This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew (Faber paperback 2022)
When she was on form, the English poet Charlotte Mew sounds as if she was electrifying company. In March 1914 she was invited to read her poetry aloud to a select gathering of women at her friend Catherine Dawson Scott’s house. Although Mew was at first deeply reluctant to do it (‘how I hate it – the performing monkey!’) her friend’s influence in literary circles meant that there was a chance of some of her poems being published as a result. As the sole breadwinner among her all female household (apart from their rambunctious male parrot, Wek) Mew needed the money.
So, one stormy afternoon, Charlotte Mew walked from Bloomsbury to Southall carrying her bag stuffed full of handwritten sheafs of paper. When she got to Dawson Scott’s, she laid out her freshly rolled cigarettes on the table in front of her and began to read. Afterwards, the three women who comprised Mew’s audience in Dawson Scott’s smoky front parlour were left stunned, speechless, and mildly intoxicated by the experience. ‘My dear Mrs. Scott, I feel as if I departed yesterday without thanking you,’ Evelyn Underhill apologized the following day, ‘but really an hour with Miss Mew is like having whiskey with one’s tea – my feet were clean off the floor! Heavens what a tempest she produced – the most truly creative person I have ever come near.’
It’s a delightfully vivid image of this diminutive, often overlooked figure whipping up a storm with the power of her words. A new biography of the tempestuous poet, This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew, is a beautifully written and lucid account by Julia Copus, herself a prize-winning poet and children’s writer. Previously, Mew has been portrayed as a deeply unhappy, rather mousy spinster whose life was scarred by tragedy, shame, and unfulfilled lesbian longings (she is possibly better known for her ‘mannish’ clothes and for her suicide at the age of 58 than for her body of work). This book shines new light on her life by going back to the archives and examining the evidence in order to shift the focus back to Mew’s distinctive poetry. It’s a gripping, beautifully written biography that wears its meticulous research lightly, yet questions everything we might think we know about this remarkable poet,
The difficulties of Mew’s personal life – a brother and sister who were committed to mental asylums, the family’s constant financial strains and the need to keep this a secret, the prevarications of her publishers and the demands of her parrot– are sympathetically portrayed, but the overall effect is not one of pathos. Instead, Mew’s determination to write in her own way and to make a living from her poetry is even more impressive. She kept herself apart from literary cliques, including the Bloomsbury set, and avoided personal celebrity, convinced that her poetry was powerful enough to speak for itself.
But rather than being a hermit, in her letters she is revealed as a spiky, determined and modern woman ‘who loved nothing better than to make people laugh, valued loyalty and stood loyally by her friends, spoke her mind, had an aversion to authoritarianism and peppered her letters with cartoonish drawings.’ One of her closest and most loyal friends was Sydney Cockerell, who was Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge from 1908 to 1937 and who helped to ensure Mew was awarded a Civil List Pension in December 1923 in recognition of the merit of her work.
Yet Mew’s literary output was modest, with only a dozen stories and essays and one poetry collection published in her lifetime. Despite this, her friend and admirer Thomas Hardy described her as ‘the greatest poetess’ he knew of, and Siegfried Sassoon said she was ‘the only poet who can give me a lump in my throat.’ In more recent times, the Irish poet Eavan Boland has described Mew’s 1916 collection The Farmer’s Bride as ‘one of the most remarkable poetry publications of the early twentieth century’.
Recently, I was lucky enough to hear This Rare Spirit’s author Julia Copus reading some of Mew’s poems to a small audience in one of the oldest houses in Bloomsbury, near Great Ormond Street Hospital. Listening to ‘The Trees Are Down’ and ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ being read aloud in such an atmospheric (and, for a brief time, candlelit) front parlour was thrilling, especially with the indistinct, ghostly image of Mew’s face shimmering on a red velvet curtain behind the author (see below). In that room, listening to her poetry come alive as it was read aloud, Charlotte Mew seemed both an absence, and a very modern presence.
Ann Kennedy Smith 15 December 2022, all rights reserved.
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