Once again, as I look back in memory over the course of not-too-distant posts, I see that I have been inspired to write something by way of tribute to the erudite and talented blogger Caroline, who first supplied me with the information about a very interesting book which has provoked a lot of my recent thought. That book is called The End of the Novel of Love, and in typical fashion I feel a need to discuss something from that book. I can always discuss things with Caroline on her site, and she welcomes many and diverse points of view and responds with great verve and élan to them. But I have chosen to recategorize one of the novels chosen by Vivian Gornick as her subject matter in The End of the Novel of Love, and therefore it is perhaps more proper to post on my own site than to monopolize Caroline’s site in a quibble about terminology with an author she chose who is a quite talented writer as well. But let’s begin at the beginning.
This is Vivian Gornick’s thesis statement in the first pages of her book: “In a thousand novels of love-in-the-Western-world the progress of feeling between a woman of intelligence and a man of will is charted through a struggle that concludes itself when the woman…melts into romantic longing and the deeper need for union. There are, however, a handful of remarkable novels written late in the last century and early in this one [Gornick’s book was published in 1997] where, at the exact moment the woman should melt, her heart unexpectedly hardens. Just at this place where give is required, some flat cold inner remove seems to overtake the female protagonist….The woman has taken a long look down the road of her future. What she sees repels. She cannot ‘imagine’ herself in what lies ahead. Unable to imagine herself, she now thinks she cannot act the part….[I]n these novels this is the point at which the story begins.”
Now, the first book discussed by Gornick is a bit anomalous in one respect already, because whereas several of the earliest novels discussed are by women, just as early in time is this first book by a man, George Meredith. It is his book Diana of the Crossways. And because it is by George Meredith, it shares certain similarities with his other more well-known book The Egoist, in that it uses up an inordinate amount of time developing the theory of something: in the case of The Egoist just what egoism really is along with a case history, in Diana of the Crossways the theory of just what true and genuine and unselfish love of a woman by a man is. In the book describing Diana Warwick, née Merion, there are several case histories of the way men love women, but only one of them is worthy of Meredith’s golden scepter, so to speak. And Meredith is quite straightforward even as to the way he structures his novel as to which of the forms of love is to be accounted the correct one.
For one thing, his entire lengthy first chapter is theory, all theory, a recounting not of characters and places and events, but of ideas relating to his overall topic. When he finally positions Diana at the Irish ball for Lord Larrian in Dublin, where Diana shines as a belle and is made much of as a pronounced wit, her willing foil is her friend Lady Emma Dunstane, who praises her to others and is willing all through the book to come to her aid as much as her own ill health allows. There are several main suitors in this initial setting, of whom one is the overly gallant Irishman Sullivan Smith, and another the steadier and more sedate Englishman Tom Redworth. Two other male figures court Diana, the never-appearing but always in the background bad husband who makes her Diana Warwick, and the slightly younger politician Percy Dacier who almost persuades her away from her husband when they are having “irreconcilable differences.”
Of course, in the England of the time, a no-fault divorce was not even dreamed of, and Diana is in danger for quite some time of suffering lengthy legal proceedings set up by her jealous (without cause) husband. It is in fact Diana’s wit, charm, intelligence, and dash which have caused her husband to be jealous of her, and which also cause a certain proportion of her society in the form of malicious gossips to bring much suffering and grief down upon her. She attempts to make a living with her pen, which works at first because of her notoriety, but then tapers off. The rest of the novel, I leave to other readers to pursue for themselves. Suffice it to say, that this novel is not so much about the end of a loving career for a woman as it puts an emphasis on Gornick’s second point, that the woman is resistant to her potential future because she wants her freedom. It is only when Diana sees a way clear to her freedom that she chooses happily for herself, and still emerges with a mated life.
My point, then, is not so much to contest Gornick’s overall theory as to point out that in the case of George Meredith, whose novels are heavy (some would say top-heavy) with theories and explanations and lengthy philosophizing about relationships, the novel of love is not so much ended as it “suffers a sea change” into the beginnings of the novel of the theory of genuine love. And as in The Egoist, the female figure is the main protagonist, only in this case, there is more than one Sir Willoughby Patterne to be dealt with. Thus, if you would see a positive “pattern” eventually work his way to the forefront of the fiction, this is the book for you to read, though you must wait for quite some time for him to work his way to the forefront of Diana’s imagination and to win her away from her reluctance. Still, even George Meredith for all his serious thoughts on the issue provides the reader with a happy ending, and that is something that not all the authors whom Gornick writes about feel able to do. It is a much-fraught issue, and one which will continue to bear serious thought for those who read Gornick’s provocative book.