Which brings us to the first entry in our new series, Authors In Depth, in which (to start with) we will be examining the extant works of the once popular and now largely forgotten novelist, Mary Meeke.
Anyone who knows anything about the popular literature of the late 18th and early 19th century will be aware of the notorious Minerva Press, home of the “scribbling women”, mainstay of the circulating libraries, and favourite target for condescending critics and antinovelists alike. For some twenty years, William’s Lane’s mini-empire turned out three-, four- and even five-volume sentimental and gothic novels, crammed from cover to cover with instanteaneous passion, extravagant speeches, swooning women and improbable events. Mary Meeke is, in many respects, the perfect exemplar of the Minerva Press novelist: prolific, popular, and critically scorned.
Very little is known about Mrs Meeke herself. She seems to have been the wife of a minister, and was evidently well-educated. Between 1795 and the (disputed) time of her death, she wrote over thirty novels, as well as publishing several translations of European works. Though selling well in their time, her novels were not reissued and have since fallen into obscurity. Search for information on her, and for the most part you will find only that quote above, which has been used time and again to demonstrate conclusively that Mary Meeke was a bad writer – which is not at all what Thomas Macaulay intended when he penned those words. That damning quote has been taken quite out of context.
Thomas Babington Macaulay, later the 1st Lord Macaulay, was a poet, an historian, and a politician, serving at various times as Secretary of War and as Paymaster-General. He was also – and for our puposes, this is far more important – a lifelong, voracious devourer of novels, good, bad and indifferent. Even as today we adopt lines of dialogue from popular TV shows, Macaulay and his sister Hannah, later Lady Trevelyan, quoted novels at one another and compared people they knew to various fictional characters. Macaulay once contended that, between them, he and his sister could re-write Sir Charles Grandison from memory. His letters to Hannah contain any number of references to his reading, and there are at least three remarks in them about the novels of Mary Meeke. The tone of those remarks makes it clear that Macaulay’s fondness for her books was something of a running joke between his sister and himself.
And in truth, Macaulay may have been Mary Meeke’s Number One Fan. By his own assertion, he owned and repeatedly re-read her novels. He used catchphrases from her writing. When he went to India in 1834, he took a crate of her books with him. Once, having read a novel he really didn’t enjoy, he declared his intention of cleansing his palette by re-reading Mrs Meeke’s Langhton Priory. In the letter containing the quote above, jokingly as it is phrased, Macaulay is in fact comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels favourably with a good old-fashioned English dinner. It is quite incorrect for that quote to be used as “evidence” that she was a bad novelist.
Mind you— None of this proves that Mary Meeke wasn’t a bad novelist, either. It simply proves that Thomas Macaulay wasn’t ashamed of his taste in light literature – and that he had a sense of humour. In the course of this series, we shall find out for ourselves exactly what kind of a novelist Mrs Meeke was.
(By a rather charming coincidence, sometime in the next few weeks we shall be hearing a bit more from Thomas Macaulay, Literary Critic.)