Viola Meynell worked hard as a writer all her adult life, publishing short stories, novels, and nonfiction to critical acclaim, steady if not exceptional sales, and the respect of her peers, helped support D. H. Lawrence in hard times and brought Moby Dick back to recognition as a classic, and helped her husband run a productive farm in Sussex. And for all that, she hasn’t got a single book in print today.
Collected Stories, which Meynell was helping to edit when she died in October 1956, offers perhaps the best introduction to her work. These 17 stories, compiled from previous collections–Young Mrs. Cruse (1925); Kissing the Rod, and Other Stories (1937); First Love and Other Stories (1947); and Louise and Other Stories (1954)–as well as several stories published in The New Yorker a year or so before her death. As an anonymous reviewer once wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “The delicate and assured talent of Viola Meynell is admirably suited to the short-story form. Dealing in qualities and emotions which it would be easy to overemphasize in a novel, she is discreetly content with the brevity suited to a fragment of the truth.”
Some of the stories are not much more than fragments. In “Compassionate Leave,” a wife works out with her husband what to write to tell their son he will have to come to tend the farm because the father has fallen and shattered his leg. “Half of a Bargain” is nothing more than a few pages of dialogue between husband and wife, along with a few glimpses into their thoughts–but enough to show us the gulf separating them:
“Oh–surely–isn’t it something you could possibly put off?”
He hesitated. If he had had anything special to do he might have put it off. It was all the infinite chances that attended him on his rounds that he could not give up–the casual encounters, the attractive bits of business cropping up at odd turns, the knack of finding the way to where there was most to be gained, which made his daily life a pleasant adventure. One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.
“One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.” That is just the sort of fine observation one finds throughout this collection. A fellow neglected short story writer, Elizabeth Bibesco, once wrote that, “With Miss Meynell, you find yourself continually loitering over a phrase. You walk into a word as you might walk into a patch of sunlight.” As in this passage from “The Letter,” in which a pregnant farm girl being hounded by her parents to write to the man responsible walks through a morning field: “She had not walked far through the first field before each of her ankles was bound round and round with threads of moist cobweb, spun between one stalk and another. If those threads had been cords, she would have been a close prisoner, neatly caught and fastened up. But as it was she went idly through the stubble, unconscious that with each step she was bursting bonds, dragging chains, and escaping a thousand prisons.”
“This art is built straight upon reality, reality observed with such precision that perception not usually given to the physical eye seems to be involved,” Louise Bogan wrote in a review of Young Mrs. Cruse. She “notices the gestures, the inflections, the turns in manner and speech by which people betray themselves, the slight signs which Ibsen marked, from behind his unread newspaper, during long hours in cafes.” Bogan was a great fan of Meynell’s work and often recommended it to her acquaintances. “It is at first difficult to understand Bogan’s high opinion of Meynell,” Elizabeth Frank writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Louise Bogan: A Portrait:
… whose ordinary, middle-class characters are immersed in utterly quotidian lives. The novels are singularly free of melodrama, plottiness, and contrived effects. Not even the faintest trace of social criticism or political awareness invests the page. Yet it is just this fidelity to the domestic and insular scale of her characters’ lives that allows her to render them with great psychological keenness and extraordinary warmth and intuition.
In some stories, the lives she depicts are, in Thoreau’s words, ones of quiet desperation. In “Diminuendo,” a woman driving home with her husband through a bitter winter night finds in her thoughts a moment of happiness. “It was the kind of happiness allowed to a diminished life, the happiness of the wretchedest woman on earth.” In others, Meynell reveals comedy with the lightest touch:
The Butts were staying with the Longstaffes–very successfully too. It was not one of those plans, hearty in origin, which are wished at an end almost as soon as they have begun. The tensions which can exist when a middle-aged couple forsake their own surroundings to go visiting, and when another middle-aged couple are invaded in their Englishman’s castle, did not arise.
It might be only a small thing, but it so happened that four armchairs of absolutely equal comfort and accessibility to the fire–for it was winter–were part of the equipment of the living-room. Here no one usurped, no one was dethroned. Also there was no false delicacy about the necessity to be always on parade as hosts and guests. In those four armchairs could sit four people with four books, silent and separate, congratulating themselves that among less sensible people a futile stream of remarks might have been considered essential.
It’s ironic that Meynell’s very last stories were published in The New Yorker, for her technique and tone were consistent with what some have called The New Yorker formula: brief, spare anecdotes, really more sketches of incidents that tell the reader much about their characters while almost nothing seems to happen. Like a fine liqueur, however, in the hands of a master, even formulas can produce something consistently wonderful.