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.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Review: My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead (2014)

Reading Rebecca Mead’s part-memoir, part biography of Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), better known by her nom de plume George Eliot, was an exercise in confronting the familiar.

Even on the surface there is much in Mead’s life that resembles my own. We’re both British transplants, brought up in small towns, but now living in Brooklyn. We both studied English at Oxford. And we share a love for Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-2), which Virginia Woolf called, famously, ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’.

My Life in Middlemarch weaves together Eliot and Mead’s life stories with the latter’s reflections on the novel and details of her journalistic research. This too was recognisable to me. As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve also gone on pilgrimages to find traces of history below the surface of modern English life. Mead’s emotions as she traverses streets Eliot would have walked and takes tea in rooms she frequented were relatable, tinged as her descriptions are with the complex feelings of the emigrant for the land she’s left behind.

But the familiarity I found most difficult to confront is the topic at the memoir’s core. When we find a book we love it can be easy to feel that it is written for us, and only us. We construct an imaginary conversation with its creator that can overcome decades, oceans and even death. Mead’s reaction to Middlemarch, and the very publication of her memoir, is a testament to the fact that our responses to great works of literature are not unique.

Rebecca Mead (1966- )
This is a fitting revelation for a book centred on Middlemarch, a novel which also makes us face the truth that we are not special and that other lives as passionately lived as ours end with graves that go ‘unvisited’.

I’d recommend My Life in Middlemarch to anyone who’s read and loved George Eliot, but also to those who’ve read her books and wondered what they were missing and what others see to admire so deeply. For those uninitiated into Middlemarch it may be a more perplexing read, but who knows—sometimes a date with the unknown is even more compelling than the familiar.

What book would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read and review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.