Saturday 30 March 2019

Charlotte Mew, according to Penelope Fitzgerald

The best lines of poetry are like catchy tunes. They hang in the air and haunt you. I’ve been haunted by the poetry of Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) for more than a decade.

Although born in 1869, Mew isn’t really thought of as one of the ‘Victorians’. Her work found an audience in the 1900s-1920s, but her irregular metre led the editor Eddie Marsh to exclude her from Georgian Poetry IV (the first time he considered including a woman poet in these period-defining anthologies). And her poetry is too narrative for her to be counted amongst the Imagist poets. In fact, Mew herself resisted classification and collection. For instance, she refused to be featured in Macmillan’s Golden Treasury of Modern Lyrics.

Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)
Yet, ironically, she did find her way into one curated volume, an omnibus of English poems through the ages, which I studied as part of my Literature A-Level.  It was here I first read the ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, her most famous poem, which also lends its title to her only book (first published 1916, with an expanded edition featuring new material appearing in 1921).

Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?

This is how the farmer describes his bride, a virgin whose fear of her marriage bed drives her to flee from her home.

Lines from a second poem, ‘The Quiet House’, recurred to me too:

He frightened me before he smiled—
He did not ask me if he might—
He said that he would come one Sunday night


Red is the strangest pain to bear

Recently, I started to expand my knowledge of Mew beyond these two poems, thanks to Penelope Fitzgerald’s (1916-2000) wonderful 1988 biography, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends. The book confirmed my belief that Charlotte Mew is a ‘writer’s writer’. Fitzgerald’s prose is so good that the only times I paused when reading were to consider more deeply one of her sentences or a quoted line of Mew’s poetry.

I learned that Mew’s life was every bit as sad as her poems had led me to believe. Two of her siblings succumbed to madness young, rendering incarceration necessary. And, after her architect father’s death, she and her artist younger sister, bore the weight of the household finances, while still ‘keeping up appearances’ for their ageing mother. Eventually, Mew committed suicide not long after the death of her younger sister, Anne. It was a tragic end for a talented woman, who, despite her brusque manner, had many friends who cared for her.

Mew struggled with a series of romantic infatuations for women, none of whom requited, or even understood, her affections. Fitzgerald’s biography deals with this well, not transposing late twentieth-century ideas about lesbianism onto an early twentieth-century context.

What stuck me most was Mew’s loneliness, and not just because of her sexuality. Everyone, from admirers to detractors, agreed that nobody wrote like Charlotte Mew. Yet, ironically, her originality of thought, and the beauty of her expression, now forges connections with new readers across the centuries.

Which lesser-known nineteenth-century writer would you like the Secret Victorianist to write about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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