CHARLOTTE MEW (d: 1928) was an English poet whose work spans the eras of Victorian poetry and Modernism. Mew lived in the repressive era of the Oscar Wilde trial, and her love for women was unrequited, and even publicly mocked. Apparently, Mew burned most of her poems. It is widely believed that in doing so she was destroying evidence of her being a lesbian.
Virgina Woolf said that Mew is “very good and interesting and unlike anyone else” and the “greatest living poetess.”
Mew was born in Bloomsbury, London, the daughter of Anna Maria Kendall and the architect Frederick Mew, who designed Hampstead Town Hall. The marriage produced seven children. Charlotte, nicknamed Lotti by her family, attended Gower Street School, where she was greatly influenced by the school’s headmistress, Lucy Harrison, and attended lectures at University College London. Her father died in 1898 without making adequate provision for his family; two of her siblings suffered from mental illness and were committed to institutions in their early teens, and three others died in early childhood, leaving Charlotte, her mother, and her sister Anne. Charlotte and Anne made a pact never to marry for fear of passing on insanity to their children. (One author speculates that Charlotte was “almost certainly chastely lesbian”.) Mew had a strong sense of style: her friend and editor Alida Monro remembers her wearing distinctive red worsted stockings in the winter months, and she insisted on buying her black, button-up boots (in a tiny size 2) from Pinet’s bootmakers in Mayfair; items left to different friends in her will (such as a ‘small three drop diamond pendant’ and a ‘scarlet Chinese embroidered scarf’) also suggest a keen interest in fashion. In later years, she often dressed in masculine attire, adopting the appearance of a dandy.
Her poems are varied: some of them (such as “Madeleine in Church”) are passionate discussions of faith and the possibility of belief in God; others are proto-modernist in form and atmosphere (“In Nunhead Cemetery“). She made experimental use of long, prose-like lines, and varieties of enjambment and indentation, which has been praised for its originality. Many of her poems are in the form of dramatic monologues, and she often wrote from the point of view of a male persona (“The Farmer’s Bride“). Two concern mental illness – “Ken” and “On the Asylum Road“. Many of Mew’s poems, including those mentioned as well as “Saturday Market“, are about outcast figures, expressing Mew’s feelings of alienation from the community in which she lived. Her poem “The Trees Are Down” is a poignant and prescient plea for ecological sensitivity and is singled out particularly in the anthology The Green Book of Poetry by Ivo Mosley.
Mew gained the patronage of several literary figures, notably Thomas Hardy, who called her the best woman poet of her day; Virginia Woolf, who said she was “very good and interesting and quite unlike anyone else”; and Siegfried Sassoon. In 1923, she obtained a Civil List pension of £75 per year with the aid of Cockerell, Hardy, John Masefield, and Walter de la Mare. This helped ease her financial difficulties.
After the death of her sister from cancer in 1927, she descended into a deep depression and was admitted to a nursing home where she died by suicide from drinking Lysol.