Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

I’m going to be honest, when I picked up a biography a little-known turn-of-the-century poet, I wasn’t expecting it to be a page turner. I’d never read anything by Charlotte Mew, and the little I thought I knew turned out to be by Francis Cornford. But Penelope Fitzgerald’s name was draw enough to make me buy this 1984 biography, recently reprinted by Fourth Estate in a series of rather attractive Fitzgerald reprints. And it turned out to be one of the most involving, captivating books I’ve read this year.

Charlotte Mew (1869-1924) lived a relatively short, melancholy life. She seemed doomed to a series of infatuations with women who did not return her affection, had a domineering mother, little money, and a faltering career as a writer – although Thomas Hardy would call her the best living woman poet. She was very distinctive-looking – eyebrows always raised in seeming-surprise, short hair, men’s clothing – and seems to have interacted with more or less everyone of note in the period.

Fitzgerald takes us through Mew’s ancestral history (which is always, I find, the most tedious part of any biography) and presents a family which had gained some respectability through the Mew architectural business, but hadn’t arrived in the top echelon of society. When her father died, in 1898, there was not sufficient financial provision for her family – particularly as they had to support two of her siblings, mentally ill and in institutions. It was not a cheerful start for Mew.

But Mew had what so many writers have, whatever their demeanour or background – a steely determination. Mew combined this with a lifelong self-belief – or, if not quite that, then a belief in the importance of her work.  She refused to have it anthologised, dictated how it should be published, and wrote very seldom (although she had a mysterious trunk, which some claim was filled with things she’d written).  Her first publications were stories for magazines – one of her first submissions being ‘Passed’.  It was at this point in the book, as Mew started writing, that Fitzgerald started assessing:

‘Passed’ seems almost as over-written as a story can be, hurrying along in distraught paragraphs, only just hanging on, for decency’s sake, to its rags of English grammar. 

Biographers who keep their opinions to themselves are never any fun.  Since Fitzgerald is such an economical and observant writer herself, she is more than capable of assessing Mew’s early writing – and, unsurprisingly, gets more complimentary as the book and Mew’s work progress.  But it is not simply Fitzgerald’s own status as an acclaimed writer that makes it feel natural for her to comment thus. Her tone throughout is almost familiar.  The title to this book is Charlotte Mew and Her Friends – and it feels like Fitzgerald counts herself among those friends, despite not having met Mew.  Perhaps that should come across as presumptuous or fey, but it works beautifully.  Fitzgerald doesn’t try to justify her familiarity; she just presents it:

It was at this point that something in Charlotte seemed to break free, and she began to behave to May Sinclair exactly as she had done ten years before to Ella D’Arcy.  She fell in love, as before, with a woman older than she was, partly from physical attraction, but partly because, in each case, she had been helped and taught.  One of her most endearing characteristics was her capacity for gratitude, a kind of bewilderment that anyone should take so much trouble over ‘this dreary little person’.

How could Fitzgerald know this? How, even more so, could she say ‘Charlotte did not fall physically in love with Alida Klementaski.  She never fell in love with another woman after May Sinclair.’? So completely does Fitzgerald create the biographer’s voice that, somehow, I didn’t question it at the time.

That mention of May Sinclair is illustrative of another facet to Mew’s life. Once she had published some of her most celebrated pieces (‘The Farmer’s Bride’, for instance) she became enough of a name to meet the literati. She worked at the Poetry Bookshop, and became friendly with Thomas Hardy and his wife. Virginia Woolf was a fan, and Mew wrote in the famous (or infamous) Yellow Book. Despite not being a name on everyone’s lips anymore, she seems to have known, and been known, by writers from many different groups and schools of thought. Being both Victorian and Modernist – in her own individual way – she bridged two eras.

The end, when it comes, comes quickly. Can you give spoilers about a life that has been over for nearly a century?  Well, Mew killed herself.  Fitzgerald gives us the final days of Mew’s life with sensitivity and without melodrama. It is the same tone she has taken throughout, in a book which is measured and concise. Many biographies feel they must write at exhausting length – but it is not only Mew’s short life that makes for a short biography – rather it is Fitzgerald’s incisive writing, giving the reader only those details that bring the subject to life, and eschewing the ornaments of research. Not for her the laborious footnoting of an academic – instead, the gentleness and observation of the domestic novelist.  And it is Fitzgerald’s skill as a novelist, doubtless, which make Charlotte Mew and Her Friends such a exquisite page-turner.

If you’ve never heard of Mew (above), still less read anything by her, then don’t let that put you off. There are 30+ pages of her poetry at the end of the book, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter if you are a devotee of Mew’s writing or not. What Fitzgerald has crafted is a beautiful and compelling portrait of a fascinating woman – who just happens, as a bonus, to have been real.

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Penelope Fitzgerald, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (Fourth Estate, 2014), 305pp

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