17 February 2010 by Published in: Features Tags:, No comments yet

Amanda Hodges chronicles his 4 decades at Box Hill.

‘I work and sleep up in my cottage at present and anything grander than the days and nights at my porch you will not find away from the Alps; for the dark line of my hill runs up to the stars, the valley below is a soundless gulf. There I pace like a shipman before turning in. And in the day I have a brilliant universe rolling up to me.’

“There I pace like a shipman before turning in. And in the day I have a brilliant universe rolling up to me.”
George Meredith

In such fulsome fashion did Victorian writer George Meredith- now languishing largely in obscurity- extol the Box Hill home where he was to be based for the last forty years of his life.

Born near Portsmouth in 1828 and of humble origins which he took pains to conceal, Flint Cottage was where he and second wife Marie moved shortly after their marriage. Prior to this they’d briefly been living in Micklesham which Meredith loved and then at Kingston Lodge which he viewed with far more ambivalence, here deprived of the open countryside which he found so stimulating.

His spirits were restored once they discovered the brick and flint house with gorgeous views towards Box Hill that lay just a short distance from Marie’s father at Mickleham, arriving here in late 1867. Meredith called it ‘a small cottage in very beautiful country,’ although the house on the lower slopes of Box Hill was really far bigger than any traditional cottage with eight fair-sized rooms and large windows stretching almost from floor to ceiling allowing sunlight to flood through.

Spacious as it was, with a wife and two small children Meredith swiftly found that he needed more room for his creative endeavours and he built a two room Swiss-style chalet above the large garden where he’d both write and sleep during periods of intensive composition. For a busy man of indefatigable energy who liked nothing better than long tramps around the countryside he’d found the ideal place, with meandering walks through rural Box Hill and Ranmore Common and close proximity to London from neighbouring West Humble station.

In the poem ‘Nature and Life’ Meredith summed up the appeal that the Surrey countryside held for him, a place where one could find solace and…

‘Leave the uproar at a leap
Thou shalt strike a woodland path
Enter silence, not of sleep..’

A walk from Esher (where he’d once briefly lived) to Micklesham he described as ‘one of the most perfect bits of rustic scenery in this country,’ and J B Priestley once commented that he ‘was never happy unless talking about Nature.’

Meredith had begun his literary career as a poet and the sonnet sequence Modern Love published in 1862 may be one of the works more familiar to a contemporary audience. Courageously autobiographical as well as intensely imaginative, it reflected his combustible relationship with first wife Mary, who was as fiery and talented as he. They had lived in both Weybridge and Shepperton before the marriage broke down irretrievably when Mary ran off with an artist. In an age of great sentiment and euphemism Meredith was unusual in laying bare the ambivalence of their relationship, depicting a couple trying to make their marriage work against the most adverse circumstances. ‘Ah what dusty answer gets the soul.

When hot for certainties in this our life’, lines directly inspiring Rosamond Lehmann’s famous debut novel Dusty Answer.

Meredith always worked against the grain and although he achieved much renown in his lifetime he never gained what could be classified as a large popular readership, for his novels were not straightforward tales but journeys of philosophical enquiry with authorial digression and convoluted narrative. His humanistic spirit and appreciation of life’s complexity reached a discerning audience though as the likes of George Eliot, J.M.Barrie and others appreciated his work. Oscar Wilde indeed commented ‘there is no-one whose view of life is so large, so varied, so imaginatively true..To him belongs philosophy in fiction. His people.. are interpretative and symbolic.’

After the success of novels The Egoist (again, unconventionally critical of the masculine assumption of superiority) and Diana of the Crossways, both of which featured the strong heroines for which he became renowned, his reputation rose and with maturity came a new role as literary mentor for several aspiring writers. His work as a publisher’s reader for Chapman and Hall brought him Thomas Hardy’s early fiction and another who came into his orbit was the as yet unknown Robert Louis Stevenson who declared ‘ I think George Meredith out and away the greatest force in English letters.’

Stevenson was thought a beneficial influence. ‘He had the art of drawing out the best of Mr Meredith’s brilliant powers of conversation,’ thought Meredith’s neighbour Alice Gordon, Stevenson one of the many like Arthur Conan Doyle who visited the author at his Box Hill home. Before being properly introduced young J.M.Barrie was so overcome with nerves that he once waited outside Flint Cottage hoping for a glimpse of the great man only to take flight at his actual appearance. Meredith subsequently became President of the Society of Authors and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1905, the first literary figure to receive this honour.

‘Once I was part of the music I heard
On the boughs or sweet between earth and sky
For joy in the beating of wings on high..
I hear it now and I see it fly
And a life in wrinkles again is stirred
As it will for sheer love till the long last sigh.’
(Youth and Age)

Written in his last years such a poem displays his abiding delight in the pleasures of the Surrey countryside which had long nurtured his spirits. ‘Frosty blue eyes glowing with a watchful flame’ was how he was described in his maturity. It was only the infirmity of old age that eventually slowed down the ‘lithe, active’ and distinguished Meredith, yet in his last years despite increasing deafness and lifelong dyspepsia he would say ‘I still look on life with a young man’s eye. I have always hoped I should not grow old as some do- with a palsied intellect, living backwards.’ His wishes were fulfilled for although physical disability prevailed in his final years he retained his sharp intellect. Unable to walk far and eventually finding even his writing chalet quite a climb he would smoke in his house creating ‘a tobacco box’ as he called it. For walks he would climb into a bath chair pulled along by a donkey named Picnic, often with a dog in tow.

In May 1909 after catching a chill after driving out in the donkey-cart Meredith’s heart weakened and he died suddenly the following day, his ashes subsequently reunited with wife Marie’s in Dorking cemetery after Westminster Abbey, mindful of his unorthodox beliefs, refused him entry. Such narrow-mindedness was not shared by those who admired his pioneering spirit. One such, J.M.Barrie, subsequently wrote a poignant yet uplifting pamphlet praising Meredith, imagining him reunited with his beloved home, eminent literary colleagues who’d predeceased Meredith eagerly anticipating the author’s arrival at his beloved Flint Cottage. ‘Box Hill is no longer deserted. When a great man dies – and this was one of the greatest since Shakespeare- the immortals await him at the top of the nearest hill.’ It’s an appealing image and one that Meredith, so closely associated with Box Hill, would doubtless have welcomed.

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