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In a review of Alice Meynell’s essays, Coventry Patmore declared that her prose challenged conventional views of gender: “At rare intervals the world is startled by the phenomenon of a woman whose qualities of mind and heart seem to demand a revision of its conception of womanhood and as an enlargement of those limitations which it delights in regarding as essentials of her very nature.” Meynell, he exclaims, “belongs to a species quite distinct from that of the typical sweet companion of man’s life” in that she is a “woman of genius.” Patmore contends that “in a very small volume of very short essays...this lady has shown an amount of perceptive reason and ability to discern self-evident things as yet undiscerned a reticence, fullness, and effectiveness of expression, which place her in the very front rank of living writers in prose.” It was Meynell’s “masculine force of insight”3that earned her the undisputed reputation, bestowed upon her by George Meredith, as one of the great “Englishwomen of letters.” Elizabeth Gray observes that Meynell associated herself with male writers “by very consciously lacerating precisely those stylistic qualities culturally perceived (and denigrated) as feminine.” Angela Leighton also notes that, in “rejecting the conventional badge of femininity and poeticalness,” Meynell “opts, in life, for constant hard work in the world of men and, in her art,for an impersonal, intellectual register which avoids, almost too studiously at times, the secrets of the heart.” This leads her to exclaim that Meynell’s work “lacks the flesh and blood of passion.” While it is true that Meynell’s essays are uncompromising in their condensed style and compact expression, I believe that these views of Meynell have missed the fact that unrestrained emotion is at the very heart of her belles-lettres.
This chapter will focus on The Rhythm of Life — a collection that confirmed Meynell’s reputation as an avant-garde essayist among the lions of fin de siècle literary culture—to demonstrate the ways in which the primacy of emotion is central to her theory of life and art. The significance of emotion to Meynell’s foundational epistemology can be found in “By the Railway Side,” an essay that is distinct, both in form and expression, from her other essays. Placed in the middle of The Rhythm of Life, the essay presents itself as a fulcrum for the ideas expressed across the collection as a whole. Specifically, the fulcrum is a single moment of emotion on a distraught woman’s face, viewed and communicated to us by a woman of vision, a moment that for Meynell embodies the process of art and imagination. The woman’s emotions testify to the pure, direct, and unfiltered truth of the universe as it manifests in all things in time and space, but this, Meynell believes, is missed by those who do not share her level of insight. Her essay, therefore, reveals itself as a prose poem to declare how only through imagination, and through its representation in art, can the deeper universal resonance of the woman’s feelings be known. Furthermore, re-reading “By the Railway Side” as a prose poem elucidates and enhances what Meynell hoped to achieve in her other essays. Linda H. Peterson observes that The Rhythm of Life was written at a time when “the essay replaced the poem as the prestigious genre.” Meynell’s essays are indeed artistic statements, and I will demonstrate that unadulterated emotion is central to her concept of the essay as high art.