This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew review – in praise of a Victorian New Woman

Julia Copus captures the hard times and brilliance of an impoverished, independent woman who was ‘the greatest poetess’ Hardy ever knew

Whenever someone mentions Charlotte Mew, they feel obliged to add context. The fact that Thomas Hardy said she was the “greatest poetess” he knew, or that Siegfried Sassoon maintained she was “the only poet who can give me a lump in my throat”. Even Virginia Woolf conceded that Mew, who wrote short stories and essays as well as verse, was “very good and interesting and quite unlike anyone else”. Walter de la Mare, trying hard to define the source of Mew’s power, ventured “she just knows humanity”.

The reason why any account of Mew, including this fine biography by Julia Copus, feels obliged to begin by bigging her up is precisely because she has so often been done down. Even during her lifetime Mew’s name was familiar only to those who lived and breathed contemporary literature, the kind of people who frequented the Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury and waited impatiently for the next issue of the Poetry Review. For these readers Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride” (1912) was nothing short of a punch to the gut and a slap on the ear, and all in a good way. The poem is a dramatic monologue in which an unschooled farmer laments the refusal of his child bride to respond to his physical and emotional expectations. Mew gives us both the farmer’s bumbling cruelty and the girl’s blind terror as she slips away “shy as a leveret” across the fertile fields. “The Farmer’s Bride” feels as old as the hills yet startlingly new, with its balladry, mixed-up metre and long, wayward lines.

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