NYRB Classics: Diane Johnson presents "The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith," with Edwin Frank

July 2, 2020, 5:00 PM

Diane Johnson joins us from Paris to present The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith, in conversation with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank. This event will take place on Zoom. Register here:

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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.

DIANE JOHNSON is a novelist and critic. She is the author of Lulu in Marrakech and Le Divorce, among other novels, and of a memoir, Flyover Lives. She lives in Paris and San Francisco.

EDWIN FRANK was born in Boulder, Colorado, and educated at Harvard College and Columbia University. He is the author of Snake Train: Poems 1984–2013 and the editorial director of the NYRB Classics series.