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Meynell, Alice C. and Wilfrid

MEYNELL, ALICE C. AND WILFRID

Husband and wife, authors. Alice: Poet, literary journalist; b. Barnes, Surrey, England, Oct. 11, 1847; d. Nov. 17, 1922. Her father, Thomas Thompson, was a Cambridge graduate; her mother, Christiana Weller, was a concert pianist. The family was wealthy, due to an inheritance from colonial enterprises. Alice and her older sister Elizabeth were educated privately, their father being most frequently their tutor. This training was augmented by frequent travel from childhood onward, the family home alternating between northern Italy and England, with briefer stays in France, Germany, and Switzerland. At the point of young adulthood, Alice and Elizabeth already showed their artistic gifts, the younger as a poet, the older as a painter.

Alice entered the Catholic Church in 1868, a few years after her mother; eventually her father and sister joined them. Although she carefully guarded her privacy in spiritual matters, she once confided to a daughter that she was drawn to the Church primarily for its authoritative moral discipline: "I saw when I was very young that a guide in morals was even more necessary than a guide in faith. It was for this I joined the Church." In 1877 she married Wilfrid Meynell.

Her first volume of poems, Preludes, was published in 1875, winning praise from such luminaries as Tennyson, Ruskin, Christina Rossetti, and George Eliot. With marriage and the beginning of a family, and largely for economic reasons, she shifted her energies to prose. Eventually, however, she returned to her first love, publishing a new collection, Poems, in 1893. Subsequent volumes, including one posthumously issued, secured her contemporary reputation as one of the most compelling voices of her time.

Alice Meynell's poetry finds its power not in the subject matter itself (nature, love, the moral life), which was rarely topical, and never polemical. Its force arises from the exquisite choice of language, a quiet, understated voice, and most of all from surprising angles of perception. In this way she makes the familiar new, alive to fresh intimations. These qualities are also the source of a persistent critique of her work, that it presses its material too strenuously, is overwrought, precious. Religious sentiments mark much of the verse, but underneath nearly all of it, religious or "secular," is a persistent refrain, a theme of compensation that is the very touchstone of the fin de siècle sensibility: life's choicest pleasures are experienced most intensely in their absence. This code of denial, of abstinence, lies at the very heart of both "decadence" and a profoundly religious vision.

Her prose, which found its way into several volumes of essays, is a good deal more uneven in quality than the poetry, much of it having been written on weekly and monthly press deadlines. In addition to studies of classic English writers and reviews of the major literary figures of the day, she practiced what was once called the "familiar essay," a species of writing on quotidian matters that delights more by its method than its matter, where wit and whimsy count more than the passionate prosecution of a thesis. Representative of these qualities is The Rhythm of Life (1893).

Wilfrid: Catholic journalist, editor, publisher, biographer; b. Newcastle-on-Tyne, Yorkshire, Nov. 17, 1852;d. Greatham, Sussex, Oct. 20, 1948. He was the son of Quaker parents and educated in Quaker schools. After moving to London to search for work, he joined the Catholic Church and entered into a lifelong career in journalism.

The Meynells had eight children, one of whom died in infancy. Through the early years of family preoccupations, the two of them created a minor publishing industry, primarily within Catholic circles, as editors, publishers, and frequent contributors to leading periodicals. Wilfrid founded and edited the monthly Merry England, edited the Church-sponsored Weekly Register, and directed the most important Catholic publishing house in England, Burns and Oates. But in all these enterprises the handand the penof Alice were never absent.

While his wife was earning high praise not only in England but also in America, Wilfrid made his own mark in both religious and secular arenas. His biographies of Cardinals Manning and Newman and of Prime Minister Disraeli were well received; and the steady stream of articles and columns for the periodical press gained him a special currency among readers of more than two generations.

Nothing counts so much as a touchstone of the life of Alice and Wilfrid Meynell as their friendship and generous support of many of the most talented literary figures of the day, both the famous and those struggling to be known. For years the Meynell home in London served as a salon for almost daily gatherings of a company of literary friends such as Francis Thompson, Coventry Patmore and George Meredith. For over four decades, decades that spanned the rule of Victorian values to their collapse in World War I, the Meynells were an influential presence in the English-speaking world. The prominence of their religious loyalty must surely count as a factor in the important English Catholic Revival of the twentieth century.

Bibliography: a. meynell, Poems (1893); A Father of Life and Other Poems (1893); (essays) Rhythm of Life (1893); The Colour of Life (1896). j. badeni, A Slender Tree: A Life of Alice Meynell (Cornwall 1981). w. meynell, John Henry Newman (1890); Aunt Sarah and the War (1914).

[p. r. messbarger]

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