‘The moonlight drips on the parlour floor;/I shall go mad if no one wipes it up.’ So began E.V. Knox’s parody in the August 1921 issue of Punch.
And the moon dripped upon the floor like this
Two years ago. The floor looked just the same.
There is something very terrible about a floor.
Who, if presented with this parody today, would be able to name the figure that inspired it? Sixty years after Punch ran the poem, Knox’s daughter, Penelope Fitzgerald, published Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, in which she observed that her subject would always be an outsider. Twenty years ago Ian Hamilton wrote that Mew’s reputation ‘hangs by a thread’. Her Collected Poems and Prose has long been out of print and there are no critical books devoted to her writing.
I’m not sure she would have minded. Reading essays that seek to rehabilitate or to ‘make a case’ for Mew, I sometimes hear the ghost of one of her speakers, ‘The Changeling’: ‘Why did They bring me here to make me/Not quite bad and not quite good?’ Mew resisted being brought forward; she was in her mid forties when The Farmer’s Bride (1916) came out as a chapbook from the Poetry Bookshop. It was the only volume published in her lifetime and contained just seventeen poems, which makes it all the more remarkable that a few years later Knox could seize on her work as worthy of parody – not just recognisable, but recognised. When Thomas Hardy, John Masefield and Walter de la Mare secured her a civil list pension in 1923, Mew couldn’t decide whether it was more ‘like a dream or a nightmare’. Such diffidence also contained defiance. Her public readings were bracing affairs – ‘like having whiskey with one’s tea’, one listener said – and she could be forceful even when she wasn’t spiking the drinks. Turning down an invitation to read, she wrote that her would-be hostess had ‘mistaken me for little Tich or Margaret Cooper at the piano’.
The question of how she was to be received seems to have been linked, in Mew’s mind, with how she was to be remembered. In an early lyric she imagined friends standing round her deathbed and speaking of her ‘indulgently, as of the newly dead’, before confessing that she’d already died on entering adulthood, becoming a ‘homeless ghost in life’, an ‘I, no longer I’. Although part of Mew was forever waiting to be discovered, she didn’t want to be anybody’s discovery. Her friend Alida Monro recalled that she kept all her unpublished writing in two large chests, both of which Monro inherited on Mew’s death in 1928. The chests, however, were bequeathed ‘without the contents’. In many ways, posterity has had to make her up. She’s been conceived as a latecomer (‘one of the last Victorians’) and a forerunner (Eavan Boland discerned ‘an ominous pre-Auden elegance of tone’ in her work). Perhaps she’s a little like T.S. Eliot’s Cousin Nancy, who smokes and knows all the latest dances: ‘Her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,/But they knew that it was modern.’ The modernists certainly took to her; she was published alongside James Joyce, positively reviewed by H.D. and praised as being ‘above praise’ by Marianne Moore. ‘If we choose to leave the poems of Charlotte Mew out of our literary heritage,’ Moore wrote, ‘we are leaving out an original.’
The speakers of Mew’s poems often feel left or left out, even as they seem to have been initiated into an experience with which they wouldn’t wish to part. In ‘The Fête’ – a poem Ezra Pound chose for the Egoist, and on which Knox drew for his parody (it begins: ‘To-night again the moon’s white mat/Stretches across the dormitory floor’) – a sixteen-year-old French boy recalls escaping from boarding school to go to the circus. ‘The black clown, with his dirty grin/ Lay, sprawling in the dust, as She rode in’:
She laughed at the black clown and then she flew
A bird above us, on the wing
Of her white arms; and you saw through
A rent in the old tent, a patch of sky
With one dim star. She flew, but not so high –
And then she did not fly;
She stood in the bright moonlight at the door
Of a strange room, she threw her slippers on the floor –
You heard the patter of the rain,
The starving rain – it was this Thing,
Summer was this, the gold mist in your eyes; –
Oh God! it dies,
But after death –,
To-night the splendour and the sting
Blows back and catches at your breath,
The smell of beasts, the smell of dust, the scent of all the roses in the world, the sea, the Spring,
The beat of drums, the pad of hoofs, music, the dream, the dream, the Enchanted Thing!
The poem has an off-kilter music. The lines have between four and twenty-two syllables (no line repeats the rhythm of the preceding one), and skittish punctuation and indents don’t make it any easier to follow. Mew rarely sets up an image, or lets you settle in; everything proceeds by way of jump-cuts and her speakers are never at home, not even in their own memories. The poetry’s natural element is a charged interruption or hiatus. ‘And then she did not fly’: the thrill of large movements gives way to the bigger thrill of smaller ones; whatever this Thing is – sexual awakening, the benightedness of desire – it inheres not just in trappings or tinsel, but in the way she stood, the way she threw her slippers on the floor.
Mew had her own reasons for needing to dream up flights from home. She wrote ‘The Fête’ when she was 43, the year she returned late one night to the house in which she still lived with her mother and sister to find them waiting up ‘in panic & dressing gowns’. There were secrets in the family past, several of which are told in Julia Copus’s new biography. Mew was born in 1869 into a Bloomsbury family that was just about respectable; her father, Fred, was an architect and had married his boss’s eldest daughter, Anna Maria, who apparently felt the union lowered her social rank. Neither Mew nor her siblings ever married and when her father died in 1898, the family found itself in a precarious situation. Anna Maria insisted that paid work was unbecoming to her daughters, so Anne said nothing about her decorative art job while Charlotte quietly earned a little money from the stories and articles she published in magazines (she made her debut in 1894 in the first volume of The Yellow Book). The top floors of their house in Gordon Street would soon register another offence against propriety: lodgers. This necessary evil just about kept heads up as the family was on the way down; mother and sisters removed themselves to the basement, from where Mew wrote to a friend that ‘our dungeon’ was too cramped for visitors.
Mew’s childhood was a foreboding of future troubles. A baby brother died when she was six, and within the year another brother, Richard, died from scarlet fever. As Susannah Clapp put it in her review of Fitzgerald’s biography (LRB, 20 December 1984), Mew liked to play the child, but child’s play was always a peculiarly fraught affair. In one poem she addresses Sorrow and remembers that ‘In sport, a little child, I grew/Afraid to find you at my play.’ One notes the slight pause before the run-on: to grow is to grow fearful. Elsewhere, she is abandoned by a lover and asks that he remember her as
I have remembered things that went their way –
The dolls with which I grew too wise to play –
Or over-wise – and kissed as children do,
And so dismissed them.
Perhaps this is Mew’s way of saying that one is never really done with childish things. But many of the children in her poems are admired rather than pitied, and their play can be a sign of resilience, even ruthlessness. In ‘The Narrow Door’, some children are briefly halted on the steps of a café as a coffin is jerked round a twisting staircase and out of the building. ‘Along the quay you see it wind,/The slow black line,’ the speaker says, but the children are no longer watching and have gone back to the infinitely more serious business of having fun. Often, on encountering Mew’s children, I’m reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s affection for a short story she came across in the New York Times, composed by an eight-year-old: ‘I told my little brother when you die you cannot breathe and he did not say a word. He just kept on playing.’
The deaths of Mew’s little brothers were followed by other family traumas. When she was thirteen, her eldest brother, Henry, started to become disturbed and was admitted to the New Bethlem Hospital where, his doctors reported, he had ‘delusions that the end of the world is coming, that he is the son of the P. of Wales – that he is raped at night by women’. He died of tuberculosis aged 36, in Peckham House Lunatic Asylum. A few years later, Mew’s youngest sister, Freda, who had shown increasing signs of distress since her father’s death, jumped from a window. She was sent to an asylum on the Isle of Wight and never released.
Mew once told a friend that she and Anne had made up their minds early in life that they would never marry for fear of passing on ‘the mental taint that was in their heredity’. But memories of the family history were passed on in her work. One story, ‘A White Night’ (1903), describes the powerlessness of a group of onlookers who stumble on a bizarre ritual in which a woman is buried alive by a group of monks. I think Copus is right to suggest that the piece expresses Mew’s horror of standing by while her sister Freda was incarcerated, or entombed, just as Henry had been. It’s worth adding that ‘A White Night’ is set in 1876, the year in which Richard died, which might imply that deaths and living deaths cannot easily be distinguished. What the onlookers say of those acting out the ritual could also be said of themselves and their creator: ‘They seemed, with variations, to be going through it all again.’
Mew’s stories are often formulaic – all Gothic accoutrements, fin-de-siècle sinners and so on. They suffer from trying to be too poetic, yet they sometimes contain forms of seeing and saying that inform her best poems. In one story a man returns to a room in which the wallpaper and the stove are ‘not really there; not solid, only like things that aren’t’; in another, mother and son wait for a missing family member: ‘Long they watched for Jenefer … sitting together in the white-roofed cottage with its four wide windows looking out to sea, and listening for her unreturning feet.’ Nothing about this is remarkable, except for Mew’s courtship of nothingness. The windows, rather than the people, might be doing the ‘looking’, and then there’s the oddity of that final adjective: the mourners are trying to catch the sound of returning feet, but to listen for the ‘unreturning’ is to listen for the sound of nothing, to attune yourself to blankness.
As its dedication page might suggest (‘To –’), The Farmer’s Bride is haunted by people who are not all there. According to her husband, the heroine of the title ‘Should properly have been abed;/But sure enough she wasn’t there/Lying awake with her wide brown stare.’ Properly or improperly, she is always elsewhere, even when she’s fetched home and locked in. ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’ returns to the place where Mew’s brother Henry was buried, but in disguise; the poem is spoken at the graveside of a former love by a speaker driven mad with loss. ‘I have seen this place,’ he says, ‘from the windows of the train that’s going past.’ Being in and out of place – distinguishing where you are from where you’re not (and vice versa) – is the defining predicament of Mew’s poems. ‘Forest Road’ appears, in part, to be a cloaked confession of the way she felt having left Freda in the asylum; for some contemporaries, the insanity appeared to be contagious. Mew told a friend that ‘Dr Scott says the “Forest Road” was so deeply realised it made him feel the writer was mad! A professional point of view.’
From her own non-professional point of view, poetry was a way of exploring how she met and parted company from those who were beside themselves for one reason or another. ‘Ken’ tells of a madman who wanders the town and for whom ‘nothing was dead’ (if he comes across a broken wing he says ‘bird’; if he picks up a leaf he says ‘rose’). The inability to leave things behind, and the drive to make wholes from parts, become the means by which the speaker imagines Ken after he’s taken to the asylum. The poem ends:
Do roses grow
Beneath those twenty windows in a row –
And if some night
When you have not seen any light
They cannot move you from your chair
What happens there?
I do not know.
So, when they took
Ken to that place, I did not look
After he called and turned on me
His eyes. These I shall see –
The strangeness of ‘So’ – is it a filler, or a sigh, or a non sequitur, or a wish for cause and effect? – captures more in its inarticulacy than any voluble lyric dénouement. Mew’s best effects often come from a stunned brooding, a form of non-telling into which she smuggles telling details. Take those twenty windows, which show that the speaker has looked hard enough, and stood long enough, to count them. The poem declines to comment on what has happened to a mind that feels compelled to count in this way.
Faced by a request for information about her early life and artistic debts, Mew explained that ‘the chief, if not the only, value of any work of art is precisely that quality in it which is independent of influences.’ Her own art is preoccupied by dependencies and influences that can’t be shaken off. Copus’s biography and her excellent new selection of Mew’s work help to situate Mew in relation to contemporary debates as well as hidden pasts (‘Ken’, for example, is read alongside discussions about the 1913 Mental Deficiency Bill, and ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ alongside the Royal Commission on Divorce and Matrimonial Causes). Mew both followed and flinched from the protocols of good form, and she liked to swerve from the respectable to the incorrigible. The title of her longest poem, ‘Madeleine in Church’, sounds pious enough, until Madeleine explains that she would rather pray ‘To something more like my own clay,/Not too divine’ and adds that she has enjoyed, ‘sometimes, my own hands about me anywhere’. The original compositor refused to allow such confessions into print. Mew wrote to her publisher: ‘I think your printer must be a spiritual brother of the Editors who refused Ken because they “believed in the segregation of the feeble-minded” … after this, one can’t expect the advocates of early marriages to buy The Farmer’s Bride!’
Even the quieter lyrics make space for needle as well as niceties. A poem will begin with the word ‘Sweetheart’ and then suddenly talk of being ‘Shut with you in this grim garden’; or the magnanimous relinquishing of a lover will descend into speculations about the other woman (‘Only I wish her eyes may not be blue’). Mew’s own physicality – along with her relish for the physical – comes through strongly in Copus’s book. She had ‘something piquante about her’, a schoolfriend recalled, a way of turning round as she talked, ‘sort of pirouetting on her feet’; even when fully grown, she stood at four foot ten in tiny black button boots (size two), with a horn-handled umbrella (her ‘weapon against the world’). Alongside the figure who endured loss and depression, there is also the Charlotte Mew who went around unescorted, who liked casinos and who was often taken (perhaps mistaken) for a New Woman. The description that really sticks was provided by Catherine Dawson Scott in 1912: ‘an imp with brains’.
Scott also noted privately that her friend was ‘unsound sexually … evidently a pervert’. The suggestion that Mew was lesbian was first put forward in print in the 1930s. Fitzgerald was decided on such matters (‘what is certain is that there was an uncontrolled physical confession of furious longing, desiring and touching’), but this sort of thing isn’t certain, and Copus notes Fitzgerald’s other errors and embellishments along the way: the two books are best read as a double act. One can be grateful for Copus’s balance and for her brilliant detective work (she’s tracked down medical records, diaries, letters, weather reports, visitors’ books and much else besides) while missing Fitzgerald’s way with details and emphases – she informs us, for instance, that Mew liked to swear in both French and English and that she enjoyed the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And then there’s Fitzgerald’s ability to conjure up her subject in a single sentence: ‘Her face at this time took on its habitual curious expression, with her strong eyebrows raised in a perpetual half-moon, as though she had just heard a joke, or perhaps thought that if life is a joke it is not a very good one.’
Attending to Mew’s body language is a good way of getting closer to the heart of her writing. Her early stories are highly sensitive to quirks and gestures – distracted by them, even. She pauses to take in a man’s hands ‘travelling slowly up and down each knee’, or to watch a woman ‘twisting the rings round her small fingers while she spoke’. A friend noted that Mew wore a signet ring on the little finger of her right hand and twirled it ‘round and round in the most fascinating manner’. She was drawn to fidgeting, though it’s not clear whether this releases or amplifies tension. She once told Thomas Hardy’s wife that physical motion ‘both strengthens & rests the mind by turning it with some new winder or unconnected channel’, and yet one feels the turning of the screw when Ken’s neighbours exclaim: ‘God help the folk that next him sits/He fidgets so, with his poor wits.’
Whatever else poetry was for Mew, it was something to do with one’s hands. When she had writer’s block, she told friends she was ‘playing with plasticine instead’. She remembered a household servant who cast a sceptical eye on both the making of verses and the smoking of cigarettes: ‘Both practices, she told us, were injurious to the brain.’ Fidgeting isn’t wholly controlled, and perhaps never completed. Alida Monro described watching Mew making spills to light her endless cigarettes; noticing that the paper was written on, she asked if Mew was using up old letters. ‘I’m burning up my work,’ she replied. ‘I don’t know what else to do with it.’ The work thrives on the experience of not knowing what to do. ‘It may be that what Father says is true,’ one speaker says, ‘If things are so it does not matter why:/But everything has burned, and not quite through.’ Not quite being through with things – or their not quite being through with you – is Mew’s most persistent subject.
One of her poems is subtitled ‘From an unfinished elegy’ and the quiet pun on the adjective is telling. She shared her preference for a lack of finish with Hardy, who wrote in his notebook that the secret of a living style lay in ‘not having too much style – being – in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there’. Mew’s lyricism in poems like ‘À Quoi Bon Dire’ inhabits the space between making good and making do, between the need to speak and a sense that words perform both more and less than their speakers would have them perform:
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.
The ruffling of rhythm and rhyme scheme at the end brings with it a tense that seems to be especially dear to Mew: the future perfect, an anticipation of retrospection. And while that little shift from ‘will have’ to ‘shall have’ isn’t a glitch or a mistake, I think it’s Mew’s way of not having too much style. ‘Shall’ is somehow less lyrical than ‘will’, less polished, and perhaps a shade less volitional.
Mew’s personal relationships – sexual or otherwise – were no doubt complicated by her intense focus on the plainest of statements. She was quick to perceive slights (May Sinclair wrote to tell her: ‘As for “good-bye” I never dreamt it wd. be interpreted “Goodbye for ever”!’), and she was quick to perceive other things too. A few months later, Sinclair felt the need to explain: ‘When I say “I want to walk with you to Baker St Station,” I mean I want to walk, & I want to walk with you, and I want to walk to Baker St Station. The act of walking is a pleasure in itself, that has no ulterior purpose or significance.’ I can imagine the respondent raising her eyebrow in a half-moon at such confident literalism from a close reader of Freud (Sinclair helped to set up the first psychoanalytic clinic in England). But still.
Mew could be a very difficult person, but the difficulty fed the work, not least because her fidgety compulsion to read between the lines created lyrics that listened out for silences. This may account for her gravitation to the dramatic monologue – H.D. praised her for having ‘grown a new blossom from the seed of Browning’s sowing’ – and in Mew’s hands the drama that might previously have been gleaned from a silent auditor is compounded by another figure: the silent speaker. When she was asked to clarify the gender of the speaker of ‘On the Road to the Sea’, a poem about missed opportunities, Mew replied that it ‘represents to me a middle-aged man speaking – in thought – to a middle-aged woman … he has only met once or twice’. The aside is crucial. Many of Mew’s lyrics appear to address a person who is on the scene, only for the reader to discover that the speaker is actually talking to themselves ‘in thought’. It’s as though the poem exists only to express things that the speaker wishes they’d said, or might wish to say now if anyone was around to listen.
This risks making Mew sound merely plangent, which she’s not. There’s a ravenousness in the work akin to that of her rambling sailor who urges bystanders to ‘eat your fill o’ your whack of pies,’ or the woman who, when she looks at stained glass windows, sees ‘golds and crimsons you could almost drink/To know how jewels taste’. She has sometimes been read as a latter-day Christina Rossetti, but attempts to place her in this lineage are a little strained, and in her poetry the word ‘heaven’ always arrives with a sense of let-down. The only thing Mew wants to be everlasting is transience; angels envy mortals rather than the other way around because the latter have something better than ‘the glare of glory’: ‘all sweet human things/Which vanish with the whirr of wings’. That innocuous word ‘thing’ often acts as a talisman in these poems (‘The whole thing starts when one gets to bed,’ a speaker observes, ‘when she has shown you – well – all sorts of things’). Elsewhere Mew speaks of ‘all the things that I have cared for very much/In the whole gay, unbearable, amazing show’, and her conflicted care for those things extended to her feelings about the poetry she made from them – ‘my damned immortal work’, as she put it.
The death of her mother in 1923 was a sign that other endings were in sight (‘A stupefying blow,’ Mew reported. ‘I feel like a weed dug up and thrown over a wall’). Only Anne and Charlotte were left, and after Anne died in 1927 Charlotte was persuaded to move into a nursing home where the view from the window was blocked by a stone wall. A few weeks later she killed herself by drinking a bottle of Lysol. The previous day she’d received a visit from Alida Monro; as she was leaving Mew took a slip of paper from a drawer and said she’d like Alida to have it. It was ‘Fin de Fête’, one of the last poems she’d published, copied out in Hardy’s hand. Her friend Sydney Cockerell had found it among Hardy’s things a few months earlier and sent it on, adding that ‘we found no other poem of any sort copied out by T.H.’ Mew wrote to thank him for ‘the poem which no one else I think thought other than jingle’. It might be read as an epitaph of sorts:
Sweetheart, for such a day
One mustn’t grudge the score;
Here, then, it’s all to pay,
It’s Good-night at the door.
Good-night and good dreams to you, –
Do you remember the picture-book thieves
Who left two children sleeping in a wood the long night through,
And how the birds came down and covered them with leaves?
So you and I should have slept, – But now,
Oh, what a lonely head!
With just the shadow of a waving bough
In the moonlight over your bed.
It’s another of those poems that begins as an address, before you realise the voice is ‘in thought’. What takes lyrics like this beyond ‘jingle’ is what Mew does with the yearning for jingle itself. Although most lines play on the edge of ballad or nursery rhyme, the sudden arrival of a different tune between the dashes leads to other apprehensions. The picture-book thieves are taken from one of Mew’s treasured childhood possessions – Randolph Caldecott’s illustrated version of The Babes in the Wood, published for Christmas 1879 – but the details have been softened. The orphans weren’t left sleeping, they were left for dead, and the ballad closes as ‘Robin-redbreast painfully/Did cover them with leaves.’
Behind the pain, and behind the ambivalent pleasure of listening to and making songs from it, lie the absent parents and lost siblings, the sense of being both the abandoner and the abandoned. The longer you listen to her poems – particularly to their endings – the stranger they get. The images that follow ‘But now,/Oh, what a lonely head!’ might suggest that the speaker is suddenly talking of herself in the second person; and, perhaps, talking to herself – as though the mind were trying (and failing) to sing itself a lullaby. But it might be addressed to the absent sweetheart, calling to them and working up a picture of their loneliness as a way of keeping her own loneliness company – another of Mew’s silent speakers speaking ‘in thought’.