Charlotte Mary Mew (1869-1928)—a poet now in the process of rediscovery—is one of those perplexing figures: a writer of great promise who produced a disappointingly small body of work. Her first published story appeared in 1894 in the second issue of The Yellow Book, at that time the most avant-garde journal for new writers and New Women of the 1890’s. A small collection of her poetry was printed as a Poetry Bookshop chapbook in 1916. Yet although Mew’s work was admired by such contemporaries as Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Hardy, and although other Yellow Book and Poetry Bookshop writers became significant figures in their respective generations, Mew published very little of significance aside from these two brilliant beginnings. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Charlotte Mew and Her Friends: With a Selection of Her Poems, working from biographical materials limited by Mew’s reticence and by the sometimes contradictory memoirs written by people she knew, presents what is known of her life and provides the data from which one can make guesses about Mew’s inability to bring forth a major body of work.
Tillie Olsen, in Silences (1978), movingly identified factors which cause the unnatural thwarting of creative powers: Writers may be silenced because they are born in the wrong class or sex, denied education, have unacceptable visions, are numbed by economic struggle, distracted by nurturing, muffled by censorship, or paralyzed by personal circumstances and the anguish of failing belief in the self. In the case of Charlotte Mew, the causes would seem to lie in the strong contradictions which marked a generation of women hi transition between the Victorian and modern worlds and caused her to repress and conceal (perhaps even from herself) the subjects and emotions that struggled for expression in her verse.
Mew’s family background, with which the book begins, was typical of the upwardly mobile mid-Victorian generations. Her father, Fred Mew, a farmer’s son, went to London to be trained as an architect. He took a job with H. E. Kendall, Jr., a distinguished and gentlemanly specialist in the design of houses, ultimately becoming a junior partner in the firm and the husband of Kendall’s daughter, Anna Maria. Although Charlotte Mew’s parents were reasonably well-off, her childhood was marked by the hidden economies that were needed in order to maintain a social standing that was just slightly beyond reach. After Kendall’s death, Fred Mew proved unable to sustain the business. The available assets were invested to produce an annuity which provided an income barely sufficient to maintain middle-class status during the lifetime of Anna Maria Mew, Charlotte’s mother. Although by the 1890’s some young women of middle-class and even upper-class backgrounds were living in flats, holding jobs, and proclaiming that careers did not compromise their gentility, Charlotte Mew and her sister Anne remained at home and clung to traditional respectability.
Writing had long been one of the accepted ways for a woman to earn necessary income—yet the placement of Mew’s first published story in the second number of The Yellow Book reveals the other side of her nature. The journal proclaimed that it would “have the courage of its modernness, and not tremble at the frown of Mrs. Grundy.” Mew’s story, “Passed,” impressed the editor at once, and Mew, in turn, was exhilarated by her entry into the world of New Women who wrote for the magazine, women with cropped hair who wore tailored suits, smoked cigarettes, and ranged London without chaperons in pursuit of their professional lives. It would seem that such a debut should have led Mew into the literary and personal relationships that could have secured for her a place among the innovative writers of turn-of-the-century fiction. Mew, however, never again published a story in a periodical with comparable intellectual and artistic repute.
Fitzgerald suggests (although it is not clear on what evidence) that Mew’s internalization of respectable Victorianism caused her retreat from The Yellow Book in the summer after Oscar Wilde’s arrest for homosexual offenses. Although Wilde had not contributed to the magazine, its coeditor, Aubrey Beardsley, was tainted by association because he had illustrated the English edition of Wilde’s Salome (1893). Moral questions, however, need not be the whole story. The Yellow Book had rejected the second story which Mew submitted, and, in any event, its payments to contributors were extremely modest. Fred Mew’s death in 1898 left the Mew sisters and their mother in financial straits. They made genteel arrangements for taking in a lodger (planning the rooms and hours so that visitors would be unaware of her presence). Anne, who had studied painting at the Female School of Art, undertook small commissions for decorative work which she could execute in her room at home. Charlotte pursued a salable but undemanding style that let her place stories and essays in Temple Bar, a popular mass magazine of the 1860’s which was by 1900 in the last stages of its descent into stodginess and extinction. It did, nevertheless, pay...
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