L.T. Meade: The Great Abandoner of Bandon for Fame Abroad (Part 1)
Irish Literature month rolls on with a nearly-forgotten prodigy of Victorian storytelling.
One of the truly great things about the Internet is its capacity to dust off for modern audiences the works of lost, once classic authors- and to even see new life breathed into their works, with dramatic readings and retellings.
I experienced this thanks to the feverishly slow pandemic summer of 2021. I committed myself to learning about authors previously unknown to me. And, as the quickest (and often, only) way of accessing such authors is via audiobooks, I quickly found a new champion in British voice-actor Simon Stanhope, and his excellent Bitesized Audio Classics channel on Youtube.
Simon’s impeccable phrasing, command of pauses, fluency in accents, and very solidly recorded material has given him tens of thousands of followers on that channel, and his success is well-deserved. He specializes in ghost stories, detective stories, mysteries and odd short stories of the Victorian and Edwardian eras; some of these authors I will return to later this spring, when I will provide special coverage on the evolution of the ‘detective fiction’ genre.
For today, however, I will commemorate just one of the 19th-century Irish writers who I found via the Bitesized Audio Classics channel, and that is a woman who was both ahead of her time and as prolific as anyone- L.T. Meade.
Ironically, while I assumed that my prior blissful ignorance of Meade’s entire existence owes largely to location, some ‘detective work’ of my own on Tuesday indicated that people in Ireland hadn’t heard of either (but more on that in Part 2). Of course, some in Ireland, and have been quite vocal about her. Before the pandemic, Meade’s ghost returned to national attention in her home country, when the Irish Times reported on a new edited anthology of important Irish women writers from the Victorian era, Meade foremost among them.
While authors Anna Pilz and Whitney Standlee are no doubt right in arguing that the new collection is redress for prior anthologies’ exclusion or minimization of Irish female writers, I would argue that (in Meade’s case, at least), the fact that she lived her adult life in England and did not write specifically about Irish national issues may have something to do with the ‘cultural forgetting’ of this Irish-born author.
Nevertheless, it is very interesting to note the hidden and deep extent of Meade’s influence, as the new anthology (entitled Irish Women’s Writing, 1878-1922: Advancing the Cause of Liberty) abundantly reveals. As editors Pilz and Standlee relate in the Irish Times article:
“…Her 1893 novel, Beyond the Blue Mountains, was one of the works that achieved a lasting affection from its readers, some of whom went on to achieve literary renown. In his memoirs, Vladimir Nabokov remembered it as a favourite childhood book, praising it for its ‘exciting details’, and Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, likewise chose Meade’s novel, which she had long loved, for a discussion panel at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival.”
Who Was L.T. Meade?
Born Elizabeth Thomasina Meade in 1844 in Bandon, Co. Cork on the south-coast of Ireland, Elizabeth was the daughter of a reverend. Located between two hills on its eponymous river, Bandon was by the middle of the 19th century a thriving crossroads of trade and production center, with textiles, tanneries, and especially distilleries. The arrival of the railway further transformed life and society. Perhaps some of the technological interests (and certainly, images of country folk) that L.T. Meade depicts in her later stories about mechanical engineering, building methods, mill-works and railways may actually be rooted in her early Irish experience. But the absence of much details about her early life leaves the matter uncertain.
At any rate, by the age of 17, Elizabeth began to write. She would write under the pseudonym ‘L.T. Meade,’ which she would keep even after moving to London, where in 1879 she married an Englishman named Alfred Toulmin Smith. In fact, she used the pseudonym for all her professional writing and editing tasks.
Pioneering Publishing for a Young Female Audience
As scholar Sally Mitchell has noted, Meade was born at about the time when big publishers were just starting to segment audiences in a more sophisticated way. She was thus among the first generations of authors to benefit from a new growth market in writing for young readers and, especially, the previously-unexplored market for girl readers.
L.T. Meade began publishing stories with magazines for girls, as well as novels. That (along with her mystery and suspense stories) is what she is primarily remembered for today. The title of Meade’s first work was Scamp and I: A Story/Study of City Byways (1872), a tale of two street urchins and their dog, who is imperiled by the dangers of dog-fighting, a most usual practice at the time. Later, her most famous book in the genre would be A World of Girls (1886). Meade also wrote historical novels, works on religion, society, feminism and adventure.
While it can be difficult to find stories that first appeared in long-lost 19th-century magazines, this does nothing to diminish the importance of what Meade was doing at a time when the female readership, particularly the younger one, was considered of lesser importance, a time when young women could not necessarily expect to go on to higher education. Meade’s contribution to improvements in youth literacy rates remain a probably unquantifiable issue but nevertheless an intriguing one for future researchers.
By presenting her unique mix of experiences (growing up in rural yet industrializing Ireland, and then living in the capital of the British Empire itself), she was able to pen refined and sophisticated stories that catered to all different audiences and presented honestly different characters from across the social strata of the time.
An important girl’s magazine that L.T. Meade actually founded and edited was the London monthly, Atalanta, which appeared from 1887-98, and was named after the Greek mythological heroine. Meade’s periodical succeeded an earlier girls magazine (Every Girl’s Magazine); its list of distinguished contributors (to name a very few) indicates that the now almost-forgotten Irish writer enjoyed considerable cachet in her lifetime as an editor.
Thus, contributors included the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Amy Levy, H. Rider Haggard and E. Nesbit. Atalanta was also a family affair, as Meade’s own sister-in-law, the writer Lucy Toulmin Smith (1838-1911) also contributed.
Beyond stand-alone stories and serializations, what also distinguished Atalanta was its scholarships and critical reviews of important female authors like Jane Austen (by Anne Thackeray) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (by Mary Ward) among others. Readers were also allowed to send in their own critical essays, the best ones winning fabulous cash prizes.
When L.T. Meade stopped editing the journal in 1893, she entrusted the endeavor to a male editor. Yet neither he nor (another) make editor could keep up the standards that Meade had set, and in September 1898 the magazine was closed.
Meade herself was already by that time very active with solo and collaborative mystery and adventure books, which occupied the remainder of her career until her death in 1914.
Part 2 of this article, which continues later this week, delves into L.T. Meade’s mystery and ghost stories, and examines just how prolific Meade actually was.
After a brief literary analysis (and link to an expert reading) of one of her mysteries, Part 2 closes with some of the present author’s own detective work of this week, which indicates Meade’s spectral presence (or, absence) in her own home region. Part 2 concludes with some travel tips about her hometown of Bandon, and literary and other festivals in Cork that will delight the literary traveler in 2023 and beyond.
A fascinating introduction to someone I had never heard of, and I like mystery & ghost stories.