Her imagination had taken essay-shape.
Viola Meynell, Alice Meynell: A Memoir (1929), 72.
Hers is a world of free mobilities—of birds on the wing, of seeds on the breeze.
Anne Kimball Tuell, Mrs Meynell and Her Literary
Generation (1925), 157.
1In this article I present a re-evaluation of the work of the prominent female Aesthete, Alice Meynell. While much of the critical writing on Meynell discusses her poetry, I contribute to a small body of work that focuses on her prose. I argue that Meynell’s essay collections of 1893–1909 constitute a substantive response to the ethical question of how to coexist with others without imposing upon them or being imposed upon oneself—how to live in the world without committing or suffering violence, or how to imagine a “world of free mobilities,” as Tuell puts it (above). Meynell, known for her asceticism, advocates for the negative virtues of reticence and withdrawal and recommends a stance in which one is enabled to let things—people, possessions, influence—pass through one’s hands, rather than seizing upon power. My argument can be restated as an assertion about how Meynell, best known as a poet, inhabited the landscape of prose, and what possibilities she found there. As Meynell’s imagination took on “essay-shape” (Viola Meynell, above) she discovered an alternative to the structured world of the poem. Meynell’s use of the genre of the familiar essay constituted an exploration of the position of retreat—the refusal to impose. At the same time, Meynell’s exploration of the familiar essay’s retreating propensities inflects the genre of the familiar essay itself, emphasizing certain of its capacities over others. In this sense, Meynell’s prose writings reinterpret and repurpose the genre of the familiar essay to render it a suitable forum for confronting the ethical questions of the 1890s.
- 1 This may sound like a somewhat dreary family milieu, but in fact Badeni’s biography of Meynell pres (...)
2Alice Meynell was not only an important fin-de-siècle writer, but also a striking and celebrated personality, known both within Aesthetic circles and to a wider public. She was famed for her reticence, abstraction, and asceticism: her social manner was characterized by silence, privacy was a watchword in her relationships, her absent-mindedness was a joke among her children, and Meynell was self-denying in her spending and austere in the running of her house (Badeni, 129, 143–5, 211).1 Meynell’s contemporaries often described her either by using the word “ascetic,” or by resorting to a rubric of monasticism. Richard Le Gallienne observed a “touch of exquisite asceticism about her,” of “one quite humanly and simply in this world. . . and yet not of it”; he declared that there was “the charm of a beautiful abbess about her” (Badeni, 145). J. C. Squire described her as “a religious ascetic” who “practiced “art for art’s sake” as ruthlessly as any despairing hedonist of them all” (Badeni, 245). E. V. Lucas wrote that “[o]ne wants a new word to describe [her] aloofness; she was not apart because all their [her children’s] feelings she shared, and yet she carried her own sanctuary with her” (Badeni, 145).
3Meynell’s publishing career lasted from the 1870s to the 1920s, but she achieved her greatest prominence during the 1890s. She published her poetry through the Aesthetic publisher John Lane, and her essays in periodicals and collections, some of which were also brought out by John Lane. Tracy Seeley outlines Meynell’s work as an essayist:
Meynell produced hundreds of essays on art, morals, politics, faith, and children. Her prose appeared in British and American journals for nearly fifty years: from the Catholic Tablet and Dublin Review to the Westminster Gazette and Atlantic Monthly. The Pall Mall Gazette, where Meynell’s weekly column, “The Wares of Autolycus,” appeared from 1893–1898, secured her extraordinary fame as an essayist. Ten volumes of her collected essays appeared during her lifetime and several came after, including an Oxford collection of her literary criticism, The Wares of Autolycus (106).
- 2 Meynell also published one further essay collection during this period, London Impressions (1898). (...)
4During the period 1893–1909 Meynell published the five collections of essays that I discuss here: The Rhythm of Life (1893), The Children (1897), The Colour of Life (1897), The Spirit of Place (1899), and Ceres’ Runaway (1909).2 These are collections of familiar essays, informal in tone and—with the exception of The Children, which is specifically about children—miscellaneous or occasional in content. They are mostly compiled from essays that Meynell had previously published in periodicals, and they discuss many and varied objects, including plants and other natural phenomena, historical figures, places, landscapes, and architecture, social mores, incidents seen and heard, children, childhood, and parenting, and literature. These essays are generally very short, about 5–8 pages in their original editions, and they have a striking quality of compression and density. Schaffer describes Meynell’s essays as epigrammatic (2000, 171) and ascribes to them a gem-like quality (2000, 159)—an ascription that captures their remote, glittering exquisiteness. The lapidary quality and epigrammatic features of Meynell’s prose firmly identify her essays with Aestheticism; Meynell wrote in what Schaffer describes as a “fundamentally Aesthetic style” (171).
5Contemporary critical writing on Meynell’s essays has engaged ambivalently with the tendency towards retreat, withdrawal, and abstention that, I argue, characterises her essays (and is generally acknowledged as a feature of her personality). Ana Parejo Vadillo, discussing Meynell’s locodescriptive essay collection London Impressions, presents Meynell’s withdrawal as the situation of one ensconced in a train, separated from the world by the pane of window glass. Vadillo argues that Meynell struggles to justify this spectatorial subject position, which Vadillo presents as privileged and detached (102). Tracy Seeley takes another tack, reading Meynell’s familiar essays against the grain to identify their active and outwardly-oriented impulses. She argues that although Meynell is rarely openly polemical, she “reshapes the familiar essay to promote feminist ends” (106). Talia Schaffer, writing more generally about Meynell’s personality, argues for the importance of publicity, self-promotion, and competitiveness in Meynell’s career. She claims that Meynell strategically adopted a stance of withdrawal and self-effacement in order to become a template of ideal femininity, thereby achieving preeminent status as the “ultimate female aesthete” of the 1890s (2000, 160). Schaffer thus resists the rubric of retreat and withdrawal surrounding Meynell by insisting on the active, agential, public nature of Meynell’s behavior, even when she seemed at her most withdrawn and self-effacing. Schaffer expands this line of argument in her discussion of Meynell’s essays (Schaffer, 2002), in which she interprets Meynell’s famous penchant for privacy as a suppressed longing for publicity and public exposure.
6It seems that critics have struggled to know what to do with Meynell’s abstentions: how to render them in a nonjudgmental way, and with the degree of seriousness, depth, and complexity with which Meynell herself evidently invested them. The aim of this article is to fill this gap in the Meynell criticism. While acknowledging the indubitable centrality of publicity and productivity in Meynell’s career, we must allow another thread to coexist with this. We must also acknowledge that Meynell’s many kinds of retreat were evidently sincere, heartfelt, and unaffected in many ways. Meynell’s fame does not preclude the possibility that another, less worldly, part of herself and her writing cleaved to privacy, silence, and withdrawal. I propose that we can read Meynell’s investment in asceticism and reticence as a habit of behavior or regimen that constituted the outward expression of a considered and strongly felt ethical position.
- 3 We catch another, contrasting, sighting of Meynell in a bus in Virginia Woolf’s diaries: “there she (...)
7Criticism on Meynell’s essays tends to present Meynell in different forms of transport. Vadillo imagines Meynell as a privileged, detached train passenger, separated from the realities of life by the glass of the train window. Schaffer imagines Meynell as a bus passenger, gazing out enviously at a woman cyclist, herself hemmed in and entrapped in the bus, a vehicle of ladylike constraint and dependency.3 Those who knew Meynell well, however, pictured a different scenario. Meynell’s children teased her with a story, “untrue but plausible,” that she had once spent “an hour in a cabman’s shelter in the belief that it was a slow-to-start tramcar” (Badeni, 144). This comical but affectionate depiction of Meynell-as-passenger brings us close to a new truth about her. Here we encounter Meynell in her abstraction and unworldliness, aware of a world of motion, but sitting stilly to the side of it with the generous but unwarranted patience that brings an element of comedy to the scenario. Here is Meynell peaceful, silent, and alone. This is the image of Meynell that I seek to bring into focus in this article.
- 4 This article uses online versions of Meynell’s essay collections and therefore I do not provide pag (...)
8In “Tithonus” (1909) Meynell criticizes a technique used in the restoration of panels in St Paul’s cathedral, in which wax and petroleum were mixed with paint in order to create an imperishable surface, an ornament “driven in and incorporate, burnt in and absorbed.”4 But she does not object to this technique on aesthetic grounds; she declares, instead, “This is not a matter of art-criticism. It is an ethical question.” She defines the petroleum and the wax as a “violence done to St Paul’s” and a “means of finality and violence,” and she feels compelled on ethical grounds to oppose this violence. Meynell’s ethical vision, then, can be understood, in one sense, as a protest against violence. Meynell’s essays, however, conceive of violence in an idiosyncratic way, as the example of “Tithonus” indicates. To be sure, Meynell objected to straightforward physical violence: for example, she expressed abhorrence of it in her anti-war poem “Parentage” and her pacifist opposition to the Boer War (see Smulders, 1993). But Meynell also used the idea of violence in unexpected ways, as in “Tithonus.” In “Have Patience, Little Saint” (1899) she criticizes the “violence” of the practice of treating beggars with disrespect. In “Grass” (1897) she calls the rolling of grass a violent practice. In “The Unready” (1909) she describes adults’ over-ambitious expectations of children as a form of violence. Meynell’s seemingly random and disparate uses of the words “violent” and “violence” are scattered throughout her essays of 1893–1909. Meynell’s wayward uses generate a distinctive definition of the phenomenon of violence that emerges cumulatively throughout the essays of 1893–1909 and that fundamentally informs her ethical vision.
9In several essays on wild and humble plants, including “Rushes and Reeds” (1897), “Grass” (1897), and “Ceres’ Runaway” (1909), Meynell celebrates the spirit of quiet freedom that characterizes the incorrigible behavior of weeds. She delights in the blithe, uncalculating waywardness of the “vagrant garden in the air” that undercuts the dignity of the religious buildings of Rome, in the “lettuce as it grows with a most welcome surprise on certain edges of the Vatican,” a “little garden of random salad” that represents “the little flying heels of the runaway” (“Ceres’ Runaway”). Likewise she loves the “gay and lowly ways” of the grass that grows in the unused parts of London streets, taking “only what nobody wanted,” “taking leave to live and let live” (“Grass”). Meynell appreciates, too, the liminal and unaffiliated quality of reeds, which renders them inassimilable to systems of ownership: “They are dwellers upon thresholds and upon margins;” they are “probably outlaws;” they are “a gipsy people, amongst us, yet out of reach;” “Existing between the pasture and the wave, they seem to escape that insistent ownership which has so changed (except for a few forests and downs) the landscape of England.” In her descriptions of these plants Meynell celebrates a principle of liberality and marginality—what she calls, in “Rushes and Reeds,” an “extraterritorial quality:” a capacity to mount quiet, obstinate, inoffensive claims to freedom that operate, not by opposing authority, but by gently, and without violence, disregarding it.
10But these essays do not simply celebrate these humble plants with their extraterritorial qualities. These essays are about obliteration. In “Grass” and “Ceres’ Runaway” Meynell describes how city authorities, “punctual in destruction” (“Grass”), tidy up such weeds. In “Grass” she observes “the little border of wayside grass which a row of public servants—men with spades and a cart—are in the act of tidying up. Their way of tidying it up is to lay its little corpse all along the suburban roadside, and then to carry it away to some parochial dust-heap.” In “Ceres’ Runaway” she presents a similar scene in which plants are “put to death,” describing how in Rome they “slowly uproot the grass and lay it on the ancient stones—rows of little corpses—for sweeping up, as at Upper Tooting.” In “Rushes and Reeds” Meynell envisions a fantasy scene in which a landowner might go out “armed” and have “a long acre of sedges scythed to death.”
11Meynell presents these acts of municipal and private land management as gratuitous outrages, massacres and scenes of carnage in which grasses become corpses and sedges are slaughtered. These surprisingly macabre accounts suggest that such seemingly mundane and innocuous acts as mowing and scything can carry within them profoundly destructive objectives and impulses. In Meynell’s accounts, such acts express, in microcosm, a controlling and possessive approach to the world and the things of it—an approach that violates the wayward and generous spirit, the extraterritoriality, which the wild plants represent. This violating attitude is best encapsulated in Meynell’s description of the farmer whom she imagines scything down a bed of reeds. The farmer, Meynell imagines, wants to see “nothing out of the windows” that is not his “own.” Meynell smiles at his greedy, deluded aspirations to ownership: “His property, he says, goes right down to the centre of the earth, in the shape of a wedge; how high up it goes into the air it would be difficult to say, and obviously the shape of the wedge must be continued in the direction of increase. We may therefore proclaim his right to clouds and their cargo.” He willfully ignores facts which counter his assumption of ownership, for instance that “his ground game is apt to go on his neighbour’s land to be shot . . . [and] the clouds may now and then spend his showers elsewhere.” And yet the reeds keep him honest: he is “disturbed by an unspoken doubt, if his otherwise contented eyes should happen to be caught by a region of rushes.” The extraterritorial quality of the reeds, their quiet refusal to be owned or bounded, goads the farmer, rendering all his other claims to possession uncertain; thus he finds himself “resolved” not to “endure” this “sort of thing” any longer, and chooses to destroy the reeds. The phrase “sort of thing” refers to the disorderly phenomena of a fecund, generous world: phenomena that challenge an intolerant consciousness intent only on containment, boundaries, and ownership.
12If, in her poetry, Meynell reflects primarily on the paradoxical pleasures and freedoms of submitting to authority, particularly that of the Catholic church, in her essays she celebrates extraterritoriality, a mode of quiet rebellion and wayward marginality. But this celebration is tempered by a haunting awareness of an arrogant, possessive impulse that endangers the extraterritorial, and that, Meynell suggests, drives much of human behavior and institutional practice. The ever-present danger in the world of Meynell’s essays is the arrogance and acquisitiveness of impulses towards mastery, which by their very nature overstep their bounds, desecrating the right order of a world that provides certain natural freedoms—certain realms of extraterritoriality. This desire for dominance and possession lies at the heart of Meynell’s conception of violence, which encompasses all kinds of behaviour that seek to bind, fix, and contain the other. Meynell’s essays hinge on her rejection of this “obstinate, confident, unreluctant, undoubting, and resolved seizure upon power” (“Tithonus”). In this sense the ethical project that her essays embody can be understood as a project of anti-violence: a space for reflection in which she offers hypotheses about how it might be possible to exist in relationship with others and the world while defending against the ever-present danger of committing, or falling victim to, violence.
- 5 Meynell had a deep attachment to the relationship between father and daughter and the experience of (...)
13Meynell’s use of the genre of the familiar essay provided her with a way to think through an ethics that could safeguard against the force of violence. In exploring Meynell’s use of the genre of the familiar essay, however, we have two parallel stories to pursue: that of Meynell’s genres, and that of her fathers. The stories are intertwined.5
14Meynell’s biographer, June Badeni, and several scholars of Meynell, have noted the unusual closeness and tumultuousness of Meynell’s relationship with the poet and critic Coventry Patmore. Although this relationship is often read in amorous terms, Yopie Prins has attended to the way in which it hinged on filial forms of substitution and inheritance modeled on a father-daughter relationship, enacted through the medium of poetry. Prins shows how Meynell’s poems are formally governed by “the rubric of pauses and intervals” that Patmore proposed in his “Essay on English Metrical Law” (262). Thus Meynell’s “poetics of pauses” (264) constitutes a reproduction and an inheritance. Patmore in a sense fathered Meynell’s poetry; or, to put it more accurately, Meynell elected to “daughter” her poetry on the body of Patmore’s work. This act of daughtering entailed an Oedipal drama of submission in which Meynell willingly “submitted to Patmore’s metrical law, allowing her language to feel the bonds of verse, and herself to love them” (264).
- 6 Thomas Thompson, was the illegitimate son of James Thompson, a Jamaican planter originally from Liv (...)
15But Meynell had another father. If Meynell’s poetry was governed by the law-giving of Coventry Patmore, her prose, I suggest, was incited by the silences and abdications of her biological father, Thomas Thompson.6 Meynell’s love of self-effacement and withdrawal has been attributed by Schaffer to her engagement with Victorian ideals of femininity—to the discipline of Patmore’s poem “The Angel in the House.” And yet the primary figure of self-effacement and withdrawal in Meynell’s writing is not a woman but a man, her father, described in her essay “A Remembrance” (1893). “A Remembrance” doubles as a reminiscence of a very private man, Meynell’s father, and a study of the topos of privacy that is a feature of the familiar essay. In “A Remembrance” Meynell works the idea of privacy up into an ethical stance by reflecting on the ethical capacities of her father. Her father is presented as the basis for her ethical reflections, but at the same time, “A Remembrance” constitutes an innovative theorization of the genre of the familiar essay. The familiar essay is, for Meynell, the aesthetic form that makes it possible to conceive of this stance.
16In order to understand Meynell’s ethical engagement with the familiar essay, it is necessary to know something of the history and form of this genre. The familiar essay is generally understood as a genre that reached its zenith in the writings of the Romantic essayists Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt (Roche, in Chevalier, 274–276). Meynell, along with Max Beerbohm, was one of those who sought to revitalise the familiar essay in the late nineteenth century. The familiar essay’s intimate, confiding tone is often described as “conversational;” it can be understood as “published prose in a private and informal guise” (Natarajan, 27). In terms of content, as well as tone, the familiar essay focuses on private life. Familiar essays “have been filled with intimate personal observations and reflections, and have emphasized the concrete and tangible, the sensual enjoyment of everyday pleasures” (Roche, in Chevalier, 274). This emphasis on a private sphere of experience distinguishes the familiar essay from the publicly-oriented tradition of essay writing that also exists in English—a tradition that encompasses critical, political, philosophical, and moral essays, or the types of writings that Dobree collects under the heading “the essay of ideas.” This tradition derives initially from the essays of Francis Bacon (The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, 1625) and draws on other system-oriented genres such as the treatise. The familiar essay, by contrast, draws on private and less authoritative genres such as the letter and the diary, and resembles, although it is not exclusively derived from, the essays of Michel de Montaigne, in which Montaigne sought to describe the details of his everyday experiences and subjective and bodily life. The familiar essay is, overall, a genre allied with privacy and the private individual.
17Meynell’s description of her father reveals a figure wholly at odds with the ideal of the Victorian father as masculine, positive and authoritative. Her description constitutes a reflection, rather, on the power of her father’s “fine negatives:” “The delicate, the abstinent, the reticent graces were his in the heroic degree. Where shall I find a pen fastidious enough to define and limit and enforce so many significant negatives?” Meynell’s father a “life-long” “reserve”: “He was not inarticulate, he was only silent.” In many ways Meynell’s description of her father’s life seems to meditate on waste: her father lived according to a “dilettante,” aristocratic “leisure,” and “idleness;” “Loving literature, he never lifted a pen except to write a letter.” Yet as she describes him, we come to recognize that his seemingly passive and idle way of living expressed a disciplined and “significant” set of refusals, abstentions, and withdrawals. An “amateur at living,” he refused all involvement with the marketplace, with its teleological orientation and projects of productivity and wealth generation. This constituted a refusal to grasp onto things, to approach experience and the world in a possessive and proprietary way, such that “many of the things he had slipped from his disinterested hands.” His lack of materialistic possessiveness and self-interest fed into a broader form of disinterest: “when he suffered, it was with so quick a nerve and yet so wide an apprehension that the race seemed to suffer in him. He pitied not himself so tenderly as mankind, of whose capacity for pain he was then feelingly persuaded.” Likewise, in times of happiness he recollected the “general pleasure.”
18Meynell’s father’s significant negatives, in other words, constituted an ascetic regimen of self-effacement whereby he evacuated his self so completely as to be able to accommodate the other. Meynell’s father’s withdrawal thus made possible a different, less self-interested and possessive, kind of connection with others and the world; it was a withdrawal that facilitated connection. Thus it was Meynell’s father’s “finest distinction,” in death and in life, “to desire no difference, no remembrance, but loss among the innumerable forgotten.” Such a stance, Meynell suggests, was intrinsically opposed to violence. Meynell declares, “he disliked violence chiefly because violence is apt to confess its own limits”—that is to say, the hard boundaries of an acquisitive, competitive self. Through his abstinence and reserve he signaled his recognition of the arduousness of the decision to extend oneself out into the world, even in speech—the risk of imposition, arrogance, and ultimately violence. When Meynell traces the edges of the figure of her father, she carves out a utopian space free of violence and tyranny, a realm of “significant negatives” that is the most humane possibility that she can envisage. In effect, she chooses to daughter her ethical vision on the silent figure of her father. In so doing, she presents an homage to the ethical possibilities of privacy and the private life.
- 7 I have thus far been unable to identify the source of this quote.
19This is the realm, not only of Meynell’s father, but also of the familiar essay, which cleaves to privacy and the private life, and is distinguished from other non-fiction prose forms partly through its manifest intention not to intervene in the debates of the public sphere. The attempt to envision a kind of writing that would avoid, and embody an alternative to, violence, animates another of Meynell’s comments on prose. She expresses delight in “prose that is willing and able to wait upon its subject, to be fragmentary, to go aside, to watch, to attend, even as they do who keep guard upon the fitful coming and going of a young child—prose that has no symmetry to keep” (Tuell, 45).7 Here Meynell conceives of prose in terms of a rubric of reticence and non-imposition akin to the stance that her father adopted. In striking contrast to her commentary on poetry, where she values the structuring capacity of poetic laws and rules, here Meynell envisages a form of writing that would set the world free of the very demands and conventions of literature—a writing that would efface its own capacity to form the world. The familiar essay, in her hands, seems to represent and embody this capacity—to enjoy the moment in which its subject escapes.
- 8 Badeni’s biography contains extracts from Meynell’s letters in which she repeatedly asks her son to (...)
20The space of retreat that Meynell’s father represents, then, can also be understood as the space of the familiar essay as Meynell interpreted it. If Meynell’s poem “The Laws of Verse,” putatively about poetry, doubles as an expression of love directed towards Meynell’s poetic father, Coventry Patmore, then “A Remembrance,” putatively about Meynell’s biological father, doubles as an expression of love directed towards the genre of the familiar essay. Seeley has shown how Meynell’s essays can be connected to a tradition of polemical prose by women writers such as Mary Wollestonecraft, but recognising how Meynell’s prose writings also engage with the genre of the familiar essay allows us to refine the way in which we locate her in relation to literary history. Her forbears are the familiar essayists George Meredith, Charles Lamb, and Sir Thomas Browne—“These she knew with the exceptional interpretation of her father’s guidance,” Tuell informs us (53–54).8 Once we acknowledge this lineage, Meynell’s advocacy of self-effacement and withdrawal reveals itself to be a response to and iteration of a male tradition of retreat and otium connected to the genre of the familiar essay—a tradition that Meynell chooses to mine for its ethical possibilities.
21We can read “A Remembrance” as the work that sits at the centre of Meynell’s essays of 1893–1909, for this piece embeds an ethos in this first collection that is then worked through repeatedly, in different ways, throughout the first volume and those that follow it. Meynell describes her father’s intellect as “a presence-chamber.” This term literally refers to a room for receiving guests into the royal presence, but also carries the associated, partially submerged, meanings of internal echoes and reverberations (the echo-chamber), and insinuates associations of proximity, influence, and intimacy (presence). Meynell’s familiar essays of 1893–1909 collectively constitute a chamber redounding with internal echoes, with the powerful presence of the (way of) being depicted in “A Remembrance.” In this sense, they all also double as self-reflexive considerations of the ethical import of their own genre.
22The thing that is most difficult to grasp about Meynell’s ethics is that, although it depends upon forms of retreat and withdrawal, it is fundamentally concerned with the question of how best to be in relationship with others. As “A Remembrance” shows, Meynell’s ethical instincts were rooted in her experience of being parented by her father. They were rooted, that is, in an experience of relationship and intimacy, and in her reflections on a role, that of the parent, in which care of the other is the paramount responsibility. Parenthood is a key topic of Meynell’s prose oeuvre, and essays such as “The Unready,” “The Child of Tumult” and “The Child of Subsiding Tumult” (Ceres’ Runaway) and “Fellow Travellers with a Bird I” and “Fellow Travellers with a Bird II” (The Children) cumulatively generate a representation of parental subjectivity. Meynell’s essays on parenthood tend to present the parent in the role of compassionate and sometimes amused observer, rather than, say, disciplinarian or teacher; the parent’s authority is downplayed, in favour of a capacity for noticing, responding to, and being led by the child, just as ideal prose is led by its object. Meynell seems, in these essays, to work through the idea of parenthood in order to develop an account of a kind of disinterest that constitutes not a lack of interest but rather an abandonment of aspirations to mastery and of narrow forms of self-interest. I argue in this section that in one of her most beautiful essays on parenthood, “The Letters of Marceline Valmore” (1899), Meynell generates an account of a form of self-effacement and evacuation of self that reveals the self’s continuity with others and that is positively based on benevolence and love. In “The Letters of Marceline Valmore” Meynell presents this form of selfhood “without boundaries” as the basis for ethical capacity, and uses it as the foundation for the most visionary utopian passage in her prose writings.
23In “The Letters of Marceline Valmore” (1899) Meynell tells of Marceline Valmore, a woman who wrote to her daughter, “Oh, take care of me—cover me well.” It was Valmore’s daughter, Ondine, who was ill and needed to be covered and given care. But Valmore wrote as though she herself were Ondine, “confessing the uncancelled union with her child that had effaced for her the boundaries of her personal life.” “The Letters of Marceline Valmore” allows several ideas to hang in suspension, the connections between them unprofessed and mysterious. Meynell notes that Valmore “loved the sun and her liberty, and the liberty of others.” She had a “horror of prisons:” “for the prisoners she worked, wrote, and petitioned.” Moving to a discussion of Valmore’s poetry, Meynell comments, “The old rules in their completeness seemed too much like a prison to her. She was set about with importunate conditions—a caesura, a rhyme, narrow lodgings in strange towns, bankruptcies, salaries astray—and she took only a little gentle liberty.” Valmore’s disinterested love for her daughter brushes up against her horror of incarceration, her compassion for prisoners, her difficulties in life, and her literary waywardness, but the relationship between all of these elements is never explicitly expressed.
24There is no call to drag a reasoned argument out of this essay’s reserve, to compel it into expression. And yet we can take something from its loose, shifting constellation of affect and ideas. We are left with a feeling that a disinterested self, a self that unrealises itself, that extinguishes its boundaries in love of the other, is connected with liberty, gentleness, accommodation: a capacity to leave avenues of unboundedness open to others. And this very exceeding of boundaries may be unbounded. “If a love and life without boundaries go down from a mother into her child,” Meynell speculates, “and from that child into her children again, then incalculable, intricate, universal, and eternal are the unions that seem—and only seem—so to transcend the usual experience . . . There are no lapses.” Here Meynell offers the most fully realized utopian vision of her essays of 1893–1909: a capacity for loving disinterest passed from mother to child, a feminine tradition of continuity with the other, cognized and realized through an intuition of plenitude and boundlessness.
25In a letter to her son Francis, Meynell wrote that she conceived of hell as the weight of one’s actions: “I am certain that to all eternity I shall never cease to be sorry for some passages in my life, shall never cease to mourn for them. They and their consequences will always be present to me in whatever kind of eternity I may [be in], even, by the great mercy of God, a happy one” (Badeni, 179). Overall, in her essays, Meynell presents an ethical framework based not upon sins of omission but upon a virtue of omission: the capacity to refuse to impose oneself, to lay aside impulses of acquisitiveness and mastery in order to set the other free. In the context of Meynell’s writings restraint constitutes not so much an abdication of social responsibility as a profound capacity for ruth. By “ruth” (which I use here as an opposite term to “ruthless”) I mean a special kind of compassion, pity, or sorrow for others, which is intimately intertwined with an understanding of the possibility of regret, guilt, and contrition: a heavy, grieving sense of the meaning of one’s actions for others. The position that Meynell advocates approximates Melanie Klein’s depressive position—the position in which the subject gains the ability to feel guilt and thus attains to ethical capacity. At the end of her life Meynell wrote that she wept for “my failure of love to those that loved me” (Badeni, 248). This sentiment indicates, not that Meynell was neglectful, but rather that she was acutely aware of the weight of the debt of care and concern that she owed to those who, by loving her, laid themselves at her mercy.