This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew by Julia Copus - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

She Hated Poetry Readings

This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew


Faber & Faber 449pp £25

Thank the deities, it is spring. The almost-forgotten poet Charlotte Mew wrote a beautiful poem about spring called ‘May, 1915’. It includes the devastating lines ‘Let us remember Spring will come again/To the scorched, blackened woods, where all the wounded trees/Wait, with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain.’ Mew wrote many beautiful and devastating poems. She has her admirers, but remains obscure. As Julia Copus, the author of this excellent biography, writes, ‘Mew is perhaps best known for two things: she is the author of the much-anthologised poem “The Farmer’s Bride”, and she committed suicide.’ From this, Copus adds, a rough outline has been sketched of Mew as a ‘mythical tortured poet’. Copus suggests that Mew was far more interesting than this. She was not exactly Shakespeare’s sister but she was afflicted by ‘constant interruptions’ and went for years without publishing anything at all. She lived in a damp basement with her mother and sister, smoking roll-ups and talking to her parrot.

Mew was born in 1869 into a middle-class family and killed herself in 1928 by drinking Lysol. Her father was from the Isle of Wight; his work as an architect meant that the family lived in Bloomsbury. Three of her siblings died in infancy; two went mad in early adulthood. Mew’s career began in the 1890s when she was published in the allegedly (but not really) disreputable Yellow Book. Her last work, a collection of poems called The Rambling Sailor, appeared posthumously in 1929. After her father died, Mew lived with her sister Anne, an artist, and her ailing mother, who took up much of her time. She disliked literary parties, rebuffed influential people, including Ottoline Morrell, and had ‘an abhorrence of self-promotion’. She lived in Gordon Square without ever knowing her close neighbour Virginia Woolf or other members of the Bloomsbury Group. She was ‘an outsider’, writes Copus, from ‘Bloomsbury, from the world of intimate relationships, from marriage and motherhood, and ultimately from the world at large’.

Mew’s poems range from conventional Victorian elegies to wild outpourings of loss, longing and fear of death. If you read her work to a random array of people who don’t know it (as I did the other day) then they may well liken it to Christina Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence or (unkindly) ‘bad Philip Larkin’. Her most memorable and idiosyncratic poems include ‘Rooms’ (‘I remember rooms that have had their part/In the steady slowing down of the heart’) and ‘Fame’ (‘Sometimes in the over-heated house, but not for long,/Smirking and speaking rather loud,/ I see myself among the crowd’). Her work, writes Copus, was ‘unashamedly emotive’ and therefore ‘out of kilter with the ideals of the fashionable Imagists’. She was too traditional for some and too radical for others. A printer refused to set one of her poems, ‘Madeleine in Church’, because he thought it was blasphemous. She has ‘frequently been identified as a lesbian’, Copus notes, including by Penelope Fitzgerald in Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984). There is also a rumour that Mew ‘conducted an illicit affair with Thomas Hardy’. Copus thinks that ‘such hypotheses occur when there is a vacuum surrounding a writer’s private life; we do not like to accept that no evidence can be found – or indeed that there may have been no active love life at all.’ Mew was obsessively private and refused even to supply brief biographical notes for anthologies. She hated poetry readings. She believed that literary genius was – as she wrote of Emily Brontë – ‘purely spiritual, strangely and exquisitely severed from embodiment’. She admired Conrad’s precept ‘Never confess! never!’ It’s safe to say she wouldn’t have been on Twitter.

Copus’s research is immaculate and yet she acknowledges that her biography may not be definitive. She is a poet herself and knows that biographical detail may be only obliquely relevant to the work, or not at all. Even the poet doesn’t always understand why she wrote what she wrote. Literary reputations are sometimes forged by factors beyond the author’s work. There are the rich and the lucky, and on the other side the ‘mute inglorious Miltons’ who never stood a chance. Mew was roughly in between. She was barely encouraged for many decades and even her admirers had some odd ideas. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt advised her ‘always to write like a woman’. Literary Digest (no relation) said her writing was so good that it ‘scarcely seems the work of a feminine mind’. She endured a host of family tragedies and personal disappointments. Even her pet parrot was strangled to death. Yet her literary reputation flourished in the 1920s. Thomas Hardy invited her to stay in Dorchester; John Masefield said she was ‘the most distinguished of the living English women writers’; Siegfried Sassoon stated that she ‘surely stands with Emily Brontë and Christina Rossetti’.

Despite all this, Mew’s end was very sad, as ends often are. Her mother and sister died, and Mew described herself as ‘now a shattered wreck’. She was confined to a nursing home with insomnia and ‘neurasthenia’. From there she wrote, ‘I just tried my best to keep going & broke down – It was so lonely – I try still but it is lonelier here.’ Her life was roughly the same length as Woolf’s, it was lived in the same place and both tragically committed suicide, but otherwise they couldn’t have been less alike. Even now, as Copus writes, Mew’s ‘achievements continue to be insufficiently recognised despite the work’s extraordinary sensuality, its intimate, forthright tone and distantly modern idiom’. Copus wants to restore Mew ‘to her rightful place in our literary heritage’. If her keenly intelligent, fascinating and nuanced biography doesn’t achieve this end, then I don’t know what will. Save Charlotte Mew! And read this book.

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