossways" in that mangled edition in the Seaside LIbrary, and as a stroke of retributive justice it seems as if the book would never assume its proper form in my head; so I warn all prospective readers of this novel of George Meredith away from the slough into which I fell when I attempted to steal my enjoyment. For he who reads from a pirated edition is very like the small boy who crawls head first under the circus tent and purchases with his only five cent piece his glass of pink lemonade. His constant trepidation gives his beverage a too acrid tang, and the jokes of the clown come to him partially blunted. There is nothing like the safety of the main entrance and the first row of spectators, where the authorities will smile one on one, even if it requires a year of self-denial to save the requisite half dollar. And in my own experience I was even more like the small boy in coming in for only half the entertainment, for he who reads "Diana of the Crossways" in the aforesaid edition will find half his pleasure stolen. The end is altogether lopped off, and a halt is made just at the very point where an advance is imperative, and where Mr. Meredith does stride on to a truly characteristic ending with a justification of his "Diana" and her flights. Any ending other than the union with Redworth is an impossibility, and it is worth a whole warehouse of "modern" novels, that closing picture of the two women hand in hand after such a reign of uncertainties. Die anyone else ever begin a novel in such a genuinely perverse mood? A sixteen-page dissertation in grotesque style on "diaries and diarists," with criticisms aside upon the art of the novelist ending with the sentence:—"Wherewith let us to our story, the froth being out of the bottle." Those who are not of the limited audience which Mr. Meredith asserts himself satisfied with will at once to the contents of the bottle and let the froth go. But it would be better for them if they handled the corkscrew and took their potation with the usual preliminaries. That the brew is of Meredith's finest there can be no doubt, and although for my own part there are at least two other books which I find swimming above "Diana of the Crossways" in my constructed firmament of his works, yet it has a peculiar lustre which makes the lack of magnitude almost imperceptible. I have a curious feeling that the characters in "Diana" are dissociated from any landscape, that they move without a background, as it were; but then they are strangely human; they walk the earth if ever characters did, and my feeling may be only a fancy after all. It is the power of delineating character not only in its external manifestations but in its secret recesses that makes Mr. Meredith supreme among English novelists. He knows his individuals through and through, and he makes them felt by the reader in a way that we can never hope to know our fellows in the flesh. This quality, in which he is supreme, makes his work peculiarly valuable, and we can forgive him seventy times seven the vagaries of his genius when he has enriched our knowledge and resources. I could not call Diana Warwick his finest woman, because I would have to forget Sandra Belloni, Cecilia Halkett and many another, not to think of Emma Dunstane. These two women revolve around one another and form the real centre of interest in the book. In no work of Meredith's is the interest so undivided, so constant in its attendance upon the central figure and her fate. But the minor characters are all as sharply drawn as ever—Sir Lukin, Arthur Rhodes, Mrs. Watkin, Mr. Sullivan Smith and the rest. Percy Dacier and Tom Redworth are conspicuous examples of Mr. Meredith's power over his own sex; but Diana fills the canvas. As he says of her himself:—"Not always the same; not impeccable; not an ignorant innocent nor a guileless; good under good leading; devoted to the death in a grave crisis; often wrestling with her terrestrial nature nobly; and a growing soul." The book abounds in those strokes of sheer insight which force the blood through the veins of these creatures of the imagination and make them palpitatingly alive. Let me quote one which flashes upon the characters of Diana and Redworth. It was the evening before their marriage, and Diana had discovered by her clearer vision the lofty manliness in Redworth, which, I may remark, the reader has all along been conscious of. Penitence and admiration sprang the impulse. It had to be this or a burst of weeping. She put a kiss upon his arm. She had omitted to think that she was dealing with a lover, a man of smothered fire, who would be electrically alive to the ast through a coat-sleeve. Redworth had his impulse. He kept it under; she felt the big breath he drew in. The impulse of each had wedded—in expression and repression—her sensibility told her of the stronger.

       When Keats said, "Beauty is truth; truth beauty; that is all ye know and all ye need to know," he might have added, if he had been writing prose, that goodness is another synonym for both truth and beauty. The love of beauty is the love of truth and goodness. By the love of beauty I do not mean the artistic instinct, of which it is only a branch. Art is not necessarily true or good. Perfectly genuine art may be neither beautiful nor true nor good. Art is a non-moral thing, and may be good or bad, according to the nature of him who uses it. The man of fine and noble instincts is all the finer and nobler for being an artist, but the man whose instincts are originally weak and base becomes all the weaker and baser in the atmosphere of art. It is not thus at all with the sense of beauty. This can only be of truth and goodness. Art may disturb, but beauty can only bring rest. Beauty expands the soul and raises it to quiet heights. Everything that is mean or cruel or impure shrinks from the sense of beauty as a disease shrinks from the mountain air. Beauty is the essence of harmony. The moment the soul is shaken by any unworthy passion, any distress or bitter remorse, the sense of beauty is undone. Only with those who live nobly can the spirit of beauty dwell secure. So absolutely true is it that "beauty is truth" that this is the perfect justification of many things in art that are condemned by the rigid realist. That art, which is the accurate transcription of nature, since it is true, is beautiful, but there is also the art of creation which is not contrary to nature, but parallel with it. The painter may paint us a flower different from any flower that exists upon earth, and yet he may paint it under so clear an impulse of creation that it may be actually as beautiful and true a thing, and as fully entitled to existence, as anything we have seen with our eyes. He has made no unreal thing. He has simply been active under the influence of the same eternal spirit that moulded and constructed the universe. A great poem may be built up of images utterly unreal, and yet its beauty and imaginative fitness may be so convincing that we feel that nature herself might have fashioned it in some such manner had she not followed another vein. The poem, therefore, is artistically true. The novelist may paint us a character such as we never actually met with, nor believe to be anywhere existent in life, and yet it may be so life-like, so in touch with the warm human impulses within us, that it becomes real to our imaginations, as genuine a human being as any whom we cannot hear or see in the flesh. Such a character, no matter what the extreme realists may say, is true. There is scientific truth, and the latter is of almost as much value in the economy of intellect as the former.

       I have just had the pleasure of perusing a copy of The Lake Magazine, the new Canadian periodical published in Toronto. If the name and personality of the editor has to do with the success of a magazine, then The Lake Magazine ought to be a success. Mr. Mowat, so well known as "Moses Oates," is the editor-in-chief, and his long and successful career as a journalist augurs well for the good quality of the magazine. The articles by Mr. Hopkins and others on Imperial Federation, Mr. Blake, and The Political Situation in the States, give the magazine some of the heavier qualities of a review, perhaps too much so for the success of a popular periodical. Mr. Haultain and Mr. Charlesworth have each something to say about literature and art, and both say it well. There are two good poems by Miss Pauline Johnson and Mr. Tassie. "My Friend Mark" is rather a good sketch, but on the whole the fiction, which should be the strength, is the weakest part of the number. Here lies the great obstacle which Mr. Mowat has to overcome to make his magazine a success. It is the old weakness pertaining to all our Canadian periodicals—the utter failure to produce interesting and original fiction. There are two mistakes made by Canadian editors in this respect—they either avoid the creative literature altogether, contenting themselves with essay and critique, with a weak or common-place bit of verse sandwiched in, or else they make the equally bad mistake of trying to ape the American standard in both fiction and verse. It is ridiculous for our magazines to try and equal or copy the outside magazines, and the effort is the great cause of failure. What we want is something that is purely Canadian, and to do this the Canadian editor wants to be a Canadian in his aims and ideals. He does not want to take the American or English standard or style of periodical, with its highly-trained and suppressed literature, and force hate work of our writers through such a literary sieve to do this as to produce a Canadian journal or periodical which is a puerile imitation of the foreign type. An instance of this weakness is the strange method all our periodicals have of advertising for short stories, and boiling the idea asked for down not only as to subject but even as to space and style. The result is that the work is truck work done for the money. Our editors ought to remember that if they want to find any work produced by Canadian genius they ought to try and procure work that has already been written as a work of love, and that in the budding stage of a country's literature the best writers are not liable to curtail their work. Then, again, the best work is not that of history and adventure; what we need is more of the really imaginative, of a virile nature, in our fiction. Some of the best work we will produce just now in the near future will be considered too unfinished for the Eastern American market; but even Hamlin Garland is conquering the east by his vigorous imagination and human realism. Our editors will do well to study this matter, for it applies to our verse as well as to our prose. Meanwhile, we wish The Lake Magazine many years of at least paying continuance and an ever-growing constituency.