The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and Other Lesser Lives 
by Diane Johnson.
NYRB, 242 pp., £14.99, July 2020, 978 1 68137 445 1
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Another​ report from the front line of the sex war. New York Review Books has reprinted a clever little book, published in 1972, about the first Mrs George Meredith, which is nothing so crude as a blow struck in battle: it’s a poignant needling, deflating the male creative genius – not ungenerously – and providing yet another plausible case of a wife abused by posterity. When Diane Johnson was writing about Mary Ellen Meredith, who died aged forty in 1861, that history was still close enough for her to touch the tail of its reality. The Preface to the reprint begins:

I found Mary Ellen Meredith’s letters to her lover Henry Wallis hidden in a paint box under a bed at Vera and Cliff Whiting’s house in Purley, Surrey, in 1970 or so. The Whitings had only recently moved in; they had inherited the house intact with all its jumble in the box room. ‘Go ahead and look in there,’ Vera said … In the box room were cartons and papers and rolls of things she’d inherited from an aunt who had worked for Mary Ellen and Henry’s son, Harold (who was called Felix). Vera had seen Felix in his old age … [she] was a beautiful woman in her seventies when I met her. In her youth she had sat for Augustus John.

Johnson, born in 1934, is a Europhile American writer. She has divided her adult life between California and Paris, writing barbed gothicky comedies, or light novels sending up Europhile Americans, and sending up the French too; incidentally, and perhaps unexpectedly, she also wrote the screenplay for The Shining. She was well suited to weighing up the Merediths’ marriage. A brisk mid-20th-century irony, with a nose for the pastness and otherness of the past, equal parts sour wit and quick sympathy, is just the right match for what’s odd and sad in her Victorian story. She tells it succinctly, sticking to the (rather sparse) evidence and not pretending to know the entirety but making some inspired guesses:

Many people have described the Famous Writer presiding at his dinner table, in a clean neckcloth. He is famous; everybody remembers his remarks. He remembers his own remarks, being a writer, and notes them in his diary. We forget that there were other people at the table – a quiet person, now muffled by time, shadowy, whose heart pounded with love, perhaps, or rage, or fear when our writer shuffled in from his study.

There is a freshness to her language that comes from a time when taking the quiet person’s perspective was still controversial; taking the wife’s point of view – or the sister’s, or the mistress’s – is almost conventional now, and some of these wives and sisters have become famous in their own right for being wronged.

Mary Ellen was a novelist’s daughter as well as a novelist’s wife; her father was Thomas Love Peacock. As a youthful walker and talker and poet and witty novelist, Peacock seemed unlikely to find gainful employment (Shelley helped him out when he was imprisoned for debt). He liked women and lived with his clever mother; he fell in love, was turned down, then tried and failed to marry an heiress. In 1819, aged 33, he surprised everyone by getting a job with the East India Company. Leigh Hunt wrote to Mary Shelley: ‘You have heard, of course, of Peacock’s appointment in the India House; we joke him upon his new Oriental grandeur, his Brahminical learning, and his inevitable tendencies to be one of the corrupt; upon which he seems to apprehend Shelleian objurgation.’ As it turned out, Peacock had been harbouring a backstop plan for married respectability. Perhaps it was better not to go for clever women after all. He wrote to a girl he’d met on one of his walking tours, in a remote idyllic valley in north Wales – a parson’s daughter, Jane Gryffydh, ‘the most innocent, the most amiable, the most beautiful girl in existence’. He hadn’t seen or contacted her for eight years, but now he proposed that she become his wife, although by this time Jane was thirty, hardly a girl.

Peacock and Jane were married four months later and at first all seemed well. Shelley wrote to Peacock that he was ‘very much amused by your laconic account of the affair. It is altogether extremely like the denouement of one of your own novels.’ But in fact the story wasn’t much like one of Peacock’s novels, or George Meredith’s – it’s too full of oddity, of improbable twists and turns. Mary Ellen was the oldest child of the brief happiness of the marriage; another girl, Margaret, was born next, and after that a boy, and the family moved to live in a house beside the Thames in Surrey. Then Margaret died aged two. Peacock wrote an epitaph for her which begins, ‘Long night succeeds thy little day;/O blighted blossom! can it be/That this gray stone and grassy clay/Have closed our anxious care of thee?’ The vicar of Shepperton church, where she was buried, objected to the first line because it made no provision for immortal life; he and Peacock quarrelled bitterly over it. Jane went mad with grief, tried to kidnap a village child and dress her in Margaret’s clothes, and had to be confined to their house in town for the remaining 26 years of her life. ‘As to the origin or nature of Jane’s illness – we can only guess,’ Johnson writes:

Perhaps she raved, like Mrs Rochester, and blamed Peacock for her agonies of spirit. More likely she suffered from one of those long, household forms of madness, or severe neurosis, to which ladies in those days seemed especially prone: they languished with enormous patience, dreadfully hysterical and morbid, unfit for any real task, and were borne by their families with a certain rather creditable fortitude whereas nowadays they would be packed off to an institution.

Which novelist would have thought to add in the extraordinary detail that, after the grieving mother’s kidnapping, the Peacocks adopted the abducted little girl, who was renamed May and absorbed into the Peacock family, half sister, half servant? Johnson keeps a careful eye on May in the background of Mary Ellen’s more thrilling story. Spoiled, pretty, intelligent Mary Ellen complains about her adopted sister in her letters: she’s ‘the evil genius of my existence’, she writes as a teenager. May ended up inheriting Peacock’s estate in 1866, having looked after him to the end. When she died, aged sixty and unmarried, she left it all to members of her original family, including an innkeeper and a fisherman.

As a child Mary Ellen had the rackety, pleasurable sort of education you might expect for the daughter of someone who had been friends with Shelley. She went to operas and museums and plays with her fond papa – unlike poor little George Meredith, seven years younger, whose widowed father, a tailor, went bankrupt and took up with a servant girl called Matilda Bucket (‘How one longs to know more about Matilda Bucket,’ Johnson writes). George was made a ward in Chancery, and sent off to boarding schools in England and Germany, where he learned to take himself seriously and got hold of the idea that the best way to shake off his beginnings was to elevate himself through his own cleverness and become a man of letters.

Mary Ellen’s first marriage, in January 1844, was to Eddy Nicolls, a gallant young naval officer. They moved to Ireland, where Nicolls was in command of HMS Dwarf, the first screw-propelled vessel in the Navy; the couple seem to have become acquainted through Peacock’s interest in steam navigation. Mary Ellen was soon pregnant, but in March, when Nicolls went to the rescue of a yachtsman in difficulties, his ‘little boat was swept over in the gale and something hit Eddy on the head and that was the end of him’. ‘I do hope that EN’s death will not be sentimentalised,’ one of his relatives wrote, ‘since he died in pursuit of his duties, & it would be so unlike any of the Nicolls family to treat it as high tragedy.’

The bereaved young wife showed some of her force of character: ‘She begged her father not to go over to her – but to leave her to manage everything herself.’ In the autumn, having given birth to a daughter, Edith, she returned to her family. She lived five years as a widow, but not resigned (Johnson is guessing now, and borrowing from those novels of Meredith’s that seem to describe how Mary Ellen first appeared to him when he fell in love). ‘At times great bitterness, great melancholy, would overwhelm her,’ yet she was flinging herself into things, looking after her child, writing and visiting and gossiping, experimenting with cookery.*

In 1848, Mary Ellen met George Meredith, which is the only reason anyone’s heard of her. Meredith was promising and brilliant and very young – just twenty. Judging from later photographs and portraits, he was handsome too, although perhaps there’s something querulous and wounded in his features; it’s not a surprise to learn that even at such a young age he suffered from chronic dyspepsia, and once they were married Mary Ellen had to be careful what she cooked for him. He was part of a set who were launching a literary magazine; she showed him a poem about a blackbird that he thought was wonderful. They married in 1849 and settled down to be happy and literary together in a cottage. There were several pregnancies and one son, Arthur, born in 1853, who lived. It seems likely that Mary Ellen grew bored first. She copied things from her reading into her commonplace book: ‘Terrible moment when we first dare to view with feelings of repugnance the being that our soul has long idolised’ (Charlotte Yonge); ‘I have done everything possible in order to rekindle some human feeling within myself, but I find nothing’ (Dumas).

They were perpetually short of money. George published only two poems in 1853, but refused to try for more gainful employment – at East India House, say – although it was discussed. ‘They had too many debts and miscarriages; their rooms were too dreary and narrow to remain cheerful in,’ Johnson writes. ‘George, desperate for literary recognition, grew more difficult. Mary Ellen … fell back into the independent ways of her widowhood.’ They spent more time apart. Meredith hinted plaintively in later years that Mary Ellen didn’t encourage him in his work: ‘I had thoughts, ideas, ravishment; but all fell on a frosty soil, and a little sunshine would have been so helpful to me.’ Johnson wonders whether she wasn’t just ‘busy with the baby’. ‘They sharpened their wits on each other,’ Edith wrote in a biographical note for Peacock’s Collected Works.

Among their arty and aspiring friends was the painter Henry Wallis, one of the less wild pre-Raphaelites, given to sentimental historical tableaux. At first they made a happy threesome, with Meredith posing for a picture of the poet Chatterton, dead after self-poisoning. Judging by Wallis’s amiable teddy-bearish persona in his letters (he lived into old age, became a significant collector of Italian and Islamic ceramics and adored his son, Felix), we might wager it was the dissatisfied wife who made the first move, but who knows? It’s difficult to recreate the ardent lover from the portly old gentleman in later photographs; for clues to Mary Ellen’s attractions we have one captivating drawing by Wallis, which avoids Victorian feminine insipidity and succeeds in making her powerful, sensuous, alert.

The lovers ran off together to Capri, then came back separately. The story used to be that their affair fizzled out quickly, with Mary Ellen returning in disgrace to pay the wages of sin, abandoned by her family, dying young and alone like any self-respecting adulteress. Johnson tells it another way. The lovers seem to have been happy together and more likely ‘went underground, to provide for an undisturbed and scandal-free future’; this makes better sense of the fact that Wallis kept in close touch with the Peacock family in the years afterwards. Mary Ellen settled in a cottage near her father and in 1858 went away to give birth to Wallis’s baby; she was circumspect about mentioning this to certain friends – ‘I cannot write to Mrs Chapman without mentioning Baby. Do you think I may venture to do so?’ – but on the whole everyone was delighted with Felix, and fairly unapologetic (Peacock joked that he was ‘Harry Agincourt’: Henry’s victory). Mary Ellen didn’t recover her strength after the birth, however. Her ankles swelled and she had dragging pains; she was succumbing to the kidney disease that would kill her. By the time Felix was three his mother was dead and her father was distraught with grief, and no doubt her lover too, and her children, and probably even May was sorry.

Johnson obviously likes Wallis, to the point of feeling that if anyone is wronged in the whole sad story, it’s him. Great things had been expected of him; after the scandal of his running off with Mrs Meredith his career didn’t really happen. Meredith, Johnson hints, may have had supporters in high places who disapproved of Wallis (Wallis’s biographers tend to agree). It’s hard to warm to the brooding left-behind Meredith, or the way he excised his first wife’s story from his life, or told people, if they insisted, that she had been nine years older than him, and mad. He wasn’t much of a father either: he refused to allow Arthur to visit his dying mother until the last moment. There was smothering baby talk: ‘Papa says little men ought not to cry’; ‘Little man has got measles coming out.’ Then Arthur was sent to boarding school and shut out of his father’s new family. Meredith barely dissimulated his dislike when his son came back an adult – a ‘middling clear thinker, sensible, brilliant in nothing … In a competitive examination of fifty he would be about twenty-fifth.’ He tried to give Arthur money to travel when he turned out to be tubercular, but it isn’t clear whether Arthur took it; he died at any rate in 1890, nursed by his kindly half-sister Edith. Meredith didn’t go to the funeral. ‘Long standing injures me.’

We could hardly expect Meredith to be thankful for his humiliation at the hands of his too-lively first wife, who was insufficiently devoted to his greatness. But it’s possible now to see that her betrayal was the necessary irritant, the grit, that brought out his best work. He couldn’t leave her story alone – in novel after novel he returned to portraits of women dissatisfied with their lumbering males, who are always one step behind and too much in love with themselves to see anyone else clearly. Instead of taking revenge on his wife, Meredith persisted in re-enacting her disappointment with him; he gets a reputation as quite a feminist. Sir Willoughby Patterne in The Egoist lectures his fiancée Clara on ‘the theme of the infinity of love … They were plighted; they were one eternally; they could not be parted. She listened gravely, conceiving the infinity as a narrow dwelling where a voice droned and ceased not. However, she listened. She became an attentive listener.’ Or, ‘In a dream somehow she had committed herself to a lifelong imprisonment; and, oh terror! not in a quiet dungeon; the barren walls closed round her, talked, called for ardour, expected admiration. She was unable to say why she could not give it; why she retreated more and more inwardly.’

ModernLove, the sonnet sequence published a year after Mary Ellen’s death, is best of all, excruciating in its portrayal of sexual jealousy, a great ponderous poem of male smallness. There’s nothing in the novels so good as this compression and precision:

But, oh, the bitter taste her beauty had!
He sickened as at breath of poison-flowers:
A languid humour stole among the hours,
And if their smiles encountered, he went mad,
And raged deep inward, till the light was brown
Before his vision

What may the woman labour to confess?
There is about her mouth a nervous twitch.
’Tis something to be told or hidden: – which?
I get a glimpse of hell in this mild guess.
She has desires of touch, as if to feel
That all the household things are things she knew.

Meredith is able to see an obsession with women’s purity as a kind of superstition, and yet the superstition haunts him. He’s stuck inside his own lecturing voice with its parsonish ironies and callow schoolboy manliness, parades of educated knowingness that are interminable in the airless novels. Why can’t he always write as plainly as when he penetrates poor Clara’s gathering foreboding? ‘Willoughby’s comportment while the showers of adulation drenched him might be likened to the composure of Indian Gods undergoing worship, but unlike them he reposed upon no seat of amplitude to preserve him from a betrayal of intoxication.’ Or, from The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: ‘Through the desolation flying overhead – the wailing of the Mother of Plenty across the bare-swept land – he caught intelligible signs of the beneficent order of the universe, from a heart newly confirmed in its grasp of the principle of human goodness, as manifested in the dear child who had just left him.’ The failure of the Merediths’ marriage is almost a clash between cultural styles – Mary Ellen is Thomas Love Peacock’s daughter, after all, and had from him a racier, more sceptical flavour of the 18th century. It’s no surprise to find her making notes from Adolphe. Reading the opening of Nightmare Abbey, published in 1818, it’s tempting to want to renounce all the so-many pages of Meredith’s novels for a few paragraphs of this crisper, funnier prose. For instance, Scythrop had ‘seen the rays of the midnight lamp tremble on many a lengthening file of empty bottles’; his mother’s ‘vanity was gratified by being the mistress of an extensive, if not very lively, establishment; but all the springs of her sympathies were frozen.’

Neither Peacock’s style nor Meredith’s is quite suited, however, to catching the texture of the story in Johnson’s book, which is their own story. It was the work of the 20th century to find out the forms and sentences to convey such narrative inconsequence: a din of voices, a tumble of accidents, one thing after another – all those fragments and dates and incidents and individuals, each fragment luminous in its lived moment, but all refusing to cohere into a theme or a sermon (not even a sermon about the overlooked wives of famous writers):

They are all dead now – all the Peacocks, all the Merediths. Mary Ellen’s little boys, Arthur and Harold, and their sister Edith, and George Meredith, and Henry Wallis and Edward Nicolls, and all their children, and all the people they knew … The books by George Meredith in fine bindings line shelves … Things remain. Mary Ellen’s pink parasol lies in a trunk in a parlour in Purley … The hair from Shelley’s head that Peacock gave to Henry, hair from the sacred head of Shelley, Henry had put into a little ring, and people always kept it safe, but thieves broke into the house at Purley a year or two ago and stole it, and who can say where it is now?

Johnson wrote her sprightly, generous book, originally called Lesser Lives, at a moment of transition in her own life. She had run away from her first marriage: ‘unpleasantness – arguments, he struck me once … boiling down to not liking each other, something lots of couples endure more gracefully than I.’ In her memoir, Flyover Lives, she recounts moving with her four young children from California to Hampstead, her future uncertain, not sure she had even enough money for her rent, to work on her book about Mrs Meredith. And it may be that something of the exhilarating, unnerving sensations of her own crisis amid alien surroundings, and the opacity of her own future, and the astringent, thrilling taste of her new freedom, give the book its enduring suggestiveness, fifty years later.

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