First published in 1972, the book passed into obscurity and has been happily reissued this month, fresh as ever — a seething, stylish reclamation of a forgotten life ... In Victorian England, Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith had the gall to believe herself to be an utterly fantastic creature: a person ... That distinctive voice: fond, amused, outraged. Johnson writes as if taking revenge for her subject. It is not only Mary Ellen’s daring that so compels us, but her biographer’s. Johnson discovers new ways to write her way into history’s silences ... In one eerie scene, Johnson imagines the ghosts of Mary Ellen’s spiritual godmothers — Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft — attending her grave: 'They are angry on Mary Ellen’s behalf. Their impatient feet tap, they pace over the grave. Must it always be this way for women? Here was one they thought might persevere in woman’s name. She had promise. She had courage.' A century after her death, she was rewarded with a biographer who possesses the same traits in abundance, and who, persevering in her name, lifts her from ignominy into stardom.
The originality and jazzy brilliance of The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith will be immediately apparent to anyone who starts Diane Johnson’s deeply felt portrait of a vivacious 19th-century woman virtually erased from history ... takes frequent potshots at the standardized Great Man tradition of biography and discards its typically macho, triumphalist narrative for a mosaic of vignettes, quotations and tiny, sharp essays. Johnson bounces around in time, too, with novelistic gusto and aplomb ... Yet Johnson’s overall sprightliness covers a ground bass of melancholy and lament ... Johnson’s sometimes bitter, sometimes bemused incredulity over male condescension and insensitivity, as well as her subtly eviscerating wit and inquisitive intelligence, will of course reappear in her future bestsellers, Le Divorce and L’Affaire. As she declares in one of this book’s endnotes, a biographer should be not just a historian 'but also a novelist and a snoop.'
A sad story, an immorally moral tale, perhaps only a memento (Diane Johnson is the novelist) with the Biographer as demure imitator and commentator who has artfully synchronized the contemporary materials of all these LESSER LIVES. They will include of course Meredith's Modern Love celebrating the disharmonious 'union of this ever-diverse pair' and Mary Ellen's Commonplace Book wherein you will find that 'the wicked are in earnest and the good are lukewarm.' A restorative, charming pastiche.