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.

Her claim to be a writer of distinction rests on a small number of poems about people at the point of breakdown. Most of her stories strain for effect; many of her essays are skimpy set-pieces written under pressure for money. Mrs Fitzgerald is quite brisk about these, and makes a good tale out of the placing of her work: she has a lively feeling for periodical publishing and its oddities. Mew’s early efforts were directed towards the Strand magazine, then featuring a yarn about swooning on a railway line, and an excited article on the Metropolitan Fire Brigade: ‘Fire! Fire! This startling cry aroused me one night as I was putting the finishing touches to some literary work ...’ Mew’s grim little sketch of an urchin’s near-drowning in a dank canal did not find favour at the Strand, but the Yellow Book took her up with a vengeance. Mew was glamorised by Henry Harland’s attentions – ‘Darling of my heart! Child of my editing!’ – and by the band of youngish women who wrote bold stories for his paper and whizzed around town on bikes. She took to wearing chunky tailormades, to rolling her own cigarettes, and to writing in a worked-up style. The story that Harland published, ‘Passed’, is characteristic of her more hectic productions, in which wild-eyed women beckon in dark streets, whores wail in churches, hair is tossed, and the scent of flowers drifts on stale air. Not all these pieces are without merit – some of the whores wail interestingly – but ‘Passed’, which features a ‘squalid mart’, a mysterious death, guttering candles and two fallen women, goes too far: even Harland thought that some of the ‘starting eyeballs’ and stiffening limbs’ should be removed.

Outside her fictions, Charlotte Mew’s idea of a loose woman was someone who was ‘always taking expensive medicines and borrowing railway fares’. Her own home and social lives were poky, reduced after her father’s death (registered as ‘Maw’) to a querulous mother and her awful parrot, her sister – and a lodger whose presence was held to be so shameful that visitors to the house were debarred. Mew never broke from or betrayed this meagre set-up and its secrets, but she made violent excursions from it: she was always like a teenager. Mrs Fitzgerald makes a good case for seeing her as two people: as Miss Lotti, the parasol-carrying, self-effacing homebody, who broke with Harland because Oscar Wilde’s trial besmirched the Yellow Book’s reputation, and as Charlotte Mew, the poet and headbanger, who fell for Harland’s assistant Ella d’Arcy, and pursued her to Paris.

For two months in 1902 Mew gloomed up and down the Champs Elysées, playing a complicated game of being hard to get: breaking dates and feeling plaintive, going for long solitary walks in the rain. She moved in and out of Ella d’Arcy’s lodgings; she wrote cryptic and nervy letters home, and fervid poems addressing ‘Paris of the hot white hands, the scarlet lips, the scented hair’. All this was lost on d’Arcy, who was very heterosexual: she seems to have been baffled and embarrassed by Mew’s behaviour, and in the end to have rebuffed her without ever fully realising what her friend wanted. Even when Mew made her intentions plain, the strength of her feelings wasn’t taken seriously: it was not simply that her affection was rejected – it wasn’t quite believed. Ten years after the d’Arcy episode she went through the same rigmarole with the more strenuous May Sinclair. Penelope Fitzgerald gives a crisp portrait of this intellectually agile and humanly rather dense woman who at the time she met Mew had just published a novel featuring the mixed gymnastics class at the Marylebone Polytechnic and was engaged in setting up the Medico-Psychological Clinic of London. Mew made, if not a pass (Mrs Fitzgerald is stern with Sinclair’s biographer, Theophilus Boll, who computed the number of times she bounded over the bed), some sort of wild declaration to Sinclair. The Freudian was astounded, and thought she should pull herself together: ‘I said to her: “My good woman, you are simply wasting your perfectly good passion.” ’ She gossiped, and in her fiction patronised a small person who was ‘exquisite ... in spite of her queerness’. She had sought Mew’s friendship, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she might make Mew suffer. This may have been partly because Mew’s suffering presented itself as prickliness, and Mrs Fitzgerald comes as close as any sympathetic biographer can to showing just how routinely irritating this could be. Mew fussed, and Sinclair was maddened: ‘When I say “I want to walk with you to Baker Street Station,” I mean to walk, and I want to walk with you, and I want to walk to Baker Street Station. The act of walking is a pleasure in itself, that has no ulterior purpose or significance.’

For much of her life Charlotte Mew was surrounded by people who thought of themselves as advanced and of Mew as strange. Her work won staunch advocates – May Sinclair was one – but few apparently considered that her writing told them something about Mew. In her poems she blew her secrets – about her family’s madness, her family’s poverty, her sexual feelings: they seem to have been taken as fantasies. When ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ appeared in the Nation, Mew was summoned to a series of poetry readings given by the culturally avid Mrs Dawson Scott, who later founded International PEN. ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ treats the case of a man inflamed with desire for his young wife, a wild little fay who runs away from him and is recaptured and incarcerated in her own house. It is remarkable for giving expression to the terror of the girl, while allowing her husband to speak of her with tenderness as well as passion: it is a poem written by someone who knows what it is to have a strong sexual drive and be frustrated; it is also by someone who knows what it is to feel odd and hunted. Mrs Dawson Scott and her salon lapped this up; Mrs Dawson Scott’s nickname – taken from the title of a long and sexless poem – was ‘Sappho’. Yet when she heard that Mew had been ‘bothering’ May Sinclair, she was amazed. ‘Charlotte is evidently a pervert,’ she noted in her diary. ‘Are all geniuses perverts?’

Like all Mew’s best poems, ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ deals with a situation that makes people howl, and uses – as Mrs Fitzgerald graphically puts it – ‘an I which is not I’ to tell the tale. Mew read these poems as if she were in a séance, adopting unfamiliar gestures and intonations, seemingly oblivious of her audience. In a small group of poems she produced wonderfully individual and supple voices, which move from anecdote to panic without losing their particular accents. A ‘cheap, stale chap’ stands at his lover’s grave: he remembers how she liked the lions in Trafalgar Square; he remembers her dying, and how he ‘could not reach your hands, your little head’; he begins to think that the ‘whole dreadful heap’ of earth and flowers is living. A demi-mondaine rails at Christ and his tepid virtues, as she sobs and gossips her way through a recital of childhood afternoons and fragrant evenings, of lovers, cads and divorces. In ‘The Quiet House’, which Mew called ‘the most subjective of the lot’, a childlike narrator documents a steadily diminishing life: the death of a parent and two siblings; an unresolved, perhaps a sexual encounter; a house with locked rooms where sunshine lies on the stairs, ‘As if, coming down, you had spilt your life’.

These poems tell their stories intimately and colloquially: there is not a grand or bohemian voice among them. They provide packed little histories, in which settings – a graveyard with trains passing, a house in a square with a spired church – are precise, and in which families and alliances are named: there is Monty and Ted and Janey and Redge. All contain hallucinatory horrors: the wounds in Christ’s hands ache; children have ‘something terrible’ about them. All show people on the brink of madness, and end in collapse and frantic flights:

       I think it is myself I go to meet:

I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!

Mew also wrote about people deemed to be madmen. In ‘On the Asylum Road’ the inmates, prevented by dark glass from seeing or being seen by the sane, appear as ‘the incarnate wages of man’s sin’: Mew dipped in and out of Anglicanism. In ‘Ken’ an ungainly and amiable imbecile is meticulously observed. Ken goes to church to ‘see the lights’; he points to the figure of Christ and says, ‘Take it away’; when the narrator rebukes him for knocking at her door, he leaves a twig on the mat. His eventual confinement is not questioned: nor is his good nature. The force of the poem comes from having a narrator who can coolly appraise his peculiarity, and yet wheel round, in a movement characteristic of Mew’s verse, to close on a note of suspension and guilty identification:

         I did not look
After he called and turned on me
His eyes. These I shall see –

‘Ken’ was turned down by one magazine because its editor ‘believed in the segregation of the feeble-minded’.

Mew’s father’s firm built lunatic asylums; Harold Monro maintained himself on income from his family’s private asylum. Mew was invited to a reading of her poems at his Poetry Bookshop during the First World War. She wore red stockings and a man’s overcoat and, when asked if she was Charlotte Mew, replied: ‘I am sorry to say I am.’ Penelope Fitzgerald thinks she actually was sorry: but saying so may have been a tease – Mew liked to tantalise, and was fond of declaring that she lit her cigarettes with unread poems. She was quickly taken up by earnest, Polish, generous Alida Monro, who wrote a Memoir of her friend displaying blissful ignorance of Mew’s homosexuality and of her siblings’ madness. Harold was less enthusiastic. He had his own nightmares – one starred John Galsworthy ‘belabouring’ him with a huge steak – and his own sexual problems: he climbed into bed on his wedding night grunting ‘Come here, boy.’ He may have been disturbed by Mew’s quaintness; he certainly found her difficult. When he published a selection of her verse, under the title The Farmer’s Bride, she fought him about the binding, the cover, the publication date, the print-run. Out of 1000 copies, 850 were remaindered.

Nevertheless, it was through this little volume that, at the age of 49, Mew acquired a sugar daddy. Sydney Cockerell, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and genial flirt, began to puff around her. He took her to Chaplin movies, bought her ice-creams, and indulged her risqué quips – Mew liked to play the child. Mrs Fitzgerald, who is unusually lacking in snobbery towards kind-hearted but unglamorous figures, deals gently, though not uncritically, with this old fusspot, who wept over verse in the Underground and summarised each page of his diary for the benefit of future readers. He prosecuted Mew’s interests with vigour. He pressed copies of her book on his friends – Wilfred Scawen Blunt wondered about their sexual sincerity – and, with a lot of secret bustle and bearding of the famous, he got her a Civil List pension of £75 a year. Mew’s response was typical of someone who wanted to be published and who hated publicity: the attention made her, she said, ‘feel a sort of suicide’.

Her actual suicide followed five years later, when she was 59. The death of her mother had left her feeling ‘like a weed dug up and thrown over a wall’; the long illness and death of her sister set her examining specks of soot in her room believing them to be germs. There was no one left who knew her secrets. She was advised to go into an asylum.

At the same time as Mew, and often in the same part of London, a more public impersonator was spinning alternative characters for herself. Katherine Mansfield signed her letters ‘Kissienka’, ‘Katie’, ‘Catherine’, ‘K’, ‘Bowden’, ‘Kass’, ‘Katiushka’ and, with culpable frequency, ‘Wig’ or ‘Tig’. Her changes were much puzzled over by those who knew her, and the accounts she gave of herself were so various that inconsistency can seem to be her most consistent feature. ‘Dont lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath,’ she wrote to Middleton Murry. ‘As terrible as you like – but a mask.’ In Murry’s case this was rather sound advice; Mansfield’s own masks and mimes were less purely self-defensive and more purposeful. She did not, as Penelope Fitzgerald persuasively argues Mew did, tuck herself behind one persona – and then speak out through other inventions. She liked to inhabit different scenes, animate a variety of people, and then to absent herself. She did this in her fiction, and she did it in life – and in life often in the cause of fiction. Her animations and abstentions could be seen as the revenge of the colonial.

‘Please destroy all letters you do not wish to keep,’ Mansfield urged Murry in what has been taken as a simple plea for secrecy. She must have known that he’d keep a lot. ‘Have a clean sweep, Bogey, and leave all fair.’ She couldn’t be blamed if, while pressing for this, she was half-aware that his clean sweep would be a cleaning-up, an edition of her letters which would leave her looking the fairest of them all. Well-wishers and biographers moved quickly to dispel Murry’s hagiographical embellishments. We now know that Virginia Woolf thought that Mansfield ‘stinks like a – well civet cat that had taken to street walking’; that Bertrand Russell found her discussions of people ‘envious, dark and full of alarming penetration in discovering ... whatever was bad in their character’. We know that her first husband, George Bowden, considered her ‘sexually unbalanced’ and prone to ‘psychic transformation’, and that in one such spell she ‘looked like Oscar Wilde’. And we know that she played her friends off against each other, that one lover blackmailed her, and one gave her gonorrhoea. This first volume of her newly transcribed Collected Letters does not supply new revelations: correspondence with Maata Mahupuku, the Maori friend who said that ‘dearest K. writes “ducky” letters,’ was destroyed; so were hundreds of letters to Ida Baker; her brief marriage to Bowden produces only the dryest of notes. On the whole, those who preserved her letters had a high opinion of Mansfield’s public standing, or of their own. There are, however, letters here which have not been published before, and others which have not previously appeared in full. They are ably edited and annotated, and they are welcome: they give us the chance to catch on the wing Mansfield’s sense of herself – from the age of 14, when she arrived in London, to the age of 29, when she was about to leave for the South of France, TB having just been diagnosed.

From the start, she is fluent, brilliant and manipulative. ‘I think I rather hug myself to myself, too much,’ she tells her cousin, Sylvia Payne – after a paragraph dissecting the state of her heart. Four years later she is worrying that ‘you do not know me – – when you do – you will hate me.’ These anxieties may have been real, but they are displayed with some disingenuousness. Mansfield’s obsession with masks and mimes can appear as a nervous tic: she sometimes comes close to the position of someone who claims that being interesting is just a facade, since deep down she is boring; she can use an air of secrecy as a gossip does, to make a disclosure glow more vividly. The word ‘real’ often has a tinny ring in these letters. Murry, who is treated to many declarations of sudden new closeness, becomes ‘real’ to her ‘almost for the first time’, three years after they had started living together; one brief meeting with Ottoline Morrell, and an encomium from Murry, sets her posting bouquets of magic moments to Garsington, with the injunction to remember ‘you are real and lovely to us both.’ That absence should have acted as a spur to her affections may have been understandable in Murry’s case, but it always seems to have been easy for Mansfield to pen eulogies to those from whom she was separated. ‘While I haven’t seen you my “friendship” for you has gone on and grown ever so much deeper and profounder,’ she tells Russell in 1917. A flurry of ambiguous notes to him are strewn with improbable claims that she hasn’t spoken enough or has spoken drearily: here, as elsewhere, meetings can appear as a rehearsal for the intimacy of writing.

The majority of these letters seem effortless: spontaneous reports from what Frederick Goodyear called her ‘republic of sounds and scents ... and café mirrors’ – from which, he grumbled, human beings were excluded. Goodyear had a point. Mansfield’s gift was for making a scene shine: an evening eating onions in her nightdress; an afternoon watching a pair of white stockings dry on a garden roller. When she tried to make a present of herself things went wrong. Ottoline Morrell – from whose ministrations Charlotte Mew shied – brings out the worst goo, as well as some horrible snobberies. Mansfield gasps to her about moonlight and almond trees, pours contempt on some ‘muddy little object’ renting a cottage at Garsington, and drawls that ‘I don’t think that one can afford to live in dreadful surroundings.’ Even here, however, she didn’t entirely lose her head. It’s difficult to feel that her response to Morrell’s spots lacks edge: ‘I had no idea,’ she writes, ‘that the measles were so formidable and overwhelming.’

She was certainly capable of getting – and dramatising – most people’s measure. The most boisterous letters here concern Lawrence and his ‘immense German Christmas pudding’: she suggested to him ‘that he should call his cottage The Phallus – Frieda thought it was a very good idea.’ She describes their domestic arrangements in Cornwall with disgust: Frieda indulges her passion for wringing out check tablecloths, while Lawrence alternately sews and raves – ‘It is like sitting on a railway station with his temper like a black engine puffing and snorting.’ Her sympathies were with Lawrence, sometimes to a chilling extent. When he chased his wife round the kitchen, hitting her and pulling out her hair, the smug little duo of Mansfield and Murry agreed that they ‘just didn’t feel that a woman was being beaten.’ But she wasn’t soppy about the black engine: what gives her account authority is her sense of the idiocy as well as the foulness of his behaviour: ‘I cannot discuss blood affinity to beasts ... if I have to keep ducking to avoid the flat irons and saucepans.’

Her first letter to Murry, written in 1912, when he was lodging with her in the Gray’s Inn Road, runs: ‘This is your egg. You must boil it.’ Murry probably needed the tip: these letters are full of worries about his being cheated, being sued, forgetting his face flannel. Some of these may be put down to Mansfield’s fussing, or what would be called an eye for detail in her fiction. Most of them were due to Murry’s wetness, which frequently surfaced as insensitivity. Ten days after TB had been diagnosed, when she was confined to bed, Mansfield was ‘shuddering’ at his story of sitting in a chilly waiting-room. It begins to seem quite natural that when ordered to spend her winters abroad, she should write: ‘What is so difficult to realise is that this has happened to me and not to you ... what a serious talk I shall have to have with you before I do go, about taking care of yourself.’

Nevertheless, she wrote some of her best letters to Murry. Volume alone was almost enough to ensure this. During long periods of separation, prompted by illness and estrangement, she wrote to him every day, sometimes more than once. She had to characterise herself moment by moment, and make a domestic world, often restricted to a sickbed, lively and significant. She was good at these things, and Murry’s feebleness may have helped: his responses were not intimidating or distinctive enough to make her tailor her outpourings. She wrote to him about Zeppelin raids and barges on the Seine at night; she wrote about an ‘awful’ and unmanageable tube of toothpaste. And she wrote about being ill, with the bonne popping in with camphor and hot-water bottles; about sitting in bed smoking and drinking coffee, waiting for the post; about visiting dressmakers and markets and watching the sea boil. These are letters which make everything interesting: they are also letters which turn people into scenery.