Mew, Charlotte (1869–1928)

views updated

Mew, Charlotte (1869–1928)

British poet and short-story writer whose work has fallen into unwarranted obscurity. Name variations: Charlotte Mary Mew. Born Charlotte Mary Mew on November 15, 1869, in London, England; died after ingesting poison on March 24, 1928, in London; daughter of Frederick Mew (an architect) and Anne (Kendall) Mew; attended University College, London.

First short story published (1894); death of her father (1898); visited Paris (1902); first book of poetry published (1916); received civil-list pension for contributions to English letters (1922).

Selected writings:

The Farmer's Bride (1916, enlarged edition published in United States as Saturday Market, 1921); The Rambling Sailor (1929); Collected Poems of Charlotte Mew (1953); Mew: Collected Poems and Prose (1982).

Charlotte Mew, whose contributions to Georgian-era English letters have been largely forgotten by modern literary scholarship, was born in 1869 in the London district of Bloomsbury. Both her father and grandfather were architects, but her father's spendthrift ways soon brought the family from prosperity down into the genteel poverty in which Mew would live much of the rest of her life. Of the seven Mew children, two died in infancy, another at the age of five, and two were institutionalized as young adults for what was probably schizophrenia, the cost of their care further straining the family finances. To avoid the possibility of passing on the mental illness, Mew and her sister Anne made a vow not to marry. Mew attended private schools, and as a young woman took classes at University College in London. Her first short story, "Passed," was published in July 1894 in the Yellow Book, a new journal illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley that was considered racy in look and content. The story concerns a young, middle-class woman, venturing out alone in London to visit a famous church, who is accosted by a destitute girl. The young woman is brought through the London slums to the bedside of the dead sister of the girl, who then collapses on the distraught narrator. Upon seeing the girl on the street at a later date, now dressed like a prostitute, the narrator suffers a nervous breakdown.

Such themes and otherworldly crises prevailed in Mew's fiction and poetry, which gradually began to achieve modest renown. Her articles, essays, and reviews were published in periodicals, including Temple Bar, New Statesman, and the Nation, but she never earned much money from them. She and her sister Anne supported themselves and their mother after the death of their father in 1898, with Anne working as a painter of antique furniture, a laborious, lowly occupation. Only around 1912, when Mew was already in her early 40s, did she begin to receive solid literary recognition for her work. This was partly the result of her acquaintance with Amy Dawson Scott , a London literary patron who helped found the writer's organization International PEN. With Scott's encouragement and contacts, Mew began giving readings and was invited by Harold and Alida Monro to compile a volume of poetry for publication by their Poetry Bookshop Press. The Farmer's Bride was published in 1916, and Louis Untermeyer called one of the poems, "Madeleine in Church," "one of the few 'great' poems of our day—I am tempted to write after due deliberation and a fifth rereading, that it is among the finest poems published in the last forty years." When an enlarged edition of the book was published as Saturday Market in the United States five years later, it won praise from Rebecca West and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle ). Much of Mew's work was in free verse, marked by rich detail and the use of color and scents as motifs. "Madeleine in Church" and "In Nunhead Cemetery" read more like dramatic monologues than traditional poetry, and have been consistently praised by latter-day critics.

Mew's stories and verse usually centered around women who were forced to submerge their identities for one reason or another. Women who chose the solitary life of a religious vocation also figured in her plots, specifically with the tales "In the Curé's Garden" and "An Open Door." Her work attracted the attention of such stellar English literary figures as Thomas Hardy, who became Mew's friend and mentor of sorts in what turned out to be the last years of both their lives. Hardy and colleagues John Masefield and Walter de la Mare wrote a recommendation that secured for Mew a civil-list pension in 1922, somewhat easing her financial situation. Yet the death of her mother in 1923 and increasing personal difficulties slowed down the pace of her writing, although in 1924 Virginia Woolf called her "the greatest living poetess."

Some of these personal difficulties may have been romantic. Mew was described as aloof and reserved (Harold Monro noted that it was the kind of reserve "that amounted to secretiveness"), perhaps in part because she was ashamed of her poverty, but biographers have speculated that on two occasions she was in love with women who rebuffed her. The first was Ella D'Arcy , a writer whom she knew during her Yellow Book days, and the second, later, was writer May Sinclair . These rejections were apparently tremendous blows to Mew.

When her beloved sister Anne died in 1927 from cancer, she was entirely devastated. She even worried that Anne had been buried alive, an event that occurs in her 1903 short story "A White Night," in which three tourists are accidentally locked inside the church of a convent in rural Spain one night and witness an odd procession of monks who entomb a young, screaming woman beneath the stones of the floor. Mew was attempting to recuperate from her sister's death in a dismal London nursing home one year later when she went out and purchased the cheapest disinfectant she could find. Upon her return, she drank it and died the same day. A collection of her stories, The Rambling Sailor, was published in 1929. Only these two volumes of her writing have survived, for it is thought that she destroyed a good deal of her papers before her suicide. Later editions of her work also have been published, most recently 1982's Mew: Collected Poems and Prose.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Owens, Jill Tedford. "Charlotte Mew," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 135: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880–1914: The Realist Tradition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994, pp. 217–225.

Severance, Sibyl. "Charlotte Mew," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 19: British Poets, 1880–1914. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983, pp. 308–313.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford & NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

suggested reading:

Fitzgerald, Penelope. Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, 1984.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. and intro. Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers in the Fin-de-Siècle. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993 (includes "A White Night").

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan