The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives

The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives


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A classic of alternative biography and feminist writing, this empathetic and witty book gives due to a "lesser" figure of history, Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith, who was brilliant, unconventional, and at odds with the constraints of Victorian life.

“Many people have described the Famous Writer presiding at his dinner table. . . . He is famous; everybody remembers his remarks. . . . We forget that there were other family members at the table—a quiet person, now muffled by time, shadowy, whose heart pounded with love, perhaps, or rage.” So begins The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, an uncommon biography devoted to one of those “lesser lives.” As the author points out, “A lesser life does not seem lesser to the person who leads one.” Such sympathy and curiosity compelled Diane Johnson to research Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith (1821–1861), the daughter of the famous artist Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) and first wife of the equally famous poet George Meredith (1828–1909). Her life, treated perfunctorily and prudishly in biographies of Peacock or Meredith, is here exquisitely and unhurriedly given its due. What emerges is the portrait of a brilliant, well-educated woman, raised unconventionally by her father only to feel more forcefully the constraints of the Victorian era. First published in 1972, Lesser Lives has been a key text for feminists and biographers alike, a book that reimagined what biography might be, both in terms of subject and style. Biographies of other “lesser” lives have since followed in its footsteps, but few have the wit, elegance, and empathy of Johnson’s seminal work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781681374451
Publisher: New York Review Books
Publication date: 06/23/2020
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 346,260
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Diane Johnson is a novelist and critic. She is the author of Lulu in Marrakech and Le Divorce, among other novels, and of a memoir, Flyover Lives. She lives in Paris and San Francisco.

Vivian Gornick is a Manhattan essayist, memoirist, and critic. She is the author of some twelve books written in all of these genres. Her newest book (fortuitously) is Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader.


Paris, France, and San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

April 28, 1934

Place of Birth:

Moline, Illinois


B.A., University of Utah; M.A., Ph.D., UCLA, 1968

Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction xi

List of Illustrations xix

The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith 1

Family Tree 194

Notes 197

Brief Lives 229

A List of Manuscripts Used 235

Selected Bibliography 237

Acknowledgments 241

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