Lotti’s Leap

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Collected Poems and Prose by Charlotte Mew, edited by Val Warner
    Carcanet/Virago, 445 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 85635 260 8

During her lifetime Charlotte Mew was either greatly liked or greatly disliked, and now, more than fifty years after her death, those who are interested in her are very much interested. There are at least two collections of her papers which nobody is given permission to see – not quite with the feeling that she ought to be left to rest in peace, but, rather, that she shouldn’t be shared indiscriminately with outsiders. She was a writer who was completely successful perhaps only two or three times (though that is enough for a lyric poet) and whose sad life, in spite of many explanations, refuses quite to be explained.

Val Warner, who has worked for so long and against so many difficulties to produce this edition, is to be congratulated. The prose pieces and seven of the poems have been collected for the first time, there are five new poems, and the 54 lines which were cut from ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’ in Duckworth’s collected edition of 1953 have been put back. There is a level-headed introduction and a bibliographical note (to which Sir Sydney Cockerell’s diaries should be added). Val Warner, herself a poet, is not primarily interested in biography: I am therefore hoping to expand and correct one or two points.

Charlotte Mew, who lived from 1869-1928, changed very little for about thirty years of her life. She was tiny, trim, curly-haired and pale, wearing size-two boots – doll’s boots. Her eyebrows were fixed in a half-moon of surprise, apparently at a joke. What joke? Possibly one that she liked to tell: a hearse-driver runs over a man and kills him, and a passer-by shouts: ‘Greedy!’ She was the sort of person whose luggage is carried by helpful young men, and yet she regarded the world with defiance, answering inquiries with a toss of the head, and carrying her umbrella like a weapon. This umbrella, with which she repelled tiresome children on the beach, was part of her Victorian character as ‘Miss Mew’ or ‘Miss Lotti’. Among what she called ‘good five-o’clock people’, she guarded this personality carefully. Only when she felt sure of her company would she sometimes let herself go, and, like most melancholics, prove wildly entertaining. But at the same time Charlotte Mew was writing, and indeed living, à rebours, under the threat of insanity and in the dark thrill of self-inflicted frustration. The split could not be concealed indefinitely, and by the 1920s her appearance had altered, and shocked. ‘Her wind-blown gray hair, her startled gray eyes, her thin white face, belonged to a reluctant visitor from another world, frightened at what she had undergone in this one.’ The biographer has not so much to reconstruct her life as to account for what life did to her.

Charlotte Mew was the third child (out of eight) of Fred Mew, a farmer’s son from the Isle of Wight, who had come to London to be trained as an architect by H.E. Kendall. In 1863 he married Kendall’s daughter, a tiny, silly woman who was ‘above’ him, and always made him feel so: he was made to describe his own father, on the marriage certificate, as ‘Esquire’. Charlotte remembered her childhood as happy. Looking back, she was quite sure, as English poets are, that there had been a happier time. That had been in the two top rooms of 10 Doughty Street, with the round table and the rocking-horse, and a doll’s house designed by Fred. Here Lotti, radiant, passionate and excitable, ruled the nursery, hopped up beside the driver whenever a cab was called, and was half-mad with excitement at Christmas. She told Florence Hardy that she ‘never outgrew the snowflakes’. And yet when she was only seven two of her brothers died – one a baby, one, her great playmate, a six-year-old. Lotti, as was then considered right, was taken in to see him in his coffin. The steadying influence was their Yorkshire nurse, Elizabeth Goodman, tenderly described in Charlotte’s article ‘An Old Servant’: ‘as fixed a part of the Universe as the bath (cruelly cold in winter) into which she plunged us every morning, and the stars to which she pointed through the high window, naming some of them, in the evening sky’. But it was also this faithful servant who imprinted on Lotti’s mind the Evangelical sense of guilt and retribution. Every sin – and every happiness – has been calculated in advance, though not by us, and must be paid for.

Sweetheart, for such a day
  One mustn’t count the score;
Here, then, it’s all to pay,
  It’s good-night at the door.

This was the poem, ‘Fin de Fête’, which in 1916 attracted the attention of Thomas Hardy and convinced him of Charlotte Mew’s talent. Hardy, of course, didn’t need to be persuaded that the Spirit of the Universe was exacting, and Charlotte had the kind of temperament that accepted this without question, even in the nursery.

In 1882 Charlotte was sent to the Gower Street School, which had connections with Bedford College. Here, at the age of 14, she fell violently in love with her headmistress, Lucy Harrison. Miss Harrison was one of the great educationalists of the turn of the century. ‘There was something royal in her nature,’ Octavia Hill wrote. There was also a strongly masculine element. She was one of the conspicuous successes of the liberal and unsectarian Bedford College: a brilliant scholar (as well as an expert carpenter) and a supporter of liberal movements – she kept as a souvenir a cigar given her by Mazzini. Her aim was to open windows for her pupils, both for the body and the mind. During this first important post the strain on her temperament proved too great, and in 1883 she was forced by what was called ‘a breakdown in health’ to resign. One of the old Gower Street pupils, Mrs Alice Lee, said that when the news was given out Charlotte, who had been playing the piano, ‘jumped up and in a wild state of grief started to bang her head against the wall’. Alice, who was younger, wondered if she ought to bang her head too. Miss Harrison retired for the time being to Hampstead, where she continued to coach her favourite girls. Lotti was one of them: Fred Mew innocently believed that it would ‘stabilise’ her to keep in sight of the beloved teacher. Her friends remembered that at this time she was in such high spirits, and so amusing, that the walk from Bloomsbury to Haverstock Hill seemed short. After two years, however, Lucy Harrison fell deeply and permanently in love with Amy Greener, who had taken over the Gower Street School. ‘Dearest, I do not feel at home anywhere without you now,’ she wrote. ‘With the person you love comes a halo and a glow over everything, however miserable and poor, and without that presence the light seems to leave the sun itself. This is a trite remark, I am afraid.’ Miss Greener later wrote on this delicate subject delicately, saying that she had often been asked whether her friend’s life had ‘lacked the perfect rounding love can bring’. She assured her readers that it had not, and the two of them lived for many years of unclouded happiness together in Yorkshire.

Besides this first experience of desertion, Lucy Harrison left with Charlotte her ideals of restraint and self-discipline, even in small things (‘if a pudding is begun with a fork, the help of a spoon must not be called in half-way through’), and a passion for English literature. The books she read with the inner group allowed for a certain release of emotion – in fact, for Miss Harrison’s soppy side: the Brownings, the Brontës, Alice Meynell, Francis Thompson, Tagore’s ‘King of the Dark Chamber’ and ‘The Post Office’. When Charlotte Mew found her individual voice, all these influences persisted, just as her school friends remained her first and last refuge throughout her life. With them, there was less need for concealment, because they had grown up with Charlotte and knew the unpleasant secrets of the Mews’ new home at 9 Gordon Street. By 1888 the eldest son, Henry, and the youngest daughter, Freda, were both incurably insane. Both had to be confined, Henry with his own nurse in Peckham Hospital, Freda in the Carisbrooke Mental Home on the Isle of Wight, the town which Charlotte described, twenty years later, in ‘Ken’:

  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 –

Ken, however, is represented as an amiable idiot, whereas both Henry and Freda were victims of what was then called dementia praecox – that is, schizophrenia. ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’ sets out to represent the process of the split mind – ‘a sudden lapse from sanity and control’, as she explained it – by the dreadful heap of earth and flowers in the graveyard. Meanwhile the guilty identification with the two unfortunates, and the heavy expense of having them looked after, darkened the Mews’ respectable daily life. Charlotte wrote of 9 Gordon Street as ‘The Quiet House’. She had a wretched fantasy that one evening when the front-door bell rang, she would answer it and face herself, waiting outside in the street.

In September 1898 Fred Mew died of cancer. During his long illness Charlotte had made her first appearance in print with a short story, ‘Passed’, which was published in the Yellow Book for July 1894. I think she probably began to write in order to make some money. Mrs Mew was left, or made out that she was left, badly off, and lamented that she would have to let off half of the house. Anne had trained at the Queen’s Square Female School of Art as a screen and furniture painter. Charlotte had been trained for nothing, so she wrote. She wrote slowly, and, like the heroine of New Grub Street, did her time in the British Museum Reading Room, grinding articles (‘The Governess in Fiction’, ‘Mary Stuart in Fiction’) out of other people’s books. Original to the point of wilfulness when the impulse to poetry came, she seems, with these prose contributions, to have studied the market. In ‘In a Curé’s Garden’ she is imitating Villette, in ‘Mark Stafford’s Wife’ she is imitating Henry James, in ‘The Wheat’ she is imitating May Sinclair and in ‘The Fatal Fidelity’ she seems to be having a shot at W.W. Jacobs.

Her first story, ‘Passed’, is the most impulsive and interesting of the lot. The subject is guilt. A respectable young woman hardens her heart when a prostitute appeals to her for help. Later she wanders into a Catholic church as the candles are lit for Benediction, and sees a girl patiently helping her imbecile sister. She knows then how far she has failed in human love. ‘Passed’ is appealing because the painful emotion is felt as true, but it is a period piece: apart from the scene at the altar and the prostitute, we get the prostitute’s dying sister, the cynical clubman who seduces them both, and the haunting scent of violets in a cheap china cup. No wonder it was accepted immediately by Henry Harland, the Yellow Book’s editor. To her old friends – rather left behind at this point – Lotti seemed one of the New Women. She went about London unescorted, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, her hair cut short as Miss Harrison’s had been, and wearing a smaller version of Miss Harrison’s black velvet jacket, collar and tie. She was now in the orbit of Harland’s contributors and John Lane’s Keynotes – ‘George Etherton’, Evelyn Sharp, Netta Syrett and the languid but sharp-witted Ella D’Arcy. These young women were not Bohemians: they were dandies. They objected when Frederick Rolfe left lice on the furniture; Beardsley was ‘a dear boy’ to them. At the Victorian Club for Professional Women, or in the new flats and studios, they talked with passion and spirit. As Evelyn Sharp puts it in her reminiscences, ‘we were on the crest of the wave, and felt that everything must go.’ Meanwhile they lived on very small incomes. It was a gallant fellowship, but precarious. When her brother died in 1901, Charlotte made a run to Paris and the companionship of Ella D’Arcy. When she describes how she walked through the rain and the dazzling lights to help Ella arrange her bed-sitting-room in the Rue Chat we get a last glimpse of the decade which had suited her best.

She was soon recalled to London. Mrs Mew rarely let her daughters stay away for long. But the tyrannous old mother was, it turned out, indispensable. In the end, Charlotte’s attachment to her home and family was stronger than her desire to be free: they promised normality, which implies peace. During these apparently quiet years, when, as ‘Miss Lotti’, she was ordering the dinner or doing social work in the Girls’ Clubs, she became a poet. Hers is a poetry of tensions, which Val Warner defines as ‘passion unfulfilled by the loss of youth, by death, by the working of a malign fate, by the dictates of conventional morality, by renunciation and even by the glorification of renunciation of all love into itself a kind of passion’, to which I would add the overwhelming conviction of guilt. This is only too clear in ‘Fame’, where Charlotte Mew sees herself with disgust ‘smirking and speaking rather loud’ at London parties, ‘where no one fits the singer to his song’, or ‘On the Asylum Road’, where she is one of the crowd passing the darkened windows which cut off the inmates, or ‘Saturday Market’, where a wretched woman tries to hide her disgrace under her shawl and sets the market ‘grinning from end to end’. The images leave the writer, as she put it, ‘burned and stabbed half through’. They are not experimental, but they are not quite under control either. In the main, the shorter her lyrics are the better, partly because her ear for metre was uncertain over a long stretch (she calculated by syllable, not by stress), and partly because they are cris de coeur. Explaining this in a letter, she gives examples of genuine cris de coeur: Margaret Gautier’s ‘je veux vivre’ and Mrs Gamp’s ‘Drink fair, Betsy, wotever you do.’ Cries have to be extorted: that is their test of truth. The quality of emotion is the first requirement of poetry, she said. Given that, she liked to speak in different voices, and for both sexes. She is a ‘cheap, stale chap’ in ‘Nunhead Cemetery’ and an adolescent French schoolboy, set on edge with frustration, in ‘Fête’. In ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ the young wife has ‘turned afraid’ and sleeps alone, while the farmer sweats it out only a flight of stairs away.

    ‘Oh, my God! the down,
  The soft young down of her, the brown
The brown of her – her eyes, her hair, her hair!’

‘Sexual sincerity is the essential of good emotional work,’ complained Wilfred Scawen Blunt, who, predictably, didn’t like the personae and was ‘often left in a puzzle by the situations’. But the uncertainty, of course, was in itself sincere, and made a strong, half-uncomfortable appeal to readers as different as Hardy and Virginia Woolf.

One of these early admirers was the novelist May Sinclair. Charlotte had written to her in 1913 congratulating her on The Combined Maze, a novel in which the image for the human condition is a men and women’s evening gym class at the Polytechnic. The outcome for the hero is sacrifice and repression of ‘the murmur of life in the blood’, a theme well understood by Charlotte. May replied, ready to embark on another of her many literary friendships, but within a few months Charlotte had begun to fret. May Sinclair was a small, pretty, cat-loving woman and an entirely professional writer. She had many interests, including philosophy and what was then called medico-psychology, and kept an escape route for suffragettes across her back-garden. She could deal competently with most situations, and her letters show that when the friendship grew warmer and Charlotte became importunate, she knew how to put her quietly in her place. ‘When I say, “I want to walk with you to Baker Street Station,” I mean I want to walk, and I want to walk with you, and I want to walk to Baker Street Station ... Better to take things simply and never go back on them, or analyse them, is not it?’ At the same time May was generous in her appreciation of the poems, which Charlotte read aloud to her in her hoarse little male impersonator’s voice. She recommended them to Ezra Pound (who printed ‘Fête’ in the Egoist) and, indeed, to every critic she could think of. She perhaps encouraged Charlotte unduly when she wrote to her: ‘I know one poet whose breast beats like a dynamo under an iron-gray tailor-made suit (I think one of her suits is iron-gray) and when she publishes her poems she will give me something to say that I cannot and do not say of my Imagists.’ It was surely a loss on both sides when the friendship abruptly ended, in 1916-17. After the breach, there was not much poetry left in Charlotte Mew. In 1969 an American scholar, Theodore Boll, who was most painstakingly writing the life of May Sinclair, began to turn this episode over in his mind. ‘If I should find something awful enough,’ he frankly admitted, ‘I might produce a best-seller, instead of an academic “doubtsell”.’ In this he was disappointed, but Dame Rebecca West allowed him to see a letter from G.B. Stern, recalling how May Sinclair had told them, in her ‘neat, precise little voice’, that Charlotte Mew had chased her upstairs into her bedroom, ‘and I assure you, Peter, and I assure you, Rebecca, I had to leap the bed five times.’ Dr Boll says he pondered this, working out with true academic caution how far May Sinclair, who was then over 50, would really have been able to leap.

It is not surprising, then, that when she first called at the Poetry Bookshop and was asked, ‘Are you Charlotte Mew?’ her reply was: ‘I am sorry to say I am.’ The Bookshop, during those years the natural meeting-place of poets, was a small room off Theobald’s Road in what was then a slum area of Bloomsbury, and it was largely run and managed by an intense, energetic Hampstead-Polish girl, Alida Klementaski. Alida had read ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ in the Nation, and was ‘electrified’. ‘This poem I immediately committed to memory, and a year or two later repeated it to Harold Monro, who had recently opened the Poetry Bookshop, with the avowed intention of publishing the work of young poets and presenting them to a large audience.’ Charlotte was no longer young, but in 1916 the Bookshop brought out ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ and 16 other poems in an edition of 500 copies, with a cover design by Lovat Fraser. After Charlotte’s death Alida, with a good deal of difficulty, composed a memoir which, up to now, has been the standard source of information. There are some unforgettable passages – the chloroforming, for example, of the Mews’ savage old parrot (a job which Alida reluctantly undertook) and the tragic account of the sisters’ last days. But Alida, though a staunch friend, was not qualified to understand the nature of Charlotte’s emotional life. Homosexuality dismayed her. In 1916 she wrote in distress to Harold Monro that she had missed the last 19 bus and been stranded in the rooms of a fellow suffragette: during the night she had been terrified and ‘nearly went off my head when the young woman came into my room – I said “go and get a dressing-gown” ... but she said in a curious voice, “No, it’s too much fag.” ’ In consideration for this new friend, Charlotte produced an edited version of her life-story. She did not tell Alida the truth about May Sinclair, and she accounted for her distrust of men (except for the old and tamed) by saying that a lawyer had once cheated her out of a sum of money. So Alida, the first and closest biographer, was also the first to be mystified.

To her, the fiftyish Charlotte was ‘Auntie Mew’, and as an eccentric auntie Charlotte became a habituée of the Bookshop. Now that she was modestly well-known she was more farouche than ever and more suspicious of patronage, refusing to visit the Sitwells, dodging Lady Ottoline Morell, intimidating Virginia Woolf, but in the fire-lit bookshop, with Alida’s dogs and Harold Monro’s cat, there was no need for defensiveness. During the Twenties she acquired, also, an elderly beau. Sydney Cockerell, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, had been struck by ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, though he was timid at first about ‘the brown of her’: ‘I suppose her sunburnt arms and neck?’ he suggested. In time, Charlotte became one of the middle-aged artistic ladies with whom he conducted decorous flirtations. She was, he noted in his diary, ‘both witty and profound’. He invited her to Cambridge to see the Fitzwilliam’s Brontë manuscripts, and ‘after tea we sat on the grass, looking at the water-lilies.’ In London they had little suppers in restaurants and saw Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder arms and Noel Coward in Hay Fever. To Cockerell it seemed that she was subsisting on tea and cigarettes, since Charlotte, like most women living on a fixed income, had the illusion of being much poorer than she really was. In 1924 he arranged a Civil List pension for her of £75 a year, calling on the ‘Big Three’ (Thomas Hardy, John Masefield and Walter de la Mare) to give their recommendations. It didn’t matter, he explained when she objected that she was writing nothing – the pension wasn’t dependent on that. For all this kindness she was thankful, but when she needed, as she put it, to listen to her own heart she turned to his wife Kate, or to Thomas Hardy’s second wife, Florence.

In 1922 the Mews moved to 86 Delancey Street. It was a smaller house, but they could look down and see the children and the Punch and Judy in the street below. This had always been a resource to Charlotte. ‘The Shade-Catchers’, which Alida thought the best of her poems, simply describes two barefoot children shadow-hopping down a sunny London pavement. The move upset Mrs Mew. She fell, contracted pneumonia, and in May she died. Four years earlier Edith Sitwell had described Charlotte as a grey and tragic woman ‘sucked dry of blood (though not of spirit) by an arachnoid mother’, but the death did not come as a release. On the contrary, Charlotte felt adrift, ‘like a weed rooted up and thrown over the wall’. ‘Was not able to be of any use,’ Cockerell noted in his diary. The two sisters retreated to Anne’s studio off the Tottenham Court Road. It was the bachelor establishment which, in the Nineties, they had never had, but without the spirit of those lost days. They looked on it, indeed, as a comedown, and all Charlotte’s warring emotions were concentrated on the protection of her sister. Anne, who had not been able to work for some time, was ill. The illness was cancer of the liver, and Anne began gradually to die in public, for callers were still received. ‘They ought to be allowed to put her to sleep,’ wrote Alida. ‘As I talked to her and she shut her eyes I felt they were sealed on her face and would never open, but they did. Aunty Mew says the Dr says any moment she may go down to earthy mould. Poor little Mew it is more tragic than I can tell you – Her rough little harsh voice and wilful ways hiding enormous depths of feeling – now she will be entirely alone and her relation with Anne has been one of complete love, and I imagine the love of sisters (or brothers) more marvellous than any other as there can be no fleshly implications or sexual complexities.’

When Anne died in June 1927, Charlotte felt a survivor’s guilt. It was not the search for recognition, or even the search for love, that was to extinguish her, but the determination to be punished. She convinced herself first that Anne might, as the result of her negligence, have been buried alive, and next that she herself was contaminated and that the black specks in the studio were the germs of cancer. A doctor examined the specks: they were soot. Charlotte was persuaded to go into a private nursing-home where the matron was not the kind of woman to understand her, and the view from the window was blocked by a stone wall. After living there alone for about a month, Charlotte Mew went out, bought a bottle of lysol, and drank half of it. A doctor was called, but she only came round sufficiently to say: ‘Don’t keep me, let me go.’

‘24 February 1928,’ Cockerell wrote in his diary. ‘A tragic ending to the tragic life of a very rare being. After dinner wrote a little memoir of her for the Times.’ In the following year the Bookshop brought out ‘The Rambling Sailor’, with 32 more poems – all that could be found by Charlotte’s executors. By the 1930s the grave where Charlotte and Anne lay buried together was neglected, but collectors had begun to buy Charlotte’s letters. In 1940 the research staff of the American publishers Kunitz and Haycraft were at work on their Twentieth-Century Authors, and evidently quite at a loss over her entry. They settled for: ‘She was educated privately, she lived for some time in Paris, she loved someone deeply and hopelessly, she endured poverty and illness and despair.’ She was given a pension, they added, ‘so that she should not starve’. So the half-myth perpetuated itself. None of this would matter if it did not concern a poet ‘who will be read’, as Hardy insisted, ‘when others are forgotten’.