Alice Meynell, Poet and Muse

Typescript of Alice Meynell's poem "The Poet to the Birds"

Typescript of Alice Meynell’s poem “The Poet to the Birds”, Box 1, Folder 12, Alice Meynell Collection, MS.2006.029, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1844, Charles Dickens was infatuated with a young concert pianist by the name of Christiana Weller. Meeting Christiana and dining with her family, Dickens brought along his friend and contemporary, Thomas James Thompson, who on October 21 1845, eventually married Christiana (Bodenheimer 271). Thompson’s courtship and engagement did not run smoothly however, as he faced both parental disapproval as well as Dickens’s own thinly veiled attraction to the young woman. Despite this unusual start, Thompson and Weller were eventually married and Christiana gave birth to Alice Thompson in 1847. Under the banner of such an auspiciously literary start to her parents’ marriage, it is perhaps unsurprising that Alice would grow up to be an essential part of the Victorian world of letters through her poetry, editorial work, and literary reviews and criticism.

Alice Thompson and her husband, Wilfrid Meynell met in 1876. Meynell had read one of Alice’s sonnets in the Pall Mall Gazette and was eager to meet the poet, an introduction he accomplished by attending her mother’s “afternoon musical at-homes” (V. Meynell 5). The two were married on April 16, 1877 after brooking familial disapproval and financial troubles. The Meynell’s marriage was a happy one, with husband and wife working together on editorial projects, most notably the editing of the Weekly Register, a Catholic newspaper, and Merry England, a Catholic literary journal. The couple had eight children, seven of which survived infancy. Their daughter Viola Meynell went on to become a published author, while their son Francis Meynell founded the Nonesuch Press.

Letter from Wilfrid Meynell to Father Terence Connolly, July 17, 1931.

Letter from Wilfrid Meynell to Father Terence Connolly, July 17, 1931, Box 1, Folder 10, Wilfrid Meynell Collection, MS.2006.029, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The John J. Burns Library houses the Alice Meynell Collection, a manuscript collection made up of correspondence, poem manuscripts, and other materials. It is accompanied by the Wilfrid Meynell Collection which is made up of correspondence, royalty notices, receipts, proofs of articles from Merry England, and photographs. Correspondence from the Meynells also appears in several collections of authors’ papers including Coventry Patmore and Hilaire Belloc. Socially and intellectually, Alice and Wilfrid Meynell were at the center of a social circle of major Catholic writers. Francis Thompson, the famous poet, was made a de facto member of the Meynell family; they took him in, encouraged his writing, and after his early death, Wilfrid Meynell handled the poet’s posthumous publications. The Burns Library is home to a large collection of Thompson’s papers including correspondence from both Alice and Wilfrid Meynell. Father Terence Connolly, the curator of the Thompson collection and former Boston College librarian, was instrumental in acquiring what is now the Francis Thompson Collection.  Father Connolly corresponded with Wilfrid Meynell, who helped in building the Thompson Collection.

By all accounts, Alice Meynell was an important friend and colleague in the social and literary circles in which she moved, prompting respect and even romantic attachment in the literary men who surrounded her. Sources vary as to the veracity of these claims, but it is certain that Coventry Patmore developed an attraction to Alice Meynell that led to social communication being severed between the two poets (they were both married at the time). Whatever her role as muse, it is certain that Alice Meynell was a respected writer, journalist, and critic. After raising her family and pursuing journalistic endeavors, she returned to poetry in 1895. From then until her death on November 27th, 1922, Alice Meynell experienced a period of intense creativity and poetic production. Several of her manuscripts are located in the Alice Meynell Collection at the Burns Library.

Manuscript of Alice Meynell's poem "Free Will"

Manuscript of Alice Meynell’s poem “Free Will”, Box 1, Folder 12, Alice Meynell Collection, MS.2006.029, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Alice and Wilfrid Meynell formed the nucleus of a tightly-knit Catholic literary community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their literary and social achievements are reflected in their ubiquitous presence in the Burns Library manuscript collection, from the collections which house their own manuscripts and letters to the correspondence of many of the major 19th and 20th century British authors, including Francis Thompson, Hilaire Belloc, and Graham Greene. If you are interested in Alice and Wilfrid Meynell, or would like to see the Alice and Wilfrid Meynell Collections, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room for more information at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Student in the Department of English

Bibliography

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. “Dickens Fascinated.” Victorian Studies 48.2 (Winter 2006):                268 – 276.

Meynell, Viola. Alice Meynell: A Memoir. London: J. Cape, 1929.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004-2013.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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