Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

Estranging the Familiar
Alice Meynell’s “Solitudes”

I now needed to live, with the top layer of my person known to the
outside world and displayed for social purposes. But, close to the bone,
there had to be an inner stratum, formed and cultivated in solitude
where the essence of what I was, am now, and will be, perhaps, to the
end of my days, hides itself and waits to be found by the lasting silence.

―Doris Grumbach, Fifty Days of Solitude

THIS BEAUTIFUL LITTLE ESSAY—less than three pages in Lydia Fakundiny’s anthology The Art of the Essay—is to be read in solitude, savored, perused, meditated upon. Published in 1928 in the collection The Spirit of Place and reprinted thirty years later in Wayfaring, it needs be set against William Hazlitt’s “On Going a Journey” and Thoreau’s “Walking,” as well as Samuel Johnson’s “The Solitude of the Country,” which has little good to say about any solitude but says what it says in a manner controlled and erudite. In “Solitudes,” with its proclamation of different kinds of aloneness, the matter is fully as much manner and style as either subject or “perspective.” Meynell’s sensibility is less Romantic than classical, although, unlike Johnson, she embraces such solitude as the Romantics sought and found bracing, if not essential. But she is less a friend of reflection than an embodiment of meditation. Language matters greatly to this unfairly neglected essayist, poet, and editor. Virginia Woolf understood her, not least because Meynell too worked in “language charged with meaning”—and of course Woolf and Meynell shared many views regarding women, their

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