The Death of a Poet

Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald wrote ‘The Death of a Poet’ in 1980 or 1981, intending it to form part of a group portrait of the writers published by Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury. In the event, however, she wrote a biography of Charlotte Mew, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, which was published, and reviewed in the LRB in 1984 – and will be reissued this summer.

In 1927 Charlotte Mew was 58 and living with her sister Anne, a decorative painter, at the Hogarth Studios near Tottenham Court Road. Alida was Harold Monro’s wife, and a friend to both Mew sisters. Sydney Cockerell was the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Evelyn Millard had become a friend of Anne Mew’s when they were students at the Female School of Art in Queen Square. (Now an actress, she played Cecily Cardew in the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.) Lucy Harrison had been Charlotte Mew’s headmistress at the Gower Street School.

By the summer of 1927 Anne Mew had wasted away. When her eyes fell shut they looked as though they were sealed into her face, and would never open again. Alida wrote to Harold Monro that ‘they ought to put her to sleep.’

One evening, summoned urgently by Charlotte, she found Anne sitting by the gas fire, only just able to speak. Something had to be found to talk about. Alida tried her last journey through France – she had been taking Harold to a clinic in Switzerland; the taxi-drivers and the porters at the Gare d’Orléans had robbed her as always. This seemed to amuse Anne. Perhaps she recalled her trip, nearly twenty years ago, where she had sketched the fish market while Charlotte resolutely made Madame scrub out their room at the pension, and they had both lost a few francs together at the tables. When Alida left, Charlotte followed her out and told her the doctor had said there was no further hope.

Poor little Mew it is more tragic than I can tell you – Her rough little harsh voice and wilful ways hiding enormous depth 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. Alas –

On 18 June Anne died. ‘It was over at midnight on Saturday,’ Charlotte wrote to Sydney Cockerell, ‘and now she can never be old or not properly taken care of or alone.’ Nor, she might have added, would Anne ever have to be ‘wonderfully cheerful’ again, or answer brightly to enquiries, or be pitied as someone whose gift for painting had sadly come to so little.

Nobody can nurse someone they love through their last illness without guilt – guilt for staying alive, and guilt for all the things that were never said or done. This, for Charlotte, became part of the obligation she had recognised for thirty years and which she called ‘getting my nerves under control’. The only one of her brothers and sisters left alive now was Frieda, who would never leave the Isle of Wight county mental hospital. The house of her childhood had become as quiet as she had predicted.

When we were children old Nurse used to say,
The house was like an auction or a fair
Until the lot of us were safe in bed . . .

Her cousin Ethel, however, was still in London, and so were some of the friends she had known since schooldays. These took her into their homes, and she disappeared for a while behind their closed ranks.

As usual, she went first to Ethel Oliver. The Professor had retired from his curatorship at Kew, and the family were now at 2 The Grove, Isleworth. Here Charlotte’s desire was not to be any kind of a celebrity. But the quiet suburb was not altogether safe. Lady Ottoline Morrell called, with the best intentions. Charlotte hid. Lady Ottoline left flowers and a message with the housekeeper. Charlotte wrote that she could only go to London by appointment. Lady Ottoline motored down to Isleworth once again, and sent a letter, ‘but as it hasn’t been answered,’ Charlotte wrote, ‘I hoped you would understand as everyone else has been good enough to do without my saying so that I am only seeing and writing to old friends. I came here to some – for quiet.’ She scented patronage, and perhaps it was not a bad thing for her to be angry. But she told Sydney Cockerell that what she wanted most of all was to go away by herself, though she had no idea where that could be.

By the beginning of September she was back in London, at the old studio; the gas fire, the two chests full of papers, the folding screen decorated by Anne, the little plaster head of a baby which she had kept through all their removals, the windows from which they had both looked down to watch the children playing and the Punch and Judy.

I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart . . .

Outside, she was one of the white-haired tiny elderly ladies of the quartier, subsisting largely on tea and cigarettes, no longer buying flowers for her room, and carrying her rolled umbrella at a certain angle, as though on the defensive.

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