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The True History of the First Mrs Meredith Reviews

The True History of the First Mrs Meredith by Diane Johnson, Vivian Gornick

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

Diane Johnson, Vivian Gornick

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1 review

Imprint: The New York Review of Books, Inc
Publisher: The New York Review of Books, Inc
Publication date: 23 Jun 2020
ISBN: 9781681374451

 

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.

4 stars out of 5
Kathryn Hughes
23 Dec 2020

"A welcome reissue of Diane Johnson’s spirited book, which centres on a woman who was more than the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock and the wife of a famous novelist"

Like much the feminist literary scholarship of the 1970s, The True History of The First Mrs Meredith bears an obvious debt to the critical work of Virginia Woolf, who, 50 years earlier, had asked pointed questions about what qualified as a “great” and thus write-able life, and what as an “obscure” and therefore ineligible one. In its jaunty generalisations about the 19th century, though, Johnson’s book claims clearest descent from Lytton Strachey’s satire Eminent Victorians (1918). In one striking passage Johnson wonders out loud whether Mary could really be bothered to commit adultery with Henry since it involved taking off so many layers of camisole, chemise, corset, petticoats, stockings and garters. But then, in one of her subversive self-cancelling footnotes, she informs us that all this biographical speculation about mid-Victorian women undressing for sex is probably beside the point when you remember that, at this point in history, nice women didn’t wear drawers.

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