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A Self Among the Crowd

Is sociability a necessary ingredient of literary success?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Charlotte Mew’s most – indeed only – famous poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ (1912) currently features on a syllabus for GCSE. She is not, then, entirely forgotten; although beyond the world of poets, where her reputation remains high, she is hardly known at all. Mew only published one volume of poetry during her lifetime, but that in itself is not unheard of for a poet: Sylvia Plath also published only one (plus a novel), and Emily Dickinson none at all. The relative obscurity of Mew’s work is puzzling, given that the volume in question (also called The Farmer’s Bride) remains, as Irish poet Eavan Boland has said, ‘one of the most remarkable poetry publications of the first half of the twentieth century’.

To some extent Mew herself thwarted her chances of achieving any lasting literary legacy: an intensely private person, she had a tendency to be brusque towards those who offered her preferment and was unwilling to play the game of literary sociability, even if it cost her work the reputation she clearly wanted for it.

Her contemporary admirers were plentiful. Hardy called her ‘far and away the best living woman poet — who will be remembered when others are forgotten’. Walter de la Mare remarked that ‘she just knows humanity — one of the rarest things in the world’ and Siegfried Sassoon prophesied that ‘many will be on the rubbish heap when Charlotte’s star is at the zenith where it will remain.’ It’s not hard to see why they were so enchanted.

Right from the start, Mew’s poems were written with an authority of tone that usually comes after years of practice, and only then to certain poets. Her poetry is urgent, sensual and sense-filled — full of sea-breezes, lamp-lit streets, blazing, insistent colour, and sudden stark contrasts between sound and silence.

But practical offers of support were thin on the ground. Mew was not well connected in the sense that, say, Virginia Woolf (a contemporary) was well connected, and she certainly never benefited from the endorsement of a whole literary group. Nor was she the least interested in self-publicity: she loathed being requested to perform in public. In the summer of 1913, Catherine Dawson Scott (literary hostess and founder of International PEN) asked her down to her home in Southall to recite a few poems to a small group of acquaintances — ‘and in my brightest way,’ said Mew in a letter to a friend, ‘I replied that she had mistaken me for little Tich or Margaret Cooper at the piano, and impolitely declined.’

By March the following year, Mew had allowed her arm to be twisted, though she still had misgivings: ‘& how I hate it — the performing monkey!’ The reading was a great success — so much so that Mrs Scott wrote in her diary that 16 March 1914 ‘ought to be a marked day in our lives… Charlotte sat with the little table before her and on it were her papers and cigarettes, and she smoked all the time and, in her wonderful way, read us 5 poems. It was an enchanting hour! She was a little nervous when she began, but after the first poem forgot herself.’

It quickly became clear that there would also be professional benefits arising from this rare performance. The following day the mystic poet Evelyn Underhill wrote to Mrs Scott that ‘an hour with Miss Mew is like having whiskey with one’s tea… Heavens, what a tempest she produced — the most truly creative person I have ever come near… I hope to heaven I shall be able to make Scott-James print her stuff…’

The journalist and critic Rolfe Scott-James was at the time editor of the highly regarded New Weekly, and it would seem that Evelyn Underhill did indeed persuade him to take some of Charlotte’s ‘stuff’. ‘Fame’ appeared in the magazine in May — just two months after her reading; the poem makes it clear that Mew well understood the lure of celebrity. It opens with a wide-angle shot in which the speaker, as both cameraman and subject, presents us with a knowing, outsider’s perspective on herself at a literary gathering:

Sometimes in the over-heated house, but not for long,
      Smirking and speaking rather loud,
      I see myself among the crowd

As the poem progresses, we learn how much the speaker longs for ‘the sweetbriar air’ of her old, simpler life. But the sad fact is that to remove herself from the glamour of fame now seems an impossible prospect:

Yet, to leave Fame, still with such eyes and that bright hair!
God! If I might!

Though by nature Mew was a reluctant networker, she had for a brief while found herself part of a vibrant literary circle. During the early 1890s, she published a few pieces in the Yellow Book and went along to editor Henry Harland’s Saturday evening ‘at homes’ at his flat in Cromwell Road. Harland was an outgoing New Yorker who played fast and loose with the facts of his own life, but was generous with his hospitality — and with his praise: in response to her first submission to the magazine (a short story) he told the 24-year-old Mew that he regarded it as ‘a very important literary achievement’.

There were clearly alliances worth fostering among the Yellow Book crowd, both personal and professional. But in keeping with her cautious nature, Mew quickly disassociated herself from the magazine and its contributors – a starry group that included Max Beerbohm, Edmund Gosse, Henry James – after it was wrongly connected with Oscar Wilde’s arrest in 1895. She was always nervous of public scandal — due in part to her mother’s redoubtable snobbery and the fact that the family had its own secrets to keep. Mew’s literary progress likely suffered as a result of her withdrawal from this group, occurring, as it did, very early in her writing career.

Some years later, the same pressures of respectability helped ensure that she never became a part of the Bohemian set that moved about her in the streets of Bloomsbury. Members of the Bloomsbury Group were considered by some to be morally corrupt. On the other hand, there is no record of Mew actually having been invited to attend their gatherings, although she lived just around the corner from their meeting place at Woolf’s house in Gordon Square.

Later still, when Mew was in her fifties, Edith Sitwell and her brothers gathered their own set around them (Aldous Huxley was part of it), but Mew showed no interest in attaching herself to that either. Edith met Charlotte Mew in 1919, just as she was starting to form her literary clique, and afterwards complained to fellow poet Robert Nichols that ‘I tried to get [Charlotte] to come and see me, but she is a hermit… though she was very nice to me, she wouldn’t come.’

A direct comparison with Woolf – 12 years Mew’s junior – reveals that the two had widely differing attitudes, especially when it came to social interaction and self-promotion. Those attitudes must go some way towards explaining why the careers of two contemporary women from ostensibly similar backgrounds – who were both much admired for their literary output – should follow such different trajectories. The outward similarities between them are after all striking: both were from middle class families (though Mew’s parents were not ‘arty’ or intellectual, as Woolf’s were); neither of them went to university, neither had children, and both committed suicide, Mew when she was 58, Woolf at 59.

But the differences between the women are still more revealing. Via Virginia Woolf’s brother, Thoby, the Bloomsbury Group had strong connections with the Cambridge Apostles, a quasi-secret intellectual society at Cambridge University, whose members included Rupert Brooke, EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey and Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf. It’s inevitable, then, that Woolf should know many more eminent people than Mew did; what’s interesting is that such connections mattered to her. In the autumn of 1924, when Woolf was working on a commission for Vogue magazine, she confided to her diary her hopes about where such a commission might lead her:

So very likely this time next year I shall be one of those people who are, so father said, in the little circle of London Society which represents the Apostles, I think, on a larger scale. […] To know everyone worth knowing. I can just see what he meant; just imagine being in that position — if women can be. Lytton is: Maynard; Ld Balfour; not perhaps Hardy.

The commission had come to Virginia via George ‘Dadie’ Rylands who knew Vogue’s editor, Dorothy Todd. Rylands was a protégé of Lytton Strachey’s (the two had been at Cambridge together), and Lytton, in his turn, had been great friends with Virginia’s brother, Thoby. And so it went.

Ironically, it appears that the remote Mew was herself deemed one of the people Woolf thought ‘worth knowing’: that same year, she described Mew in the postscript to a letter she sent to Vita Sackville-West as ‘the greatest living poetess’. Clocking up meetings with various men and women of letters, Mew among them, Woolf reported that she was ‘exploring our profession thoroughly’.

To imagine Mew ‘exploring’ her literary acquaintances in this way is all but impossible. For one thing, there was too much at stake for her: much of her time and energy was spent protecting her personal life from exposure, so the family might maintain an air of respectability. Hers was a story that included significant financial struggle, insanity (two of Mew’s siblings died in mental asylums) and the suppression of her own, likely homoerotic, sexuality. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why Mew tended to spurn the attentions of those who might promote her work. Lady Ottoline Morrell, for instance, was a renowned society hostess and friend to artists. Her tea parties were attended by TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Henry James and DH Lawrence. She admired Mew’s work and was well placed to put in a good word for her. None of this counted with Mew, who snubbed Morrell’s attentions because she found them intrusive.

Unlike Woolf, Mew refused to sit for paintings and photographs, and regularly turned down requests from editors for author photos or biographical information. In fact, she allowed herself to be portrayed only once, by her friend, the painter Dorothy Hawksley, in 1926 (a timely venture: just two years later, Mew would be dead). The resulting watercolour – the only painted portrait we have of Mew – is currently stored at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Woolf, who was famously self-conscious, also claimed to dislike being photographed and painted, and she once refused to sit for a painting intended for the National Portrait Gallery on the grounds that the space was dominated by portraits of men. However, a 2014 exhibition at the same gallery was able to showcase over a hundred portraits of her.

The cautious, self-effacing but plain-speaking Charlotte Mew was not as famous in her lifetime as Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde or EM Forster (let alone full-blown celebrities like Dickens and Hardy), but she did experience a degree of renown. And when the speaker in ‘Fame’ voices her longing to get back to the world she knew before celebrity ensnared her – back to ‘the sweetbriar air, / To the larks that cannot praise us, knowing nothing of what we do, / And the divine, wise trees that do not care’ – she is more than likely expressing Mew’s own desires.

If so, then in the end Mew got her wish: she was buried among the quiet ash trees, yews and sycamores of Fortune Green Cemetery in Hampstead.

The world was not on the whole a friendly place for Mew. In her poem ‘The Call’, an unnamed being pays an unexpected visit on a fire-lit room and its inhabitants. We don’t know the creature’s gender, if it has one, or indeed the purpose of its visit, but we could do worse than to read it as a personification of the artist’s calling. This is how the poem ends:

            The world is cold without
            And dark and hedged about
    With mystery and enmity and doubt,
                      But we must go
        Though yet we do not know
Who called, or what marks we shall leave upon the snow.

Mew answered her call. And although it’s likely that she never did want fame for herself, that is not to say she didn’t want it for her work. Her unique, luminous poems – so vital and modern in feel, even today – deserve a far greater reputation than they currently have; there’s no question, either, that they are made of stern enough stuff to sustain it.

Julia Copus is a poet. Her children’s book The Hog, the Shrew and the Hullabaloo has recently been published by Faber & Faber.

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