Despite her wide contributions to genre literature, Irish author L. T. Meade is now remembered, if at all, for her girls’ school stories. However, in 1898 the Strand Magazine, famous for its fictions of crime, detection, and the uncanny, proclaimed Meade one of its most popular writers for her contributions to its signature fare. Her stories, widely published in popular fin de siècle magazines, included classic tales of the supernatural, but her specialty was medical or scientific mysteries featuring doctors, scientists, occult detectives, criminal women with weird powers, unusual medical interventions, fantastic scientific devices, murder, mesmerism, and manifestations of insanity. Eyes of Terror and Other Dark Adventures is the first collection to showcase the best of her pioneering strange fiction.
Mrs. L. T. Meade has probably written a greater number of stories than any other living author. A healthy tone pervades all her works, and her pictures of English home life in particular are among the best of their kind. Calling on the novelist (writes our Special Commissioner) at her City office, I found her at her desk hard at work. Her personality is like her writings—bright, fresh, vivacious; and to say that she is of a well-favoured countenance is to understate the fact. She retains much of her girlish appearance, though a rather worn look about the eyes suggests midnight oil and an ever-active brain. Knowing how Mrs. Meade values her time, I plunged at once into the subject of my visit by remarking that nowadays people take a very friendly interest in those who delight and instruct them by their writings, they like to know how their favourite books are written; and asked whether she was willing to satisfy this natural curiosity.
“I shall be happy to tell you anything you want to know,” she replied in a soft, musical voice. “As to how my books are written, well, I simply get a thought and work it out. I have no particular method of writing. My stories grow a good deal as I write them. I don’t think the plot out very carefully in advance. My children’s stories, for instance, before they are written, are, as a rule, first told to my own children to amuse them—at least, I have tried that plan since the children have become old enough to be interested in them, and I have found it very successful; as a rule, what one child likes, another child will like. I write my stories a good deal because the publisher wants the book; I simply write it to order, and, of course, if he asks for a girl’s story he gets it, and if he asks for a novel or children’s story he gets that. I may say that I am a very quick writer; I produce four or five books in a season. I have written in less than three months a rather important three-volume novel.”
“Do you ever take your characters from real life?”
“Yes, but not intentionally. I don’t deliberately say I will put such a character here or there; I take traits rather than a whole character. I find that deliberately setting my mind to delineate a certain character produces considerable stiffness, and the character is not so fresh. Authors are a good deal governed by their characters in writing fiction. If your book is to be successful, your characters guide you rather than you guide your characters; they are so very living and real that you have not complete control over them.”
“Your experience, then, is similar to that of Charles Dickens and some living writers, who have stated that their characters become their masters, and, as it were, take their destiny into their own hands?”
“Exactly. I find it a good plan, when a novel is in process, after a certain stage, to cut out every character that is not intensely alive. I am now speaking, of course, of my larger stories; in a short story there is not room for development of character.”
“May I ask how many stories you have written?”
“I am afraid to tell you—between fifty and sixty volumes, besides a great many short stories. I have been writing now constantly for fifteen years. An enormous quantity to have produced?—so it is; I don’t know any other author who has done so much work as I have done in that time. I will give you an example. I have recently brought out four volumes (none cheaper than 3s. 6d., which gives you some idea of the size) and a three-volume novel, not to mention a complete Christmas number of the Sunday Magazine, of nearly sixty thousand words. They have certainly all been written under two years. I write on an average every day in the year a little over two thousand words; on some occasions I wrote a great deal more.”
“Do you write everything with your own hand?”
“I write nothing with my own hand—I almost forget how to write. I employ a short-hand writer, and I revise the type-written transcript.”
“Do you write at regular hours or at uncertain intervals; in other words, do you wait for an inspiration, or do you sit down and write whether you feel inclined for it or not?”
“I never wait for an inspiration.” Mrs. Meade added, with a laugh, “I might never write at all if I did. I write every day at a certain hour, and it would be impossible for me to write in the way you suggest. I have a great many books promised against a certain time. I always write against time.”
“And you find that your work does not suffer from that somewhat mechanical method?”
“I don’t think it does. I believe that to write against time puts your work into a frame, and is improved by it. To have to write a certain length, and for a certain publisher, who requires a certain kind of work, is splendid practice; it makes your brain very supple, so that you can turn to anything. It is a matter of habit with me now, and I rather like it.”
“Are you never at a loss for ideas when working under such pressure? Don’t you ever feel impoverished?”
“Sometimes, perhaps; but not as a rule. I often sit down, my secretary has a blank sheet of paper, I say, ‘Chapter I’ and that is all I know when I begin. I suppose my ideas do flow very rapidly, for some writers who are very much beyond me in power can’t write quickly. They have to think out their subjects a great deal. I could not write if I gave much labour to my work.”
“But surely you must sometimes stop and think when you are dictating?”
“No; as a rule, I dictate straight ahead continuously, and never pause for an instant. I see the whole scene, and I talk on as I see it.”
I could not help feeling that, if Mrs. Meade dictates as rapidly as she was speaking to me, her stenographer must be exceptionally expert. Her readiness and fluency were such, that of all the people I have interviewed, not one covered so much ground in so short a time. To this hard-working novelist our conversation was but a momentary interruption.
“Then you create as you speak?”
“Yes. Of course all writers must feel they do better work one day than another, but there is no day I don’t write except Sunday. Atalanta takes up a great deal of time; more than half my days are occupied with it. I have a very large life outside my books.”
A portrait of a sturdy, happy-looking youngster in cricketing costume, which his mother showed me, was an illustration in point. Mrs. Meade told me that he was the original of Daddy’s Boy—one of the most fascinating of her numerous children’s tales.
“What do you think of our English fiction of to-day?” I next inquired.
“I think fiction is at a very low ebb just now. We have no giants; but the average writer has come to a much higher pitch of excellence than was the case ten or twelve years ago. I admire Barrie immensely. I think I like him almost better than Rudyard Kipling, but I have a great admiration for both in their way. Mr. Kipling has more sting than Mr. Barrie, but Mr. Barrie’s character-drawing is inimitable. Mr. Barrie, Mr. Kipling, and Mr. Stevenson ranks first of all.”
“Still, none of them, you think, are ‘giants’?”
“I would not put them on a level with George Eliot, or Thackeray, or Dickens. We have no Dickens now, no Thackeray, no George Eliot; we have not even a Bulwer-Lytton.”
“Would you put George Eliot at the head of all women novelists?”
“Yes. I don’t think anybody else has touched her. I think Charlotte Brontë has exceeded her in some things—she has more passion; but, on the whole, I think George Eliot is greater.”
“What is your opinion of the theological novel?”
“Frankly, I don’t care for it. Edna Lyall has made a great success, and done some very fine and noble work, but I think theology in a novel is a mistake. It might be introduced, but ought not to be overdone.”
“It is bad artistically, don’t you think?”
“Extremely bad; absolutely wrong. I think Mrs. Humphrey Ward is not at all artistic. She is a remarkably clever woman, but she is not a fictionist. A fictionist is in her own way a painter; she writes pictures instead of painting them. I think the art of fiction is not half studied by writers; there is so much in it.”
“Do you do most of your work at home, or here in the City?”
“I write in the morning at my own house at Dulwich. I do most of my original work at home, and my editorial work here, though I have done a great deal of original work here also. I don’t go by any fixed rule. The only fixed rule in my life is that I never can get a holiday.”
“I hope that is not to be taken literally?” “Well, we are going away to-morrow for three or four days. Such an event is so rare that I can hardly believe it is coming to pass. I never get more than about a fortnight’s holiday in the year. That is mostly because of my magazine work, which, of course, never ends.”
L. T. Meade (1844-1914) was born in Bandon, Co. Cork and started writing at an early age before establishing herself as one of the most prolific and bestselling authors of the day. In addition to her popular girls’ fiction, she also penned mystery stories, sensational fiction, romances, historical fiction, and adventure novels. Her notable works include A Master of Mysteries (1898), The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1899), and The Sorceress of the Strand (1903). She died in Oxford on 26 October 1914.
Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women edited by Maria Giakaniki and Brian J. Showers
Earth-Bound and Other Supernatural Tales by Dorothy Macardle
Not to Be Taken at Bed-Time and Other Strange Stories by Rosa Mulholland
“Number Ninety” & Other Ghost Stories by B. M. Croker
The Death Spancel and Others by Katharine Tynan
Eyes of Terror and Other Dark Adventures by L. T. Meade