Alice Meynell was born in Surrey, the second of two daughters of Thomas Thompson and his wife, Christiana. The family moved frequently, living a rather bohemian existence in various places in England, France, and Italy. Thomas undertook his daughters’ education, and he was rigorous about it; the outcome can be seen in Alice’s mature writings, with their rich habit of allusion and intimate knowledge of English and European literatures, art, and music.
Alice grew into an introspective teenager, reading widely and keeping a diary that shows her awareness that her sex would count against her in her desire to succeed as a writer and thinker. Her mother quietly converted to Catholicism in the 1860s, and Alice followed her in 1867. Catholicism in the 1860s presented a heady prospect for the young English intellectual; Newman’s Apologia was published in 1864, and a wave of conversions spread out from Oxford to all parts of England. Alice’s conversion was in part intellectual and in part emotional: tellingly, she fell in love with the priest who instructed her, Father Augustus Dignam, who had to be re-posted to avoid further trouble. The experience led to one of her very finest poems, the sonnet “Renouncement,” which remains her best known work; written in 1870, it was not published until 1882. Another factor in her conversion was her own sense of moral insecurity and her felt need for discipline, for she viewed the Church as providing a haven of stability.
In 1875, Alice published her first volume of poems, Preludes (with illustrations by her sister); it drew praise from Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Ruskin, George Eliot, and many others. One reader who was particularly struck by it was the young Wilfrid Meynell, who became determined to meet her. Meynell, also a Catholic convert, was working as a journalist in London for various Catholic periodicals. He was by no means among the first rank of intellectuals, nor was he financially comfortable, but he was an indefatigable worker, and it is natural to assume that Alice saw in his loyalty and stability—perhaps one