The True History of the First Mrs Meredith by Diane Johnson

Episode #197 is dedicated to our late friend Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago, an author in her own right and, on a couple of memorable occasions, a former guest on Backlisted. Joining us are the writer Rachel Cooke and critic and editor Lucy Scholes. Under discussion: The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson, first published in 1972 and reissued in 2020 by New York Review Books. Is this imaginative, funny, heartfelt, headstrong book a novel, a biography, an alternative history, a feminist polemic, a work of literary criticism or something else entirely? To which the answer is a far-from-straightforward: Yes. We hope you enjoy this conversation – and a unique book – as much as we did.

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Here is a synopsis by the publisher of The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson

“Many people have described the Famous Writer presiding at his dinner table, in a clean neckcloth. He is famous; everybody remembers his remarks. He remembers his own remarks, being a writer, and notes them in his diary. 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 the other people at the table, the lesser lives of the Famous Writer’s dependents, lives that are treated as episodes, if treated at all, in the life of the Famous Writer. But as Diane Johnson points out, “A lesser life does not seem lesser to the person who leads one.” Such sympathy, and curiosity, compelled Johnson to research Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith (1821-1861), the daughter of the artist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) and first wife of the poet George Meredith (1828-1909). The life of the first Mrs. Meredith, treated perfunctorily and prudishly in biographies of Peacock or Meredith because it involved adultery and recrimination, 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, and the contradiction between her capabilities and her circumstances. 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 Diane Johnson’s seminal work.

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