Charlotte Mew Biography

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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Charlotte Mew was born in 1869 in the Bloomsbury section of London, where she would live her whole life, much of it at 9 Gordon Street. She was the first girl born to Frederick Mew and Anna Maria Kendall. Originally from the Isle of Wight, Frederick Mew had been sent to London by his father to train as an architect. He became an assistant to architect H. E. Kendall, Jr. In 1863, he married Kendall’s daughter, Anna Maria. Anna Maria, an invalid much of her life, saw her marriage as beneath her. Frederick’s death in 1898 put the family into financial crisis. Of the seven Mew children, only Charlotte, her older brother, Henry, and two younger siblings, Anne and Freda, survived to adulthood. Henry and Freda were both institutionalized for mental illness, a situation that strained the family’s limited resources and haunted Mew’s poetry.

Following her father’s death, Mew lived with her sister Anne and her mother at Gordon Street. Eventually they lived in the basement, having rented out the upper rooms for additional income. Mew was particularly devoted to Anne, a painter who attended the Royal Female School of Art and later rented a studio, 6 Hogarth Studios. In 1909, the year Mew published “Requiescat,” her sister Anne had a painting accepted by the Royal Academy. As girls, they attended the Gower Street School and later lectures at University College, London.

At Gower Street, Mew developed a crush on Miss Lucy Harrison, the school’s headmistress. Mew’s unrequited love for Harrison anticipates her most important adult female relationships. Of particular importance were her relationships with Ella D’Arcy, assistant literary editor of The Yellow Book, whom she met in 1894, a year before composing “The China Bowl,” and novelist and suffragette May Sinclair, whom she met in 1913 through Mrs. Dawson “Sappho” Scott, an arts patron and founder of International PEN. Sinclair brought Mew’s work to the attention of Ezra Pound, who published “The Fête” in The Egoist. Mew wrote “Madeleine in Church,” which many consider her best poem, during the years of her friendship with Sinclair. While in love with both D’Arcy and Sinclair, Mew repressed her desire because of a strict sense of sexual propriety. Perhaps for the same reason and out of fear that any offspring would suffer mental illness, Mew and her sister Anne decided to never marry.

In 1915, Mew met Alida Monro (née Klemantaski), whose husband, Harold, owned the Poetry Bookshop (Bloomsbury), where Mew read her work. After reading Mew’s poem “The Farmer’s Bride” in The Nation (1912), Monro convinced her husband to publish a collection of Mew’s poetry. In 1916, the Poetry Bookshop printed five hundred copies of The Farmer’s Bride. Five years later, it brought out a revised edition with eleven additional poems. Despite unflagging support from the Monros and positive reviews from H. D. and West, the book did not sell well. In 1929, the Poetry Bookshop posthumously published Mew’s poetry collection, The Rambling Sailor.

In 1923, the same year Mew was awarded the Civil List pension, her mother died of bronchial pneumonia. Unable to continue paying rent on their house, now in Delancey Street, Mew and her sister Anne lived temporarily at Anne’s studio. Anne’s health was seriously declining, and in June, 1927, she died of cancer. On February 15, 1928, devastated by the loss of her sister and perhaps fearing for her own mental health (she had become obsessed with germs and the possibility that her sister had been buried alive), Mew agreed to enter a nursing home near the Baker Street Station. Less than one month later, on March 24, 1928, she committed suicide by drinking half a bottle of Lysol.