Thank you to the Norwich Society Local History Bookclub for inviting me to talk about Countrywoman. So much knowledge and enthusiasm.
The Bloomsbury Group of modernist artists and writers has long attracted the highest literary and critical attention. But Bloomsbury has also become a literary industry fed by a seemingly endless stream biographies, memoirs, recreations, discourses, semi-fiction, and television and film dramas. And there seems to be no end to the descendants and friends of the members of the group who are ready to join the production line.
But here is an alternative for you: the Meynells, their family and circle - The Bayswater Group! At the heart of the group are the writers Alice Meynell née Thompson (1847-1922) and her publisher husband Wilfrid Meynell. Alice’s sister Elizabeth (Mimi) Butler (1846-1933) was a leading battle painter of the mid Victorian period. Alice and Mimi were daughters of the concert pianist Christiana Weller and Thomas Thompson, a gentleman of the West Indies. They were raised in the wild landscape and barely accessible villages of the Ligurian littoral and ‘finished’ in the artistic salons of Kensington. Thompson’s fortune came from sugar and slavery and he himself was illegitimately descended from a Creole woman. This was quite a different colonialism from the Jackson’s (Virginia’s mother) and Strachey’s India.
Both Alice and Mimi adored the landscape and culture of their Mediterranean upbringing and both converted to Catholicism. Not for them a ‘room of one’s own’. Both shared their space with large, loving families. Alice’s poetry and essays made her internationally famous and she toured and lectured extensively. She also raised eight children. Alice and Wilfrid’s home at 47 Palace Court W2 became a nexus for the London literati a generation before Bloomsbury but overlapping with it. The Meynell’s rescued the destitute poet Francis Thompson and supported the novelist George Meredith. Alice was a political radical and supporter of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Is it possible that Catholicism, with its acknowledgment of the spiritual feminine in the person of the Virgin Mary, contributed more possibility of cultural development for a woman than Protestantism or atheism?
Now here’s the challenge to Bloomsbury. In the midst of a patriarchal culture, inspired by and in dialogue with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alice found a purely female literary voice. The critic Tala Schaffer suggests that Virginia Woolf deliberately suppressed Meynell’s influence on her – instead promoting herself as the founder of the female literary tradition. Schaffer accuses Woolf of subverting and appropriating the past in an act of ‘modernist self-fashioning’.
Having been extraordinarily famous for her battle paintings (The Roll Call, Scotland Forever, The Remnants of an Army), Mimi gave up her public work when she married the maverick army officer William Butler although sketchbooks from later years survive.. Two of Alice and Wilfrid’s children, Francis (1891-1975) and Viola (1885-1956), carried on the literary work. Francis worked as a poet and printer, Viola as a novelist and poet. It was Viola who gave refuge to and helped DH Lawrence in his early difficult times.
Alice Meynell, like Virginia Woolf, suffered from depression.
 Writing a Public Self: Alice Meynell’s ‘Unstable Equilibrium’ in Women’s Experience of Modernity. Ann Ardis and Leslie Lewis (eds) (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 2003) pp18, 2. Quoted by Ann Ardis in Modernism and Cultural Conflict 125.
Earlier this week members of the East Anglian Writers Steering Committee enjoyed watching A Pleasant Terror : The Life and Ghosts of M.R. James. The 20-year old biopic produced by Seventh House Films was directed by Clive Dunn and unravelled the many aspects of MR James life as an antiquarian, educator and writer of ghost stories. There were sequences of dramatization with Michael Elwyn playing MR James, the one time Provost of King College Cambridge and Eton College, and commentaries that included his biographer, Michael Cox, Jonathan Miller, D.J. Taylor, Julia Briggs, Ruth Rendell and Ronald Blythe - all looking considerably younger.
The committee was particularly impressed by the amount of information packed into the I-hour TV film and by the lack of repetition which is so often a feature of modern documentaries. MR James continues to be a popular author and recognised as a master of the genre.
The committee is planning to offer a wider showing to members of East Anglian Writers. Details to come via EAW website.
Camille Corot 1796 - 1875
On a recent trip to France I had the pleasure of walking through a ravine called the Corot trail where followers of the artist identified landscape that was inspirational to him.
Corot, influenced by Poussin, painted supremely classical landscapes with mythological figures – cool, detached, lofty; but later he moved into a freer, sensual and poetic style. He was the later Nineteenth Century’s painters’ painter, revered by the Impressionists and known as’ Papa Corot’.
He came from a comfortably-off bourgeois background - his father a Parisian wig-make (later a cloth merchant) his mother a fashionable milliner in Paris; Camille never lost his respect for their exacting manners or his pleasure in their company. They could afford a good education for him albeit at boarding schools from a very early age so that he seems to have suffered some emotional underdevelopment. He tried to please them by becoming a draper but, by his teens, his heart was already in painting. He longed to break free.
Unlike so many of his artist friends (he was popular with his contemporaries) he never had to scramble for a living. In his mid- twenties, after the sudden illness and death of his only sister, his parents blessed his ambitions and gave him the income from her dowry as an allowance. So, although his fame and his own material wealth only came late in his career, he was always just comfortable enough.
He never married but was not, as Ian Nightingale puts it in his book Corot, ‘impervious to feminine charms’ and did fall in love with one of his mother’s seamstresses. Marriage would have been too much of a distraction and Corot was entirely dedicated to his art - always working long hours en plein air whenever possible. In his youth he was familiar with red light districts both in France and Italy – and although appreciative of sensual pleasure was mindful of the costs. He was a kind and considerate man - deeply religious: everyday he would read Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and throughout his life carried out many acts of charity to his fellow artists.
While browsing biographies and picture books I found a gem – an old biography from 1908. Old biographies are so interesting in style and approach. While the authors may be outdated and unreliable, they were often living much closer to the time of their subject and interesting material is to be gleaned from their work. If you saw the recent Television programme on Van Gogh’s Ear you may recall the art historian, Bernadette Murphy, finding crucial clues in old biographies.
Everard Meynell’s Corot and His Friends presents a Corot who is too pure by half – no mention of the brothels here. On the other hand Meynell brings some Edwardian colour to the description of Corot’s time in Rome where he and his friends (mostly younger artists) would gather in the evening after a long day’s painting to enjoy company and food at a café called Il Lepre – The Hare – which was popular for its low prices and inventive chef. Corot was known for his singing – he sang at the easel, he sang at home (often to the discomfort of his neighbours) and no doubt he sang at these evening meetings that were so important to the development of the artists' ideas about their work.
Meynell writes, “It (Il Lepre) was the chief dining-place of the youth of the studios, and its proprietors were not without a sense of the spirit of their customers. If the young Romanticists came to their tables with the gleam of a crimson sash at the waist and swung athwart their chairs the swaggering folds of a Spanish cloak, they, the proprietors, on their part brought colour and a strain of rarity to the carta. The cuoco even experimented with roast parrot, and found pleasure and fame in the exotics of the saucepan.” (Page 42)
Meynell says that Il Lepre, on the Via Condotti near the Piazza di Spagna, was still in existence when he wrote in the early years of the twentieth century...and that Thackeray used it in one of his novels – which makes me think about the importance of cafés in the life of artists and writers. It takes a certain kind of patron to tolerate or enjoy these colourful and no doubt troublesome customers. (How many bars can you find which are named after or associated with Hemingway?)
But for the moment my interest is caught by the biographer Everard Meynell – one of the eight children of Alice and Wilfrid Meynell, who together formed a nexus of the Edwardian London literary world. I have long wanted to write about Alice and her sister, the military painter, Elizabeth Butler. A book on the Meynells for at least three generations is surely long overdue. They will be the subject of my next blog.
©Victoria Manthorpe 2016 Photographs courtesy Peter Jamieson
Thank you to biographer Evelyn Toynton[i] for responding to the previous blog about people associated with the rectory at Booton in Norfolk. Apparently, Jean Rhys stayed there for about six months during WWII, having been taken in by the kindly Reverend Willard Feast. According to Rhys’s biographer, Carole Angier, (Jean Rhys: Life and Work 1985) Rhys often made life hell for the Reverend and his family, even, on one occasion verbally attacking his 13-year-old daughter so that the poor girl was reduced to tears. The source of this story was a family friend of the Feasts, one Eric Griffiths. If anyone knows more about this or other tales of Booton do, please, email me.
This month I’ve been re-reading The Art of Literary Biography (1995) edited by John Batchelor. Two topics struck me particularly: Ann Thwaite’s chapter ‘Starting Again’ raised the problem of choosing a subject for a biography and Catherine Peters argued for the importance of ‘Secondary Lives’ as the context of biographical study.
Thwaite discusses the various reasons for an author’s choice of subject, including both conscious and unconscious attraction but concludes, with Hilary Spurling, that it is more often an arranged marriage than an affair of the heart. Colleagues, tutors, and publishers are often the prompt for a subject. The results are certainly not necessarily the worse for that. But as Ann points out if you are going to spend years of your mental life immersed in a person’s life and work you need to choose carefully.
Traditionally the subjects are people of singular achievement or prestige: the high-profile, individual. But latterly there are many examples of what Catherine Peters calls ‘Secondary Lives’. Examples are Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman (1995) about Dickens’ mistress, Nelly Ternan, or Jo Manton’s Claire Claremont and the Shelleys (1992), and Thwaite’s The Poet’s Wife (1996) about Emily Tennyson. We are more and more inclined to see these people as far from ‘secondary’ and Peters certainly supports the trend believing that these other characters in the drama of a celebrity life can shift our perceptions both of the individual and of the times.
The satellites are not always women spinning around the planet of a man. Virginia Woolf broke new ground here as in so many things with her comic Flush: A Biography (1933) about Elizabeth Browning’s dog. More recently Michael O ‘Hagan produced the highly entertaining The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog (2010) – the views of Marilyn Monroe’s pet.
But I am more concerned with the family or group dynamic from which a biographical subject emerges. Tim Parks in his The Novel: A Survival Skill (2015) has drawn on systemic psychology – the study of family value structures – to analyse the fiction of Joyce, Lawrence, Hardy and Dickens. He proposes that their novels contain the biographies of their family patterns. He based his theory largely on Valeria Ugazio’s Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family (2013). Ugazio cites four dominant semantics active in family life which lead to four pathologies: the semantics of power lead to anorexia and bulimia, the semantics of good and evil lead to obsessive compulsive disorders, the semantics of freedom lead to phobic disorders and the semantics of belonging lead to depression. It’s an excellent book – as is Tim Park’s - and I wonder about the possibility of using systemic psychology to study family biography.
Why are there often two or even three promising individuals in a family – the Durrells – Laurence and Gerald, the Flemings - Ian and Peter, the Spencers - Stanley and Gilbert - but one who pulls ahead to the finish line? And what of the families whose talents span the generations – the du Mauriers, the Freuds, the Thackerays - who wins, who loses in the emotional stakes of family life. Why are there tragic failures side-by-side with ‘successes – Branwell Bronte and his sisters, Edith Cavell’s brother Leonard crushed by the ethos that made her? The question of why none of Charles Dickens’ children stood a chance of finding their own success is examined in Tim Parks’ book. For me the compelling question is to what extent people make themselves and to what extent they are made by a group or a family dynamic.
[i] Evelyn Toynton is the biographer of Jackson Pollock (2012) and lives in Norfolk.
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