To me, NOW feels just the right time to properly celebrate Charlotte Mew. In spite of her reluctance to step into the limelight, her work has been quietly gathering readers and inspiring more and more artists over the years: her poems have begun appearing on exam syllabuses, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote an account of her life, a novel has been written about her, there have been several poems written to her; there is even an academic society – Charlotte Mew and Friends – that's devoted to her life and work.
The themes of her poems are love, loss and death, but they also show her to be something of an environmentalist. They address, as well, important political issues of her day – notably divorce, pregnancy out of wedlock and, of course, mental illness. But she wrote about these topics always from a person-centred standpoint. And, despite the undoubted anguish that runs through her writing, her message to us in the end is a positive one: above all, it teaches us compassion for people who are "other" – who are different from ourselves.
To put the following extract into context, she didn't like reading in public and only agreed to do so on one or two occasions to a small, private group – which is a shame, perhaps, because by all accounts she was unusually good at it. On this occasion, it was the somewhat meddlesome and snobbish Catherine Dawson Scott who persuaded her to read to a select group of her friends at one of the rather pretentious literary salons which she held at her house in Southall.
Mrs Sappho had asked Charlotte once again to come and read for her friends in Southall. Having initially protested ("how I hate it – the performing monkey!"), she gave way, though not with especially good grace: "Tell me what time & what to wear – perhaps you'll get me a dress for the occasion!" On Monday 16 March, a select group gathered in Mrs Sappho's parlour (with what Charlotte, in her teasing fashion, called its "Railway Waiting Room idea of decoration") and made themselves comfortable as they settled to watch Charlotte read her poems.
The stormy weather on the journey over from Gordon Street had done little to calm her nerves, and her intentions to quit smoking had come to nothing, as they often did when she had something stressful to contend with. And reading her poems aloud was stressful, because she set such great store by it: she believed that all verse gained from being spoken aloud "– & mine particularly – I suppose – because it's rough, though my ideal is Beauty." A quiet chatter went on while she sat down, placed her freshly rolled cigarettes and matches on a little table in front of her and busied herself with her papers. Among the tiny audience that day were Mrs Sappho's painter cousin, Kathie Giles, and Evelyn Underhill. As the women talked and waited, their eyes went again and again towards the tiny figure of Charlotte, neat and diminutive in her tartan skirt and black velvet jacket. At length, she looked up and, with a characteristic toss of her head and after a moment's pause, began. It is the clay that makes the earth stick to his spade... The first few lines were a little hesitant, but she quickly forgot herself and, pausing to smoke between poems – and sometimes between stanzas – she gave them "In Nunhead Cemetery", "Pécheresse", "The Fête", "The Quiet House" and a handful of others. The room had fallen absolutely quiet, and now and then a sniff could be heard as one or other of the listeners stifled a sob. "I think this ought to be a marked day in all our lives," Mrs Sappho wrote afterwards in her diary. "It was an enchanting hour!" At the end of it all, Evelyn Underhill turned to her hostess and pronounced her verdict: "Magnificent!" Beyond that, she was lost for words.
Buttoning up her coat in the entrance hall, Kathie Giles told her cousin, "I will go to the ends of the earth any time to hear your Charlotte tell her poems – she is a modern piper, and I will follow her piping." A few days later, Mrs Sappho received a letter from Evelyn:
"My dear Mrs. Scott, I feel as if I departed yesterday without thanking you, but really an hour with Miss Mew is like having whiskey with one's tea – my feet were clean off the floor! Heavens, what a tempest she produced – the most truly creative person I have ever come near."
Julia Copus was born in London in 1969, a stone’s throw from the Young Vic theatre, and now lives in Somerset. She has won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, and has been shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Award. In 2018, Julia was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The above extract is from This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew, published by Faber & Faber in 2021.