Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time
A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday
May 14, 2021
in Prose and Poetry
by Alice Meynell
“For Alice Meynell, the intimacy between a mother and her baby are ‘the only partaken solitude in the world.’”—THE
This week we reprise a paragraph by Alice Meynell from our April 30, 2016 feature because my daughter, Alice, who shares her name has become a mother for the first time with my fifth grandchild. The baby’s name is Naina Swati Harvey, and I hope that she and her mother and her other mother, Namrata, enjoy “the only partaken solitude in the world” that Meynell describes in this essay.
Maynell was an English poet, critic, editor, and suffragist. She also, in personal essays, wrote a finely etched prose. As Lydia Fakundiny put it in her anthology The Art of the Essay, Meynell’s style requires a “second look” from the reader: “the occasional dense sentence, the elliptical summation, the startlingly chosen word, force a more careful pace, a dislocation from the preconceived and obvious.” Meynell, she adds, “studies writing as minutely as eyelids: ‘beautiful, eloquent, and full of secrets.’” Our Paragraph of the Week comes from her essay “Solitudes.”
The Paragraph of the Week
And, although solitude is a prepared, secured, defended, elaborate possession of the rich, they too deny themselves the natural solitude of a woman with a child. A newly born child is often so nursed and talked about, handled and jolted and carried about by aliens, and there is so much importunate service going forward, that a woman is hardly alone long enough to feel; in silence and recollection, how her own blood moves separately, beside her, with another rhythm and different pulses. All is commonplace until the doors are closed upon the two. This unique intimacy is a profound retreat, an absolute seclusion. It is more than single solitude, it is a multiplied isolation more remote than mountains, safer than valleys, deeper than forests, and further than mid-sea. That solitude partaken—the only partaken solitude in the world—is the Point of Honour of ethics. Treachery to that obligation and a betrayal of that confidence might well be held to be the least pardonable of all crimes. There is no innocent sleep so innocent as sleep shared between a woman and a child, the little breath hurrying beside the longer, as a child’s foot runs. But the favourite crime of the modern sentimentalist is that of a woman against her child. Her power, her intimacy, her opportunity, that should be her accusers, excuse her.
For Alice Meynell, the intimacy between a mother and her baby are “the only partaken solitude in the world.” Alone with her child the mother can feel her own blood move “separately beside her” at a different rate marking off subtle differences within the bond. It is a “profound retreat” that can only be measured against times alone in the grandeur of nature, in remote mountains for instance, or in the forest depths, though these sublime moments in the end fall short of the “absolute seclusion” of mother and child. It is the double nature of the mother alone in a closed room with her child that amplifies the separation from the world—a seclusion shared—and the child’s vulnerability in this relationship makes betrayal of the bond “the least pardonable of crimes.” The wealthy in Alice Meynell’s day often excluded themselves from this unique maternal experience by relegating the care of children to wet nurses and nannies, and modern mothers in two-income households struggle to keep this time from turning into just another chore in a long day. What harried mother—or father for that matter—has not struggled to stay awake rocking or walking a child to sleep? But the reward for that care and attention is the most “innocent sleep of all,” that “shared between a woman and a child, the little breath hurrying beside the longer, as a child’s foot runs.”
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We at The Humble Essayist Press are proud to announce publication of Put Off My Sackcloth: Essays by Annie Dawid. Her book was runner up in the category of biography/ autobiography/ memoir at the Los Angeles Book Festival this year! You can learn more about her book and our fledgling press at our website here. You can read The Humble Essayist feature on the book in the Archives here.
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Folly Beach, my newest book, is a personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity, certainly a message for our frightening times. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word. In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.
“In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.”
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You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.
We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques. A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought. But what is a paragraph? And what, in particular, is a good one? You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith. So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary. We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life. Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work. We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.
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