The Selected Letters of W.E. Henley

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The text of the book consists of some 150 letters (out of a corpus of 2,500) written by the late nineteenth-century poet, critic, editor and journalist W.E. Henley, to various figures of the period, e.g. R.L. Stevenson, H. G. Wells, J.M. Barrie, William Archer, Rodin, Wilde, Kipling, Arthur Morrison, Alice Meynell, and Edmund Gosse. Letters are also included to other figures within Henley’s immediate circle, his wife Anna, his financial backer Fitzroy Bell, Charles Baxter the arbitrator in the quarrel between Henley and Stevenson, and his Edinburgh art collector friend Hamilton Bruce. Each letter is fully annotated. An introduction places Henley within the period and provides a biographical account of his life and literary work which is reflected in his letters. Of particular importance is the role of Henley as editor of London, the Magazine of Art, the Scots Observer and later the National Observer and the New Review.
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Dec 5, 2016
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Literary Criticism / Comparative Literature
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The Catholic convert and women of letters Alice Meynell (1847–1922) ranks as a sophisticated essayist and poet of the late Victorian period and the early twentieth century. She had the advantage of an educated father and a musical mother who spent much of their early time with the family visiting Europe, especially Italy. Alice’s father was a friend of Dickens and her mother was admired by Dickens. Alice and her sister Elizabeth, later the famed artist Lady Butler, were educated privately and more so by their travels. This background gave Alice a great interest in art, music, poetry and literature. Her conversion to Catholicism in 1868 was the rock of her existence and coloured her entire life.

Alice and her convert husband Wilfrid were very involved in the journalistic world as she was a contributor to the Scots / National Observer, Dublin Review, Tablet, Athenaeum, Speaker, Spectator, and the Magazine of Art. Alice was also an important unsigned contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette ‘Wares of Autolycus’ column for many years. Together Wilfrid and Alice edited and wrote for their own illustrated monthly Merry England from 1883–95. Contributors included Alice’s close friend Katharine Tynan, Coventry Patmore, Andrew Lang, and Francis Thompson, whose “The Hound of Heaven” was first published by them. They also managed the Weekly Register from 1881–98. The two journals kept Alice very busy as did her large family.

Alice’s letters show her literary work, both poetry and essays, and her relationship with John Lane, who published many of her books, an arrangement not always easy. She discusses her work with poets such as John Freeman and John Drinkwater, and her admiration for Coventry Patmore with the writer Frederick Page. She was obviously considered important for aspiring and established poets who sought her approbation.

She visited America in late 1901 for a short lecture tour which was fairly successful but also gave her some lifelong friends. She supported women’s suffrage and marched, although she was against its militancy. Alice was ambivalent about the First World War and her final years were spent writing and editing anthologies.

The scholar Charles Whibley was born in 1859 and died in 1930, straddling the end of the Victorian age, the new century, and the Great War and its aftermath. After completing his studies at Cambridge, his early journalistic experiences were with the critic, poet and editor William Ernest Henley, known for his mentoring of young writers on the Scots, later National Observer, and Whibley was to a great extent the mainstay of the journal.

After his grounding with Henley, he moved to Paris for a few years as the correspondent of the Pall Mall Gazette. Here, he became friends with Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé and Marcel Schwob, and married Whistler’s sister-in-law Ethel Birnie Philip in July 1895. While in Paris he wrote for Blackwood’s Magazine and was an advisor for Fisher Unwin’s Library of Literary History. Returning to England, Whibley became friends with Lord Northcliffe, Lady Cynthia Asquith, and later T. S. Eliot.

The friendship with William Blackwood resulted in Whibley’s monthly “Musings without Method” from February 1900 to December 1929, a contribution which Eliot called “one of the best sustained pieces of literary journalism that I know in recent times”. Northcliffe was a close friend, as was Sir Frederick Macmillan of the publishing firm. From 1906 until October 1920, Whibley contributed a Saturday column in Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, and for many years was a reader for Macmillans. His friendship and infatuation with Cynthia Asquith lives strongly in his letters, although there is hardly any mention of his wife Ethel. Much of his literary work was with biographical essays of literary and political persons. After the death of Ethel in 1920, Whibley visited Brazil sending back reports to Cynthia Asquith.

Whibley contributed to Eliot’s Criterion and also helped Eliot to acquire British citizenship. Apart from his continued journalism, Whibley worked as a consultant for the Royal Literary Fund later becoming a committee member. In 1927, he married his Goddaughter Philippa Raleigh. Whibley’s death in France in March 1930 robbed the literary world of his biography of W.E. Henley.

Many of his letters deal with his literary work with the Macmillans, Blackwood’s Magazine, and his friendship with Cynthia Asquith, and in some letters to Northcliffe he parades his Tory views. He was a supporter of the Great War, though little appears in his letters.

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