George Meredith met his first wife, the widowed Mary Ellen Nicholls (1821-1861), when she was twenty-six, in the spring or early summer of 1848. The vivacious and intelligent daughter of the well-respected novelist, Thomas Love Peacock, she had already had more than her share of tragedy. Her mother, inconsolable after the loss of her second daughter in 1826, lived on until 1851, but never regained her mental health. Her first husband, a dashing sea captain, was drowned in a rescue attempt soon after the couple's marriage, leaving her pregnant with their daughter, Edith. When Meredith, an impecunious author more than six years her junior, paid court to her in London, he had a hard time persuading her to accept him. But she did, finally, and in August 1849 the couple were married at St George's, Hanover Square.

The period of idyllic happiness that followed was short, quickly extinguished by straitened circumstances, clashes of temperament, and two or more miscarriages and/or stillbirths. Still, they had a son together in 1853, Mary Ellen's second child, Arthur. Desperate now to embark on a project of her own, with an idea of starting a school for servant-girls, she found a close friend and ally in the scientist and reformer Charles Mansfield, but his life was suddenly cut short when he died in agony from chemical burns in 1855. Then, in 1857, she left Meredith for his friend, the painter Henry Wallis, by whom in April 1858 she had her third child, another son, Harold (later called Felix). Meredith's sharp sense of betrayal made him cruel: when she reached the end stage of kidney disease in 1861 at the early age of forty, he neither visited her nor made it easy for their son Arthur to do so, and was not present at her very poorly attended funeral.

Mary Ellen, drawn by Henry Wallis (click on the image to enlarge it, and for more information).

This sad story is known, but is usually seen from Meredith's point of view, and especially as the background to his sonnet sequence, Modern Love. Was this not his story, a story of betrayal, in which the young author featured as victim? Was he not justified in asserting his will, and leaving her to her final fate? Any Victorian husband might have done the same. But in 1972, Diane Johnson presented the other point of view — Mary Ellen's. She saw her not as a loose woman, but as bright, witty, sparky, and dogged by misfortune, married to a "brooding neurasthenic" (as Vivian Gornick puts it in her introduction, xii), with no opportunity to realise her own potential. Meredith comes off badly in this retelling, even or especially in comparison with Wallis, who appears not so much to have taken Mary Ellen away from her husband, as to have given her refuge from him, and who was, after all, "a good fellow" (181).

In presenting Mary Ellen's case, Johnson had just a little more to go on than the basic facts, and Meredith's own letters and writings. She had a handful of Mary Ellen's letters to Wallis, discovered in the box room of Harold's old house, and her Commonplace Book, lodged at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Since then there has been a steady trickle of new discoveries, including letters to and from her, and a contemporary memoir of her, that cast more light on every stage and aspect of her life (see Joukovsky, "New Correspondence," 484-45). Yet, surprisingly, Johnson's biography, reissued nearly fifty years later for a readership greatly interested in women's struggles, and in "lesser lives" generally, has not been superseded.

Nor has it lost its impact. The fiercely partisan reading of Mary Ellen has struck a chord. Many a "true history" deals with a fictional character, and indeed Johnson's Mary Ellen is partly her own creation, a nineteenth-century woman seen through twentieth-century eyes. Her biography vibrates with sympathy for her, and for the other women around her who had such limited control over their fates. Johnson is not afraid to admit that she often has to make her own deductions. Indeed, she launches into her account by saying: "Real records of Mary Ellen's childhood are few, but much may be inferred" (51). Inference is not usually a sound basis for scholarship. But Johnson finds enough evidence in her sources to convince us of the truth of her readings, using the Commonplace Book, in particular, with great skill to indicate the state of Mary Ellen's mind. The current focus on the marginalised, for whom resources are often scant, has both prompted and justified this more subjective and subtle approach to biography.

For the record, Johnson's inferences have not been proved wrong. This is true of her understanding of Meredith, too. Despite the decline in his literary reputation, in the last fifty years the grand old Victorian Man of Letters has been held up to intense critical scrutiny. An annotated Norton edition of The Egoist appeared in 1979, the main text accompanied by a fine set of scholarly essays, and there have been further books, essays, and indeed an international conference ("George Meredith and His Circle: Intellectual Communities and Literary Networks,” 2015, at the Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln). But everything points to exactly what Johnson discerned — the vulnerability hidden beneath his bluff exterior. Among the new findings, for instance, has been an account of Mary Ellen's accidental discovery, soon after their marriage, that her new father-in-law was a tailor (Joukovsky, "According to Mrs Bennet," 15) — Meredith, who always tried to cover up his origins, had tried to hide them even from her. There was no chance for a marriage without trust.

George Meredith and his son Arthur (click on the image to enlarge it, and for more information).

If Johnson's keenly perceptive biography has one failing though, it is here. Her understanding of Meredith, and of all that lay behind the failure of this relationship on his side as well as hers, has not led to sympathy. Having censured his treatment of Mary Ellen, she turns the focus on his parenting of Arthur, comparing it unfavourably with Wallis's treatment of Felix. (There is much of interest here, incidentally, for those who admire Wallis's paintings — and may not have known that he became an authority on ceramics.) Johnson even seems to resent the way Meredith drew on his first marriage in his work, although, as she herself realises, it afforded him a way in which to confront and deal with it, and even censure himself: The Egoist is quoted to great effect here.

In fact, Meredith's understanding of Mary Ellen's character and trials led to a major aspect of his achievement and his reputation: the championing of women in his work, most impressively in Diana of the Crossways (partially serialised in 1884; published in book form in 1885). Diana was largely inspired by the real-life figure of Lady Caroline Norton, whom Meredith had met in the early days of his marriage, and whose acrimonious divorce and custody battle had caused a sensation. But his insight into her suffering, as Gornick suggests in her introduction (xi), would have come from his memories of his first marriage. They are there, hardly worked out, still raw, in Modern Love. Johnson does not go this far forward in time, and does not even mention Diana of the Crossways. Although she never leaves less central figures without breathing life into them, her focus is on Mary Ellen and her experiences. In this context she is typically scathing about, and dismissive of, Meredith's reputation as a novelist able to "understand and portray women — particularly lively, independent ones" with almost unrivalled "wisdom and maturity" (93). True, he was not such a writer until later. But he did become one.

Related Material


[Book under review]Johnson, Diane. The True History of the First Mrs Meredith, and Other Lesser Lives. 1972. New ed. New York: New York Review of Books, 2020. Hardback. xx + 242 pp. $17.95. ISBN 978-1-68137-445-1.

Joukovsky, Nicholas A. "According to Mrs Bennet: A Document sheds a new and kinder light on George Meredith's first wife." Times Literary Supplement. (8 October 2004): 13-15.

–––––. "New Correspondence." Studies in Philology. 106/4 (2009): 483-522. Available on Jstor.

Created 16 January 2021