Familiar Essay

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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.

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In this article I present a re-evaluation of the work of the prominent female Aesthete, Alice Meynell.

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.

Familiar Essay

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.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).Contemporary 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).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Meynell by insisting on the active, agential, public nature of Meynell’s behavior, even when she seemed at her most withdrawn and self-effacing.Schaffer expands this line of argument in her discussion of Meynell’s essays (Schaffer, 2002), in which she interprets Meynell’s famous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.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.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).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).As Meynell’s imagination took on “essay-shape” (Viola Meynell, above) she discovered an alternative to the structured world of the poem.

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