Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681374451
Pages: 256
Publication Date: June 23, 2020

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

by Diane Johnson, introduction by Vivian Gornick, with a new preface by the author

$17.95

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“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.

Praise

Johnson [has an] unusually wide-ranging skill as a writer . . . the striking originality of Lesser Lives no doubt explains the unusual vocabulary of compliments, not normally seen in reviews of nonfictional works.
—Carolyn A. Durham

[A] splendid biographical study . . . about figures on the fringes of the Romantic movement.
The New York Times

Her originality and courage are evident in everything she writes . . . For Johnson, the most interesting person at the table was Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith, who died at 40 of renal disease after leaving her husband and being forcibly kept from seeing their son because of what her husband explained to the world as her immoral behavior . . . Lesser Lives freed up other writers to express [a] kind of democratic sympathy.
—Constance Casey, Los Angeles Times