FFifty years ago, biography was not very interested in people like Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith. Her life was considered “minor”, although, of course, it did not feel that way to her. Born in 1821 to the poet Thomas Love Peacock, as a young girl, she rocked in the shallows of second-generation romantic culture. His father had a lock of Shelley’s hair and the family lived in North Wales which was rugged enough to pass for “sublime”. His mother, a local Welsh girl, went crazy and joined that distinguished club of literary wives who were confined to a madhouse. Mary would grow up to marry novelist George Meredith, whose great masterpieces Modern love (1862) and Richard Feverel’s test (1859) is generally accepted to be a forensic account of their mutual misery.
Everything was in place, then, for Mary to become a perfectly useful footnote in other people’s stories. But in 1972, an American writer named Diane Johnson decided that this really wouldn’t work. Second wave feminism was beginning to focus attention on all those ignored women who had been “hidden from history,” especially from literary history. Perhaps they had been omitted because someone had decided, without any particular authority, that their poems or novels were not very good; perhaps they had been overshadowed by the men in her life who spoke or wrote with a louder voice. Lastly, there was that select subgroup that had been removed from the record simply because they were “bad” women of whom the less said the better. Mary fell on the last exciting field.
In this short and lively book, Johnson sets out to rescue Mary from the lip amnesia of the story of history. It tells the moving story of a headstrong girl, raised under the old license of the 18th century but forced to submit to the harsh realities of the new Victorian era. Except Mary never did. After all, a woman who notes in her book Commonplace that “the wicked are sincere and the good are lukewarm” has what we might call an interesting point of view. After recklessly marrying a handsome young naval officer who died saving someone else’s life, Mary Peacock found herself on the receiving end of a teenage crush on younger novelist George Meredith. She married him by mistake and then left him for the artist Henry Wallis, the painter of Chatterton’s death (1856), that impressive oil painting that has been read as a praise of the enlarged Romantic era. To make things weirder, the model of the suicidal poet Chatterton was none other than George Meredith.
Everything caused a hoo-hah at that moment. But Johnson’s ambition goes beyond reheating stale gossip under the cover of feminist scholarship. Your mission here is to make a generous gesture towards all the lower lives that rub shoulders with the prominent players in history. For example, when writing about Meredith’s hated father, she tells us that he ran off with a maid named Matilda Bucket. “How one yearns to know more about Matilda Bucket,” he writes and, just at that moment, so do we. There is also a virtuous sequence in which Johnson pored over letters from prospective London landladies they have written in response to a newspaper ad from Henry and Mary Ellen looking for lodging. What about Mrs. Holloway, who promises that her Kensington property is “elegantly furnished”? Or Ms. Newbold, who explains that she is looking for “respectable people as permanent recluses” but can probably overlook the fact that Henry and Mary are nothing of the sort? Lastly, there is the lady from Bloomsbury who is particularly proud of the fact that the toilet is on the same floor as the bedrooms. Each of these little streams opens a window into an entirely new life that Johnson suggests is worthy of our full consideration.
Like the feminist literary scholarship of the 1970s, The true story of the first Mrs. Meredith owes an obvious debt to the critical work of Virginia Woolf, who, 50 years earlier, had asked precise questions about what was called a “great” life and therefore what could be written, and what as a life ” dark “and therefore unreadable. Yet in its lighthearted generalizations about the 19th century, Johnson’s book claims the origin to be the clearest of Lytton Strachey’s satire. Eminent Victorians (1918). In a surprising passage, Johnson wonders aloud if Mary could really bother committing adultery with Henry as it involved removing so many layers of camisole, camisole, corset, petticoat, stockings, and garters. But then in one of his self-canceling subversive footnotes, he informs us that all this biographical speculation about mid-Victorian women stripping for sex is probably beside the point when you remember that, at this point in the story, nice women didn’t. use drawers.
• NYRB publishes the true story of the first Mrs. Meredith and other lesser lives (RRP £ 14). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
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