A Biography of a Little-Known Victorian: “The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives” by Diane Johnson

In the twentieth century, many of us grew up reading  Diane Johnson, a novelist, a contributor to The New York Review of Books, and the author of the screenplay of The Shining. Nowadays her novel Le Divorce is a frequent portal, because it was adapted as a Merchant-Ivory film, starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. But in 2003, when the film was released, I had already devoured most of Johnson’s superb novels (my favorite is Persian Nights), and a few years ago discovered her memoir, Flyover Lives, about growing up in Moline, Illinois.

But I did not come across Johnson’s biography, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, first published in 1972, until it was reissued this summer. Being a fan of the 19th-century writer George Meredith, best known for his comic novel The Egoist (the only one of his novels in print), I was curious about his wife.

Drawing of Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith, by Henry Wallis

And Johnson’s book is worth reading.  Who was this first wife, you may ask? Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls Meredith, a strong-minded, self-educated woman, was the daughter of the novelist Thomas Peacock. An avid reader of French and English novels, a gourmet cook (but George Meredith was dyspeptic), a writer of essays and poems, and, briefly, the editor of a magazine, she was seven years older than George, and she eclipsed him socially, though not, of course, in writing.  At the age of  20, he fell in love with attractive Mary Ellen at first sight. And their marriage  was happy for a time. But she became restless in her mid-thirties and left him for the artist Henry Wallis. Biographers seemingly blackballed her with scant mentions.

It was the absence of Mary Ellen that first intrigued Johnson. Who was this forgotten first wife? There was so little about her.

Johnson wrote in the preface,

Since 1968, on brief visits to England, I had been looking for traces of Mary Ellen Peacock Nichols Meredith, resenting on her behalf the way she was always dismissed in biographies of George Meredith: the unhappy wife who left him and, of course, died, as if death were the deserved fate for Victorian wives who broke the rules.

Finally, Johnson was alerted to the discovery of a box of Mary Ellen’s letters, found under the bed in an old house in Surrey in 1970. The letters were written to Mary Ellen’s lover, the artist Henry Wallis, for whom she left George Meredith.

Most of Mary Ellen’s short life was lived without George Meredith. As the daughter of a novelist, she grew up among writers and artists. Mary Shelley was a family friend. Mary Ellen educated herself at home, was let loose in the library, and never asked to conform to the limits of femininity. Her mother, alas, was mad and depressed, and lived apart from the family. But at least on the surface that did not affect Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen fell desperately in love at age 23  with “Darling Eddy,”Captain Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines. Their happy marriage in January 1844 lasted only a few months: Eddy died while trying to save a drowning man. The writer Mary Shelley worried about the devastating effect on Mary Ellen, who was pregnant. Shortly thereafter, Mary Ellen gave birth to a daughter Edith. And she did not seek a second husband. One gathers she liked, but was not in love with, George Meredith.

Johnson’s stunning writing makes this book a gem. At times she seems to imitate George Meredith’s witty style, partly as a homage, partly as gentle mockery. She writes impressionistic, novelistically-vivid scenes of literary friendships and squabbles, the Meredith family’s life in poor lodgings, and the popularity of cookbooks written by Mary Ellen’s first daughter, Edith.

A fascinating biography!  First wives are too often neglected.

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