New York Review of Books, June 2020. Trade Paperback. New. Item #254118
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.