“Diana of the Crossways”: Not “The End of the Novel of Love,” but “The Beginning of the Novel of the Theory of Love”

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.

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8 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

8 responses to ““Diana of the Crossways”: Not “The End of the Novel of Love,” but “The Beginning of the Novel of the Theory of Love”

  1. Love is that most eclectic of things. Everyone wants it, but is wary of the changes it will likely bring when merging one’s ongoing life with another. The traditional notion of looking after home and kids is not as glamorous, yet the ‘head over heels’ by a well-to-do hopefully significant other still pervades. The sense of retaining a degree of freedom is much stronger these days in both genders, which seems to be both parties wanting what males had in previous generations.

    If a relationship based on mutual respect, where each party empowers the other, and can effectively compromise, that’s about as awesome as it gets. Easy to say, yet incredibly hard to do.

  2. Yes, and I believe Vivian Gornick’s book was written from a feminist point of view, which adds another whole dimension to the question. George Meredith was just a fine early feminist of a male writer, though I believe I read in a bio that he had a lot of trouble in his personal life. I don’t know if this would make it a case of “Do as I say and not as I do” or not, but his long poem sequence “Modern Love” is supposed to be somewhat autobiographical.

  3. I see you’re still inspired by Gornick. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words and the link. This was one of the novels that I was tempted to read. I thought it was peculiar that she found that his portrait was one of the most feminist – or rather not that she found that but that this was her finding, if you know what I mean. One would have hoped that a woman had written such a book.
    I’m still going to read the Grace Paley novella that she did really not like.
    I was not really happy about all the things she wrote but it’s a thought-provoking book that inspires all sorts of interesting explorations.

    • Yes, I have to thank you copiously for introducing me to V. Gornick–even when one disagrees with her, it’s a productive argument, and she has thought these things through thoroughly. What I find so curious about many a feminist novel written by women writers is that they have their characters commit suicide at the end, like Kate Chopin in “The Awakening,” or passive suicide, like the main character in “The Unlit Lamp,” who dooms herself to a dull and stultifying life; whereas when Meredith writes, he provides a happy ending, at least in the two novels I’ve read. One hopes it’s not just his way of saying “There, there, now, little woman, it surely can’t be that bad.”

  4. I always enjoyed Márquez’s take on relationships in Love in the Time, having Fermina choose to dump Florentino callously was a nice touch, although were I in that situation she would get no applause and I wouldn’t be so free with my favours to those 500 women either!

    It almost seems to me that until a few years ago it was still considered almost subversive to write from a feminists point of view…although not as widely read as your good self, I could be way off the mark with that.

  5. Actually, there were at least women writing from a feminist point of view even before Mary Shelley, they were just precursors, and so didn’t write in exactly the same way a contemporary feminist would. You mention “Love in the Time of Cholera”–I’m sorry to be unable to comment on that, I did see the movie, but didn’t read the book, and even the movie was some time ago. But if you read George Meredith’s “The Egoist,” you’ll perhaps notice that the faults he labels as “egoism” in the male character are typical male chauvinist characteristics (“egotism” being thinking you’re great, whereas “egoism” is thinking the whole world revolves around you). By and large, I think he is a very good feminist, especially considering his sex and his time.

  6. Richard Gilbert

    I find it fascinating that Gornick wrote this book! She is THE great early/recent theorist of memoir, and her book about her relationship with her mother, Fierce Attachments, is a masterpiece.

    • Wow, I didn’t know that, but that makes a lot of sense in terms of the way she put her criitical hat on in this book. She treated Clover Adams’s life history as if it were a book, really, and seemed to be very inclined to include life history elements as parts of written work, which makes more sense if she herself is interested in the processes of some type of non-fiction like memoir. I’ve written about her a time or two before, because she was originally featured on Caroline’s site http://beautyisasleepingcat.wordpress.com/ and Caroline and I have exchanged many comments about her.

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