George Meredith was the son and grandson of tailors of modest means whose good looks, social graces, and personal proclivities enabled them to move in higher social circles than most tradespeople did. When Meredith was about eighteen, he became a clerk to a solicitor who introduced him to a circle of writers and artists. Through his friend Edward Peacock, the son of novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock, Meredith met Mary Peacock Nicolls, a widow six years older than he. She was beautiful, witty, sophisticated, and artistic, and Meredith fell passionately in love with her. He had his good looks to offer her, along with the promise of his talent—and poverty. He proposed, and she refused him several times. Finally, in 1849, they were married.
They had a son, Arthur, but the marriage was stormy. They were both strong-minded, and they were stressed by poverty. Mary was volatile and independent. After seven years, the marriage was failing, although the couple kept up appearances. Then she initiated an affair with Meredith’s friend, the artist Henry Wallis, with whom she had a child. She abandoned her husband and Arthur to go with Wallis to Capri, Italy, in 1858. Soon Wallis abandoned her, and she returned to England in ill health. After she left him, Meredith never saw her again. She lived in poverty, loneliness, and misery until her death in 1861. Some of the emotion of his courtship is reflected in Meredith’s “Love in the Valley” and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, and the breakup of the marriage informs “Modern Love,” although none of these works should be regarded as reliable autobiography.
Because Meredith’s publications did not meet with great popular success, he supported Arthur and himself for a time as a political journalist, writing dutifully for a paper more conservative than he. In 1862, he became a reader for the publishers Chapman and Hall, considering a great many manuscripts, inevitably rejecting some that went on to be great successes for other publishers but also giving important early encouragement to such writers as Thomas Hardy, Olive Schreiner, and George Gissing. He continued with Chapman and Hall until 1894.
Meredith was physically vigorous for much of his life and a great walker, both in frequent short rambles and in longer walking tours. He enjoyed strong friendships. On September 20, 1864, he married Marie Vulliamy. This marriage led to an estrangement between Meredith and his son, but it was a stable and happy union until Marie’s death in 1885.
Meredith continued to work actively through the turn of the twentieth century. As he aged, his health declined, but his temperament mellowed. Although many of the friends of his youth and middle age predeceased him, a new generation of friends supported him. On May 18, 1909, after a short illness, he died, widely revered and much honored.
Born the son and grandson of tailors, George Meredith appears to have rejected his humble origins. Indeed, he once threatened that he would “most horribly haunt” any who attempted to reconstruct his biography. Despite his modest heritage, legacies from his mother and an aunt permitted him to attend private schools, St. Paul’s Church School, Southsea, and the Moravian School of Neuwied, Germany. His objective in formal training was to become a lawyer, and he was apprenticed to a London solicitor in 1845. Young Meredith soon became dissatisfied with the legal profession, however, and began to seek a career as a journalist, a vocation that he pursued throughout most of his life, since he was never quite able to survive financially as an author of novels and poems.
From at least 1845 until his marriage in 1849 to Mary Ellen Nicolls, a widow and the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, Meredith appears to have read widely and deeply in the literature of Greece, Rome, Germany, France, and England. The first few years of his marriage appear to have been ones of continued intellectual growth. The Merediths lived either with...
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