Smedley, Menella Bute (c. 1820–1877)

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Smedley, Menella Bute (c. 1820–1877)

English poet and novelist. Name variations: (pseudonym) S.M. Born around 1820 in Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England; died on May 25, 1877, in London, England; daughter of Edward Smedley (an encyclopedia editor, poet, and cleric) and Mary (Hume) Smedley; sister of writer Frank Smedley; educated at home by her father; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

The Maiden Aunt (1848); The Story of a Family (1851); The Use of Sunshine, a Christmas Tale (1852); Nina: A Tale for the Twilight (1853); Lays and Ballads from English History (1856); The Story of Queen Isabel, and Other Verses (1863); Twice Lost (1863); Linnet's Trial (1864); A Mere Story (1865); The Colville Family (1867); Poems (1868); (with Mrs. E.A. Hart) Poems Written for a Child (1868); Child-Nature (1869); Child-World (1869); Other Folks' Lives (1869); Two Dramatic Poems (1874); Silver Wings and Golden Scales (1877).

Born in Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England, Menella Bute Smedley was the daughter of Edward Smedley, a cleric, writer, and tutor, and Mary Hume Smedley . Sources differ about Menella's exact year of birth, which is estimated between 1815 and 1820; during childhood, her fragile health necessitated her living away from her parents for several years, presumably with relatives. The oldest of five children, she was later educated at home, receiving a thorough grounding in the classics—a rare privilege for a girl of the time—that served her well in her writing career. The family lived in London until her father's failing health caused him to retire and move with his family to Dulwich. Smedley assumed her father's professional responsibilities as his health continued to deteriorate.

Literary interests were endemic to the Smedley family, providing influences that helped shape Menella's writing career. Her father was an encyclopedia editor whose only volume of poems was published posthumously, while her brother Frank Smedley is best known for his popular boys' novel Frank Farleigh. More directly, Smedley's Aunt Hart, who wrote children's literature, encouraged her first efforts at writing, which were published under the pseudonym "S.M." Smedley, who never married, lived a productive life as a writer of poetry, novels, stories, and plays and as a philanthropist devoted to the education and training of poor children. Several of her books are geared toward children, such as Poems Written for a Child (1868), Child-World (1869), and Silver Wings and Golden Scales (1877).

Smedley's literary themes demonstrate her interest in English history, myths and fairy tales, Irish culture, women's roles in society, religious faith, death, and, enduringly, Italian independence (she wrote a number of poems extolling Garibaldi). One of her early novels, Nina: A Tale for the Twilight (1853), revolves around abducted girls, valiant Christian soldiers, seraglios, ruffians, and political intrigues involving monarchical succession. She explored similar story lines in Lays and Ballads from English History (1856), which methodically traces English monarchical history reign by reign in a series of poems. Christianity and the patriotic concept of England as the world's greatest nation undergirds the history, as does the celebration of British values.

The title poem of The Story of Queen Isabel, and Other Verses (1863) features a long narrative stylistically similar to the lays and ballads of the 1856 volume. Notable in this collection is Smedley's increasingly vocal criticism of the restrictive roles and inequities imposed on women by society, a standard romanticized through the medieval courtly love tradition and legitimated by Christian precepts. She was unwilling to address the connections between religion and women's traditional place in society, however, and the promotion of Christian values so central to her writing frequently borders on didacticism. A typical Victorian daughter in her devotion to her curate father and his mission, Smedley channeled her Christian beliefs into practical, rather than literary, modes of reform, by participating in charity work. Nevertheless, her work, while promoting Christian values, also depicts strong heroines who are loyal and courageous and do not hesitate to confront life-threatening events in defense of their convictions. The novels Twice Lost (1863) and Linnet's Trial (1864), and the tale "A Very Woman" (1849), for example, feature heroines who are drawn in terms of strength, loyalty, and intellectual vigor rather than feminine fragility.

Smedley's later poetry includes Poems Written for A Child, co-authored with Mrs. E.A. Hart , and the collection Poems (both 1868); the latter includes a five-act drama titled Lady Grace. She died in 1877.


Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1936.

Logan, Deborah A. "Menella Bute Smedley," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 199: Victorian Women Poets. Edited by William B. Thesing. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kimberly A. Burton , B.A., M.I.S., Ann Arbor, Michigan