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Mew, Charlotte Maryfree

(1869–1928)
  • Penelope Fitzgerald

Mew, Charlotte Mary (1869–1928), poet, was born on 15 November 1869 at 30 Doughty Street, London, the eldest daughter and third child of the seven children of Frederick Mew (1833–1898), and his wife, Anna Maria Marden (1837–1923), daughter of H. E. Kendall, an architect. Frederick Mew, an innkeeper's son from the Isle of Wight, was an architect who worked as Kendall's assistant. Charlotte recalled her childhood as intensely happy, although three of her brothers died in infancy and both the eldest brother and the youngest sister were confined to asylums. After her father's death she was left, with her much-loved sister Anne, to look after their demanding mother. It is said that they made a vow never to marry, for fear of passing on what they thought of as the family ‘taint’.

Charlotte Mew attended the Gower Street School, where she became passionately attached to the headmistress, Lucy Harrison. All her life she was sexually attracted to clever, strong-minded women. Her own personality, it soon became clear, was divided between a correct, late Victorian ‘Miss Lotti’ and a wild, talented, ‘priceless’ Charlotte. Very small (she took size two in boots), a brilliant pianist and mimic, with a hoarse voice like an urchin's, she could be riotously funny and then fall, without warning, into a black depression.

In 1888 the Mews moved to 9 Gordon Street, where they lived in genteel near-poverty. Anne painted and decorated furniture, and Charlotte began to write. She fitted in well with the new women of the period, rolling her own cigarettes and going where she pleased. Her story 'Passed' appeared in the second volume of the Yellow Book, and she contributed to various journals until 1914. It was through the Yellow Book that she met and was deeply attracted to its dashing assistant editor, Ella D'Arcy. In 1902 she went to meet Ella in Paris, but the visit was a bitter disappointment. Ten years later she fell in love with the novelist May Sinclair, and apparently chased her into the bedroom, where she was humiliatingly rejected. Her divided nature made these emotional disasters particularly painful because her ladylike side, the ‘Miss Lotti’, totally disapproved of them.

Charlotte Mew wrote very little verse until in 1909 her 'Requiescat' appeared in The Nation. 'The Farmer's Bride', also in The Nation (February 1913), attracted much more attention. This was the first to be published of her characteristic monologues, which speak for the frustrated, the guilty, the bereaved, and the outcast. The speakers are of both sexes, but the men, like the tormented clerk of 'In Nunhead Cemetery', who watches the burial of the woman he loves, are hesitating and pitiable, whereas the women are physically passionate and strong in the face of loss. Some of the most interesting pieces have autobiographical elements. Charlotte Mew wrote movingly about the deaths of children, and about mentally handicapped people. In 'Fame' and 'The Quiet House' she struggles with the ordeal of self-identification: 'Some day I shall not think; I shall not be!' (The Quiet House). The metre in these monologues follows the pressure of what is being felt or said, resulting in broken phrases, striking outbursts, and ambiguous closes.

Charlotte Mew also wrote short lyrics of great intensity ('Jour de fête', 'A quoi bon dire', 'Sea Love'). She was quite clear as to what she wanted from poetry. It was the cri de coeur, giving 'not only the cry but the gesture and the accent—and so one goes on—calling up witnesses to the real thing!' (C. Mew to Mrs Hill, 4 Jan 1917, State University of New York, Buffalo). Although she possessed two large trunks said to be full of manuscripts, Charlotte was fiercely self-critical and published very little. Sometimes she agreed to read her poems aloud, and is said to have read like one possessed. In November 1915 she was invited by Alida Monro, who managed the Poetry Bookshop in Devonshire Street, to come to one of their evening meetings. Asked on arrival whether she was Charlotte Mew, she replied, 'I am sorry to say I am.' But Alida persevered, and in May 1916 the Poetry Bookshop published Charlotte's first collection, The Farmer's Bride. A new edition, with eleven additional poems, was published in 1921, appearing in America as Saturday Market.

Through Alida Monro, Charlotte met a great admirer of her work, Sydney Cockerell, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, who became a fussy but loyal friend. He in turn recommended The Farmer's Bride to Thomas Hardy, and in 1918 and 1926 Charlotte was invited to stay with the Hardys at Max Gate. In spite of this modest success—and Hardy believed that Charlotte Mew would still be read long after other women poets were forgotten—these were hard times for the Mew sisters. They moved from Gordon Street to 86 Delancey Street in north London, where their mother died in 1923, and although Cockerell managed to obtain a civil-list pension of £75 a year for Charlotte, they were reduced to living in Anne's studio, which had only one cold-water tap. Then in 1925 Anne developed inoperable cancer, and Charlotte, who nursed her tirelessly, was overcome with self-imposed guilt. She had begun to look, according to a contemporary, like a reluctant visitor from another world, frightened at what she had undergone in this one. After Anne's funeral she retreated to a nursing home at 37 Beaumont Street, London, and on 24 March 1928 committed suicide by swallowing disinfectant.

Charlotte Mew was buried, as she requested, in the same grave as her sister in Hampstead cemetery. A second collection of her poetry, The Rambling Sailor, was published by the Poetry Bookshop in 1929.

Sources

  • A. Monro, ‘Charlotte Mew: a memoir’, in Collected poems of Charlotte Mew (1953)
  • M. C. Davidow, ‘Charlotte Mew: biography and criticism’, PhD diss., Brown University, Rhode Island, 1960
  • Charlotte Mew: collected poems and prose, ed. V. Warner (1982)
  • P. M. Fitzgerald, Charlotte Mew and her friends (1984)
  • M. Watts, Mrs Sappho: the life of C. A. Dawson Scott, mother of International PEN (1987)
  • S. Cockerell, diaries, BL, Add. MSS 45926–45927, 52623–52773
  • J. Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop (1967)
  • T. Boll, ‘The mystery of Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair: an enquiry’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 74 (1971), 445–53
  • J. Freeman, ‘Charlotte Mew’, The Bookman, 76 (1929), 145–6
  • V. Meynell, ed., Friends of a lifetime: letters to Sydney Carlyle Cockerell (1940)
  • private information (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • The Times (25 March 1928)

Archives

  • BL, literary MSS and corresp. of and relating to her, Add. MSS 57754–57755
  • State University of New York, Buffalo, MSS and letters
  • NYPL, Berg collection
  • priv. coll., F. B. Adams collection

Likenesses

  • group photograph, 1890 (with Elizabeth Goodman), NPG
  • photograph, 1923, NPG
  • D. Hawksley, pen and wash, 1926, NPG

Wealth at Death

£8729 10s. 0d.: probate, 24 May 1928, CGPLA Eng. & Wales