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”.
“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.
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? Possibly. She experienced more hardships 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 ended her own life the year after losing her last remaining sister, her genius only appreciated (as is so often the case) retrospectively.
Weather permitting, I’ll be talking more about Charlotte Mew and her work for Cemetery Club’s Wonder Women of Hampstead tour this Saturday. Please join us to hear more about this electrifyingly talented lady.