“Another good reason that we ought to leave blank, unvexed, and unencumbered with paper patterns the ceiling and the walls of a simple house is that the plain surface may be visited by the unique designs of shadows” writes Alice Meyhell. Of all her essays, “Shadows” is the one I’ve most enjoyed.
Alice suggests playing with shadows. Like putting long sedges and rushes in a vase so that their silhouette will be projected on the wall thanks to the light coming in from the windows providing a much better work of art than some cheap and trivial decoration bought in a shop.
“The shadow has all intricacies of perspective simply translated into line and intersecting curve, and pictorially presented to the eyes, not to the mind. The shadow knows nothing except its flat designs. It is single; it draws a decoration that was never seen before, and will never be seen again, and that, untouched, varies with the journey of the sun….”
And, if the day is grey and the sun doesn’t shine thus robbing your wall of sprinkled shadows, then keep a painting or a plaque in a closet ready to be whipped out to fill up the empty space.
Mixing and matching her observations on nature, art, literature, and human sentiment, Alice’s essays are like little “sermons of enlightenment” that, in the words of one critic, “discern self-evident things as yet undiscerned.”
Although a suffragist, Alice spares women no indulgence. The women in Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield are highly criticized. So is the Lady of Lyrics, the troubadour heroine, who, says Alice, has no more individuality than has the rose, her rival.
Alice also criticizes the poetry of George Crabbe (I had to look him up as I’d never heard of him) and says he will never measure up to Milton.
Motherhood subjects women to a life without boundaries and Alice uses the example of the letters French poet Marceline Valmore wrote to her daughter.
Habits can be lethal as shown by Tolstoi, a keen observer, who illustrates how certain habits can make someone hate you. “Anna Karenina, as she drank her coffee, knew that her sometime lover was dreading to hear her swallow it, and was hating the crooking of her little finger as she held her cup.”
Nature also plays a big role in Alice’s essays. She compares the greens of leaves in July and quips that the Romans, with the invention of aqueducts, made water their prisoner.
A precursor of grounding theories, Alice stresses the importance of walking barefoot outdoors. “If our feet are now so severed from the natural ground, they have inevitably lost life and strength by the separation. It is only the entirely unshod that have lively feet.”
And if you meet a mendicant on the streets, “obviously it is not easy to reply to begging except by the intelligible act of giving.”
As for rain, what else can it do if not fall? “The long stroke of the raindrop, which is the drop and its path at once, being our impression of a shower, shows us how certainly our impression is the effect of the lagging, and not the haste, of our senses.”
Personally, I find no flow in Alice’s writing style simply because Alice and I come from different times. Unlike myself, she lived well before TV, internet, and images of mass production when visuals were created with the sound of words.
Reading certain passages, I can imagine Alice sitting somewhere, observing her surroundings, and taking notes. Just looking at the world around her was like watching a movie. It was a DIY entertainment and contemplation was a marvellous pastime.
Bibliography: Meynell, Alice. The Spirit of Place, and Other Essays. John Lane the Bodley Head. London and New York. 1890. Read on archive.org HERE