Alice Meynell

"Alice Meynell 7" Published by Herder, MO, USA.  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
"Alice Meynell 7" Published by Herder, MO, USA. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Alice Meynell (née Thompson) was a poet and essayist during the Victorian Era and into World War I. She was born on October 11th 1847 in Barnes, Surrey and died in London on November 27th 1922. Her father was Thomas James Thompson and her mother was Christiana Weller, a skilled musician and artist; she also had an older sister, Elizabeth, who shared their mother’s talent for art (Badeni par. 2). The sisters were educated entirely by their father, who never finished his degree at Cambridge (par. 2). Due to economic failure, the Thompson family frequently travelled between rented homes; Meynell spent much time in Italy where she developed a love for the country (par. 4).

Rhoda Flaxman writes in An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers that “the key to both [Meynell's] life and her art lies in the word ‘discipline’” (par. 8). Meynell held discipline and morals in high esteem, and these were strong influences throughout her life, being particularly evident in her conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1868. “Other Christian societies may legislate,” she claimed, “but the [Catholic] Church administers legislation” (Badeni par. 5). She found this attractive, asserting that “the antithesis of slavery was not so much liberty as voluntary obedience” (par. 5).

Meynell had several romantic relationships throughout her life, each with varying levels of seriousness and mutability. She is said to have had a “passionate attachment to male mentors,” (Flaxman par. 2) which may explain her unrequited feelings towards her instructor, Father Dignam, who eventually ceased communication with her (Badeni par. 6); this theme of unrequited love occurred in several of her early poems (par. 6). She married Wilfred John Meynell (1852-1948) in 1877, and remained his wife until her death. The couple had eight children, though only seven survived infancy (par. 7).

Meynell is said to have had the ability to “inspire deep affection in people of all ages” (par. 11), and this was demonstrated in the adoration shown towards her by men such as Coventry Patmore, Francis Thompson, and George Meredith. Though surrounded by admirers, Meynell refused to compromise her happy marriage, and even went so far as to sever ties with Patmore when he developed romantic feelings towards her.

Meynell was also a feminist: as young as eighteen, she expressed disgust with “the selfishness of men that keeps women from work” (quoted by Flaxman par. 3). She supported women's suffrage and women's rights, particularly in the latter half of her career (Badeni par. 12). More than simply holding feminist beliefs, however, Meynell also stood as a symbol for feminism in her personal life. Her marriage and her joint career with her husband was seen as “successfully [fusing] a marriage of equal partners” (Falxman, par. 2). And despite the amount of time and work she put into her writing and editorial work, she remained “a very loving mother” (Badeni par. 7) to her seven children.

Meynell was a writer all her life: she wrote her first poem at the age of seven (Flaxman par. 3). Her first collection of poetry, Preludes, was published over twenty years later, in 1875, and was met with critical acclaim (Badeni par. 6). After her marriage, she worked with her husband in editing and contributing to the Weekly Register, a Catholic paper; from 1883 to 1895, the couple also edited the monthly Merry England. At the same time, Meynell was a regular contributor of literary criticism to other papers such as The Spectator and The Tablet; many of these essays were published in 1893 in a volume entitled The Rhythm of Life (she would go on to publish five more volumes of essays). In the same year, Meynell began contributing a weekly column to the Pall Mall Gazette; the column was “widely read and much admired” (par. 8).

Though it can be argued that she was, first and foremost, a journalist, it was “primarily poetry that brought Meynell to fame” (Flaxman par. 1). After almost twenty years of publishing no poetry, she returned to it in 1895, and went on to write some of her most acclaimed works (Badeni par. 12). Her writing style is both loved and criticized: some modern critics call it “humorless, overprecious satirical slant” (Flaxman par. 7), but her contemporaries praised her as someone who “never overwrote and who left room for the reader’s interpretation” (par. 7). She continued writing until her death in 1922.

Works Cited

Badeni, June. “Meynell [née Thompson], Alice Christiana Gertrude.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Web. Accessed January 25th, 2015.

Flaxman, Rhoda. “Alice Meynell.: An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. Eds. Paul Schlueter, and June Schlueter. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1988. Print.