- 1 Lindsay’s copy of Jones’s First Impressions is in the Small Special Collections Library at the Univ (...)
1There is still much to be said for Alice Meynell. Though hers was a household name a hundred years ago, Meynell, as Talia Schaffer has reminded us, did not survive early twentieth-century reshufflings of the canon. The American poet Vachel Lindsay, for example, when in 1925 he accepted a presentation copy of Llewellyn Jones’s First Impressions, read the chapter about himself, and most of the rest, too, but left pages of the “Alice Meynell” chapter uncut.1 Jones, writing just after Meynell’s death, had felt duty-bound to include her, but Lindsay had not felt any need to read. A few years earlier, Meynell herself, at age 74, had prophesied her own eclipse, saying, “There is such a fashion for youth (really because the century is young!) that those who are growing old are considered by-gone by critics of the moment” (Burns MS 2006-29). The last great conference on her work, held at Boston College to celebrate the 1947 centenary of Meynell’s birth, did not inaugurate the revival but ceremoniously marked the end of her influence.
- 2 “Mother of eight”: not seven. As Badeni points out, the death of Meynell’s infant son, Vivian, part (...)
2Eclipses, though, are temporary, and now, at the beginning of another young century, Meynell is being rediscovered. Schaffer was among the first of Meynell’s new champions. But Schaffer herself inadvertently gives further evidence as to why Meynell’s star did flicker in the secularizing twentieth century. In The Forgotten Female Aesthetes, Schaffer is interested in how Meynell forged the eminently “respectable” professional persona behind which she could write avant-garde literature. Tracking one possible mode of survival for a fin-de-siècle “female aesthete,” Schaffer draws our attention to how Meynell allowed or encouraged the figurations of herself as a chaste paragon, especially in works by Coventry Patmore, Francis Thompson, and George Meredith. Meynell, the argument goes, hid behind and let herself be inscribed within a rhetoric of piety. And Modernists for their part, Schaffer implies, mistook such rhetoric for the truth, saw the persona as the person, regarding Meynell as by-gone indeed. Schaffer insists, though, that, on the contrary, this fictionalized, “angel in the house” ideal of Meynell was a necessary evil, and must not be allowed to cloud our understanding of the career that it helped enable: Meynell in real life balanced being a mother of eight with the gruelling deadline-work of the literary journalist—writer, poet, critic.2 Meynell’s respectability enabled her to be adventurous in her actual published thoughts.
3Schaffer points us to an important complex of texts which helped construct the Alice Meynell persona for a reading public. But I am less sanguine than Schaffer about our ability to separate the idealized Meynell of fin-de-siècle letters from the “real” woman. In fact, I think in some ways it is a mistaken project. It is a complicated thing, for example, to say that Meynell hid behind a pious persona. What if, for Meynell, “identity” is always a theological concept? Both in her better-known pieces, like “The Colour of Life,” and her still quite unknown work, like Mary, the Mother of Jesus (1912), we find that the “real” Meynell is a woman deeply invested in theorizing identity and gender, in ways that are all the more interesting and challenging now for being rather foreign to us.
4Meynell’s writing on identity was naturally shaped by and designed to engage with her own contemporary discursive environment. Like others of her time, Meynell was confronted by the emerging cultural power of scientific norms of “human development”; what was proper to the development of a child, of a person, was increasingly the province of pediatricians and professional pedagogues. It was in these last years of the nineteenth century that the first education doctorates were given, the first scientific journals of pedagogy launched. Meynell, like John Ruskin earlier, of whom she wrote one of the first important studies, used religious arguments to critique the emerging positivist narratives of human development. If we track Meynell’s critical project, and the religious rhetoric that informs it, we are better able to account for, say, her interest in a strange topos like the “virginal maternity” discerned by Schaffer. More intriguingly, her work models for us a distinctive kind of cultural criticism which engages religious thought and the humanities to show up the limits of empiricism.
5In “Ruskin, Science, and the Miracles of Life,” Francis O’Gorman, speaking specifically about one author but really indicating a moment in the history of ideas, notes how Ruskin, in the 1880s, felt he must devote himself to combating empirical, scientistic models of “human development.” Ruskin sought to vindicate a numinous idea of human being, in the face of positivistic narratives which during the High Victorian period had gained cultural currency, and were now gaining authority. O’Gorman quotes various sources in which “experts” pointed up Ruskin’s amateurishness (see, e.g., 276–277).
6Similarly, Meynell is censured in print by one Foster Watson, the first person to have received a doctorate in education from the University of London (DNB). In The Paidologist, the first journal of “child study” in England, Watson takes Meynell to task for suggesting, in her volume of essays The Children (1897), that the modern enthusiasm for “studying” children is a recent invention. Meynell has suggested the contingent nature of paidological discourse, and Watson is, in turn, at pains to point out how unprofessional Meynell is, framing her as a belletrist and amateur.
7For Meynell, then, it may not have been mere careerism to cultivate a persona organized around “virginal maternity”; and for us to point out that “virginal maternity” is a contradiction, might be missing her point. Such Christian topoi appeal to Meynell precisely because they short-circuit empirical verification. A Christian topos like “virginal maternity,” she found, could epitomize the essentially “excessive,” supernatural inflection which she sought to accord to human experience. Meynell used such topoi, in ways that are at once strategic and devout, to organize throughout her late works an extended critique of the empirical body.
8Methodologically, I would suggest strategically resisting the temptation to mine Meynell’s poetry (as we have sometimes done), looking for oblique references to her thinking on particular “issues.” Why? Much of Meynell’s thought is “on the surface” of her literary non-fiction, wanting no miners. Also, I would put the case for occasionally reading “for content,” even at the expense of our belletristic celebrations of Meynell’s formal mastery of prose style. Meynell writes extensively on child rearing and virginity, concepts to which Schaffer rightly draws our attention as being at the heart of how a female aesthete might inscribe her own identity or be inscribed. In attending with care to Meynell’s actual work on identity, we can add to the project which Schaffer began. In the end, we may find that Meynell presents herself not as a pietistic reactionary, but as a provocative model for how we today, as humanities scholars, can engage religion and the sciences seriously to articulate non-normative possibilities of human expression.
9Reading Meynell and reading about her, we are very quickly confronted with the recurring and problematic topos of “virginity.” Schaffer after quoting several passages of tribute from Meynell’s admirers—their praise of Meynell’s body and soul—notes this: “Thompson and Meredith [like Patmore] are, in different ways, obsessed with the need to frame their desire for Meynell’s body in heavenly terms. Both insist on the body’s purity—an odd claim for a married woman who has given birth to eight children” (169). Purity here means virginal purity, and is an odd trait to impute to a mother. But of course, in the order of biology, such a term started sounding odd long before the mother bore her eighth child. Her virginity must have been plenty odd if it brought about even one child. And so it is—odd—but in a traceable way. This unheard-of mode of virginity is, in Meynell’s writing, imagined in the terms of the Roman Catholic liturgy, and described as a taking on of various attributes of the Virgin Mary.
- 3 Schaffer’s description of a “harried mother” could be adumbrated further, though. We should remembe (...)
10Schaffer is right to see these men’s adoration as having been tolerated and even furthered by Meynell herself, who, as Schaffer argues, did want such support and the professional standing that came with it. Only, Schaffer makes out Patmore, Thompson, and company, as being rather bumbling. When Schaffer says, “These men worshipped Meynell in effusively poetic language,” she means they wishfully mistook Meynell for their own, Victorian, feminine ideal, letting their own language fulfil the wish. So much the better for Alice Meynell, perhaps: convenient in her career, but a source maybe of some bemusement to the working journalist she was. Schaffer, to characterize the disconnect she sees between the versifications of admirers, and the actual, unlaced life of Alice Meynell, points out that the “busy, harried mother, trying to discipline children, write the day’s column, and entertain her guests, may have been slightly surprised and embarrassed to discover herself limned as a coy flower” (163). No doubt.3
11But Meynell is herself so committed to figuring herself and motherhood in Marian and virginal terms, that we find it more and more difficult to say that she is merely conniving at the fictionalization of herself in friends’ lyrics. Her writing shows Meynell again and again at pains to frame herself in expressly Marian terms. Such Marian writing would seem to be not a “front” for Meynell’s real (and putatively more subversive) cultural criticism; it would seem to be essential to that criticism itself. In her last major prose work, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Meynell focuses intently on Marian figurations of herself in Thompson’s poetry, cites them expressly, and holds them out as exempla for the correct way to write femininity.
12Readers of this journal do not need to be reminded either of how the Meynells “discovered” Francis Thompson, or that, when the Meynells took him in charge, it was to a monastic retreat that they sent him for what we would call “detoxification.” Thompson lived in the Premonstratensian priory at Storrington, Sussex, for four months, his spiritual formation in every way sobering. And it was immediately upon his return to London from these sacred precincts that he started a sheaf of Marian verses in praise of Alice Meynell. This collection of verse is titled—with a title we shall have to read carefully in a moment—Love in Dian’s Lap.
13Thompson’s lines are, like so much of his verse, paraliturgical, the more so because of his recent experience among the Norbertine friars, after being literally saved by the Meynells from a suicidal life on London’s streets. Here are some of the grateful poet’s words to his friend and patroness:
She that is Heaven’s Queen
Her title borrows,
For that she, pitiful,
Beareth our sorrows.
So thou, Regina mî,
With all our grieving crowned
Mater dolorum! (Complete Poems 64; “Carrier Song,” ll. 53–60)
- 4 “Carrier Song” was first published in September 1893, in the Meynells’ monthly magazine, Merry Engl (...)
14Whatever Thompson’s lines might have contributed to the mystique of Alice Meynell in 1893,4 they seem to serve other ends when quoted by her almost twenty years later in her (today virtually unknown) devotional volume, Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Meynell takes up Thompson’s verses when arguing, à propos of the suffragist movement, that the vindication of women’s rights is essentially a Catholic project, stemming from Marian devotion. The oppression of women is, Meynell says, a feature of the Reformation: “education of women sank quickly from the date of the beginning of Puritanism. . . . Artificial inequality became the custom of England when Mary was dismissed” (83). And again, taking up some more Marian titles from the Litany of Loreto from which Thompson had been quoting, Meynell says: “It is assuredly because Virgo Potens, Virgo Clemens, Vas Insigne Devotionis, Mater Divinae Gratiae, Janua Caeli are titles that have ceased to be gathered in honour of one that they have ceased to be scattered in honour of many” (84). Those poets who have valorized Marian virtues in England’s women are the poets who will point the nation towards liberty. It is a principal work of the poet, says Meynell, to do this gathering and scattering: to gather unto Mary the honors of all womanhood, and to scatter these honors again among women of the earth. Few poets, she adds, have undertaken this effort as has Francis Thompson, who, “in Love in Dian’s Lap, written for one woman”—Meynell herself, that is—“rehearsed” his devotional lyrics “Passion of Mary” and “Assumpta Maria” (Mary 89).
15Here, as Meynell holds up Thompson’s verses as exemplary, we see her engaged in a project significantly distinct from that discerned by Schaffer, though akin to it. Meynell is not merely acquiescing in or hiding behind the construction of some idealized persona of herself in the works of a male poet. Meynell is citing the poet, verse by verse, and claiming for his verses a suffragist interpretation.
16And why, exactly? What is she getting at? Meynell’s praise of Thompson’s poetry is striking not simply for its critique of disenfranchisement, but for the concept of subjectivity which subtends it. Meynell’s concept of subjectivity here is distinctively Christian; to be specific, it is typological. We cannot say here simply that Thompson has addressed Alice in Marian terms; we can and should be more specific. Thompson has inscribed Alice Meynell as a type of Mary.
17If Schaffer is right to remind us of Meynell’s importance in the history of literary subjectivity, and if typology is important to Meynell’s thinking, then we should definitely know what a type is. In the OED, the inadequate definition given for “type” is: “a person, object, or event of Old Testament history, prefiguring some person or thing revealed in the new dispensation.” Inadequate, yes, but a good beginning. “Type,” then, is a concept from Christian biblical exegesis; typological reading allows figures from the Old Testament—and in fact from Classical antiquity also—to signify transhistorically, synchronically. So, for example, the title of Thompson’s fascicle of Marian verses dedicated to Meynell is, as we have noted, Love in Dian’s Lap. But in Thompson’s work, Diana, divine virgin of Pagan Rome, is intended as a type of another virgin, of the Christian Church in Rome—namely, Beata Maria. Thompson’s title promises love-lyrics that are not only chaste and religious, but Christian and typological.
18Furthermore, though this is not in the dictionary, typology implies that time is fundamentally bent by the Incarnation; not only does the Hebrew Scripture look ahead to the life of Christ, but all history is cyclical. The lives of Christ and his Mother are imitated and re-enacted by the saints throughout the age of the Church. Jeffrey Spear, in a book about Ruskin, defines typology this way:
In the course of a typical event[, ] time and eternity momentarily interpenetrate. Thus a biblical man or woman, confined in the chronological [i.e., diachronic] time of the fallen world, performs an action that is simultaneously an event in his or her own time and in [synchronic] providential . . .time. The action is simply part of the individual’s life, yet has its completion in a later historical occurrence as part of progress toward the divine event to which all creation moves [i.e., the salvation of the world, at the end of history]. (35)
19If Meynell took up such an idea of typological subjectivity, this might help us respond to an important concern raised by Schaffer—a concern that troubles Meynell’s more careful readers—namely, that the author’s “individuality” suffered great strain under the weight of her virginal public persona, in the midst of men’s idealized encomiums. “Reduced to a universal icon,” as Schaffer puts it, “a generic ideal, Meynell risked losing her individuality both as a woman and a writer. When she became a saint of women, Meynell herself disappeared” (170). What if “Meynell herself,” though, was advocating for a distinctive subjectivity which was not individualistic? What if her thinking on the self was typological?
20Certainly Meynell would have had use of such a concept of selfhood. If Ruskin had been confronted by positivism in the 1880s, so much more was Meynell, whose most creative years came even later in the ascendancy of the new sciences of human development. Ruskin critiques the empirical self by articulating a rival, theological conception of selfhood: typology. Did Meynell, who knew his work so well, do something similar?
21Ruskin, in his later works, organizes much of his own cultural criticism around the exemplary lives of certain Christian saints. One of his favorite exemplary figures is St. Ursula (q.v. Burd). Ruskin had, for example, lectured on Carpaccio’s paintings of St. Ursula (33.507 and passim). Ruskin sponsored contests at girls’ schools, awarding prizes to the most virtuous (30.336–347). The most elaborate award ceremony took place in a chapel which he himself had fitted up at a women’s teacher-training school, Whitelands College. The only first-hand account still surviving of this chapel (since pulled down) is an 1885 article in the Meynells’ Merry England. We learn that the chapel had a “St. Ursula” window by Morris and Burne-Jones and “Ursula” finials on the pews (Bishop). The object of all this was to encourage young women “to live as little Ursulas” (33.507). Professor Ruskin, in his later years, advocated for a pedagogy that aimed not at what we might call “self-expression” but at typification. If there were more space here, we might list more examples (for both genders), but they would only add up to what is already apparent: Ruskin promoted a kind of education that ideally ended in the students’ emulating the typical life of a saint.
22Now, we could stop here to opine on the rightness or the wrongness or the “problematic” nature of Ruskin’s enterprise. But let’s not, at any rate not before we notice—as Meynell must have noticed—Ruskin’s distinctive intellectual move. Ruskin assumes and promotes a theological model of selfhood, a typological theory of subjectivity, which is as odd nowadays as it was in the late nineteenth century. We know Meynell was familiar with it. So we have every reason to ask: what if Ruskin’s rather odd notion of subjectivity appealed to Meynell?
23She would, as I say, have had even more use for such a supernaturally-inflected concept of human being. The cultural capital of normative, positivist narratives of human development had only increased in the years following Ruskin’s retirement. If O’Gorman is right that Ruskin in his late works was writing back against such normative discourses, so much more would Meynell, writing in subsequent years, have occasion to do so. The Paidologist—which in the main was a typical scientific journal of the sort which universities still produce, with calls for data, academic book reviews, the latest findings of cognitive science—made a point of marginalizing Alice Meynell. Why? Because she was widely read, and her work represented a basic critique of their project.
24Meynell for her part “doubled down” in her subsequent work, engaging in a sustained effort to valorize the childish excessiveness of the human person, as she understood it. In several early twentieth-century works, Meynell develops her critique of the empirical body, especially as it was framed in pediatrics and pedagogy. In Children of the Old Masters (1903), in her introduction to Catulle Mendès’s The Gospel of the Childhood (1904), and finally in her last major prose work, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Meynell calls her readers to recover what she takes to have been the medieval habit of divinizing the child. This is not sentimental. She sees this habit as a salutary worship of “childishness,” which usefully conflicts with modern attempts to circumscribe children, and thus human development, within learned discourse. She points us especially to those scenes in Christian art where a child derails the dominant discourse—for example, “Christ among the Doctors” (Luke 2), where the boy Christ amazes the learned teachers of the Temple, or “The Coronation of the Virgin” (based on Revelations 12), where a young maid is venerated by all the saints, not least by the learned Doctors of the Church. Here is a characteristic “Coronation” passage, from Meynell’s Mary:
- 5 Meynell, to judge from the description of the figures, is thinking here especially of Botticelli’s (...)
Round about the central Maid of the Middle Ages stand “the judicial Senate of Apostles,” the doctors with their open books, in consultation. They are Doctors of the Church, Latin and Greek; theirs is the highest learning of their time; theirs the noblest intellect; theirs are vigils, theirs are experiences. . . . [T]hey are mitred and hold croziers in their benedictory hands; their eyes are on the open book of magnificent manuscript or raised as high as the footstool of the girl about whose character, whose privilege, and whose office they are there to read and reason.5 Book in hand, too, note-book in hand, about the child of our present families stand men of our time, and many of them are doctors, even though they do not claim the capital initial. (Mary 33–34)
25Here, typology vindicates the child and mocks the doctors. The modern child baffles learned discourse, and the modern doctors have failed to learn from the Doctors of the Church— Doctors, with a capital “D”—who know to defer to the excessiveness of the childlike. The real Doctors are those who, like St. Jerome in the Botticelli Coronation of the Virgin, close their books and content themselves with adoring a girl.
- 6 Viola Meynell discusses her mother’s papal translations (65). Burns and Oates regularly advertise t (...)
26I have noticed that students sometimes, upon hearing that Meynell was a “female aesthete” and a mother of eight—a suffragist, as well as the translator of papal allocutions for the Vatican’s official English publisher—imagine that Meynell was necessarily, intrinsically conflicted.6 Surely her religious conservatism was at odds with her politically progressive ideals? Maybe. But not simply. Far from vindicating a Victorian rhetoric of oppression which would trap women on one side or another of a “virgin/whore” binary, Meynell’s thinking on “virginity” opens up new lines of cultural criticism—for her and perhaps for us. Yes, Meynell’s typological writing is difficult for us to digest: there is certainly an element, and a strong element, in it of the reactionary, the ultra-conservative, because it restrains the “individuality” of the subject, arguing that the excellent life is one recognizably typical and saintly. But, precisely because of its typological bent, the model of identity proposed by Meynell is never empirically measurable. For her, the sheer childishness of a child, for example, is a living critique of positivistic models of “human development.” So that, while Meynell’s model of subjectivity does “reduce” a certain “individuality,” it thereby can present the person as supernatural, transhistorical, synchronic—and always radically “in excess” of empirical metrics.
27So perhaps we have one answer as to why Meynell should have so valued the typological poetry of Thompson and others, which frames herself—and so, frames a modern woman—in synchronic terms. Thompson’s language certainly is—what Schaffer calls it—“effusively poetic.” But its effusion is strategic, its effusion is typological, and Meynell sees such strategy as important in figuring women’s self-realization in the face of normative discourses coming out of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century positivism.
28And in fact, typology seems always to have been important to Meynell. To discuss it, we need not confine ourselves to her comparatively unread, late, devotional writings, like Mary. We might look no further than what is still her best-known work, “The Colour of Life.” What might be called the “hero” of the piece is a “London boy” bathing in the Serpentine. “Clothed now with the sun, he is crowned by-and-by with twelve stars as he goes to bathe, and the reflection of an early moon is under his feet.” (The Colour of Life, 3) Meynell is thinking of Revelations 12, of the “Woman of the Apocalypse”:
a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: . . . And a dragon stood before the woman . . . , for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
(Revelations 12: 1b, 4b–5)
- 7 Douglas had been one of the prominent writers to advocate for Meynell’s being made laureate. His Ad (...)
29In Christian art, this Woman and Child are always depicted as the Virgin Mary and the child Christ. But the woman who holds up this London boy to us is not Mary; it’s Alice Meynell. Now, as everyone reading Meynell’s new essay was aware, the London boy bathing in the Serpentine was not there in isolation. He was there with other boys, in quantity. He was there, as Meynell herself says, “in his hundreds.” A dozen years later, Meynell’s contemporary, James Douglas,7 would leave us a description of such a summer sunset in Hyde Park, not very different from what Meynell would have seen when writing “The Colour of Life”:
It is seven o’clock. Let us stroll along the Knightsbridge bank of the Serpentine. Between the water and the iron fence there is a strip of grass several hundred yards long. It is swarming with nude, half-nude, and quarter-nude boys. Hundreds of them, squirming and wriggling, twisting and tumbling, running and leaping, laughing and shouting, in a frenzy of youthful mirth. As we plunge into the rout and riot, we are drowned in a whirlpool of boys, seething, shrieking, jumping about like landed trout, frisking like puppies, gamboling like kids, freaking like kittens. . . . A grand ballet of boys dancing the dance of boyhood. . . . The horrible ugliness of civilised clothes is magically sloughed, and the beauty of boyhood flashes like a bright sword torn from an evil scabbard. (259)
30What others might have seen in the mass, however—as a “whirlpool” or a “frenzy”—Meynell saw in its elements. She gives us the individual boy in his particularity, but the individual boy is an image of Christ. Each of the nude gamins of London-town is his own man—or rather, boy. But he is also like unto the Lord—and not in spite of his childishness, but because of it. It is in evading the dragon of civilization that the child has found himself transfigured. “[H]e sheds the slough of nameless colours—all allied to the hues of dust, soot, and fog, which are the colours the world has chosen for its boys—and he makes, in his hundreds, a bright and delicate flush between the grey-blue water and the grey-blue sky.” (The Colour of Life, 3) He is caught up unto God. To be precise, he is caught up unto typology. He is literally stripped of the marks of Victorian civilization, and reinscribed in a synchronic chronology as a type of Christ.
31Further research into Meynell’s work would be rewarding, not least because of the ways she sublimely ignores what for us are often self-evident boundaries between religious studies and the humanities. Her inquiry into strange modes of subjectivity is, on the one hand, quite distinctive, yet very much of its time, as writers (like John Ruskin) sought responses to the new normative discourses of “human development” professionals. As Schaffer says, “the establishment of an identity is never simple” (196). Schaffer traces how Meynell’s own complex subjectivity was indeed too complex for a subsequent generation to grasp, so that Meynell lost her audience. I agree with Schaffer that these complexities are worth recovering.