"An imp with brains": The forgotten genius of Charlotte Mew

Catherine Dawson Scott, writer and co-founder of International Pen, describes the poet Charlotte Mew in her diary of 1913 as “an imp with brains”. Mew was certainly doll-like in stature: she wore size-two boots, which she bought at F Pinet in Mayfair. It

An illustration of Charlotte Mew.
"An imp with brains": the poet Charlotte Mew's powerful work is ripe for rediscovery. Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck.

Catherine Dawson Scott, writer and co-founder of International Pen, describes the poet Charlotte Mew in her diary of 1913 as “an imp with brains”. She goes on to reflect that the then 43-year-old Mew, whom she has only recently met, is “tiny, like a French Marquise, uses amazing slang, and has ungainly movements” – all of which strikes her as “a queer mixture” but, she adds, “Under the curious husk is a peculiarly sweet, humble nature.”

Mew was certainly doll-like in stature: she wore size-two boots, which she bought at F Pinet in Mayfair. Born in 1869 into a genteel, middle-class, Victorian family and with a domineering mother insistent on keeping up appearances at any cost, Mew was – on the face of it, at least – surprisingly unrepressed. She went where she wanted, unchaperoned, and smoked her own hand-rolled cigarettes.

When her father died in 1898, the need to earn a living for the remaining family prompted Mew to start writing stories in earnest for publication. It would not have done for her to be seen to be making money and, besides, Ma would never have allowed it; writing was a way of bypassing that humiliation. But the prose was never much more than a means to an end and it was almost two decades before her first book of poems, The Farmer’s Bride, materialised.

The collection takes its title from a startling poem of the same name, written in the dialect of a farmer who is driven to distraction by his bride’s reluctance to love him. When the young girl escapes into the night, the village folk help the farmer chase her, “flying like a hare/Before our lanterns”, over the fields. Once she is caught, he sees no alternative but to keep her under lock and key. The poem ends with a haunting cri de coeur:

She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ’Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh! My God! The down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her – her eyes, her hair! Her hair!

Alongside the dramatic tension, the music of this stanza has a dizzying effect. Those insistent full rhymes (“there”, “stair”, “hair”, “down”, “brown”), repeated over such a short space, and the strong, four-beat lines, which expand at the last moment into a longer, final line, reverberate like a military tattoo. It is a daring, even excessive, approach and as a portrayal of speech it ought not to work but the farmer’s voice is conjured with such boldness that we don’t think to question its authenticity.

Throughout her poetry, Mew has an unsettling facility for inhabiting the minds and voices of others. She speaks through the mouths of the disappointed, the deranged and the desolate. It is no mistake that she wrote so many dramatic monologues: the form is the perfect vehicle for such a lonely cast of souls, in that the addressee never replies to the speaker (dramatic monologues are always addressed to a silent other). In Mew’s poems, that addressee is often absent in any case: a vanished sweetheart, a buried loved one, a distant, unreachable God.

Mew had every reason to identify with the luckless creatures she brought into being. Poverty wasn’t the only thing that the family had to hide. In their early twenties‚ Charlotte’s elder brother Henry and her much younger sister Freda both developed schizophrenia (known at the time as “dementia praecox”). No doubt under Ma’s mistrustful eye, the family did its best to keep the affliction secret. Henry and Freda were nursed privately in asylums – a heavy expense that became increasingly onerous as the years went by.

It wasn’t long before Charlotte developed a fear of discovering madness in herself. In “The Quiet House”, the speaker describes an occasion when she goes to answer the door on a drizzly night, only to find that no one is there. This leads to the unnerving thought that it might be her own self calling for her:

Tonight I heard a bell again –
Outside it was the same mist of fine rain,
The lamps just lighted down the long, dim street,
No one for me –
I think it is myself I go to meet.

The plain tone and natural, unforced speech rhythms used here make for a strikingly modern mode of address. It is a mode that Mew employs for her most private moments and her innermost fears.

Mew was over 45 by the time her first book was published but it quickly attracted the attention of literary figures such as Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound and Siegfried Sassoon. She had long been a passionate reader of Hardy and was overjoyed when she discovered that he felt so strongly about her work. Hardy wrote that Mew was “far and away the best living woman poet, who will be read when others are forgotten”.

Ma continued to be a major shaping force in Charlotte’s life. While to her friends Charlotte may have appeared uninhibited, inwardly she had always felt a sharp contradiction between her nature and the lifestyle she had been brought up to venerate. Ma’s influence reached into many corners of her life; Mew was, for instance, strictly forbidden to speak in the Isle of Wight dialect she knew well from the summer holidays of her childhood. Luckily for us, it tumbles instead from the mouths of her characters in poems such as the magical eight-line lyric “Sea Love”. Here‚ we find ourselves eavesdropping on a speaker who has returned to the same stretch of shore where she recently stood with her sweetheart, in the days when they both believed – to borrow Auden’s phrase – “Love has no ending.” But by the second stanza, the inward, sea-like commotion in the breast of the lover has weakened to the ephemeral, outward flutter of the wind. The vivid scenesetting and quietly devastating ending are typical of Mew:

Tide be runnin’ the great world over;
’Twas only last June month I mind that we
Was thinkin’ the toss and the call in the breast of the lover
So everlastin’ as the sea.

Here’s the same little fishes that splutter and swim,
Wi’ the moon’s old glim on the grey, wet sand;
An’ him no more to me nor me to him
Than the wind goin’ over my hand.

Charlotte fell in love three times in her life – that we know of. Each time, she fell for an older woman and, each time, she was rejected. Over the years, she seems to have become disillusioned with the idea of romance. Her poem “Rooms” begins:

I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart.
The room in Paris, the room in Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide . . .

The “room in Paris” is likely a rendering of the hotel room in Rue Chateaubriand where Mew was rebuffed in her early thirties by Ella D’Arcy. (The dynamic Ella had worked briefly as assistant editor of The Yellow Book when Charlotte published her first story there, in 1894.) But it is the fifth line of the poem that is perhaps most revealing. For Mew‚ quiet was essential if one was to listen with due attention; it’s a notion that crops up again and again in her work. As the child narrator in “The Changeling” explains to her estranged parents, “Everything there is to hear/In the heart of hidden things.”

At midnight on 18 June 1927, Anne, Mew’s beloved younger sister and lifelong companion, died from cancer. Anne had been the one constant in her sister’s inconstant life and it’s easy to imagine how the death might have polarised all of Mew’s diffuse anxieties: her romantic failures, her struggle with her sexuality, the burden of having to conceal madness in the family, the fear of incipient madness in herself and the pressure of being a clever and ambitious woman when it wasn’t seemly for a woman of her background to be either.

The following year, Thomas Hardy died. A copy of Mew’s “Fin de Fête”, written out in his hand, was found among his personal papers and sent on to Mew in London. For the short remainder of her life, it became one of her most treasured possessions. That year, her doctor persuaded her to move to a private nursing home near Baker Street and, after living there alone for just over a month, she went out to buy a bottle of Lysol – a caustic, creosote-based disinfectant – poured herself a glass and drank it. She was 58 years old. A small notice in a local paper described her as “Charlotte New, said to be a writer”.

Sassoon once said of Mew: “Many will be on the rubbish heap when Charlotte’s star is at the zenith, where it will remain.” It seems extraordinary that this poet, held in such high esteem by many of her now famous contemporaries, is so little talked about today. The one consolation is that beneath the ceaseless, maddening sound of critical fashion, there persists a small but powerful body of work in which – if only we care to listen – the voice of Charlotte Mew remains distinctly and defiantly alive.

Julia Copus’s recent collection, “The World’s Two Smallest Humans” (Faber & Faber, £9.99), was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and a Costa Book Award