Charlotte Mew Chronology
with mental, historical and geographical connections
linking with her own words, and listing her essays, stories, poems and friends.
Betty Falkenberg with Andrew Roberts
Introduction: life – inference – intensity – history – science – Chicks – evolution – dissolution – sensual – God – language – madness – faerie – spirit
Charlotte Mew was born in 1869. Her father was an architect and her mother the daughter and granddaughter of architects. Charlotte was the second of four children who survived early childhood. Their nursery and their childhood was watched over by Elizabeth Goodman, the servant who stirred their imaginations even though she did not value their writings. Charlotte wrote about her in An Old Servant (1913). Charlotte’s first published work was a short story, Passed in 1894. The journey in Passed was through Clerkenwell. The Country Sunday , published before The London Sunday, in 1905, has been interpreted as an account of her childhood holidays on the Isle of Wight. Charlotte’s best known work is a collection of poems, The Farmers Bride, in 1916. This includes the poem In a Nunhead Cemetery relating to her brother, Henry Herne Mew, who died in an asylum in 1901. Her sister, Freda, was also a patient in an asylum. On the Asylum Road and Ken are two of Charlotte’s poems that explore her thoughts and feelings about insanity and asylums. Charlotte died from swallowing disinfectant in 1928. Freda lived in the mental hospital until she died in 1958.
Inference: Charlotte Mew published stories, essays and poems. She was very determined not to provide anyone with even the briefest of autobiography. I think we should be cautious about inferring her life from her writing. Even the most biographical of her essays could, in theory, be complete fiction; and poetry has a structure and content of its own, unconstrained by any relation to the life that generated it. One of the reasons for constructing a life and works of Charlotte Mew in this inter-linked web form, is to allow any speculation about the relation of her writing to her life to be tested against other sources of information. Her writing in Passed (fiction), An Old Servant and The Hay Market (New Statesman articles) reveal close links to the life of Elizabeth Goodman and the geography of Clerkenwell and Cumberland Market and this may be grounds for inferring links in other works where relationships cannot be so firmly established. It is not, however, intended to obscure the creative insight of Charlotte’s art by reading it as a diary. Ken, for example, is a poem, and should not be read as a description of Freda Mew – Anymore than the old town with its nuns and priests is a description of Carisbrooke – Knowing about Freda, however, does allow us to think more about the issues on which Ken gives us insight. Without, in any way, distorting the internal unity of the art, we can say that Charlotte’s writing maintains a remarkable relationship to her life and experience. This is so much so that Mary Davidow was convinced that E.V. Knox’s parody of Charlotte’s poetry revealed an insider’s information about Charlotte’s secrets. I do not think it does. Without his knowing it, the one short book of poems had revealed to him the architecture of the poet’s life. No wonder Charlotte was upset.
Intensity: There is a concentrated intensity to Charlotte’s perception. Twice, she suggests she shares her vision with the blind. (See The Country Sunday and Men and Trees). It is sight that hears and feels and smells every dimension of the immediate, imminent, reality and all its passion and energy. Her essay The Wheat, first published in 1954 shows how the soul of a bank worker is revealed in one delirious utterance. In this essay, she writes about “the throb in the breasts of things that ought to be flying”. A few years before her suicide, she wrote in Domus Caedet Arborem about the city crouching, waiting to spring on living things. In her poem Madeleine in Church Charlotte describes how (from childhood?) Madeleine suffered an intensity of being and seeing that was, at once, mystical and sensual.
I could hardly bear
The dreams upon the eyes of white geraniums in the dusk,
The thick, close voice of musk,
The jessamine music on the thin night air,
Or, sometimes, my own hands about me anywhere –
The sight of my own face (for it was lovely then) even the scent of my own hair
In A Country Book she explains, quoting Richard Jefferies, that there are no words to describe the colours of a dandelion – But quoting Byron she exclaims “Oh that my words were colours”. How she conveys the immediacy of her perception, naming but not describing the colours, can be seen in her description of the flowers In the Curé’s Garden.This, like much of Charlotte’s writing, from Passed onwards, is about a dialogue between a spiritual and material reality: “God’s parle with dust”. In Passed she had discovered in a kiss “a page of gospel” that the priest facing the spiritual, with his back to the material, “might never read”. In The Forest Road, the intensity of love is too much for her. She hears her soul singing amongst the trees, and escapes.
History: Usually quietly, many of Charlotte Mew’s writings explore issues of the history she lived through. Her first publication, Passed reflects on her journeys into the slums of London, in the late 19th century, at the time when sociologists and religious leaders were making the same exploration. The significance of the century’s turning is recorded in her poems on the death and funeral of Queen Victoria. In Notes in a Brittany Convent (1901) the new sciences approach old religion. Mary Stuart in Fiction, written during the miltant suffragette protests, argues her passion for victory. Men and Trees is not quiet comment. It attacks the destruction of the Congo, the Amazon and the people who live there, and defends the “barbarian” against the “culte du moi”. Her censored poem Ken picks up on the theme of relations with people of “poor wits” that she raises in Passed, and may be her personal protest against the ideas behind the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. The Great War for Civilisation is commemorated in two 1915 poems, and reflected on in The Cenotaph in 1919. She is present at the birth of Labour, with the article on the life of Elizabeth Goodman and on the life in Cumberland Market, published in The New Statesman in 1913 and 1914, (poosibly) reviews in the Daily Herald in 1919, and her poem “Old Shepherd’s Prayer” in the first edition of The New Leader in 1922. As she herself approches death, she sees in the destruction of the trees by her home, to make room for more buildings, something symbolic.
Science: Charlotte Mew’s prose and poetry has in it reflections of the development of natural and social sciences. Natural scientists figure prominently amongst her circle of friends: notably Harriette Chick, the Tansleys, the Brownes and Francis Wall Oliver. In 1901, when Charlotte’s brother died of tuberculosis, the new science bacteriology, that Harriette Chick had made her speciality, was reflected in Charlotte’s writing. The germ theory of disease, applied to cancer, may even have been an element in the ideas that led to Charlotte’s suicide. Brittany, where Charlotte stayed and whose mythologies she studied, was also the location of Francis Wall Oliver’s pioneer field trips in the even newer science of ecology. Charlotte’s interest in what we might now call “green issues” is evident throughout her writing, but reaches a manifesto peak in her (1913) Men and Trees essays. Charlotte regarded herself as an urban being, but with nature beneath her, in what we might call her subconscious. The Society for Psychical Research would have called it her subliminal self. This duality of being is reflected in many of her poems, including The Changeling, where the fairy call of nature draws the child away from the noise and urbanity of the nursery. This occupation with another consciousness is present in Charlotte’s writing from the beginning and may partly explain the new interest in her work that appears to coincide with the interest in psychoanalysis and associated ideas that developed about the time of the first world war. The complexity of levels of consciousness may be strongest in her unfinished story Aglaë about the passions of a spinster aunt.
Chicks In the world that Charlotte Mew wrote about, science was not isolated from art and literature: And sociology was related to the natural sciences in a way that it no longer is. To recognise Charlotte’s world we must recover these relationships. We are helped to do so by her friendship with the Chick sisters. The Chick sisters, and their descendants, were active in the arts and the sciences and it is clear from Harriette’s diary that conversation flowed easily across all areas. The science of evolution was embedded in literature in the bookplate that Arthur Tansley (Edith’s husband) designed. Similarly, Tansley’s friend botanist Frederick Frost Blackman (Elsie’s husband) was a patron of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Tansley’s ecology might be regarded as a development of the biology of Herbert Spencer. Spencer sought the most general laws with the widest application and his evolutionary biology lay at the heart of his social science.
Evolution Before Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary biology there was Georg Friedrich Hegel – Henri Saint Simon and Auguste Comte – with the concept of the evolution of mind in history that Comte formulated as a progress from religion (theology) through philosophy (metaphysics) to science (positivism). Edward Burnett Tylor’s application of these ideas to the development of empirical anthropology in Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (1871) was published when Charlotte Mew was one or two years old. William Robertson Smith’s application of anthropological thought to the Bible had been published by the time she was twenty one and James Frazer’s application of anthropological thinking to the crucifixion of Christ was published when she was thirty. Her detailed analysis of these ideas, in Men and Trees, was published when she was in her early 40s. Men and Trees is an anthropological study that makes full use of Tylor’s concept that present culture incorporates survivals of the past. The sacrifice of Christ on a tree, as analysed by Frazer, is central to Charlotte Mew’s moral commentary on her times.
Dissolution The first part of Charlotte Mew’s life was shaped by her family’s objective of perpetuating itself. She and her brothers and sisters carried forward the names of relatives that would otherwise have been lost, and, with the names, endowments. The rest of her life, and that of her sister Anne, was shaped by their decision to extinguish the family line, to exterminate its taint. Whilst accepting the constraint that she should not have children, Charlotte took issue with other implications of the dominant sciences of evolution and dissolution; eugenics and social hygiene. Those sciences she leaves unnamed, but she battles explicitly with the related philosophy of the cult of selfishness and the omnipresence and omniscience of the market place. In Men and Trees, she argues that civilisation has replaced the old gods and devils by the worship of self. Civilisation is shocked by the blood sacrifices of the old religions, but it has its own blood sacrifices in the commercial exploitation of the rubber trees of the equatorial forests and the destruction of the barbarian cultures of their inhabitants. In Herbert Spencer’s language of science, evolution is fuelled by the survival of the fittest and civilisation is the victory of the individual. Its opposite is dissolution, the degeneration of races and individuals – a dissolution that includes insanity in the individual as well as the degeneration of races. In Passed, in Ken and in On the Asylum Road, Charlotte describes the degenerate in terms that discover virtues in their being. In The Cenotaph, the empty tomb of the son or lover testifies against the cult of selfishness. It stands in the market place asking who will buy and sell those things that should not be bought and sold.
Sensual Charlotte’s world is sensual. It is her sensuality that unites materialism with spirit. Like William Blake, who she much resembles, she sees [the] world in a grain of sand. Some of her writing pivots on death. Through death, she brings life to life. This is apparent in her comparison of this life with the idea of heaven in her poem In the Fields
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?
And if there is
Will the heart of any everlasting thing
Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
Two other striking death images are materialist ones. The first is one of death being like a candle going out. It is taught her by Miss Bolt, the agnostic needlewoman whose worldly wisdom tutored her childhood. As a young woman, in her poem An Ending, Charlotte uses the same metaphor to confront the religious judge (Samuel Chick?) who thinks she has missed her way. Her soul is “just a spark alight for her”. In death it goes out. But the beauty of the sensual is heaven you would go to hell to experience again: A golden street? Give me the yellow wheat!. But this is not a spiritless or irreligious materialism, nor is it the materialism of the culte du moi. The golden wheat of her youth is the same experience of the spirit of sensual reality that enlightens grieving lovers and mothers at The Cenotaph and the delirious bank worker in The Wheat
The second death image is of a body rotting to a skeleton, whilst the hair continues to grow. This can be seen as part of Charlotte’s exploration of the phenomena, the experience, of life and death. It is an image in her “mad-woman” poem The Forest Road in which the soul or spirit of the woman struggles with her body. In In Nunhead Cemetery the experienced contrast is emphasised by the word THAT:
There is something horrible about a flower;
This, broken in my hand, is one of those
He threw it in just now: it will not live another hour;
There are thousands more: you do not miss a rose.
One of the children hanging about
Pointed at the whole dreadful heap and smiled
This morning after THAT was carried out;
There is something terrible about a child.
We were like children last week, in the Strand;
That was the day you laughed at me …
Life and death are experiences for the living. Requiescat says it would be “strange” if the dead had memories. In the experience of the living, however, life penetrates death (as in the growing hair) and death penetrates life (as in the living becoming something terrible in the face of the clay of death). Blake’s Innocence and Experience comes into my mind as I read these images. The child becomes experienced by death, as Charlotte had. In The Fête, where only a woman’s hair belongs to God, the adolescent becomes experienced through sex. In this poem, sex experience is not only development, it is also has elements of dying.
There is something new in the old heavenly air of Spring –
The smell of beasts, the smell of dust – The Enchanted Thing!
All my life long I shall see moonlight on the fern
And the black trunks of trees. Only the hair
Of any woman can belong to God.
The stalks are cruelly broken where we trod,
There had been violets there,
I shall not care
As I used to do when I see the bracken burn.
God In Charlotte Mew’s writing, making one (atonement) appears more of a problem than even our all-knowing – all-suffering – all loving creator fathoms. Fallen flesh has questions that God does not answer. His arms are full of broken things. The world is fractured and, in its fracturing, we see, not only its cruelty, but its beauty. The trees murdered to make way for the Quaker temple, recall that even a rat should be alive in the spring. And heaven cannot equal the beauty that passes as the shadows of leaves on growing grass. The gift of Charlotte’s writing is it problems. Even as she writes that only a woman’s hair belongs to God, one realises that her hair has become the centre of sensual desire.
Language The language of Charlotte Mew’s writing frequently includes the combined use of French and English, usually in dialogue; sometimes just in titles. There is occasional use of Latin and Spanish, but no German. At times, dialect is also used (English and French – See Pêcheresse). These features can be related to her analysis of culture and its relation to social relations and the nature of being. It is not just that she speaks more than one language at once, she also explores more than one world at once………. In 1921, Punch depicted Charlotte as a precocious English school girl adding simple French phrases to her poems. One poems that it appears to parody, uses French to capture a children’s street game. “‘Tiens! que veux-tu acheter?’ Renée cries, ‘Mais, pour quat’sous, des oignons,’ , Jean replies. And one pays down with pebbles from the shore.” (The Narrow Door)
Madness E.V. Knox’s parody of Charlotte Mew’s poetry begins
The moonlight drips on the parlour floor;
I shall go mad if no one wipes it up.
When I was one year old Nurse used to say,
“It’s no more use to cry when milk is spilt
Than cry about the moon.” There were big bars
Across the nursery window
Knox conveys the image of a writer threatened with madness, and confinement, whose poetry uses the experience. Her poems also communicate to him that her visions are fashioned by her life and her family. To steal words from Freda Mew’s casenotes, the “predisposing cause” of Charlotte’s “madness”, and her poetry, is “probably heredity”, but not in the biological sense. In the sense that it is steeped in the experience of her family, her childhood, and her intimate relations. Madness in Charlotte’s writing is softened or romanticised: She seeks to “obscure the tragic side by a gentleness of treatment”. As is common for her time, her image combines elements of mental illness and retardation or learning disability. There are also similarities of form between her pictures of madmen (for example, Ken) and her pictures of fairies (for example, The Changeling), and between her pictures of these and her depicting people and cultures in contact with nature (for example Arracombe Wood). Madness is sometimes another world cut of from sanity by clouded glass, but sometimes her own being. More often, sanity and madness are two worlds between which we pass as in the same way that we pass from the nursery floor to fairyland.
Faerie – The word faerie can be used for the mythical land of fays (fairies), its inhabitants, and its enchantment. When Charlotte Mew was writing, the theosophists were drawing on many religions and mythologies to create their own world vision. Their sources including belief in elementals, faerie forces or spirits of the elements, from which races of humans and gods could have evolved. Charlotte was sufficiently close to theosophist circles in 1914 to have a story about a woman with supernatural communication published in The Theosophist. The death in 1895 of Bridget Cleary, an Irish labourer’s wife , illustrates the relation in (some) popular cultures of the world of faerie and changes in human personality. I have argued that this theme of changing being and changing consciousness runs through much of Charlotte’s writing. It is what Baring- Gould would have called a “radical” (motif) to her stories. The word and the motif that symbolises this most effectively, in relation to fairies, is changeling. The Farmer’s Bride (1911/1912) is a fay, or fairy – The Changeling, a children’s poem, (1912/1913) was published at the same time as Men and Trees, which finishes with Joan of Arc, as a child, dancing round a fairy tree. In The Smile, the child (then woman) who can see the enchanting smile without climbing to the enchantress, as others have to, had, as a baby, the characteristics that might have been interpreted as indicating a changeling.
In Men and Trees, Charlotte partly explains the significance of fairies to the twentieth century. She says
“The Renaissance revered the ancient world, the nineteenth century was moved and lit by the Renaissance; we have no patience even with the nineteenth century. The past is a stupid corpse. The inspiration of the woods, the forest voices, the fairy dancers … these are ‘of old time’ … We must not speak in the marketplace of what happens to us in the forest, says Hawthorne – [nowadays] Everything happens in the market-place. Where else? But the market-place is not real: the real things are happening in the forest still.”
Spirit The spirit that animates Charlotte Mew’s writings appears accesible to agnostic and believer alike, and disturbing to the proconceptions of all of us. Siegried Sasson wrote to, and of, Charlotte that poets “carry the world on their shoulders… And in their eyes the future of civilisation struggles to survive”. Charlotte, he said, was “intensely” aware of her “responsibility” and sustained it “nobly”. The world that is carried in Charlotte’s writing is the material world of flesh and death, of life and grief, of desire and reverence. The spirit that animates it is “Everything there is to hear in the heart of hidden things”.