Virginia Woolf disdained her. But Alice Meynell shaped the age

John Singer Sargent's portrait (c 1894-1899) of Alice Meynell

Can a Catholic poet be so generous in helping fellow writers that her own literary efforts become neglected by posterity?

Through her activities as an editor and women’s rights activist, Alice Meynell (1847-1922) contributed much to Catholic literature in Britain, but her estimable poems are largely unread.

Admired by such authors as GK Chesterton, Coventry Patmore and George Meredith, Meynell has been ranked alongside St John Henry Newman for her influence upon Catholic writers of her time.

With her husband, the newspaper publisher and editor Wilfrid Meynell, she sheltered the homeless opium addict Francis Thompson and made possible his landmark poem, The Hound of Heaven, about the pursuit of individuals by God.

The Meynells edited the Catholic Weekly Register, which they jauntily nicknamed “Reggie”, as well as Merry England (the title of the latter periodical, Wilfrid Meynell noted, defined the word merry as “brave” rather than “comic or boisterous”.)

An adherent of the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (CWSS), Alice Meynell stalwartly opposed Fr Henry Cyril Day SJ (1865-1951), who published the article “Feminism and its evil tendencies” in the Catholic Herald in October 1912. Fr Day feared that granting the vote to women would cause a “revolution of the first magnitude”.

Meynell replied in a letter to the editor in the Tablet of November 1912: “I say, most gravely, the vaster the magnitude of the revolution, the better.” She went on to describe the CWSS, which Fr Day considered “dangerous”, as a “fortress of safety” against the “insolence” of rhetorical opposition to women’s suffrage.

Meynell added that it was “grotesque dogma” to believe, as some Catholics did at the time, that “no Christian woman can be a suffragette and remain a Christian”. She concluded chidingly: “I have a respect for the consciences that are unlike my own.”

Despite all this, a reductive view of Meynell as a romantic Victorian has arisen, possibly due to excessively secular readings of her poetry. Meynell’s poems repeatedly refer to experiences that may be both religious and amorous. The final line of Meynell’s stern religious allegory Renouncement is “I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart”, addressing the Saviour and/or a loved one.

In Barbara Pym’s novel No Fond Return of Love (1961), a protagonist chooses only one meaning in Renouncement when waiting for a suitor to appear: “Who would come out running, to be gathered to his heart, as it said in the poem so beloved by schoolgirls (and by all women who retained any trace of sentimentality in their make-up)?”

Vita Sackville-West was a reader who did not simplify Meynell or pigeonhole her as a Victorian Romantic. In an introduction to a centenary volume of Meynell’s work, Sackville-West described the poet’s precise choice of words in this way: “She wrote, one might believe, with an etching pen.”

This precision would attract later poets, including WH Auden and Fernando Pessoa. Indeed, Pessoa wrote many poems, signed with the pen name Alberto Caeiro, as direct responses to some of Meynell’s published verse.

Pessoa’s interest may have been sparked when Meynell addressed events following the declaration of the First Portuguese Republic. After a revolution in 1910, Catholicism was declared an enemy of national aspirations, and anti-Catholic violence ensued.

Meynell’s “In Portugal, 1912” describes Jesus as waiting and biding his time amid the contemporary chaos: “And will they cast the altars down, / Scatter the chalice, crush the bread? / In field, in village, and in town / He hides an unregarded head; / Waits in the corn-lands far and near,/ Bright in His sun, dark in His frost, / Sweet in the vine, ripe in the ear – / Lonely unconsecrated Host. / In ambush at the merry board / The Victim lurks unsacrificed; / The mill conceals the harvest’s Lord, / The wine-press holds the unbidden Christ.”

Pym was not the only reader to streamline Meynell’s meanings. Sackville-West’s friend Virginia Woolf had a problematic rapport with Meynell as well.

When Woolf met Meynell during a visit to Italy in 1909, she jotted in a diary: “Among the guests was a lean, attenuated woman, who had a face like that of a transfixed hare – the lower part was drawn out in anguish, while the eyes appealed piteously. This was Mrs Meynell, the writer, who somehow made one dislike the notion of women who write.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) this evident disdain, Meynell would have considerable influence upon Woolf’s own writings. An element of jealousy may have been at play. Woolf’s friend Sackville-West adulated Meynell, and Meynell managed to fulfil the Victorian world’s domestic expectations of a woman writer, giving birth to eight children, seven of whom survived infancy.

Woolf may have felt outclassed. Readers today should investigate what so many major authors admired or envied about Meynell and her work.

Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Ravel, Poulenc and Rimbaud, and is a translator from the French of authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus