Wednesday, October 20

This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew review – in praise of a new Victorian woman | Biography books


WWhenever someone mentions Charlotte Mew, he feels compelled to add context. The fact that Thomas Hardy said that she was the “greatest poet” he knew, or that Siegfried Sassoon claimed that she was “the only poet who can put a lump in my throat.” Even Virginia Woolf admitted that Mew, who wrote short stories and essays, as well as verse, was “very good and interesting and very different from the others.” Walter de la Mare, struggling to define the source of Mew’s power, ventured “she simply knows humanity.”

The reason any account of Mew, including this excellent biography of Julia Copus, feels compelled to begin by magnifying her is precisely because she has often been shot down. Even during his lifetime, Mew’s name was familiar only to those who lived and breathed contemporary literature, the kind of people who frequented the Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury and eagerly awaited the next issue of the Poetry Review. To these readers, Mew’s “Farmer’s Girlfriend” (1912) was nothing less than a punch to the stomach and a slap on the ear, and all in a good way. The poem is a dramatic monologue in which an unschooled farmer laments his girlfriend’s refusal to respond to his physical and emotional expectations. Mew gives us both the farmer’s clumsy cruelty and the girl’s blind terror as she sneaks “timid as a back” through the fertile fields. “The Farmer’s Bride” feels as old as the hills but surprisingly new, with its ballad, mixed time signature, and long, unruly lines.

It is this difficulty of locating Mew, who was born in 1869, that critics suggest is behind his failure to achieve a high public profile. She was both a Victorian spinster and an independent new woman, Georgian (as it was actually read, belatedly Victorian) and modernist. This, after all, was a poet who was first “discovered” by Ezra Pound in 1914 when he published “The Fete” in Egoist magazine, while his “Madeleine in Church” was so blasphemous that the printer refused to touch the. In other places, however, Mew introduces herself as a Georgian shepherdess, such as in “May 1915,” where she welcomes the “healing breeze” and “heavenly rain” of spring to seal off the war-burned landscape.

There were other reasons for Mew’s lack of traction as well. He published erratically and refused to give his editors even the most sketchy biographical details. She believed, as she wrote of her polestar Emily Brontë, that literary genius is “purely spiritual, strangely, and exquisitely separate from incarnation.” When scalp hunters like Ottoline Morrell or Edith Sitwell tried to get close to Mew, she told them to leave. Sitwell responded by calling her a “gray and tragic woman,” which did much to set the tone for her dark reputation.

Copus has chosen to tell Mew’s life in the simplest way, with much archival research and a cradle-to-grave narrative structure. While this may seem like a laborious approach for such a steamy sprite, it actually serves Mew well. Woolf’s pronouncement on the importance of a room of his own and £ 500 a year begins to seem hopelessly out of touch when he is considered in relation to Mew. Ironically, she was also a resident of Bloomsbury, and at one point lived with her parents and siblings on Gordon Street. However, after the early death of their architect father in 1898, the family was systematically impoverished, and was forced to rent parts of their house so that eventually, Mew, his elderly mother and his sister Anne, a talented artist, could They huddled in the grimy basement to dine out. a plate.

There are other reasons for Mew’s insistence on avoiding public scrutiny. Two of his brothers were in mental hospitals. Henry, the eldest, had to be sent to Bethlem at the age of 19, when he began to tell people that he was the son of the Prince of Wales. Later, Sister Freda was confined for her long life on the Isle of Wight. The expense of these two types of fees gobbled up the family’s modest income and generated a sickening sense of shame at a time when eugenics suggested that the “stain” of mental illness was in the blood. For that reason, both Charlotte and her sister Anne were determined not to marry or have children.

This is somewhat miserable, but Copus is careful to cool down some of the most feverish speculation about Mew’s life. In her well-meaning 1984 study, novelist Penelope Fitzgerald proceeded as if it were fact that Mew was a repressed lesbian and a transvestite. There was his penchant for tailoring, his preference for wearing short hair, and his sneaky friendship with novelist May Sinclair, which broke off abruptly. Copus gently suggests that Fitzgerald’s assumptions may be quite wrong. Tailoring was all the rage for women who wanted to signal their independence, and Petite 4-foot-10 Mew certainly knew that a sharp line served her better than a wraparound wave. Moving her hair was exactly what many modern women did, and as for May Sinclair, she was well known for being a cheater in almost everything.

Copus treats the sad ending of his subject in the same practical way. Following the death of his mother and then his beloved younger sister Anne in 1927, Mew fell into a depression and took his own life. She was tired and lonely and had reached the point where being “exquisitely separated from incarnation” seemed like the best place to be.

This rare spirit by Julia Copus is published by Faber (£ 25). To support The Guardian, request your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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