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Thursday, 11 October 2018

Charlotte Mary Mew (1869 –1928)

(originally published 01 May 2018)

As LGBT History month draws to a close, today we celebrate Charlotte Mew, a writer and poet whose original, emotionally intense work packed a punch that belied her diminutive physical stature.  Her fans included Virginia Woolf, who described her as the “world’s greatest poetess” while another admirer, Thomas Hardy, said she was, “far and away the best living woman poet, who will be read when others are forgotten”.

Add Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck from 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman

An Imp with Brains” - Catherine Dawson Scott

One of Charlotte’s best known works, The Farmers Bride, is included in the GCSE English Literature syllabus and poetry lovers on the tube might have noticed Sea Love featured on TFL’s Poetry on the Underground.  Her talents even earned her a blue plaque outside the home she grew up in on Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, yet her simple headstone lies toppled over on its back in a quiet section of Hampstead Cemetery, echoing the themes of loneliness and isolation that featured so frequently in her writing.

Charlotte Mew as painted by Dorothy Hawksley © National Portrait Gallery, London

Joy Grant’s Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop described a tiny, witty and thoroughly unique woman who rolled her own cigarettes and brandished her umbrella as though it were “a weapon against the world” but who possessed a charmingly self-deprecating sense of humour - when asked if she was Charlotte Mew, she drolly responded, “I am sorry to say I am”.

Was this humour countering the loss of nearly her entire immediate family before she was 30 and the string of romantic rejections from the women she fell in love with?  I believe it was.  After all, she experienced more hardship in her life than most are equipped to deal with.  A woman after my own heart, cemeteries also featured in her work, most notably In Nunhead Cemetery and Jour des morts 'Cimetière Montparnasse', the latter of which was set to music.  Her dark sense of humour was evident when telling her favourite joke about a hearse-driver who ran over a man, killing him, causing a passer-by to shout out, “Greedy!”

By around 1915/1916 Charlotte stopped writing stories and essays to focus almost solely on poetry and while celebrated by her famous fans, her work was largely ignored by the public at the time.  In 1928 Charlotte Mew poured herself a glass of Lysol and drank it, so ending her own life the year after losing her last remaining sister.  As is so often the case, her genius was only appreciated retrospectively.

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