A Peacock in the Attic
Insights and secrets from newly discovered letters by George Meredith

Nicholas Joukovsky and Jim Powell

Late in 2009, the novelist Jim Powell found a cache of letters written by George Meredith to his great-great-grandmother Susan Mary Neill, which suggested that Susan was an illegitimate daughter of Thomas Love Peacock. He contacted Professor Nicholas Joukovsky to discuss the discovery. This article is the product of their joint research since then.

An old envelope, found among some family papers in December 2009, bore the written instruction “Destroy or burn | at my death, | S M Neill”. Inside it were letters from George Meredith to “Susie Pye”. One of the letters, which had only a postscript by the novelist, was written by his wife Mary Ellen, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock. Mary signs her letter, which was written for Susan’s birthday, “Your affectionate sister”, and says, “Baby sends aunt Mary Ellen MeredithSusan ‘me love & a kiss for her nice day’”. In two other letters, George refers to himself as Susan’s “sincere brother-in-law” and “your affectionate brother”. It seems that Mary and Susan were sisters, or at least half-sisters. In which case, did they share a mother, or a father?
Susan Mary Abbott, afterwards Neill, was born in London on October 12, 1830, and baptised on November 1 at St Pancras Old Church, where her parents were given in the register as John Abbott, an attorney residing in Ernest Street, and his wife Emmeline Spencer. Mary was baptised as the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock and his wife Jane. Because Peacock destroyed almost all his private papers, not much is known about his marriage and family. In November 1819, he proposed by letter to Jane Gryffydh, a Welsh parson’s daughter he had neither seen nor written to since April 1811. At first their marriage appears to have been happy, and there is no reason to question the paternity of the four children born to the couple over the next eight years: Mary Ellen (1821–1861), Margaret Love (1823–1826), Edward Gryffydh (1825–1867), and Rosa Jane (1827–1857). But after the death of their second daughter in January 1826, Jane is said to have been “inconsolable” and to have gradually become, in the words of her granddaughter Edith Nicolls, “a complete invalid”. (Mary Shelley and George Meredith both described her as “mad”.) It seems unlikely that Jane Gryffydh would have had an extramarital affair, whereas Peacock might well have sought sex and companionship elsewhere as his wife’s condition deteriorated.