No 4 - 1975
Mary Magdalene and the Bride
The Work of Charlotte Mew
‘It is said that her genius was masculine, but surely it was purely spiritual, strangely and exquisitely severed from embodiment and freed from any accident of sex.’ Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) praised Emily Brontë in these terms, but ironically, this ‘accident’ contributed to the former’s relatively slight oeuvre. From the start, Mew was successful in placing her stories, and although The Farmer’s Bride attracted few reviews when it came out from the Poetry Bookshop in 1916, her poems were published widely in periodicals. From 1915 she had the consistent support of Harold Monro and Alida Klemantaski. Hardy, who considered her ‘the least pretentious but undoubtedly the best woman poet of our day’,(1) with Masefield and de la Mare secured her a Civil List pension in 1928. Sassoon admired her too. Yet her posthumous volume of poems, The Rambling Sailor (1929), contained few written after the publication of The Farmer’s Bride, and her prose writing, too, seems to have ceased about 1916.
According to Alida Monro’s ‘Memoir’, Charlotte Mew herself attributed her slight output to her domestic duties, looking after her mother — albeit with the assistance of a factotum. Yet today many women writers combine caring for a family with considerable literary work, and from the past there is the example of Mrs Gaskell. Since, like Hardy’s, Mew’s stories are ‘minor novels’, with a frequently arbitrary use of the short story form, it is surprising that she did not attempt a full-length novel; ‘Mark Stafford’s Wife’ suggests she could have succeeded. There is a suggestion that she destroyed manuscripts of stories and poems, but if so, it was probably only because they failed to meet her standards. Her life was darkened by her brother’s and younger sister’s mental illness, which confined them to asylums, while her own temperament was ‘naturally keyed very low’.* Her literary output was more likely limited by ‘periods of overwhelming depression’ (2) than by domestic duties.
Opening an autobiographical account of a stay in a Breton convent as a paying guest, Mew writes: ‘Our party of six “unmated females” included a Botanist, a Zoologist, a Bacteriologist, a Vocalist, a Humorist, and a Dilettante.’ It is revealing that she chooses to describe herself as a dilettante rather than a writer. In so far as this attitude developed under her mother’s influence and her upbringing in the eighteen-seventies and eighties, it resulted from her position as a woman. Only her sister Anne took her writing seriously. Since she stopped writing at about the time The Farmer’s Bride appeared, perhaps until this achievement she had been partly motivated by the defiant méflance, which characterized her attitude to herself, although of course she was nearly fifty when the book came out.
Later, Mew looked back to ‘the dazzling lights and colours of childhood’s enchanted picture’. (3) Childhood is frequently the brightest — or blackest — period in life, but this was especially so for her; her adolescence was accompanied by the gradual realization of the hereditary mental strain in the family. This led Charlotte and Anne to decide never to marry.
There is a strong sense of Charlotte’s childhood in the middleclass household of her architect father in Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, in her autobiographical studies of ‘An Old Servant’, about her nurse, and ‘Miss Bolt’, the family dressmaker, ‘who left me, like the childhood in which I knew her, mysteriously and without farewell’. ‘The Quiet House’, a poem which she described as ‘perhaps the most subjective to me, of the lot’, opens with a wistful glance at lost security; it is only necessary to change the names of the four children and reverse the position of the dead mother and lingering father to see the Mew household:
When we were children old Nurse used to say,
The house was like an auction or a fair
Until the lot of us were safe in bed.
It has been quiet as the country-side
Since Ted and Janey and then Mother died [. . .]
The nurse ‘[. . .] was not a grown-up person. She knew everything and could do everything, and she had an odd excrescence of authority; otherwise she was one of Us. [. . .] and the player caught cheating at croquet in the Square an object of the same passionate and personal dislike.’ The strong imagination of children — a quality which Mew retained — is reflected in her description of the effect of the Christmas magazines which the nurse gave them: ‘[. . .] the crack of whips and the hoofs of post-horses drowned the wheels of the crawling cab and the bell of the muffin-man ting-tinging down our long, dull street; while we [. . .] lost ourselves on the great white road outside where the snow was always falling, in a whirl of highwaymen and elopements.’ But in ‘The Quiet House’ there is no longer any escape from the ‘long, dull street’:
To-night I heard a bell again —
Outside it was the same mist of fine rain,
The lamps just lighted down the long, dim street,
No one for me —
I think it is myself I go to meet:
I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!
Mew had supplemented her school education by lectures at University College, and by much reading. Her essay on ‘Mary Stuart in Fiction’ gives an extensive treatment, though she falls too readily under the spell of the subject despite a firm grasp of the history:
[. . .] For had she won the crown she fought for, Mary of Scotland and England, setting back the clock for Europe, must have turned to the world another face. Her small hand holding many keys would not so lightly or so magically have touched us.
As it is she holds the key of dreams, [. . .]
Among writers who treated the subject, Mew discusses Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Yonge, Harriet Martineau, John Galt, Maurice Hewlett, Dumas and Swinburne. While Schiller ‘produced an incredibly vulgar marionette’, with Scott,
[. . .] when we go back to our old magician, we find a conception and execution on a grander scale, a fineness of taste in the treatment of emotion, which has long gone Out of fashion, a reticence and dignity in human portraiture which is absent from the latest development of the genre [. . .]
As this essay shows, Mew read widely in French. Before her straitened circumstances following her father’s death, she spent several holidays in northern France. Coupled with a fascination for the externals of Roman Catholicism, the French setting gives some of her poems an ambience characteristic of the nineties, contrasting with more ‘Georgian’ poems set in the English countryside; her long poem ‘Madeleine in Church’ combines both tones.
A strong sense of Mew’s quirky and individualistic personality emerges in her essay ‘Men and Trees’. Of her beloved trees, commemorated in her poems ‘The Trees are Down’ and ‘Dornus Caedet Arborem’, she wrote: [. . .] We really have no use for them. We have not much use for anything but machinery and science and democracy, the three-headed monster who has kicked the effete trio of the troupe, the sisters Wonder and Beauty and Stillness, out of the show.’ Her reaction is not just vacuous, but has some valid targets:
[. . .] civilisation, brightly conscious of having abolished the devils with the gods, and replaced them all by the Culte du Moi, murmurs ‘shocking!’ and hurries on; but there is not much doubt that human sacrifices are still being offered by American and European syndicates to the sacred tree of civilisation, the rubber-tree. [. . .]
Mew’s characteristic note is negation, but her treatment of this theme gives it a paradoxically positive aspect. Her decision not to marry seems to have closed a door in her life almost as finally as the convent door on the nuns, whom she several times described, perhaps by analogy. The obverse of the negated life is the dream, which figures in much of her poetry. The ultimate negation in Charlotte Mew’s life came with her suicide, shortly after the death of her sister Anne. Many of her poems intimate the tensions of a strongly emotional nature submitting to restraints in which although there is some element of choice, the mind or conscience dictates a negative. A highly symbolic treatment of this pervasive theme of negation occurs in the horror-story, ‘A White Night’, where a living woman is buried by monks celebrating the mass for the dead, while — the story’s twist — a chance onlooker is lulled into acquiescence through his inexplicable sense of rapport with her.
One aspect of negation is Mew’s exaggerated lament for youth, often not in the usual sense of regret at mortality, but rather for its passing without fulfilment. In ‘Madeleine in Church’, the woman of the title is one of those ‘who have asked for youth’. An uncollected sonnet, unusually formal for Mew, locates the moment of loss:
Péri en mer (4)
One day the friends who stand about my bed
Will slowly turn from it to speak of me
Indulgently, as of the newly dead,
Not knowing how I perished by the sea,
That night in summer when the gulls topped white
The crowded masts cut black against a sky
Of fading rose — where suddenly the light
Of Youth went out, and I, no longer I,
Climbed home, the homeless ghost I was to be.
Yet as I passed, they sped me up the heights —
Old seamen round the door of the Abri
De la Tempête. Even on quiet nights
So may some ship go down with all her lights
Beyond the sight of watchers on the quay!
We look in vain for happiness or fulfilment among the characters of Mew’s stories and poems. Her characters are nearly all female, though she frequently uses the device of a male narrator in the stories. Dominant in prose and verse, the women are cast in two moulds: the Magdalen and the virgin.
Mew’s most positive portrayal of human love is maternal, but by often focusing on situations involving grown-up offspring, she highlights the sorrow of motherhood. She writes affectionately about children, and with her preoccupation with death, there is the inevitable poem ‘To a Child in Death’. It is tempting to read Madeleine’s cri de coeur, ‘If there were fifty heavens God could not give us back the child who went or never came’, as wrenched from the poet’s own circumstances, but perhaps neither Madeleine nor Charlotte would really have enjoyed the domestic work of bringing up small children. Apropos of Charlotte’s mother, Alida Monro remarked of the poet, ‘it is probable that she adored the idea of a mother rather than the woman herself’.
In her story ‘The China Bowl’ (which she later dramatized), Mew’s theme is Rachel Parris’s love for her married son: ‘She had but a room now in David’s house and but a room, though that a warm one, in David’s heart.’ Rachel’s love is at least as selfish as the wife’s; but by making the wife appear to care mainly about her position as mistress of the house — perhaps a symptom of her emotional insecurity — Mew manages to engage the reader’s sympathy for the mother. Similarly, in ‘A Wedding Day’, our sympathy is sought for the mother, ‘the old woman’, who is described in terms of abandonment and bereavement, and indeed dies at the very time when the consummation of her daughter’s marriage is taking place. In her ‘unfinished elegy’ ‘On Youth Struck Down’, the felicity of dead youth is stressed more than the happiness of the newly married couple is in the prose:
Oh! Death what have you to say?
‘Like a bride — like a bride-groom they ride away:
You shall go back to make up the fire,
To learn patience — to learn grief,
To learn sleep when the light has quite gone out of your earthly skies,
But the have the light in their eyes
To the end of their day.’
Though fascinated by the figure of the bride, Mew writes with more sympathy of figures on the sidelines, unclaimed spinsters as well as the abandoned mother. ‘An Open Door’, about Laurie’s abandonment of her fiancé to become a missionary, has a finely muted portrait of her plain sister, Stella, who after all doesn’t have a fiancé to abandon. By analogy with Roman Catholicism, Laurie is going to become a bride of a sort, a bride of Christ, like Anita in ‘In the Curé’s Garden’, who chooses the convent rather than her would-be husband, Monsieur Vidal. Like Mew’s real brides, Laurie dies very early in her career.
Given her own straitened means, and the insight she gained from her work for the War Pensions Committee and a girls’ club, Mew can identify with poorer characters. Mademoiselle, in the story named after her, supports her worthless painter fiancé: ‘[. . .] this incurable gaiety of Mademoiselle. She wore it like a costume de théâtre. [. . .] There were moments even when it looked like a very nimble, very graceful little dance of death.’ Lower down the social scale, Mew has a sharp eye for Miss Bolt’s ‘little economies’: ‘[. . .] She would bring a nightcap or handkerchief to wash surreptitiously, as a saving of soap, performing the operation with the utmost secrecy and despatch. She begged candle-ends from cook, which she represented were to wax her thread. [. . .]’ This spinster lives for ‘me-brother’s’ family. Even more sympathetically presented is the old nurse, jilted in youth by a man who would not wait while she looked after her sick old mother; in the Mew household, she had ‘the place of chief friend and adviser and, when trouble came to the house, of consoler’. ‘There was nothing conscious or masterful about it; it was simply the gentle, irresistible mastery of the strongest, clothed with an old-world deference.’
In ‘A Farmer’s Bride’, a masterpiece of condensation, an almost child wife runs away soon after the marriage. She is brought back and lives on at the farm hopelessly disturbed:
‘Not near, not near!’ her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.
In the story ‘Mark Stafford’s Wife’, a similar situation is hinted at in Stafford’s description of Kate and her fiancé, Darch: ‘ “[. . .] She has, hasn’t she, a touch of the sprite, a vague atmosphere of mist, of moonlight, which makes of Darch still more emphatically an embodiment of, well — of the broad glare of day ?”’ But Kate marries Stafford instead and becomes a social success, though at the cost, conveyed in a typically biblical metaphor, of ‘some vague virtue [that] had gone out of her’. Mysteriously ill, Kate flees with Darch, but dies before she can consummate her infidelity. ‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves.’ The only case where marriage appears a happy outcome is ‘A Fatal Fidelity’, where the couple are too old to expect any prolonged felicity.
Elinor, in the story of that name, represents a variation on the virginal figure. Mentally and spiritually, she possesses a lonely strength, perhaps related both to that of the woman proudly buried alive in ‘A White Night’, and to that of the dying woman in ‘White World’, who even if she is forced to lean on the man physically during their fatal journey through the snow, is in control psychologically, having willed their flight in the first place. ‘Elinor’ is a far more effective story than the symbolic and spiritualized ‘White World’. It also bears a curious relation to Emily Brontë, or at least to Mew’s conception of her. In the character of Elinor, Mew seems to have sought to dramatize Emily Brontë.
Writing about Emily Brontë’s poems in the 1846 collection and the eighteen published posthumously by Charlotte Brontë, Mew gives Bronte high praise as a poet: ‘The two most prominent women poets of the century, Mrs. Browning and Christina Rossetti, among whose writings passion, exotic or mystical, plays so conspicuous a part, have never surpassed, if they have ever equalled, this love-song of a woman who never loved.’ The key to Mew’s interpretation of Emily Brontë is ‘Her nature stood alone’, while the similarly named Elinor declares ‘Can no man summon strength to stand alone!’ Perhaps by the device of having Elinor destroy her secret writing just before her death, Mew is seeking to evade the difficulty of presenting a good writer convincingly to the reader. The treatment in the story of the old servant, Agatha, devotedly nursed in her last illness by Elinor, suggests the Brontës’ ‘Tabby’: as Mew wrote, ‘[. . .] it was Emily who, when need came, rose in the bitter winter mornings to do the disabled servant’s work’. The setting of ‘Elinor’ on wild — if unidentified — moors recalls Wuthering Heights. Mew declared of Brontë: ‘Nature, the one subduing and consolatory power, she worshipped with all the intense and concentrated passion of her soul.’ Elinor says of the storm, ‘It nerves me, frame and heart’. Mew also described this passion in ‘White World’, but here the dual personification of the storm as a lover and as death, enhancing her theme of the deathly bride, weakens the description of the elements:
[. . .] accepting with serene delight the prodigal endearments of this chance encountered wooer, holding her frail palms outward, dallying with ere yielding to a quick desire to bare her breast. The icy air lashed it with glorious rigour, — whose was this exquisitely smiting hand? Not surely his whom she had named ungently as her only and appointed fate. Could such a touch be that of death the undesired, with whom blind mortals were so unprepared to mate? [. . .]
The metaphor is typical of Mew’s treatment of physical passion; this is strongly sensed in her work but rarely confronted directly and never positively. Her description of Kate Stafford seems to typify this attitude: ‘But it was just this sense of some intention in the picture missed, that made her difficult, even dangerous, to touch.’ The setting of ‘In the Curé’s Garden’, a story which unusually for Mew fully exploits the short story form per se, creates a sensually loaded atmosphere: ‘[. . .] in the narrow walks where among roses the carnations bloom. Was not their odour almost passionate? I asked him once, in one of our little discursive talks, and were they not par excellence the flowers of seduction and desire?’ However, as Anita demurely says of them, ‘Nous ne nous touchons pas’, going on to take the decision that slams the convent door in the face of her admirer. Mew’s poem ‘At the Convent Gate’ might be read as a dialogue between such protagonists. In ‘The Fête’, Mew takes the common theme of the maturing adolescent, but the treatment is distinguished by an unusually strong negative note by the end of the poem:
[. . .] 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.
This leitmotiv of hair runs very distinctively through Mew’s ambivalently negative attitude to physical passion, which is in fact curiously positive in tone. In the last stanza of ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ its use reiterates the poem’s pathos:
She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh! my God! the down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her — her eyes, her hair, her hair!
Although in a poem like ‘Absence’, the mention of hair is simply lyrical, this leitmotiv has a further significance for Mew. ‘Only the hair / Of any woman can belong to God’ recalls Mary Magdalene.
The clue to Mew’s fascination with Mary Magdalene comes in her essay on ‘Mary Stuart in Fiction’: ‘So, for all slips of theirs, their poets and their commentators, Jean d’Arc still stands for Inspiration, and Mary Magdalen for Devotion, and Mary Stuart for Romance.’ Her choice of the word ‘devotion’, with its dual usage in the religious and the everyday sense, suggests why Mew cannot endow her brides with human passion: she has harnessed its best qualities to religion.
Mary Magdalene first appears in the early poem, ‘She was a Sinner’, a poem remarkable for its sympathetic treatment of the saint’s prostitute past, which is sentimentalized to the point of naïveté: ‘Love was my flower, and before He came —’. In her story ‘Passed’, Mew described a loose woman, first encountered in a church, equally picturesquely. Published in The Yellow Book, the story is redolent of the ‘atmosphere’ of the nineties. It includes this potent description of a prostitute:
[. . .] Everything was transfigured in the illuminated twilight. As I stood, the dying sun caught the rough edges of a girl’s uncovered hair, and hung a faint nimbus round her poor desecrated face. The soft circle, as she glanced toward me, lent it the semblance of one of those mystically pictured faces of some medieval saint.
(Fortunately, Mew’s all too infrequent sense of humour comes into play in the following paragraph when ‘my medieval saint demanded “who I was a-shoving of?”’.) Mew’s poem ‘Le Sacré-Cceur’, looking down on Paris from Montmartre — and perhaps with the Madeleine particularly in mind — personifies the city as a prostitute, characteristically romanticizing the theme:
Dear Paris of the hot white hands, the scarlet lips, the scented hair,
Une jolie fille à vendre, très cher;
A thing of gaiety, a thing of sorrow,
Bought to-night, possessed, and tossed
Back to the mart again to-morrow,
Worth and over, what you cost; [. . .]
This romantic treatment of prostitution is all the more remarkable given Mew’s stern moral attitude. Alida Monro reports that she ‘absolutely cut out from her friendship anyone on whom a breath of scandal blew’. After Kate Stafford’s death, fleeing from her husband with her would-be lover, the narrator seems relieved that this has saved her from a fate worse than death: ‘[. . .] I was looking back from this strange deliverance to the unintelligible past, and on to that future with its threatening dusk — averted. She had been spared.’ The appearance of the husband’s face, when a photo of Kate taken alone just before her flight is developed, is moralistically macabre. It is only in the poem ‘Pécheresse’, where the single sin remains ‘unshrived, untold’, since ‘Our Lady’s heart is as frozen snow’, that Mew approaches the question of the morality of judgement.
Mew praised the colour symbolism of Emily Brontë’s ‘The Philosopher’s Conclusion’. She herself is particularly fond of contrasting monochrome or dull experience with vivid; white is especially emotive for her: ‘A White Night’, ‘White World’, ‘the white glare of fact’, (5) ‘a burning white’. The last instance comes from ‘She was a Sinner’, where the traditional symbolism of the rose, ‘Rank, with the colour of a crimson flame,’ is extended to the crown of thorns. The symbolism of the crimson rose, at times reminiscent of Plath’s poppies, is paralleled in the autobiographical poem ‘The Quiet House’:
Red is the strangest pain to bear;
In Spring the leaves on the budding trees;
In Summer the roses are worse than these,
More terrible than they are sweet:
A rose can stab you across the street
Deeper than any knife:
And the crimson haunts you everywhere —
Thin shafts of sunlight, like the ghosts of reddened swords have struck our
As if, coming down, you had spilt your life.
I think that my soul is red
Like the soul of a sword or a scarlet flower:
But when these are dead
They have had their hour.
In ‘Madeleine in Church’, with its crucial pun on the name ‘Madeleine’, Mew develops her conception of Mary Magdalene as the embodiment of devotion:
She did not love You like the rest,
It was in her own way, but at the worst, the best,
She gave You something altogether new.
And through it all, from her, no word,
She scarcely saw You, scarcely heard:
Surely You knew when she so touched You with her hair,
Or by the wet cheek lying there,
And while her perfume clung to You from head to feet all through the day
That You can change the things for which we care,
But even You, unless You kill us, not the way.
Later in the poem, Mew probes the nature of Mary Magdalene’s love even further:
But if she had not touched Him in the doorway of the dream could she
have cared so much?
She was a sinner, we are what we are: the spirit afterwards, but first the
‘Madeleine in Church’ is Mew’s longest poem, with her characteristic mixture of exceptionally long lines with others inset. A lament for mortality is an integrated theme: Madeleine asks poignantly, ‘How old was Mary out of whom You cast / So many devils?’ Regret for any lost moment is part of mortality, prompting some of Mew’s most beautiful lines:
Here, on our little patch of this great earth, the sun of any darkened
Not one of all the starry buds hung on the hawthorn trees of last year’s
No shadow from the sloping fields of yesterday;
For every hour they slant across the hedge a different way.
The shadows are never the same.
When Madeleine considers turning back to Christ, she reflects that her spirit ‘has learned so long not to think, not to be’. These words are exactly echoed in ‘The Quiet House’, which seems not only a commentary on Mew’s life but perhaps a prophecy of her suicide in the curiously strong way she affirms the concluding negation:
I think it is myself I go to meet:
I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!
‘Ne Me Tangito’ also takes up the Magdalene theme: its epigraph is the verse from S. Luke’s Gospel which Mew used in ‘Madeleine in Church’ and in the title of the poem ‘She was a Sinner’. With her characteristic fondness for shifting meaning by extended analogy, Mew presents in ‘Ne Me Tangito’ another woman who ‘was a sinner’ — this time holding the baby. It is tempting to read this poem as a bold transposition of Mary Magdalene to an English pastoral setting, at least in dream, with perhaps a reference to the ‘rushing mighty wind’ of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and culminating in what seems to be almost an analogy with the Virgin birth:
A flight of pigeons fluttered up into an early evening mackerel sky.
Someone stood by and it was you:
About us both a great wind blew.
My breast was bared
But sheltered by my hair
I found you, suddenly, lying there,
Tugging with tiny fingers at my heart, no more afraid:
The weakest thing, the most divine
That ever yet was mine,
Something that I had strangely made,
So then it seemed —
The child for which I had not looked or ever cared,
Of whom, before, I had never dreamed.
Yet it is not primarily God who is addressed through this poem; here, at least, one feels the justice of Edgell Rickword’s complaint about Mew’s tendency to become ‘conversational with some undefined “you”’. (6)
Invariably in Mew’s work, the emphasis falls on the Second Person of the Trinity, and his human aspect at that. In particular, Mew’s portrayal of Christ as the recipient of Mary Magdalene’s very human devotion, in ‘She was a Sinner’, parts of ‘Madeleine in Church’ and by analogy in ‘Ne Me Tangito’, results in an implicit stress on the human as opposed to the divine nature of Christ. Her characters frequently seem to respond to Christ on the level of their human loved ones. In ‘Monsieur qui passe’, the woman says:
[. . .] One speaks to Christ — one tries to catch His garment’s hem —
One hardly says as much to Him — no more: [. . .]’
In The China Bowl, Susannah declares to her husband, ‘But I loved ’ee, David. I love ’ee more than the dying Christ and all the Gods theer be.’ (This is modified in the B.B.C. script.) The alternative nature of the response to Christ is clearly expressed in Madeleine’s,
There must be someone. Christ! there must,
Tell me there will be someone. ‘Who?
If there were no one else, could it be You?
In ‘Absence’, Christ is personified almost as a jealous husband. The poem’s subject, a human relationship, precludes the imagery of mysticism or even a metaphysical conceit:
But call, call, and though Christ stands
Still with scarred hands
Over my mouth, I must answer. So,
I will come — He shall let me go!
Mew’s conception of heaven is at one with her humanized Christ. In ‘In the Fields’, with the beauty of the English countryside as her point of departure, she wishes for heaven to be a continuation of the best of this world; otherwise she will opt for oblivion:
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?
And if there is
Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing
Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
They come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
Over the fields. They come in Spring.
In ‘Not for that City’, where the emphasis is on rejection of the conventional, tinselled idea of heaven, the negative note is even stronger:
[. . .] No, I think we shun
The splendour of that everlasting glare,
The clamour of that never-ending song.
And if for anything we greatly long,
It is for some remote and quiet stair
Which winds to silence and a space of sleep
Too sound for waking and for dreams too deep.
The stair is one of Mew’s most interesting images, more fully evolved in ‘The Forest Road’:
[. . .] And ghostly drums that only seem to beat. This seems to climb:
Is it the music of a larger place? It makes our room too small: it is like a
A calling stair that climbs up to a smile you scarcely see,
Dim but so waited for; and you know what a smile is, how it calls,
How, if I smiled you always ran to me. [. . .]
In Mew’s story ‘The Smile’, heavily if vaguely symbolic, an old woman’s beautiful smile from the top of a tower immeasurably high in the mountains leads people to attempt the fatal climb; here Mew comes close to identifying paradise with death itself.
In ‘An Old Servant’, Mew describes how as a child she was brought up by her nurse in conventional religious observance: ‘In early years the rite and reality of daily prayers were for us strictly insisted on, and “Forgive us our trespasses” was no idle phrase when after it, each night at bedtime, we had to specify them; [. . . ]’ However, according to Alida Monro, organized religion had no place in her adult life. (7)” In rather flowery prose, Mew painted an idyllic picture of ‘The Country Sunday’, attacking Richard Jefferies for the cynicism of his piece of the same title in Field and Hedgerow, a book which otherwise she greatly admired. Writing about Jefferies in ‘A Country Book’, she concluded smugly: ‘[. . .] there remains, even in this world, the haven of God’s unspoiled beauty, — and “beyond our restlessness His rest”.’ She was fascinated, too, by the trappings of the Roman Catholic Church, in the manner of the nineties, but she ridiculed its superstitions, in the priest in ‘The London Sunday’ and the cult of S. Anthony in ‘Notes in a Brittany Convent’. Mew’s interest in folklore, highlighted in ‘The Changeling’, relates to her attraction to the picturesque in religion.
Mew had a keen interest in religious motivation. The most convincing characters in her stories are religious people, notably Père Laurent in ‘In the Curé’s Garden’, and Laurie in ‘An Open Door’. The poem ‘The Little Portress’ was clearly inspired by the nun described more ambivalently by Mew in ‘Notes in a Brittany Convent’: ‘[. . .] the picture of the little portress in her window, from which such very distant glimpses of the “world” and its “illusions” can come into view.
Fundamentally, Mew’s attitude to religion was determined by her need for it to accommodate the extreme suffering of her family and herself. She treated mental illness directly. Of one of her best poems, ‘Ken’, she wrote that she had tried to obscure ‘the tragic side by a tenderness of treatment’. Mew makes her conception of ‘the tragic side’ clear in ‘On the Asylum Road’ where, rather than focusing on the individual sufferer, in the context of society generally she deals with the mad, who are ‘the incarnate wages of man’s sin’. ‘Ken’ ends with effective abruptness, while ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’, she regarded the last verse** as ‘being a lapse from the sanity and self-control of what precedes it’. Death is of course a constant theme in her work, figuring in almost all her stories. ‘Smile, Death’ expresses her own attitude, welcoming like Stevie Smith’s in ‘Come, Death’: ‘Smile, Death, see I smile as I come to you [. . .]’. The image of the skaters, so much associated with this world’s gaiety, is one of her most effective:
Smile, Death, as you fasten the blades to my feet for me,
On, on let us skate past the sleeping willows dusted with snow; [. . .]
Mew’s insistence on human suffering makes her rebellious towards God. Unlike some of the mystics, she was never brought to any sublime acceptance, and her suicide — theologically sinful — might be regarded as her final act of defiance towards the God from whom as early as ‘Passed’ (1894) she had begged ‘man’s most bloody war-shout’. In The China Bowl, when David asks Susannah, ‘Why didn’t ’ee mind they words on the stone of the girt grave up yonder in the Churchyard. “He came, He drew me out of many waters” ?’, she replies realistically: ‘But He drawed them dead and drowned.’
Mew’s recurrent theme of ‘revolt against the vainness of victory’ (8) is highlighted in the story ‘The China Bowl’, with Susannah’s final ‘revolt against the victories her soul had won so painfully, now to be wasted in a great defeat’. Madeleine, looking askance at ‘the tame, bloodless things. / As pale as angels smirking by, with folded wings —’, declares, ‘I do not envy Him His victories, His arms are full of broken things.’
Although there is the occasional gentle moment in Mew’s work, more characteristic is her insistence on human suffering. Yet her humanization of Christ precluded a formulation like Hardy’s ‘evolutionary meliorism’. Even if Mew took no part in organized religion, her continued religious involvement is clear, however subversive her vision of Christ and Mary Magdalene might be. Or her humanization of the deity might be only another version of Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.
Writing about this neglected poet, Frank Swinnerton made the significant error that, ‘she, a born poet, did not live long enough [fifty-eight years] to bring her gift to its highest level’. (9) Rather, her position as a woman and tendency to dilettantism moulded her attitude to her work. Virtually all her poems are successful, because of her control of rhythm, which reinforces her clarity, condensation and vivid imagery. A few, such as ‘The Forest Road’ and ‘On the Road to the Sea’, are weakened by inadequate structuring. In the circumstances of her life, inevitably Mew’s clearsightedness produced negative attitudes, which she conversely exploited. She sidestepped human passion through her fey brides and through Mary Magdalene, who seems ultimately to be identified, by means of a characteristic sliding analogy, with the Bride of Christ.
* Alida Monro’s ‘Memoir’, in Charlotte Mew’s Collected Poems, London, 1953. Subsequent references to Alida Monro and to Charlotte Mew’s letters are taken from the ‘Memoir’.
** Although Alida Monro quotes Charlotte Mew’s comment on the last verse of ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’ in her ‘Memoir’ in the Collected Poems (p. xviii), this edition prints only the first twenty-eight lines of the poem (pp. 61-2), omitting the last fifty-four lines. cf. The Farmer’s Bride, London, 1921, pp. 21-3.
1. Quoted by Louis Untermeyer, in Lives of the Poets, London, 1960, p. 656.
2. Obituary of Charlotte Mew, by S. C. C. [Sir Sydney Cockerell], The Times, 29 March 1928, p. 21.
3. ‘Miss Bolt’, p. 484.
4. The Englishwoman, XX, 59 (Nov. 1913), p. 136.
5. ‘Mark Stafford’s Wife’, p. 72.
6. Edgell Rickword, Essays & Opinions 1921-1931, Cheadle, Cheshire, 1974, p. 38.
7. And Mew joked she was a ‘poor infidel’. Friends of a Lifetime: Letters to S. C. Cockerell, ed. Viola Meynell, London, 1940, p. 318.
8. ‘An Open Door’, p. 85.
9. Frank Swinnerton, The Georgian Literary Scene 1910-1935, London, 1969, p. 251.
CHARLOTTE MEW’S PROSE
‘Passed’, The Yellow Book, II (July 1894), pp. 121-41.
‘The China Bowl’ (story), Temple Bar, CXVIII (Sept. 1899), pp. 64-90.
‘Miss Bolt’, Temple Bar, CXXII (April 1901), pp. 484-983
‘Notes in a Brittany Convent’, Temple Bar, CXXIV (Oct. 1901), pp. 238-47.
‘In the Curé’s Garden’, Temple Bar, CXXV (June 1902), pp. 667-80.
‘An Open Door’, Temple Bar, CXXVII (Jan. 1903), pp. 71-91.
‘A White Night’, Temple Bar, CXXVII (May 1903), pp. 625-39.
‘Mademoiselle’, Temple Bar, CXXIX (Jan. 1904), pp. 90-101.
‘The Poems of Emily Brontë’, Temple Bar, CXXX (Aug. 1904), pp. 153-67.
‘Mark Stafford’s Wife’, Temple Bar, CXXXI (Jan. 1905), pp. 67-94.
‘The Country Sunday’, Temple Bar, CXXXII (Nov. 1905), pp. 598-600.
‘The London Sunday’, Temple Bar, CXXXII (Dec. 1905), pp. 703-7.
‘Mary Stuart in Fiction’, The Englishwoman, XIV, 40 (April 1912), pp. 59-73.
‘Men and Trees I’, The Englishwoman, XVII, 50 (Feb. 1913), pp. 181-8.
‘Men and Trees II’, The Englishwoman, XVII, 51 (March 1913), pp. 811-19.
‘An Old Servant’, New Statesman, II, 28 (18 Oct. 1918), pp. 49-51.
‘The Hay-Market’, New Statesman, II, 45 (14 Feb. 1914), pp. 595-7.
‘The Smile’, Theosophist, XXXV, 8 (May 1914), pp. 274-83.
‘A Fatal Fidelity’, Cornhill, CLXVII, 997 (Autumn 1958), pp. 66-80.
The China Bowl (play), broadcast on the B.B.C. West Region, 12 Nov. 1953.
C.M. MEW COLLECTION, B.M, MS. 57754 (Provisional Classification).
‘A Wedding Day’ (dated 1895).
‘A Country Book’ (a review [?] of Richard Jefferies’s Field and Hedgerow).
‘The Bridegroom’s Friend’.
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