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’. None of this is ever explicit in her work. Instead, in her narrative poems, she gives voice to others who suffer from loneliness and longing, brought sometimes to breaking point. The changeling, smuggled by goblins into the nursery, is snatched away one wild wet night: ‘All night long they danced in the rain/Round and round in a dripping chain . . .’ And the poem concludes bleakly: ‘I shall grow up, but never grow old./I shall always, always be very cold./I shall never come back again.’ Charlotte Mew – ‘Lotti’ in the nursery, ‘Miss Lotti’ as she grew up – was born in 1869, the second child of an architect, Fred Mew, who came to London from the Isle of Wight at the age of 14 and, like Thomas Hardy, learned his trade on the job. He married the daughter of his employer, and the difference in their social standing would always be a part of the family’s consciousness: after his death, when money was a struggle, Charlotte sought to provide her monstrously demanding mother with ‘a good address’. The nursery at the top of the first family house, in Bloomsbury, was haunted by ‘the remorseless punctual infant mortality’ of the Victorian age. Three children died, two as babies, and Charlotte never forgot the little pale brother who makes an appearance in ‘The Changeling’: Richard, who had scarlet fever at the age of 5, and whom she was brought to see in death. Four children remained, ruled by a powerful housekeeper/nurse/governess, Elizabeth Goodman. ‘To us children,’ Charlotte wrote, ‘she was as fixed a part of the universe as the bath.’ Elizabeth was loving, but full of Judgement Day, and her dire biblical warnings created in curly, brilliant, irresistible and defiant Lotti a cast of mind in which she knew she was guilty. Though Charlotte later described her childhood as magical, there is no doubt that this sense of guilt was to contribute hugely to her later melancholia and the unending struggle to keep her true nature hidden. ‘Guilt of this nature can never be eradicated,’ writes Fitzgerald; ‘a lifetime is not enough.’ Her adored older brother Henry and brilliant little Freda were both to succumb in adolescence to schizophrenia. Both were committed to asylums, and the need to support them there was a lifelong financial anxiety for Charlotte and the younger Anne. Five children had effectively become two, and if there was anyone whom Charlotte loved truly, deeply and devotedly all her life, it was the gentle, artistic little sister, with whom, together with ‘Ma’ and a malevolent parrot called Wek, she was to live until all were gone. What followed then was tragedy. A ‘reading and writing child’, in 1879 she began attending Gower Street School, presided over by Miss Lucy Harrison. This clever, inspiring young woman was to become Charlotte’s first, passionate love; when she heard that Miss Harrison had suddenly left, ill through overwork, she sprang up from the piano and, remembered a fellow-pupil, ‘in a wild state of grief began to bang her head against the wall’. It was, Fitzgerald notes, ‘the end of Lotti’s schooling, and part of her education had been to know what it was to be totally obsessed with the physical presence or absence of another woman . . . it proved to be an initiation into life’s pattern’. Two more such passions were to overwhelm her. The first was for Ella D’Arcy, assistant editor of The Yellow Book
, another clever and distinctive woman – though, unlike Lucy Harrison, she was unequivocally interested in men. ‘A mouse-mannered piece of sex’ was how an enemy described her. When she left, in 1902, Charlotte followed her to Paris and, finding her living in one-room poverty, did her best to help her, taking on teatime visits ‘the little necessaries for the occasion – flowers, cakes, etc.’ She was in a state of enchanted excitement, but ‘How much did Ella care, or even notice?’ Charlotte returned to London feeling as though she had been spat upon, and some of the verses she wrote then are keyed up to hysterical pitch. But then came this measured, sombre epitaph on that mad dash for love.
I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart.
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide –
Rooms where for good or ill – things died.
Back in London, overwhelmed with domestic duties, she tried feature-writing and had a long essay on Emily Brontë’s poetry accepted by Temple Bar
, a magazine to which she became a regular contributor. It folded in 1905 and for the next three years she seems to have had almost no new work published. Things changed when in 1912 The Nation
took a remarkable poem, ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, in which a lonely farmer mourns the terrified frigidity of his young wife. There are shades of Hardy in its rural voice and setting, and its marvellous shifts of rhythm, but it marked her out as strong and original. With these six verses Charlotte for the first time attracted notice and respect as a poet. She was immediately taken up by Amy Dawson Scott – the founder of International PEN. Dawson Scott invited her to give salon readings and introduced her to the woman for whom Charlotte was, for the last time, to fall helplessly in love. This was the novelist, suffragette and follower of Freud and Jung, the indefatigable May Sinclair. For a long time their friendship was close. May did much to introduce Charlotte’s work to the London avant-garde of Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, and Charlotte was grateful. But it was more than gratitude, and in 1914 she made a humiliating pass which May later laughed about in public. Nothing could have been more coruscatingly painful, and between 1914 and 1918, the war years, Charlotte wrote a group of poems about shameful exposures and betrayal. At least one of these, ‘Saturday Market’, in which a wretched woman conceals from jeering onlookers a baby – ‘a dead red thing’ – beneath a ragged shawl, is devastating. But happily, during these years she found just the right place to welcome and admire her. ‘Are you Charlotte Mew?’ she was asked on her first, invited visit to the Poetry Bookshop. Charlotte, emerging from the evening fog like a tiny maiden aunt, gave a slight smile. ‘I’m sorry to say that I am.’ The bookshop, located in a squalid bit of Bloomsbury, ‘full of small workshops, dustbins and cats’, was presided over by Harold Monro, a man with a private income who was ‘determined to do something about poetry’. In a shop with a small coal fire and a table laden with books, he published on a shoestring, sold poetry and gave sanctuary. He knew people. He and his assistant Alida, a beautiful young Polish woman, adored one another and, although he was homosexual, eventually married. It was Alida who organized the weekly readings at which Charlotte, with her rough but compelling voice, began to shine. Monro published her first collection, Saturday Market
, in 1916, just before he was called up. Alida sent it to Sydney Cockerell, the influential and energetic director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. And with his enthusiastic reception of this book, everything began to change. Charlotte suddenly had a friend who took her under his wing and introduced her to many, including his invalid wife, the artist Kate Cockerell, with whom a real friendship developed. He introduced her to Hardy, who pronounced her ‘far and away the best living woman poet . . . who will be read when others are forgotten’. Best of all, at a moment when the Mews, faced with the end of the lease on their dilapidated house, moved to upper-floor rooms in Camden Town, Cockerell got her a Civil List pension. Relieved at last from money worries, Charlotte in 1924 and 1925 had perhaps the happiest years of her life. But all this time the great constant had been the gentle love, admiration and encouragement of her little sister. Their mother, at the end ‘a tiny bag of bones’, had died in 1922. They had already had to put their ferocious old parrot to sleep (a miserable task done with the help of Alida). In the autumn of 1926, Anne fell seriously ill. A change of air – they took rooms in Chichester – did no good. She died the following year, and with her death Charlotte began to unravel. In danger of passing from the neurotic to the psychotic, she refused to enter an asylum but was persuaded by her doctor to go to the gloomiest of nursing homes, near Baker Street station. ‘There is’, writes Fitzgerald, ‘something inexplicable in the choice of this place.’ And here, in the spring of 1928, she drank a bottle of Lysol and ended her gifted, tortured life. It was, Cockerell wrote in his diary, ‘a tragic end to the tragic life of a very rare being’. She is buried with Anne in Fortune Green Cemetery. Fitzgerald’s sympathy for Charlotte Mew is profound, her understanding complete. The Poetry Bookshop was a haunt of her own childhood, when the rhyme sheets Monro had printed (and which Charlotte and Anne both coloured) were pinned on her nursery walls. ‘A whole generation of children learned to love poetry from these rhyme sheets,’ she writes, and she was one of them. Her Life
is full of light, razor-sharp insights, literary and personal, with acute remarks about what it means to be a writer. It is this sensitive identification, and the gentle humour which inflects all her work, which turns what could be a deeply saddening life story into something both moving and uplifting, as one woman writer shows us the struggles and gifts of another.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 51 © Sue Gee 2016