Vivian Gornick on the “Forgotten” Wife of Victorian Novelist, George Meredith
Mrs. Meredith Finally Gets Her Due
One of the great feminist novels of the 19th century is George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways. Published in 1885 when Meredith was 57 years old, it features a protagonist drawn from his evergreen memories of Mary Ellen Nicolls, the bold, beautiful, intellectually gifted woman who’d been his first wife. I mention Meredith’s age because while his marriage to Mary Ellen had ended a good 25 years earlier, he had never ceased to brood over her—her presence is invoked in novel after novel—but it was only now in his late 50s, and with this novel, that he felt impelled to do literary justice to a woman born long before the time in which she might have fulfilled her youthful promise without penalty or punishment.
Virginia Woolf thought George Meredith the most grown-up of Victorian novelists. He not only knew what love could do to a man and a woman equally matched in brains, will, and spirit—what they might actually say and do to themselves and to each other—he put what he knew on the page. Many writers of his time understood what Meredith understood, just not as incisively. It was very simple, really: love, when it threatens to compromise a protagonist’s inner integrity, becomes the enemy. In Diana of the Crossways he created just such a situation, only this time the protagonist was a woman. It is Diana in whom the need to own one’s soul becomes more of an imperative than the need to love or be loved. This was a piece of intelligence Meredith possessed to as great if not greater a degree than D. H. Lawrence or Henry James or Edith Wharton—and it was through his life with Mary Ellen that he had come by it.
She was born in London in 1821. Her father was the poet and novelist Thomas Love Peacock, her mother the daughter of a provincial Welsh clergyman. Peacock’s was the generation of the great English Romantics—Shelley, Keats, Byron—and while Peacock himself was a writer of considerably lesser talent, he shared with these literary greats a view of life devoted to adventures of the mind and spirit, a politics that was democratic, and an open-heartedness that included a progressive take on the place of women in society. Mary Ellen, the oldest and the favorite of Peacock’s four children, was raised to believe that as the smart, educated, high-spirited person she was, she had every right to expect a more exciting life than the one usually reserved for the typical Victorian woman of her class; the one who, as Diane Johnson instructs us, was “innocent, unlearned, motherly, and . . . notoriously dull company both at the dinner table and in bed.”
Yet, when she matured there was really nothing for Mary Ellen to do except become a governess or get married. So of course she got married: in 1844, to Edward Nicolls, the wild, sexy son of a general in the Royal Marines. Eddy brought out the wild and sexy in Mary Ellen and for two glorious months they lived on passion; then Eddy drowned trying to save another man from drowning and that, as Johnson briskly puts it, “was the end of him.” Mary Ellen came home to her father, a 23-year-old pregnant widow. Now she was really restless: “In a day when resignation was the approved posture against adversity, Mary Ellen was no good at resignation.” Four dreary years later she met George Meredith and, for our purposes, the rest is history.
Mary Ellen was 27 and George 20 when they met, but the age difference was the least of it. She was still a lively young woman up for the great adventure of life, while he, although his mad pursuit of her had promised much, lapsed back into what he’d been before they were married: a brooding neurasthenic fussy about his food, obsessed with achieving literary success, and hardly ever wanting to leave the house. On top of these vital differences regarding a shared life, they were perpetually dogged by the poverty (George refused to get a job) which forced them to live in cramped quarters a couple of hours from the city. Yet, surely we can all agree that Mary Ellen bore the larger share of a burdensome existence. George, after all, had his writing, and the occasional trip to London if he wanted it, plus the promise of a growing reputation to stabilize him, while she had only suburban isolation, child-rearing, and nothing substantial to occupy her. The sheer fact that George could go out into the world at will while she could not took a heavy toll on their love.
Bright, passionate, and equally egotistical, they lived together for eight stormy years; delighting and tormenting each other for much of that time, but feeling ever more shredded by a situation that year by year made of them adversaries rather than allies. Mary Ellen, especially, felt oppressed, and just when life was beginning to seem intolerable, she actually did the unthinkable: she bolted; had an affair and left the marriage. (Lest you think this affair an act of reckless impetuosity, Johnson cautions us to keep in mind “at all times that the women we are concerned with conducted their lives . . . while entirely encased beneath their gowns in . . . a chemise, a corset, a camisole over the corset, up to six petticoats, . . . a vest or undershirt, stockings, garters, and, depending on the decade, a whalebone crinoline or bustle . . . Whatever we are able to make of Mary Ellen’s adulterous behavior, we will not be able to excuse it on the grounds of impulse.”) She was 37 years old. Soon enough she was pregnant, separated from her lover, and mortally ill with kidney disease. Three years later, at the age of forty, she died: alone and with almost no one in attendance at her burial. But no surprise here, Johnson reminds us, “as every Victorian knew, if you have sinned you cannot, cannot possibly, expect to die surrounded by your family and friends.”
For the rest of his long life Meredith would stiffen in humiliated rage at the mere mention of Mary Ellen’s name. Yet the memory of his own bad behavior haunted him and what men and women in love did to one another became his great preoccupation. In the flesh Meredith was a proud, angry man, almost always on the defensive; but as he was also a great writer, in his work honesty compelled him to abandon self-justification. (Johnson disagrees with me on this point, but for now we’ll let that go.) In 1862, a year after Mary Ellen’s death, he wrote Modern Love, the astonishing fifty-sonnet poem based on their time together. In this poem he wanted badly to trash her but the knowledge of his part in their mutual failure made him uneasy enough to realize that if he laid all the blame on her the poem would lose power. He could not help but see that he and she, like most husbands and wives, had each accumulated a bill of grievance under whose spell both had acted outrageously. Love, the poem concluded, was not a benign experience: not for him and certainly not for her. To his credit, what Meredith brooded on for the next quarter of a century was how best to imagine how it had been with her instead of himself. The key word here is “imagine”: the thing no one else in the world had thought to do about Mary Ellen Meredith until Diane Johnson came along, a century later, and conceived the brilliant idea of doing just that.
The first time I read The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith (sometime in the late 70s) I was sitting in the blazing sun on a Caribbean beach, the book propped on my knees, and was surprised, whenever I looked up, to see that I wasn’t surrounded by the fog and cold of 1840s England. If I’d been asked then to explain what I thought the book was about, I’d probably have been struck dumb: all I knew was that the writing had cocooned me inside an atmosphere of emotional damage and existential heartbreak that felt large. The second time I read the book, some 20 years later, I was still susceptible to its atmospheric appeal, but now I marveled at how cleverly its author had woven together the few known facts about its major characters with the social constraints under which they lived, and the chinks in that society’s armor that left just enough room for our protagonist to take her plunge into the formidable unknown. Now, some 30 more years have passed and I have returned to see what further magic this most unusual of biographies could work on the ever-returning reader.
This time around I saw—and could not fathom how I had not seen it before—that no life she came across, however peripheral to her story, was “lesser” to Diane Johnson. There are innumerable places in the book where she is describing something that involves one or another of its major characters—an accidental encounter, an unexpected event—and, of necessity, her account includes mention of a servant, a farmer, a passing acquaintance. Inevitably, she stops to muse on that figure, even if it is only for one knockout sentence, and when she does the angle of vision shifts. Of a sudden the narrow urgency into which our protagonists have locked both us and themselves backs off. The human landscape has rearranged itself.
Towards the end of a long, exploratory passage on Thomas Peacock’s enduring capacity for amorousness Johnson tells us that on a day when he was old, he received an unexpected letter from a lady who’d known him years before. This woman has caught a glimpse of him walking through Grosvenor Square, and she cannot resist the impulse to contact him. “I never can think of you otherwise,” she writes, “than as that young and brilliant personage we used to know. . . when you used to repeat poetry, drink champagne, and seem not to have a single link to heavy earth.” The letter comes from a country vicarage and is signed “ever your affectionate Clarinda Atkyns.” The reader assumes Johnson will now return to Peacock, but she does not. The letter writer has captured her promiscuous attention and, as though talking to herself (as well as us), Johnson lets the passage conclude itself thus: “Who, poor lady, was she, and what had her life been, to write so wistfully to this old man, from Ombersly Vicarage, Droitwich?”
For a split second my heart stopped. I could see the vicar’s wife standing somewhere on the Square, catching a flash of Peacock (no longer Mary Ellen’s father, now the young Tom) striding casually through her past—and in that moment she became as important as Peacock himself. Her inclusion in the anecdote seemed to replicate brilliantly what all the great literary flaneurs of the time—Baudelaire, Dickens, Gissing—were noticing when they took a walk through the newly created 19th-century crowd: the fearful drama of fractured attention. In rapid succession, one’s eyes were drawn now here, now there, as though compelled to register every glimpse (great or little) of people in the throng whom one hadn’t seen in years, or had no wish to see, or would not ordinarily know even existed. The experience was unnerving.
On another occasion, Johnson finds it necessary to make a few errant remarks about Meredith’s hated father. She tells us what she knows: “George’s father was neither good nor great. He went bankrupt in the tailoring business and took up with the servant girl, Matilda Bucket (how one longs to know more about Matilda Bucket).” That parenthesis! It dazzled me. Now I felt myself standing behind Johnson’s eyes, looking round, as she does, at this one and that one, and in my mind I began arguing with the prejudices of history and those angles of vision that obscure rather than clarify. Yes, I said (somewhat belligerently) to myself, I want to know more about Matilda Bucket, it’s important to know more about Matilda Bucket, Hardy would have wanted to know more about Matilda Bucket.
I realized that repeatedly, while reading The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith, I’d been struck by these eccentric couplings of thought and feeling that are sprinkled throughout the text. In a dozen places where Johnson is relating an anecdote about the Merediths or the Peacocks or one of their many friends, she is suddenly, without even a sentence break, musing on the fate of some entirely peripheral creature. Finally, I understood that the social mix-up and the musing together form her project.
And what is it she is musing about? She is musing on her own attraction, the writer’s attraction, to looking speculatively at all her characters (this is fanciful, I know), as though considering whether to leave this one or that one in place or move her or him to another location on a landscape in her imagination that now begins to resemble a board game—we’ll call it the game of life—in which any persona might be moved to a position on the board that might increase or decrease their point value and send the story spinning. But as I say, Johnson is only speculating. She is a writer very much at home with speculation: a thing critics of her sort of work frown upon.
Most biographers are discouraged from writing sentences that attribute to the protagonist thoughts, feelings, motivations that cannot possibly be verified—“At that moment she thought . . . Walking through the square he realized . . . When Dennis left the room she assumed . . .”—but in the case of this biography, where the entire project is interlaced with an equivalent of this rhetorical device—“how one longs to know more about Matilda Bucket”—the practice feels just right.
Inspired conjecture is the book’s signature trait. Under its influence women and men whose existence is partly hearsay stand their ground remarkably well. The genius lies in Johnson’s decision to keep pulling people in to the story of Mary Ellen and George so that finally an age stands revealed; one in which all concerned only ever catch a glimpse of themselves in relation to one another, and always from an angle of vision determined by the social conventions that make whole classes of people unreal to one another. The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives measures, elegantly and with heart, the fallout from the lives that are put together on the basis of that glimpse, with especial attention paid to the fact that one day each of those lives will be designated major or minor, greater or lesser.
Excerpted from The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson, introduction by Vivian Gornick. Reissued by New York Review of Books. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.