Was anyone ever as singular as Charlotte Mew? Mannish, gruffish, diminutive, she ranged about London in her tailor-mades and cropped hair and rolled her own cigarettes, possibly with the discarded drafts of poems. She gave mesmerizing readings and was published, alongside Henry James, in The Yellow Book in 1894, and in 1914 in The Egoist by Ezra Pound. Though sometimes awkward to the point of rudeness, she attracted devoted friends and admirers. A bright, funny child, hypersensitive to colour and atmosphere; a schoolgirl who had all her friends in fits; an accomplished pianist – yet Mew became the disturbing, sometimes harrowing poet of the outsider, the outcast, which was what she felt herself to be.
I first came across her in Mrs Roberts’ Elocution class in 1964, where I learnt by heart her extraordinary poem of 1912, ‘The Changeling’. Mrs Roberts urged ‘Expression, dear’ on us all; it wasn’t hard to put it into lines like these:
Toll no bell for me, dear Father, dear Mother,
Waste no sighs.
There is my sister, there is my little brother,
Who plays in the place called Paradise.
Your children all, your children for ever,
But I, so wild, your disgrace with the queer brown face,
Was never, never I know, but half your child . . .
What made Mew a ‘disgrace’, what tormented her, was the knowledge that she was made to love women, not men. Deeply divided between the strict moral code of her upbringing and her secret, sometimes overwhelming desires, she became in effect two people, ill at ease with both. To compound her suffering, when she did fall in love, as Penelope Fitzgerald reveals in Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984), ‘she always chose wrong’
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