Familiar Essay

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Meynell’s use of the genre of the familiar essay constituted an exploration of the position of retreat—the refusal to impose.At the same time, Meynell’s exploration of the familiar essay’s retreating propensities inflects the genre of the familiar essay itself, emphasizing certain of its capacities over others.In this sense, Meynell’s prose writings reinterpret and repurpose the genre of the familiar essay to render it a suitable forum for confronting the ethical questions of the 1890s.Schaffer thus resists the rubric of retreat and withdrawal surrounding Meynell by insisting on the active, agential, public nature of Meynell’s behavior, even when she seemed at her most withdrawn and self-effacing.Schaffer expands this line of argument in her discussion of Meynell’s essays (Schaffer, 2002), in which she interprets Meynell’s famous penchant for privacy as a suppressed longing for publicity and public exposure.It seems that critics have struggled to know what to do with Meynell’s abstentions: how to render them in a nonjudgmental way, and with the degree of seriousness, depth, and complexity with which Meynell herself evidently invested them.The aim of this article is to fill this gap in the Meynell criticism.Tracy Seeley takes another tack, reading Meynell’s familiar essays against the grain to identify their active and outwardly-oriented impulses.She argues that although Meynell is rarely openly polemical, she “reshapes the familiar essay to promote feminist ends” (106).These essays are generally very short, about 5–8 pages in their original editions, and they have a striking quality of compression and density.Schaffer describes Meynell’s essays as epigrammatic (2000, 171) and ascribes to them a gem-like quality (2000, 159)—an ascription that captures their remote, glittering exquisiteness.

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