The True History of the First Mrs Meredith review – no longer hidden

A welcome reissue of Diane Johnson’s spirited book, which centres on a woman who was more than the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock and the wife of a famous novelist

Fifty years ago biography wasn’t much interested in people like Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith. Her life was deemed “lesser”, although of course it didn’t feel like that to her. Born in 1821 to the poet Thomas Love Peacock, as a little girl she had bobbed in the shallows of second generation Romantic culture. Her dad had a lock of Shelley’s hair, and the family lived in North Wales, which was craggy enough to pass as “sublime”. Her mother, a local Welsh girl, went mad and joined that distinguished club of literary wives who were confined to an asylum. Mary would grow up to marry the novelist George Meredith, whose great masterworks Modern Love (1862) and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) are generally agreed to be a forensic account of their mutual misery.

Everything was in place, then, for Mary to become a perfectly serviceable footnote in other peoples’ stories. But in 1972 an American writer called Diane Johnson decided that this really wouldn’t do. Second wave feminism was beginning to throw the spotlight on all those over-looked women who had been “hidden from history”, especially literary history. Perhaps they’d been omitted because someone had decided, on no particular authority, that their poems or novels weren’t very good; maybe they’d been overshadowed by the men in their life who spoke or wrote with a louder voice. Finally, there was that select sub-group who had been redacted from the record simply because they were “bad” women about whom the less said the better. Mary fell into the latter thrilling camp.

In this short, spirited book Johnson sets about to rescue Mary from history’s purse-lipped amnesia. She gives us a stirring tale of a headstrong girl, brought up under the old licence of the 18th century but obliged to knuckle down to the stern realities of the new Victorian age. Except Mary never did. After all, a woman who jots down in her Commonplace book that “the wicked are in earnest and the good are lukewarm”, has what you might call an interesting point of view. Having recklessly married a dashing young naval officer who died saving someone else’s life, Mary Peacock found herself on the receiving end of an adolescent crush by the younger novelist George Meredith. She married him by mistake and then left him for the artist Henry Wallis, the painter of The Death of Chatterton (1856), that stunning oil painting which has been read as a eulogy for the extended Romantic age. Just to make it all weirder, the model for the sprawled-out poet-suicide Chatterton was none other than George Meredith.

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