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literature

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Mew, Charlotte (1869-1928)  

Charlotte Mew's poetry encodes the emotional pain of hiding her lesbian identity in a world of compulsory heterosexuality.

Charlotte Mary Mew was born in London on November 15, 1869. Her father, Frederick Mew, was an architect. Her mother, Anna Maria Kendall Mew, was the daughter of the head of her husband's firm. Mew was strictly brought up by her nurse, Elizabeth Goodman, whom she was later to describe in the memoir "An Old Servant." The family was often struck by hardship; three of Mew's siblings died in childhood, and two others went insane in their twenties.

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Mew wrote stories and verses in her teens. Her first published work was the story "Passed," accepted by Henry Harland for the 1894 number of The Yellow Book. Harland praised but rejected her next offering, "The China Bowl," and for the next decade and a half Mew published only the occasional story or essay, mostly in order to supplement the family's dwindling income.

Mew wrote most of her poems between 1909 and 1916. In 1912, she gained notice when Henry Massingham's radical paper The Nation published her poem "The Farmer's Bride." Mew was soon taken up by the hostess Catherine Scott, at whose teas she read and thereby gained some literary attention.

Introduced to Alida Klementaski and Harold Monro of the Poetry Bookshop, she published a chapbook, "The Farmer's Bride," under its imprint in 1916. The volume did not sell well, but Sidney Cockerell, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, noticed it and sent copies to his literary friends, including Siegfried Sassoon and Thomas Hardy. Hardy was particularly impressed by her work. A second edition of "The Farmer's Bride" with additional poems was published in 1921. Cockerell's patronage enabled Mew to receive a small Civil list pension in 1923.

Mew's personal life was a series of setbacks. Two serious love affairs, with the writer Ella D'Arcy in 1898 and with the popular novelist May Sinclair nine years later, came to nothing when the women did not return her affection. Sinclair cruelly publicized Mew's attraction to her and Mew became the butt of ridicule.

Mew's poetry does not explicitly mention her lesbianism but encodes the emotional pain of hiding her sexuality in complex dramatic monologues on themes of loss and isolation.

In "The Farmer's Bride," a young farmer recounts the story of his wife, who was so frightened by him that she fled from the marriage and into the woods. Quickly recaptured by a posse of men, she quietly does her housework: "Happy enough to chat and play . . . / So long as men-folk keep away." Though the poem ends by concentrating on the farmer's thwarted erotic longing for his bride, it also exhibits a strong subtext of compulsory heterosexuality.

"Saturday Market" instructs the reader: "Bury your heart in some deep hollow." The poem might be read as an allegory of Mew's denied desires since it places desire in the context of shame.

Mew's last years were difficult. She was no longer writing verse, and a series of deaths affected her greatly. Her beloved mother died in 1923. Her sister Anne, with whom she had lived all of her life, died in 1927 after a painful battle with liver cancer.

In February 1928, Mew was beginning to show evidence of mental strain and was put in a nursing home. On March 29 of that year, she committed suicide by drinking a bottle of disinfectant. A posthumous volume, The Rambling Sailor, edited by Alida Klementaski Monro, was published in 1929.

James Najarian

     

 
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    Bibliography
   

Boll, T. E. M. "The Mystery of Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair: An Inquiry." Bulletin of the New York Public Library 75 (September 1970): 445-453.

Davidow, Mary C. "The Charlotte Mew-May Sinclair Relationship: A Reply." Bulletin of the New York Public Library 75 (March 1971): 295-300.

Fitzgerald, Penelope. Charlotte Mew and her Friends. London: Collins, 1984.

Mew, Charlotte. Collected Poems and Prose. Val Warner, ed. Manchester: Carcanet, 1981.

Mizejewski, Linda. "Charlotte Mew and the Unrepentant Magdalene: A Myth in Transition." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 26 (Fall 1984): 282-302.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Najarian, James  
    Entry Title: Mew, Charlotte  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 11, 2011  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/mew_c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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