That’s her on the cover, lower left hand corner. The first Mrs. George Meredith, nee Mary Ellen Peacock. This biography, written in 1972 by early feminist Diane Johnson, is wonderfully quirky and fascinating.
Mary Ellen, to give her the only name that was truly hers, was not famous in her own right, but was what I’d call famous-adjacent. Her father was the Romantic poet Thomas Love Peacock, who, whilst rambling about Wales in search of dramatic scenery, met Jane Gryffydh, daughter of a vicar of a tiny Welsh village. She was good-looking, somewhat well-read, and was acceptable company for a week or two, but then he left. Eight years later, with no correspondence in the meantime, he returned to marry her. And she was in her late twenties, living in poverty with her widowed mother and facing the life of an old maid, so she accepted. By the time Mary Ellen was a young girl, her mother had gone mad, and was sent off a la Jane Eyre. Not long after, she was dead.
Mary grew up in the writer’s circle consisting of her father and many of the Shelly/Byron contingent, dabbling a bit herself. She married a naval officer who drowned three months later, but not before helping create baby Edith. For several years, she was comfortably well off as a widow, and helped start up and write for some small literary magazines, and in the process, met the much younger George Meredith.
Eventually, she relented and married him (baby Arthur!), but before too long, they had drifted apart. However, she had met the painter Henry Wallis by then, and they went off to Wales together (baby Felix!) and remained together off and on for the rest of her life, which was not long. She died at forty from renal disease.
The fascinating thing about her is that she apparently did what she wanted, with whom she wanted, and could give a toss about the Victorian mores of her time. She loved babies, even though she wasn’t always allowed to keep them (poor Arthur ended up having a fairly unhappy life). She wrote and was published, even though Some Guy’s name was frequently attached instead of hers. She started a cooking school, rather unheard of at the time, that flourished. And I love the picture of her because that is the woman (in her late 30’s at the time) that I absolutely can imagine, going about her way.
A fun read. She might have had a short life, but she got every bit she could out of it.