Finishing Touches

Susannah Clapp

  • Charlotte Mew and her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald
    Collins, 240 pp, £12.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 00 217008 6
  • The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Vol. I: 1903-17 edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott
    Oxford, 376 pp, £15.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 19 812613 1

On 24 March 1928 Charlotte Mew killed herself by drinking a bottle of disinfectant in a nursing-home near Baker Street. She left behind her a volume of poems, a number of uncollected essays and short stories, and instructions that after her death her main artery should be severed: she had thought a lot about being buried alive. Local newspapers reported the ‘suicide whilst of unsound mind’ of ‘Charlotte New, a writer of verse’, and of ‘Charlotte Mew, said to be a writer’.

The circumstances of her death – the solitariness, disordered nerves and dishevelled name – were not foreign to her life, and Charlotte Mew has come to be cherished as ‘neglected’. Penelope Fitzgerald makes it clear that she doesn’t think this means Mew has to be considered a genius, and that the disregard she has suffered was not due to lack of support in her lifetime. She has written a good book about her: one which is firm, sometimes quite bossy, about Mew’s work and views, and which doesn’t snuggle up to her feelings. It is also a wispy book, which doesn’t try to reconstruct her subject’s daily life, but darts between interesting episodes, often focused on an influential friend. In doing so, Mrs Fitzgerald gives a sprightly sense of what Mew was like; at times she seems to mimic her.

Charlotte Mew may have grown up to be secretive – she was certainly no party-goer – but she wrote quite freely about her childhood, directly in prose, obliquely in her poems. She enjoyed nursery life: in some ways she never got over it. ‘I like you best when you are small,’ says a would-be lover, in her poem ‘On the Road to the Sea’, and though Mew may here be glancing hopefully at herself as an adult who took a tiny size 2 in boots, she may also be looking back at the time when she liked herself best – when she was really minute. In her essay ‘An Old Servant’ she writes with relish of a cosy and firmly administered regime in which cold baths and daily prayers took their place with fairings and star-gazings – and in which the impoverished seamstress of another essay, muttering of prostitutes and female impersonators, was a visitor from another world. In fact, the Mew family was in several respects precarious. Three children died in infancy, and their parents were divided. Mrs Fitzgerald is convinced that the father – an industrious but uninspired architect who helped to bungle a commission to build the Vestry Hall in Hampstead – was unfairly disparaged by his wife’s more prosperous family. He was humble and kind-hearted, too easily persuaded to spend money on grand Bloomsbury houses, and fond of visiting the orphans in Coram’s Fields. His pretty wife liked to deck herself out, and often overdid it: a pale blue boa is, Mrs Fitzgerald points out, ‘an awkward thing for a very short woman to wear’.

The Mews’s eldest son was something of a blade: a dancer and bestower of bouquets, who was following in his more dogged father’s footsteps in the family firm. In his early twenties he was diagnosed as suffering from dementia praecox, and confined for life to Peckxham Hospital. The youngest daughter was her parents’ favourite – very pretty, very spoilt. In her teens she, too, broke down, and was committed to an Isle of Wight asylum, where she stayed for sixty years. Charlotte Mew’s poem ‘The Changeling’, with its whooping fairies and chilly wolds, speaks of an exile from childhood in a manner which recalls these siblings:

Why did They bring me here to make me
Not quite bad and not quite good?

Penelope Fitzgerald sees it more straightforwardly as a statement of Mew’s own feelings of peculiarity as a child, and certainly before she was out of her teens she had become unusual. Reviewing the Collected Poems and Prose in this paper, Mrs Fitzgerald described the adolescent Mew’s attachment to her Gower Street headmistress, Lucy Harrison, who had cropped hair, a passion for the work of Alice Meynell and Emily Brontë, and who eventually eloped with another schoolmistress to Yorkshire. Charlotte Mew copied the crop and thrilled to the readings of Alice Meynell’s ‘To a Daisy’. When Miss Harrison, showing signs of ‘strain’, was advised by the school’s governors to take a rest from her duties, little Lottie leapt up from her piano practice and started to bang her head against the wall. The schoolfriend who remembered this wondered whether she ought to bang her own head.

By the time she reached her twenties, the chief constituents of Charlotte Mew’s life were settled. She had formed her first attachment to a woman, and had her first experience of being left; her family’s financial resources were evaporating and its sense of social prestige was on the defensive; that family had been diminished by death and madness. At this point Charlotte and her younger sister Anne resolved to remain celibate. They did so apparently under the influence of the eugenicist theories floating slightly to the west of them in University College – though Miss Harrison may have led the elder sister to feel that men were dispensable. At this point, too, Charlotte Mew began to submit her writing for publication.

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