This is, among other things, a novel about a novelist; since the author’s own methods of composition were similar to those he ascribes to his subject, the topic prompts the narrator’s self-scrutiny, self-criticism and apologia. Meredith’s novels repeatly show intelligent people whose articulateness is not self-knowledge.
At the same time, of course, Diana of the Crossways is a novel about a highly independent woman written by an author with strong ambivalence toward notions of a “new woman” and gender equality, so that at times the author seems to turn upon his subject, protected by the mask of apparent narrative objectivity.
Gillian Beer has written of the novel’s central subject: "The theme of the novel is the disparity between the awakened intellect and the slumbering sexual nature of his Diana-heroine; the movement of the work is seismographic, tracking deep emotional stirrings and irruptions which on the surface may seem disconnected. Diana’s attempt to reconcile her individual identity with her inescapable instinctive being is the central concern of the book.”
On egotism: “Meredith was sufficiently a Victorian to be troubled by the omnipresence of self but he was also fascinated by its disguises and its manifold expressions in action. . . . it is not simply egoism which causes mischief but the refusal to accept one’s own egoism. . . .”
Yet inceasingly the novel emphasizes the extent to which actions are determined by society rather than individual choice.
In cases where Meredith presents autobiographical elements, these are often shown with harsh self-distancing, as among other examples, in his sarcastic portrayal of the young poet Arthur Rhodes, or Sir Lukin’s remorse when his wife was dying of cancer, written while Merdith’s own wife was dying of cancer. By contrast Diana is shown as unaware of her own motives: she uses Percy Dacier as the hero of her book, The Young Minister of State, without recognizing that the portrait expresses her hidden love for him. And she places Redworth in her novel as a man who worships an opera singer, failing to recognize his feeling for her.
Critics of the period distinguished between the realistic novel and the romance; one can see this novel, with its mythical and poetic portrayals of its subject blended with its ultimately unillusioned views of life’s possibilities, as an attempt to reconcile these two modes of presentation.
- How would you describe this novel’s style? In what ways may it have been unusual among the novels of the time?
- How would you describe the narrator’s stance toward his creations, and how important is the presence of this narrative voice to the novel? (ambivalent, oblique, perhaps contradictory)
- From what point of view is Diana generally regarded? (from without)
- What is the significance of Diana’s name? (Diana/Crossways) Of her use of alternate names? (e. g. Diana Marion, Antonia, Tony)
- What may have been some uses of the book’s mythological allusions?
- the use of myth enables the narrator to allude to topics, such as sexuality, which might have been more difficult to portray more directly.
- mythology becomes a means of endorsing the “stature” of his heroine while questioning her aspirations.
- What are some ways the novel treats issues of perception and misperception?
- Diana believes in her own lack of passion, 180
- is overly proud of her disinterestedness, 205; suffers from tragic flaw of hubris
- There is a contrast between Diana’s novels and her life. Objectively she understands human behavior, but in her own conduct she is blind.
- What are the heroine’s contrasting responses to Dacier and Redworth?
- idealizes Dacier in her second novel
- presents Redworth realistically, 227-228
- experiences difficulty in arriving at an independent perception, 211
- Can you see resemblances in theme between this novel and Jane Austen’s Emma? Eliot’s Daniel Deronda? Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady?
- What are some features of the heroine’s speech? (abrupt, effusive)
- Is Dacier an adequate object for Diana’s extended love interest? (little basis for relationship; he is biased against Irish, 204) Redworth?
- What changes seem to occur in Diana after the end of her affair with Dacier? Does the narrative present her regression?
- Do you find her decision to marry Redworth convincing? (she is frequently described by others as cold; contrast Redworth) In what way is he contrasted with her other suitors? (only man who refuses to pursue her--and he is successful)
- Is Diana’s character presented as consistent throughout? For example, is the episode in which she sells information ever quite explained satisfactorily? What effect does this lapse have upon the novel’s tone and general message?
- How does knowledge that the novel is loosely based on the life of Caroline Norton affect one’s reading of the novel?
- From what you know of Norton’s life, how has Meredith altered the original in order to create his heroine? What may have been his motives, dramatic or personal, for so doing?
- Are there parallels between Diana-as-novelist and Merdith the novelist? (206)
- In what ways does the novel deal with or fail to deal with issues of feminism?
- marriage law, her political concerns
- independence, 194, 213, 211, 185, 187; contrast Redworth
- To what extent are Diana’s flaws presented as essentially sex-linked?
- What are some images associated with Diana? Are these gendered, and what are their implications? (constant moon imagery, 185, 187)
- What effect is created by the narrative stance and tone of the novel? What effect does this have on the reader’s sympathies?
- What function is served by the character of Emma? (virtually an admiring chorus) What are qualities of their friendship? What is the narrator’s response to their relationship?
- Do you feel the novel treats a full range of characters adequately? (e. g., Mr. Warwick)
- Does the novel’s conclusion satisfactorily resolve the issues raised in the narrative?
- What forms of criticism are especially useful for unlocking the complexities of this work? (biographical? psychological? narratological? reader-response? reception theory?)
- Can you compare the presentation and plot outcome of this novel with that of other “new women” novels of the period, such as Oliver Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, George Gissing’s The Odd Women, or Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto?