A Mews bouche

Maggie Gruner finds a new biography of the poet Charlotte Mew both informative and surprising

Friday, 30th April 2021 — By Maggie Gruner

Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew

STRUGGLING to make ends meet in bygone Bloomsbury, poet Charlotte Mew kept a family secret firmly under wraps.

As Julia Copus relates in a new book, This Rare Spirit, hardly anyone was told about the existence of Charlotte’s two mentally ill siblings who had been sent to asylums, the cost of their care draining the family’s finances.

These siblings – her elder brother, Henry, and a younger sister, Freda – profoundly affected Charlotte’s life and work.

Copus writes that Henry’s presence haunts Charlotte’s poetry, and that in her dramatic monologues she speaks out for, and through the mouths of, “the disappointed, the deranged and the desolate”.

Born in 1869 in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, Charlotte Mew is perhaps best known for her poem The Farmer’s Bride – and for her suicide in 1928.

Although writers including Thomas Hardy and Walter de la Mare admired her work, her achievements are generally unsung. Many might ask: “Who’s Mew?”

Julia Copus, herself an award-winning poet, told Review she wanted to “shine a spotlight” on Mew’s work.

“I think Charlotte Mew’s writing (particularly her poetry) is extraordinary, and it seemed to me that it was not as well known as it ought to be – especially compared with that of some of her male contemporaries.”

Copus’s meticulously researched, absorbing biography brings Charlotte springing from its pages.

Tiny – about 4ft 10ins with size two feet – she smoked her own hand-rolled cigarettes at a time when this was considered rebellious in a woman, was outspoken, wore – in later life – a masculine-looking coat and silk cravat and, a friend recalled, usually carried a horn-handled umbrella, unrolled, under her arm.

Teenage Charlotte walked from school in Gower Street, through Camden Town to Haverstock Hill, Hampstead, where she was a student boarder in her teacher’s house. Years later Charlotte’s poem Saturday Market captured a Camden-like street scene.

30 Doughty Street

Her father, architect Fred Mew, designed Hampstead Vestry Hall, later renamed Hampstead Town Hall.

The Mews moved to Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, when Charlotte was 20 and most of her poems, stories and essays were written there. She became head of the household after Fred’s death, striving to earn money through her writing. Charlotte and her sister Anne looked after their domineering, class-conscious mother, who would have hated the idea of admitting that the family had suffered mental ilIness. Charlotte and Anne, a painter, resolved never to have children for fear of passing on the “mental taint”.

The biography points out contradictions in Charlotte’s character. Though liberal-minded and fiercely independent, as she moved through her 40s corrosive Victorian respectability grew more important to her.

She snootily commented that she had “eleven pigsties from Primrose Hill to King’s Cross” to visit when calling on soldiers’ wives for the local War Pensions Committee in 1918.

Loss pervades Charlotte’s writing – unsurprising as, besides her two siblings claimed by madness, three others had died in infancy – but the book shows that her personality was different from that of the ‘“mythical tortured poet”.

Copus – who unveiled a blue plaque on Charlotte’s childhood home in Doughty Street in 2016 – said: “When I set out to write the biography I had no idea how mischievous she could be! She used to pepper her letters with ridiculous drawings, and loved telling funny stories just for the joy of seeing people laugh. It was a dominant part of her character and she held on to it through some very difficult times. She had tremendous courage.”

It has often been suggested Charlotte was a lesbian. But the book cites a lack of evidence, and suggests Charlotte would have struggled to see how her sexuality could be relevant to her work.

When the three Mew women moved to the top two floors of 86 Delancey Street, on the edge of Regent’s Park, Charlotte liked looking out at the park’s trees.

She’d strike a chord with today’s tree preservation campaigners. One of her finest poems, The Trees are Down, was written about the cutting down of London planes in Endsleigh Gardens, Bloomsbury, near her Gordon Street house.

Her poetry could arouse controversy. A compositor at a Clerkenwell printers refused to set the poem Madeleine in Church because he felt it was blasphemous.

The death of her beloved sister Anne left Charlotte inconsolable. After going into a nursing home, suffering from insomnia and “neurasthenia” (a condition characterised by exhaustion and often associated with depression or emotional stress) she went out for a walk, bought a bottle of Lysol disinfectant at a chemist’s, and drank it on returning to her room, killing herself.

She is buried in the same grave as Anne in Fortune Green cemetery. The grave has fallen into disrepair.

  • This Rare Spirit: A life of Charlotte Mew. By Julia Copus, Faber, £25

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