A Solo on the Pipe: On Julia Copus’s “This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew”

November 11, 2021   •   By Declan Ryan

This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew

Julia Copus

IF THERE IS an abiding vision left of Charlotte Mew among what amounts to the current reading public, it’s likely one steeped in various forms of diminishment: a vague sense of her being notably small in stature (“an imp with brains”); of her poems, themselves containing figures from the put-upon margins, being pushed to the side of the canon; a general air of repression and want in restrictive petticoats. Something sickly, drawn, off-kilter about the whole show — secrecy and shame, what Louis Untermeyer, a one-time visitor to her studio, referred to as a “fusion of lonely fantasy and impending tragedy.” One of the many achievements of Julia Copus’s new biography of Mew, This Rare Spirit, is its rejection of that tired view of the poet as mouse that barely roared in favor of a true sense of a spikily modern woman, bound by various obligations but resilient, headstrong, and poetically inventive.

Copus is quick to point out that Mew’s unclubbability, her — almost absolute — refusal to socialize with the prevailing, or self-selecting, tastemakers of her day is in large part behind the image of her as a timid wallflower. As a case in point, despite her being a decades-long neighbor of Virginia Woolf, among other illustrious Bloomsburyites, the only recorded meeting of the two here is at the hospital bedside of Florence Hardy, and that was hardly in the artist powwow genre. During her years of relative success, she refused to be collected or coerced by such patrons of the arts as Lady Ottoline Morrell, to the point of near-rudeness (admittedly at a particularly painful period, while nursing her dying sister Anne), and in the preceding years of almost total obscurity had similarly disdained the rounds of salons and glove-kissing, excepting a brief early spell in the orbit of the somehow scandalous Yellow Book crowd. Far from a shivering naïf, Mew had within her something of the canny, or at least compartmentalizing, operator; Copus points out that she had two types of friendship. “[T]he one stable and sustaining, and the other springing from her involvement with this group or that. The latter may have quickly outgrown their expedience, but they nonetheless served a purpose.”

What emerges from Copus’s biography is that Mew’s refusal to take part or play nice wasn’t due only to instinctual distaste for such things, or to (a largely absent) shyness, but was instead caught up with a familial sense of social propriety fused with other inheritances, notably the shadow of mental illness which saw two siblings institutionalized, putting the Mews under enormous financial pressure. Anna Maria, Charlotte’s “arachnoid mother” in Edith Sitwell’s words, was behind the desire to cling to a respectable address, engendering a regression into ever-shrinking living circumstances as more rooms in the family home were packed up and rented out. Charlotte, Anne, and their mother were eventually boxed into a dreary basement after father Frederick’s death, in the name of keeping up appearances. There was an understanding that the family troubles were a secret to be kept even from her most enduring friends, another explanatory factor in Charlotte’s opting out of the social rounds. In the end, it was her father’s decision to spend money the family could not afford on optimistic, impractical care for Henry, the son groomed to take over the family architecture business before developing what appears to have been schizophrenia, which was to become the most resented piece of family mismanagement. In Charlotte’s later years, the long-departed Frederick was recast as a feckless spoiler, the engine of their déclassé mother’s undoing.

For someone working within at-times eye-watering constraints, Mew found herself a number of influential champions, falling over themselves and at times each other to ensure that her curious, feelingful poems reached an audience. The reason for this was the energy and passion of her writing, which far surpassed any sort of social or positional claims on a potential audience’s attention. Glimpsed early in short stories, that energy and passion found its full scope and scale in her poems. These are sometimes long-lined, often spoken in the believable, richly vernacular tones of a troupe of outcasts — fallen women, sexually frustrated farmers, adolescent boys, sailors — many of whom are based on figures from her life but re-gendered, filtered, shielded from view. The poems — and this is another boon of Copus’s biography, that it sends one back with fresh eyes to her accompanying selection of Mew’s poetry and prose published in 2019 — are fascinating in a number of ways, in some regard bridging the Georgian/Imagist rupture with discernible but singular aspects of both, while being fully at home nowhere but on their own rapturous margins. Rhythmically various, testifying to a subtle ear both for rhyme and speech, they’re often suggestive rather than declamatory, but know when to ratchet up the emotion, beginning — as Copus notes — much like Frost’s adage, with their various lumps in the throat. There are repeated images and tropes — hair, staircases, hearts, and the sublimated, suggestive color red among them — but what really ties them together is the underlying sense of narrators watching on, helplessly, wanting to intrude or intervene but powerless to prevent the world or some other oppressive outside force from bringing down its destruction on the beloved. There’s an internal logic, not quite religious but equally omnipotent, that any pleasure is taken at a cost, that a counterbalancing degree of suffering won’t be far behind even fleeting rapture. If guilt was a driving force in Mew’s life, it’s here, too, altered and refined, in lovers’ graveside addresses and in the lingering look of the mistreated that endures long after the poem has halted: “After he called and turned on me / His eyes. These I shall see — ” (“Ken”).

Mew was an inveterate — to borrow her heroine Emily Brontë’s spelling — “whacher” of people. Withdrawing binary judgments of good or evil, her poems manage to balance their sympathies, not least in her most “famous,” breakout poem, “The Farmer’s Bride,” published when Mew was already in her 40s and born, as Copus illustrates, at least in part of contemporary debates about marriage and divorce. Copus links Mew to Brontë in other ways too, deriving meaning from the former’s discussion of the latter in an essay in Temple Bar magazine. In that piece, Mew notes that Brontë “knew nothing of the passion which breathes and burns in every line,” and that her poems were “a love-song of a woman who never loved.” Copus further marshals Mew’s comments on Brontë when it comes to the matter of Mew’s attire, her pointedly androgynous wardrobe, noting that Mew described Brontë’s “masculine genius” as “purely spiritual, strangely and exquisitely severed from embodiment and freed from any accident of sex.” Where Copus most abruptly departs from previous discussions of Mew’s life, including Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984), is on the matter of that “accident of sex.”

Copus makes the case here that what little is known of Mew’s private life is founded almost entirely on conjecture, convincingly debunking various rumors, such as the one about Mew following her friend Ella D’Arcy to Paris because she was hoping for a romantic dalliance. The “evidence” for that particular canard appears to have been a misreading of a letter, the word “prowling” transposed over the more innocent-sounding “browsed” by Fitzgerald. Copus seems, in the end, convinced that rather than having been a mostly closeted lesbian, Mew was closer to being “severed from embodiment,” her close relationship with Anne all but doing away with the need for any sort of romantic life. The remembered kisses of her poems are similarly the “love song of a woman who never loved.” This angle of argument is slightly less convincing than her revision of the D’Arcy entanglement because something appears to have been said, or done, with the novelist May Sinclair, which led not only to a rupture but to the somewhat boorish, rarely tactful, “Mrs Sappho” — a.k.a Catherine Dawson Scott — noting in correspondence that Mew was “clearly a pervert.” If one doesn’t necessarily follow Copus all the way into a belief that Mew’s was a life essentially untouched by eros, at least in the “embodied” sense, it’s to her great credit that, given the paucity of firsthand material and her subject’s temperament, she errs on the side of seemly unembellishment.

Like her aversion to what might now be called “networking,” Mew’s lifelong spinsterhood owed largely to the constraints of her family, including her worries about passing on troubled genes that had seen a number of her relatives institutionalized, with both her and Anne taking the harder line of shunning marriage — something that, Copus points out, would have made their lives significantly easier, at least materially. Respectability was uppermost in her thinking, but the lack of her own setup is keenly felt throughout the book; it was the company of children that she sought out most in her later years, and among several touching scenes is the picture of her playing with the offspring of fishermen while on holiday, or accompanying her latter-day champion Sydney Cockerell’s children on various outings. Copus astutely infers childhood as a sort of land of lost content for Mew — unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the stresses that weighed her down in her adulthood.

Thanks to the championing by figures such as Cockerell (not to mention his friendship with Thomas Hardy, whose good opinion meant more to Mew than that of all her other admirers), her reputation enjoyed something of an uplift in her final years. Her collection The Farmer’s Bride gained a wider audience at home and in the United States after a largely unheralded initial publication during World War I. There’s something harder-edged than irony about the fact that when more or less all joy and hope had drained out of Mew the seeds of fortune appeared to, finally, burst forth — a Civil List pension secured by some of her prominent literary heroes, as well as a legacy left from her uncle, came too late, at a point where she had, for all intents and purposes, resigned from life following Anne’s death from cancer. Unlike the pious Anne, Mew suffered an ongoing struggle with, or longing for, a religious faith that was always slightly beyond her, as evidenced in the poem “Madeleine in Church,” where a typically idiosyncratic narrator is more worried that Christ can’t see her than the other way round, doubting Divine vision can penetrate “this dark ditch, the soul of me.” Her only real faith, clear from the poems and Copus’s perceptive reading, appears to have been another Brontë-esque one, that death “was not a problem because it was the end of problems”; in an early poem death is figured not as gothic nightmare but as benevolent companion: “(Show me your face, why the eyes are kind!)” Mew’s problems ended in March 1928, when she was 58, having drunk Lysol in the nursing home where she was staying. A poignant late note to Cockerell’s wife Kate summed it up: “I just tried my best to keep going & broke down — It was so lonely — I try still but it is lonelier here.” The newspaper report that followed misprinted her name and gave the wrong age.

Copus saves Mew from a fate as a pitiable, travel-sized sprite of legend and rounds her out, showing an intelligent writer with an aversion to “highbrows” and enough steel to repel the unasked-for advice of even her most eminent correspondents with a nicely timed allusion, or by slipping into French. A few of her poems are marked by a sort of cri de coeur, a phenomenon which fascinated her more broadly in literature, as shown among the correspondence quoted here, and it’s this aspect — an unswallowable, passionate intensity — that continues to carry a powerful charge. She published relatively few poems in her lifetime, but those she did seem almost miraculously wrung from the stultifying grind of duty and penny-pinching. Not coincidentally they have the authority of poems which had to be written, and still strike the modern reader — as they did her contemporary “discoverers” — as bearing the mark of the real thing. As a review of her posthumous second book, The Rambling Sailor, put it, “People are apt to think that in a highly organized civilisation genius is not overlooked. They forget the crowd, the hurry, and the noise, which combine to drown a solo on the pipe.” Copus’s diligent, scholarly, sensitive work should help Mew’s pipe play on for years to come.

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Declan Ryan’s debut pamphlet was published in the Faber New Poets series in 2014.