The Book of Sonnet Sequences

By Houston Peterson | Go to book overview

VIII -- GEORGE MEREDITH
[1828-1909]

AT TWENTY-ONE the future novelist Meredith was living in London on an hereditary pittance and writing poetry of uncertain promise. Among his literary intimates was Edward Peacock, son of the well known novelist and poet. They often went on long walks together and it was at Peacock's rooms that Meredith met his friend's sister, Mrs. Mary Ellen Nicolls, widow of a naval officer. "Mrs. Nicolls was a woman of considerable beauty, great intelligence, some literary achievement, and brilliant and irrepressible wit." In spite of the fact that she was nine years his senior and had a child of five, Meredith fell passionately in love with her and (after some six refusals, according to report) persuaded her to marry.

Two years later, in the summer of 1851, appeared Meredith's first book, Poems, which was dedicated to his father-in-law and printed at his own expense. It failed. There was a largely laudatory review by Kingsley and a generous letter from Tennyson praising the haunting cadences of what was the first version of Love in a Valley. Meanwhile Meredith's marriage was turning out to be anything but an idyllic affair. It was not merely a difference in ages. The two high-tempered, brilliant, caustic individuals were entirely incompatible, however worthy in their individual capacities. Of several children born to them only one, a son, survived infancy. After nine years of more or less constant friction, of quarrels and reconciliations, Mrs. Meredith went to the Continent with an artist named Wallis. The following year, 1859, she returned, ill, hopeless, deserted, and died alone in October 1861. Meredith did not visit her during her last sickness and evidently received the shocking news when he was leaving a friend's

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