In 1919, Theodore Maynard wrote of Alice Meynell that “of all the prose writers of the Twentieth Century, she is the one most certain of immortality.” Though we might question Maynard’s prescience today, Meynell was widely regarded as one of the most important essayists of her day due to the remarkable quantity and quality of her essays.
Although critical and scholarly commentary on Meynell has been sparse since her death, her essays are still insightful, elegant, and vivid, and cover a wide range of subjects from literary criticism to women’s suffrage to English grammar to children. A disciplined Catholic spiritualism pervades her outlook, but it is not dogmatic or overbearing and not nearly so evident as it is in her more private poetry, for which she was also much admired. Her skills as a poet inform much of her prose writing in its precise diction, elaborate style, and figurative language, but also in its perception of life, particularly in the opening lines of “The Rhythm of Life” (1889), her impressive early essay on the regularity—what Meynell calls the “periodicity”—of human existence: “If life is not always poetical, it is at least metrical.” Such an opening sentence shows Meynell’s mastery of the lead, the attention-grabber necessary in journalism, and of the well-put, surprising, witty observation. Indeed, her essays are a unique blend of literary sophistication and journalistic observation and accessibility. From her early journalistic writing to the end of her career, Meynell considered herself a professional writer who demanded her own personal standards of excellence, and her essays bear the mark of an incisive cultural critic writing for and about the age in which she lived. In her insistence upon the important contribution of women in society, she is also, in the essay, Virginia Woolf’s most immediate precursor.
Most of Meynell’s essays first appeared in periodicals such as the Scots Observer, the Saturday Review, the Spectator, and particularly the Pall Mall Gazette, for which Meynell wrote a weekly column from 1893 to 1898. Her column, “The Wares of Autolycus,” named after both the thief of Greek mythology and the endearing pedlar in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles,” was intended initially for women readers of the Pall Mall Gazette, which was both a newspaper and literary review; but the column soon broadened in its appeal to include a larger family audience, and Meynell became recognized for writing insightful essays on children. Most of her important essays first appeared here, and the column’s title, most likely provided by the editors, suggests that Meynell’s purpose in the column was to reconsider the familiar and seemingly insignificant elements of everyday life. Her literary and aesthetic writing appealed to a well-read, sophisticated, but general audience; she wrote critical introductions to popular collections of poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1896, 1916), William Wordsworth (1903), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1903), Robert Herrick (1905), William Cowper (1905), Christina Rossetti (1906), William Blake (1911), and others. Interestingly, Meynell wrote commentaries on (at the time) less familiar women writers of the Romantic period, who are currently being reincorporated into the literary canon, such as Anna Seward and Joanna Baillie, in The Second Person Singular (1921), and Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Inchbald, published in the posthumous collection Essays of Today and Yesterday (1926). Throughout her career, Meynell revised and collected her essays for ten volumes published to much popular and critical acclaim.
Several of these editions have been reprinted since her death. During her lifetime, she earned the admiration of other writers such as Francis Thompson, Coventry Patmore, George Meredith,G. K.Chesterton, and Aubrey De Vere, with whom she became close, often intimate, friends. Meynell clearly became part of the contemporary literati, but her writing, though polished and sophisticated, maintained the accessibility and relevance that made her column so widely read in the 1890s.
Meynell’s essays on language bear the influence of Johnson, Hazlitt, and Arnold.
They reveal a degree of linguistic analysis uncommon in popular journalism of the time but typical of her steadfast belief in the importance of grammar as a cornerstone of cultural stability. Her essay “Composure” (1891) is based on her belief that language itself is educative in the linguistic recognition of the disparity between the word and the thing it represents but teaches us to recognize this through the development of vocabulary: “Shall not the Thing more and more, as we compose ourselves to literature, assume the honour, the hesitation, the leisure, the reconciliation of the Word?” For Meynell, linguistic and semantic gulfs are not so much problems as they are essential aspects of learning. In “The Little Language” (1909), she writes of the felicitous character, intimacy, and locality of dialect, with characteristic metaphorical acuity:
“Dialect is the elf rather than the genius of place, and a dwarfish master of the magic of local things.” “A Corrupt Following” (1921) blames Gibbon for the degradation of the English language during the 19th century in what Meynell sees as his influential but imprecise and ungrammatical stylistic vulgarity. In her much admired essay “The Second Person Singular” (1921), she finds in grammar the heritage of English culture and laments its recent decline, using contemporary usage of the pronoun “you” as an example
of “the slovenliness of our civilization in the practice of the inflexions of grammar.”
Meynell followed her own example in the fastidious precision and polish of her writing. Meynell’s voice, however, does not lose its vitality in its precision. On the contrary, she considers life not in its random collisions and cacophonies but in its ordered continuities and in its wayfaring spirit. She sees life through a poetic prism of refracted light and color, as in the invasion of pastoral green in the urban landscape described in the opening passage of “Ceres Runaway” (1906) or in the corrective spectrum of “The
Colour of Life” (1895), which she points out is not the color of blood—“Red is the colour of violence, or of life broken open, edited, and published”—but the color of the body, “the covered red,” in its various shades under the lamp of nature.
Meynell’s vitality and soulfulness are what attracted readers to her loving depictions of growing children, for instance, in “The Child of Tumult,” “The Child of Subsiding Tumult,” both from her third book of essays The Children (1897), “The Influential Child,” from Childhood (1913), and others inspired by her own son and, later, her grandchildren, which provided invaluable insight on the development and care of personalities before Maslow and Spock. The essays on childhood are central to all of Meynell’s prose work because childhood is the foundation of the human life explored in one way or another in all of the other essays. As she wrote in “The Illusion of Historic Time,” an essay on adult perception of contracted time, “Childhood is itself Antiquity— to every man his only Antiquity.”
Born Alice Christina Gertrude Thompson, 11 October 1847 in Barnes, southwest London. Studied with her father and tutors in England and Italy. Moved with family to the Isle of Wight, 1866. Converted to Roman Catholicism, 1868. Married Wilfrid Meynell, 1877: seven children (one other died in infancy). Contributor to many journals, including the Spectator, the Scots Observer, Edinburgh (later the National Observer, London), the Saturday Review, the Art Journal, and the Tablet; editor, with Wilfrid
Meynell, the Pen, 1880, the Weekly Register, 1881–99, and Merry England, from 1883; weekly columnist of “The Wares of Autolycus,” 1893–98, and art critic, 1902–05, Pall Mall Gazette, London; lectured in the United States, 1901–02. Associated with other writers, including Coventry Patmore, George Meredith, and G. K.Chesterton. Moved to Greatham, Sussex, 1911. Elected Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1914. Died in London, 27 November 1922.
Essays and Related Prose
The Rhythm of Life and Other Essays, 1893
The Colour of Life and Other Essays on Things Seen and Heard, 1896
The Children, 1897
London Impressions, 1898
The Spirit of Place and Other Essays, 1899
Ceres Runaway and Other Essays, 1909
Mary, the Mother of Jesus: An Essay, 1912; revised edition, 1923
Hearts of Controversy, 1917
The Second Person Singular and Other Essays, 1921
Essays of Today and Yesterday (selected essays), 1926
Essays, edited by Francis Meynell, 1947
The Wares of Autolycus: Selected Literary Essays, edited by P.M. Fraser, 1965
Other writings: six collections of poetry, religious books, and biographies of William Holman Hunt and John Ruskin.
Alice Meynell, 1847–1922: Catalogue of the Centenary Exhibition, London: National Book League, 1947
Connolly, Terence L., “Alice Meynell: A Short-Title List of Poetry, Essays,
Miscellaneous Works, Anthologies, Translations, Editings and Introductions,” in Alice Meynell Centenary Tribute, 1847–1947, edited by Connolly, Boston: Humphries, 1948: 41–72.
Badeni, June, The Slender Tree: A Life of Alice Meynell, Padstow, Cornwall: Tabb House Press, 1981
Connolly, Terence L., editor, Alice Meynell Centenary Tribute, 1847–1947, Boston: Humphries, 1948
Maynard, Theodore, Carven from the Laurel Tree, Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1967 (original edition, 1918)
Meynell, Viola, Alice Meynell: A Memoir, London: Cape, and New York: Scribner, 1929
Moore, Virginia, Distinguished Women Writers, Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1968 (original edition, 1934)
Tuell, Anne Kimball, Mrs. Meynell and Her Literary Generation, St. Clair Shores, Michigan: Scholarly Press, 1970 (original edition, 1925)
Vogt, Elizabeth L., Honours of Mortality: The Career, Reputation and Achievement of Alice Meynell (dissertation), Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1989
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