Wilfrid and Alice Meynell: The Couple at the Heart of Great Britain’s Catholic Revival

Wilfrid Meynell was born into a Quaker family in 1852 (he would live until 1948!) and converted to Catholicism at age eighteen. Although Meynell first considered a career in chemistry, he had a great interest in literary endeavors which he first realized when he contributed verse to Emily Priestman’s Simple Tales (1873). Throughout his life, Meynell wrote and published in a variety of genres, but he never lost his interest in poetry. This is reflected through his close association with Francis Thompson, and perhaps influenced his decision to marry the poet and essayist Alice C. Thompson.

Alice Christiana Meynell (née Thompson), was born in England on September 22, 1847. (She was not related to Francis Thompson.) Alice’s mother, Christiana Weller, was trained as a concert pianist and, after a performance, met her future husband T. J. Thompson.  Thompson, a Cambridge man who had inherited a fortune, was a widower when he met Christiana. Since he did not have to work, Thompson’s primary occupation seems to have been educating his two daughters, who were brought up in the countryside of England and later in Italy. Having read poetry since she was seven years old, Alice eventually became a poet herself and published  Preludes in 1875, which was well-received. However, she chose a family life when she married Wilfrid Meynell in 1877, who was also a great admirer of her work. With Wilfrid, Alice Meynell had eight children, although one died in infancy.

Together the two entered a number of publishing and editing endeavors, often while laboring over their own works. As a writer, Wilfrid was responsible for countless reviews, articles, and poems over the course of his career. The exact number of his works is not known, because many of them were printed without credit or under a pseudonym.  At the same time Alice was a steady contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette, the National Observer, and the Tablet as a reviewer, critic, essayist and columnist. An accomplished art critic, she also wrote for the Magazine of Art and the Art Journal.

Together they began work as editors and  proprietors of Merry England in 1883, and were in contact with Catholic writers during its growing revival. Wilfrid corresponded with Coventry Patmore, Oscar Wilde, Hilaire Belloc, and Edith Sitwell. This circle was ultimately extended by his son, Francis, who was also a publisher (Nonesuch Press), and his daughter, the novelist and biographer Viola Meynell, who befriended D. H Lawrence, among others.

The Cover Page from the first  volume of Merry England (May 1883).

The Cover Page from the first volume of Merry England (May 1883). 10-000003576 MEYNELL, Meynell Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1894 the Meynells gave up the publishing of Merry England, and Wilfrid became the manager of the publishing firm Burns & Oates, a commercial company that published a wide variety of Catholic books.

At the same time, Alice focused on her own work. Besides her seven collections of essays, including The Rhythm of Life, (1893) which went through three editions, Alice was also the author of numerous prefaces to works by some of the greatest modern English writers, including William Blake, Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

It was in these years that the couple enjoyed close contact with Francis Thompson. In 1887, after publishing an anonymous poem, “The Passion of Mary,” with the hopes of finding the author, the Meynells were soon contacted by Francis Thompson. Recognizing his talent, the Meynells sought to help him cultivate his talent and get him off the streets of London. For almost two decades Thompson resided with the Meynells, or at their urging, in a drug rehabilitation clinic and later a monastery. However, they ultimately were unable to help Thompson and in 1907 he died of tuberculosis, while still struggling with addiction.

In later years, the couple resided mainly at the family estate at Greatham, Sussex, which had been purchased in 1911 out of the modest prosperity afforded by the Meynells’ literary endeavors. The fact that they were helped along in securing the estate with revenue generated by new editions of Francis Thompson’s works after the poet’s death seems fitting, given their sustained encouragement and care of the poet over the years.

It was here that Alice would die in 1922 at the age of 75.

Wilfrid continued writing and corresponding, and eventually developed a trans-Atlantic friendship with Father Terrence Connolly S.J., the Francis Thompson enthusiast who was responsible for securing the Seymour Adelman collection of Thompsoniana for Boston College. Father Connolly wrote Meynell for over fifteen years, and credited him for his generosity in filling out the Thompson collection. Connolly was the author of Francis Thompson: In his paths (1944), a travelogue of his pilgrimage to various places Thompson inhabited, as well as a visit to the Meynell estate at Greatham.

Letter Written by Wilfrid Meynell

An original correspondence between Wilfrid Meynell and Fr. Terrence Connolly S.J. Wilfrid Meynell Collection, MS1986-042, Box 3, Folder 2.

In his book Fr. Connolly describes his receiving important manuscripts of Francis Thompson:

[In] the library I noticed a large package of Thompson notebooks on the table, placed there, I thought, for my study during the afternoon. When I expressed my regret that I would not be able to examine them, Mr. Meynell said, as he placed them in my hands, But you will, my dear Father, you will. They are for you. This last and greatest gift just when I was almost painfully aware of my indebtedness for the kindness already shown me left me no alternative but silence.

These fragile notebooks are still one of the treasures of the Francis Thompson Collection at Boston College, and represent a significant part of the limited legacy found in Francis Thompson’s tin trunk after his death.  They were fragile when Fr. Connolly received them in 1938 and are now kept in proper conditions. To make the contents available for researchers Fr. Connolly had them all carefully typed. In the 1950’s Boston College acquired an even greater treasure from the trove of Thompson remains: the original manuscript of his poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”

Wilfrid Meynell provided another important source of information about Francis Thompson. Thompson published many articles, reviews, notes, and letters to literary magazines, and, as was customary, they were not signed. Meynell told Fr. Connolly which items in Advocacy, Merry England and other periodicals were by Thompson. In the Thompson Room in the Burns Library, long runs of these and other periodicals contain Fr. Connolly’s careful notes of authorship.

Wilfrid Meynell died in 1948, at 96 years of age.

The Burns Library collection of Wilfrid and Alice Meynell material includes correspondences, books, journals, and a scrapbook containing many articles, reviews, essays, poems, and some correspondences of Alice Meynell. Among the materials are a number of reviews of Alice Meynell’s poetry and a small number of obituaries written at the time of the poet’s death in 1922. We also have three autographed signed letters from Alice Meynell to Mr. Welfore St. Clair Baddley (1856-1945), an English poet, dramatist, world traveler, amateur archeologist and historian. Likewise,  the Wilfrid Meynell Correspondence consists mostly of letters written by Wilfrid Meynell between the years 1921 and 1943. Almost half of the nearly one hundred letters here are addressed to Father Terrence Connolly. The rest of the correspondences, which includes five letters addressed to Wilfrid Meynell, are addressed to various clergy members, publishers, writers, and friends.

David E. Horn, Burns Library, Boston College

Edited and revised by Chad M. Landrum, M.A. student in the History Department & Burns Library Reading Room Assistant

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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