Mary Ellen Meredith, 1858. Pencil on paper, 4 x 3½ inches (10.2 x 8.3 cm). Collection of Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, accession no. WA2003.97.<
Mary Ellen Meredith (1821-1861), a daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, was the mistress of Henry Wallis for several years. The love of Wallis for his subject is quite evident in this work, which was executed in 1858 at the height of their affair. It is an exquisite piece of draughtsmanship and must rank amongst the most beautiful drawings Wallis ever executed. Mary Ellen was born in July 1821, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, a poet and novelist who was popular at the time. She seems to have spent a happy youth with a father who did not share common prejudices about the education of women, liberating her from many of the restrictions typically imposed on Victorian women. She was witty, intellectual, and free-spirited and became an adept writer. In 1843, aged twenty-one, she met Edward Nicolls, the first love of her life. Their marriage was celebrated in January of the following year. On March 11, 1844 her husband, a naval officer in command of the HMS Dwarf, drowned in the Shannon estuary while rescuing people in distress. Mary Ellen, who was with Edward aboard the vessel, had encouraged him to undertake the rescue attempt in which he lost his life. Her subsequent grief, from which she never totally recovered, may have been compounded by a feeling that she herself had been at least partly responsible for the tragedy. She was pregnant at the time of her husband's death and had a daughter, Edith, to look after when she moved back to her father’s house.
In 1846 George Meredith had started to work as a clerk with Richard Charnock, a solicitor and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Charnock introduced Meredith to his set of intimates, mostly writers and artists, including Mary Ellen and her brother Edward, as well as Wallis's fellow student at the Royal Academy schools Peter Austin Daniel. Meredith fell in love with Mary Ellen, but she did not immediately accept a marriage proposal from him because she had come to enjoy the freedom that widowhood allowed her. She was also older than he was. In 1848 Meredith was only aged twenty while she was twenty-seven. Their marriage eventually took place on August 9, 1849 at St. George’s, Hanover Square. Their honeymoon was to the Rhine Valley where George had been to school. Meredith's youth had not been a happy one. When he was thirteen, his widowed father married his housekeeper and George was sent to a boarding school at Neuwied, a small town on the Rhine.
Mary Ellen had several miscarriages before giving birth to a son, Arthur, in 1853. It appears their marriage was in trouble almost from the start and the couple was already estranged by that time. One reason postulated for Mary Ellen’s lack of regard for her husband was his lowly social status. Before their marriage, George seems to have told his wife that he originated from an ancient Welsh family, among whom even princes could be traced. The truth was that his father, Augustus Meredith, was a tailor who had immigrated to South Africa in 1849. Having learned of the lie later, Mary Ellen was bitterly disappointed, and her love and esteem for her husband seems to have vanished. Their long-lasting poverty may also help to explain their martial difficulties.
The Merediths met Wallis probably through their mutual friend the artist and writer P. A. Daniel, although it may have been through Mary Ellen's brother Edward. In 1855 Wallis asked George to model for his painting Chatterton and the same year Mary Ellen sat for his painting Fireside Reverie. In the beginning it appears that Mary Ellen was not especially attracted to Wallis. During his trips to France and to Spain in the summer of 1856, however, he wrote to her and she slowly but surely became fond of him and invited him to visit her. In a letter dated August 4, 1856, she writes: "Your letter was a most agreeable surprise, I had hardly ventured to expect one during your travels: and though I am afraid you wrote under the impression that you ought to reply to me…I cannot help rejoicing to have it, a description written on the spot & impressions noted as they occur are so much more graphic than any after recollection of either can be…If you come back by way of Dieppe of course we shall see you. And whether returning that way or not if you like to come & stay here on your return, I need not say how glad we shall be" (University of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng.c.7039, ff..85-86). Their love affair may have begun as early as September or October 1856 during the time Wallis visited her at Seaford in East Sussex where she was staying and when George was away. (Joukovsky, Early Meredithian Milieu, 635). Although the Merediths retained their cottage at Seaford at least through July 1857, one or the other was almost always away. In the summer of 1857 Mary Ellen left the matrimonial home, which would have been considered scandalous in Victorian times. Despite what has frequently been claimed, she did not immediately elope with Wallis. She initially went to live in Seaford with her two children. Wallis subsequently asked her to accompany him through Wales and, as Mary Ellen knew very well that her marriage had disintegrated, she agreed. She left Arthur with Mrs. Chapman, the wife of the publisher John Chapman, but during her absence George came and reclaimed their son as the law permitted him to do. In Wales, the lovers visited Maentwrog, Mary Ellen's birthplace, and the waterfalls at Cain, Mawddach and Dolymelynllyn. After she came back in September, now pregnant, she went to live at Home View House, Clevedon, a resort overlooking the Bristol Channel. From there, she wrote Henry a letter on September 29, 1857, which confirms that the Merediths were already separated and that Meredith initially had the intention of dealing with the domestic crisis legally, even if ultimately he never did so. Mary Ellen writes:
If we have to stay in England let us be at Clifton. I have no answer from George. I imagine he wants to see Darvall [Henry Darvall] before writing. If he gives no reply in a week I shall take his silence for freedom and go abroad without another word, if you will like it, and where you will… I am always dreading to lose you because I feel I have no right to you, and I love you so really, so far beyond anything I have known of love, that there are ways in which I believe I could bear to lose you. God knows how hard it would be; but I believe I could bear it. Not by Death or weariness or anger. By Death I could not lose you
The love where Death has set his seal
Nor age can chill, nor rival steal
Nor falsehood disavow, (Lord Byron, Elegy on Thyrza)
But I do not fear your Death, because I feel how much you owe to Life, how much Life has for you, and surely I shall in no shape lead you Delilah-like to Death, since it is my one aim to add to your strength, my one prayer 'God grant that I may do this man no harm'. And for weariness or anger, if we begin to thread either of those paths we will part before they possess us." (Shaheen, Meredith Correspondence, 30-2).
On October 5, 1857 Wallis left Tintern, where he had been working on his painting Henry Marten in Chepstow Tower, and took the train to Clifton to be with Mary Ellen. Wallis appears to have divided his time between London and visiting Mary Ellen at Elm Cottage, Redland, near Clifton where she spent most of the last six months of her pregnancy awaiting the baby’s birth, which took place on 18 April 1858. The baby was a boy christened Harold but known as Felix.
In the autumn of that year, Henry apparently took Mary Ellen to Capri, the climate of which was supposed to strengthen her. Capri might have been a logical place for the lovers to go because it seems to have been a place where no questions were asked with respect to relationships. Capri later became a favourite place for Wallis to travel to in the early 1860s, and he spent several winters there with their son after Mary Ellen’s death. Mary Ellen apparently returned alone from Capri by early February 1859, and some Meredith biographers have claimed that Wallis had deserted her. Johnson thinks it more likely, however, that "they went underground, to provide for an undisturbed and scandal-free future" (Johnson, 133). After Henry returned it seems that they may initially have intended to live together. Johnson found answers to an advertisement Wallis placed in The Times in January 1859 looking for apartments for “a gentleman and a lady” (133). They ultimately may have chosen not to live together because the ensuing scandal could have had a deleterious effect on Wallis’s rising career, just as he was achieving success following his recent triumphs at the Royal Academy exhibitions with paintings like Chatterton. A public scandal may very well have dashed Wallis’s hopes for future commissions and favourable reviews at exhibitions. The scandal would also have been a public humiliation for George Meredith, who may then have exercised his legal right to remove Harold from his wife’s custody since Meredith had been listed as the baby’s father on the birth certificate. By keeping a low profile this did not occur and Wallis was able to claim custody of his son following Mary Ellen’s untimely death.
It is known that Wallis remained in cordial contact with Thomas Love Peacock and with Mary Ellen’s daughter Edith Nicolls for the rest of his life. This fact alone certainly argues against the traditional view of Wallis as a callous deserter. It is therefore likely that Henry and Mary Ellen were in a discrete but constant contact following their “separation”. What we do know for certain is that after they separated Wallis rented an apartment, facing the British Museum, at no. 62 Great Russell Street and Mary Ellen went to live at no. 4 Crown Crescent, Twickenham.
Meredith forbade her to see their son and only when she was dying did he allow Arthur to be in touch with his mother. During the last period of her life, Mary Ellen lived at Grotto Cottage in Oatlands Park, Weybridge, close to her father’s house. This allowed Peacock to pay her almost daily visits as she lay dying of kidney failure. When she died on 22 October 1861 she was only aged forty.
That Mary Ellen and Henry must have remained on good terms is shown by the fact that she allowed Wallis to take Felix travelling with him to Europe during her last illness. Why she agreed to this remains a mystery. Did she not realize she was that close to death or did she simply wish to spare her young son the anguish of being nearby when she died? It has been wondered why Wallis didn’t attend her funeral, but the simple fact of the matter is that he was out of the country at the time. Wallis never married after his relationship with Mary Ellen ended, possibly because he never got over the loss of the one great love of his life. The 1881 England and Wales Census lists Henry Wallis’s marital status as “widower”. He may have done this to cover up Felix’s illegitimacy, or he may have considered himself a widower despite never having been formally married to Mary Ellen. We know that Wallis retained mementos of Mary Ellen for the rest of his life which subsequently descended in the family, including her green gown and matching parasol, and some of her writings and drawings.
Johnson, Diane. Lesser Lives. The true history of the first Mrs. Meredith. London: Heinemann, 1973.
Joukovsky, Nicholas A. "According to Mrs. Bennet: A Document sheds a new and kinder light on George Meredith's first wife." Times Literary Supplement (8 October 2004): 13-15.
Joukovsky, Nicholas A. “The Early Meredithian Milieu: New Evidence form Letters of Peter Augustin Daniel,” Studies in Philology XV (Summer 2018): 615-64.
Lessens, Ronald and Dennis T. Lanigan. Henry Wallis. From Pre-Raphaelite Painter to Collector/Connoisseur. Woodbridge: ACC Art Books, 2019, 34-42 and cat. 32, 102-03.
Meredith, George. Selected Letters of George Meredith. Ed. M. Y. Shaheen. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1997.
Last modified 17 October 2022