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This interview is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.On Charlotte Mew: interview with Julia Copus
Rebecca Watts & Julia Copus
Rebecca Watts talks to Julia Copus, whose biography This Rare Spirit:
A Life of Charlotte Mew was released by Faber in April. Copus is also the editor of Charlotte Mew: Selected Poetry and Prose (Faber, 2019).
A Life of Charlotte Mew was released by Faber in April. Copus is also the editor of Charlotte Mew: Selected Poetry and Prose (Faber, 2019).
WATTS: I’d like to start with first encounters, because one of the things that perplexes me about Mew is how limited her reception has been over the past century. It was only a few years ago that I found her poem ‘The Trees Are Down’, somewhere near the beginning of an anthology of ‘modern verse’ I’d borrowed from the library, and was blown away by its freshness – that unique quality Mew has of channelling emotion and complex moral convictions into rhythms that are both speech-like and intensely musical. And I remember thinking: why haven’t I heard of this poet before? But then struggling to find other examples of her work.
COPUS: For a long time, I was only vaguely aware of Charlotte Mew as a name in poetry. We certainly never came across her work in school, for instance. Then in 2005, Deryn Rees-Jones brought out an anthology called Modern Women Poets. It covered a century of women’s poetry in English, and as Mew was born exactly one hundred years before me, it happened that I was one of the last poets in that book and she was the first. The title of her opening poem there – actually her most famous poem, ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ – gives the impression of something well-mannered and bucolic, but the poem itself is neither of those things. It was accompanied by two other extraordinary pieces, ‘Rooms’ and ‘The Trees are Down’, and between them this trio made a deep impression on me. There’s something about that unusual synthesis you sum up so well that lends the poems their particular power – the way in which she captures what you might call the speech of the heart in these agile, elastic rhythms, in lines that are sometimes sprawling, occasionally clipped and insistent, but always, as you say, musical. She once wrote to a friend that although she believed emotion was ‘the first requirement of poetry’, it couldn’t be communicated without proper technique, which, she said, could only ‘be got with work and patience’.
W: Speaking of which, when did you realise she was going to become a major focus for your work?
C: I initially had the idea of doing something quite short. I first got in touch with Matthew Hollis at Faber back in the spring of 2013, about the idea of including Mew in their Poet-to-Poet series – pocket-size paperbacks of past poets selected and introduced by contemporary poets. He told me the series was currently dormant but was enthusiastic about the idea of Mew in general. We spoke on the phone and I can’t remember whether the first thought for a longer book came from him or me, but I see that I emailed him a few months after that initial conversation to say that ‘I do, in spite of everything, feel really drawn to doing a book on Mew’ and ‘I can’t seem to stop myself digging and getting excited about her’. Famous last words!
W: We’ll return to the digging in a moment, but while we’re on the poems I want to ask you about that distinctive formal technique of Mew’s. In your introduction to the Selected Poetry and Prose you note the difficulty of reproducing the impact created by Mew’s unusually long lines, pointing out that ‘the indentations of the overturned lines combine with Mew’s own indentations to result in what looks like a deliberate patterning that was never intended by the poet’. Certainly when you look at a poem like ‘Madeleine in Church’ (Mew’s longest by far, at 222 lines), its shape – determined by that miraculous syntax, which accommodates a dramatic combination of stream-of-consciousness reflection, theological argument, raw emotion and concrete observation – is at once striking and baffling, and difficult to apprehend within the confines of the narrow page. I’ve often wondered whether these formatting difficulties are one of the reasons Mew’s originality has been overlooked, historically – because they make her poems appear, in print, to be much more conventional creatures than they actually are. Was there any discussion in the course of putting this edition together of honouring Mew’s original insistence that the long lines in her debut collection The Farmer’s Bride should be preserved intact? Did the formatting create a headache for you at proof stage, as it did for Mew back in 1916?
C: Yes! There was discussion. It took place in the summer of 2019, at a time when my mother was seriously ill in hospital, and I was also trying to work on getting the biography finished. The stress of all that somehow added to my sense of urgency, my desire to speak up on Mew’s behalf – because, as you say, she had complained to her own publisher about this very issue. She believed the full force of her lines would be diminished if they were broken up, and because of her insistence, the original book was brought out in a wider shape than normal – what her publishers called ‘a rather ugly quarto page’. Anyway, the upshot was that my powers of persuasion weren’t as strong as Mew’s! The editorial team were sympathetic and did what they could: a smaller font was used and the page margins narrowed to try to accommodate the long lines. But I still wasn’t happy, and after I’d seen the proofs – so quite late in the day – I asked if there was any possibility of using the wider (‘short royal’) format that Faber sometimes uses, but apparently the additional width still wouldn’t have been enough to allow all the lines to remain unbroken.
My concern wasn’t about wanting to clarify where a new line began (Mew’s capitalisation at the start of lines takes care of that) but wanting to avoid altering the look of the poems. Mew’s lines can vary wildly and suddenly in length, but she also uses a wide variety of indentations, meaning any new indentations that the publisher introduces can throw a poem completely out of shape. Short of bringing out a bespoke edition, there just didn’t seem to be a perfect solution. I think what we ended up with works for the most part. But that’s a great point you make about how the visual standardising – or taming – of Mew’s wayward lines in more recent editions of the work may have caused readers to overlook the originality of her poetry. At any rate, it was certainly noticed in her day. The American critic Louis Untermeyer, who was a big fan of Mew’s work, once signed off a letter to her with ‘Strength to you – and your large & flexible line’.
W: And more strength to her absolute command of drama and pathos in ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, which blasts open the very question of why and how the eponymous woman might be expected to be tamed. You mention Mew’s ‘insistence’ – her technical conviction and her confidence in adhering to her artistic judgements – which is certainly a quality that comes through in many of the letters you cite in This Rare Spirit. Yet at the same time Mew was a notoriously private person, fearful of the exposure inherent in publication and the impact this might have on her life and her family. I’m interested in what Mew’s reticence has meant for you as her editor and biographer.
C: As her biographer, it made me feel quite uneasy for a while about digging into the darker corners of her family’s life and revealing some of the very details that she’d put so much energy into keeping secret. Writing about them did feel intrusive at times; on the other hand, there is no question that she wanted her work to be known, and my hope is that the biography will send people back to her work. But in practical terms the reticence wasn’t too much of a problem. Of course I would have loved to discover reams of diary-type notes in Mew’s hand, but even without that, there was a fair amount of source material to draw from. I had some lucky finds while researching the book: I tracked down the privately owned diary of one of her cousins, for instance, and found the medical records of her brother in a local history centre, letters and artefacts in private ownership, a couple of previously unpublished poems and stories and so on. Interestingly, Mew’s poem ‘Fame’ expresses a deep ambivalence about the idea of being publicly known: on the one hand, the newly famous speaker longs for the ‘heavenly places’ of her old, more private, life, but on the other, she’s not sure she could turn her back on fame now that she’s had a taste of it: ‘Yet, to leave Fame, still with such eyes and that bright hair!’ If these are Mew’s own thoughts on the matter, it’s a very self-knowing and honest response – and, I expect, not an uncommon one.
W: Unearthing new original material must have been hugely exciting, particularly in the context of Mew’s relatively small published oeuvre. How did you track down these primary sources? Were you guided by the existing secondary literature (previous editions of Mew’s work, for example), or were you largely starting from scratch?
C: In 1981, Carcanet brought out a major edition of Mew’s work: Collected Poems and Prose, edited by Val Warner. Val told me that Michael Schmidt had initially pointed her towards a collection of Mew’s manuscripts in the British Library; she’d then traced an unpublished 1960 PhD thesis by an American scholar, Mary Davidow, in which she found half a dozen uncollected poems, a story and the titles and sources of other prose works. When I first came to Mew, I was hugely grateful for both these texts, but especially Val’s book, because the essays and stories had never been collected before. Val died last year, under sad circumstances, and I feel lucky to have spoken with her just a few months before that happened. We had a long phone call in which she wished me luck with the biography.
The finds I made myself generally came from other leads. For instance, I discovered a previously uncollected story in an 1897 edition of The Woman At Home which I’d bought from eBay! The material from private collections came to light gradually and in fits and starts, through tracing descendants of Mew’s friends and relatives via genealogy websites. I also amassed copies of a large number of letters to and from Mew, most of which are scattered through archives in the States, and I was given a huge head start in this by Giselle Falkenberg whose mother Betty had been collecting the letters for a planned book on Mew when she died. Giselle sent me what she had and I was able to build on that. Her generosity was typical of the sort of reactions I had from people while working on This Rare Spirit.
W: Your method and meticulous attention to detail radiates from every sentence. When you place us in the room or on the street beside Mew, the scene is always underscored by your close observation of documentary evidence: architectural plans, meteorological records, magazine advertisements, images from The Illustrated London News… As someone who’s worked a lot with archival and manuscript collections I was amazed at the range of sources you consulted, and the skill with which you piece the disparate facts together to construct such a vivid and illuminating narrative, explicitly resisting the urge to speculate at every turn. A less determined biographer would surely have baulked at the scale of the undertaking.
C: I’d say two things motivated me in this approach. The first was inexperience – in other words, fear! As a first-time biographer, I had to begin by feeling my way forward, one step at a time. From the start, I knew I wanted to provide a sense of atmosphere and context – the weather on a certain day in Bloomsbury, or the interior of a restaurant Mew dined in, for instance. I found it annoying if I didn’t know some of these details so I turned to whatever I could to try to uncover them. The other motivator was that I’d read Penelope Fitzgerald’s Charlotte Mew and her Friends (published in 1984), and though I’d enjoyed it as a reader, when I started on my own book I found myself growing more and more frustrated with it. I couldn’t find any proof for some of the events presented there; for others, the timing was wrong; names and relationships didn’t match with the evidence I’d collected, and so on. It unsettled me because I knew that some of our basic sources (letters quoted in Mary Davidow’s thesis, for instance) were the same. But the notes section in Fitzgerald’s book is slim and many of the quotations are unreferenced, so it was impossible to check her assertions. The conclusion I reached was that Fitzgerald had made certain decisions about Mew’s character and life story before writing the book, and had then arranged the narrative around those key ideas. She once told the French newspaper Libération that she had an interest in ‘people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost’, and one of the main themes in her book on Mew is that Mew was a frustrated lesbian, on the receiving end of repeated rejections. Following that idea, she outlines Mew’s unrequited love for three specific women – but one episode spins on a misquotation from a letter, and others aren’t referenced at all.
In a sense it’s a problem of presentation – the fact that Fitzgerald’s book is presented as straight biography. Of course, all biography involves interpretation, and no biographer can hope to get to the absolute ‘truth’ of a life (even if such a thing existed). We can only tell the story as we find it. That was advice I heard from another biographer and it became a guiding principle while I was writing This Rare Spirit. But in the course of my research, I came across a letter from the daughter of one of Mew’s close friends, Edith Chick, which reveals that many of the details in Fitzgerald concerning the Chick family were ‘fantastically wrong’. She says in the letter: ‘The trouble is that if the only facts one knows about are incorrect, it raises doubts about the more important ones.’ In view of all this, I felt a certain burden of responsibility – to be as scrupulous as I could with the verifiable facts, and to provide details of sources for my readers. My initial intention hadn’t been to write an account that differed in any significant way from Fitzgerald’s, but simply to place more focus on Mew’s writing – to offer a poet’s insight, if you like, into some of the points of contact between Mew’s life and work. But the more inaccuracies I discovered, the more it worried me that a person from recent history might be so quickly misrepresented – especially as some of the inaccuracies have been repeated; the danger is that they start to harden and take on the patina of fact.
W: It’s fascinating to think there might be fundamental differences in how a fiction writer and a poet do biography. I also found Fitzgerald’s book very readable, and I think that’s mainly due to its rendering of Mew as a character, as in a fiction – someone who participates in set pieces of action or drama through which they reveal their ‘true’ character as envisioned by the writer. In this sense it seems Fitzgerald’s aim was to create the version of Mew with the most symbolic potential.
C: Yes, I think you’re probably right. Mew made a comment in one of her letters that intrigued me, about the natural patterning that occurs in our lives: she said that ‘Life has an odd way of falling with patterns even for untidy people & more for the others who lend it a hand’. Whether or not that’s true, further shaping is clearly necessary to make a book readable, as you suggest; and in order to shape, you have to reflect on the life as a whole and look for patterns that point to character traits – repeated occurrences, behaviours and reactions, for instance. But I think to envision the character too early on in the writing process, or too rigidly, is to risk closing yourself off from some of the nuances of the real person – some of the things you might otherwise discover about them. There’s also the temptation to set people in situations that didn’t happen, or that didn’t happen in quite the way you describe, in order to fit your narrative. For instance, Fitzgerald has Mew’s sister, Freda, break down ‘beyond recall’ in the early 1890s with symptoms of schizophrenia and claims that her father, Fred, ‘asserted himself for almost the last time’ by insisting she be sent from London to his native Isle of Wight. In reality, Freda was only pre- and early teens at the start of the ’90s. Her medical records reveal that she didn’t start showing signs of schizophrenia until she was nineteen, and by that time Fred had died and wasn’t around to send her to the Isle of Wight or anywhere else. The first version might make a good story – but whose story is it?
W: This liberal approach couldn’t be more different from the attentive narrative perspective of This Rare Spirit, where we essentially observe Mew – sometimes from a distance, when the evidence is scant, and sometimes very intimately – as she moves through life and tries to succeed on her particular terms as a writer. Can you say a little more about how your experience as a poet inflected your assessment of those points of contact between Mew’s life and work?
C: One of the things I mean by ‘poet’s insight’ is simply that, as poets, we know what it’s like to sit with a poem and go through the redrafting process, a process that’s often demanding and can be exasperating – revising lines, trying to marry sound to sense; that sinking feeling that comes with realising you have the wrong word, the sort of desperate hopefulness of searching for a better one, and the joy (if we’re lucky) of finding it. There’s a passage in This Rare Spirit where I try to reconstruct Mew doing this with her poem ‘Smile, Death’ – a scene I built up from a close look at her drafts of the poem. The other thing is that I’m aware that the way my own life feeds into some of my poems isn’t always straightforward. Some of the most seemingly impersonal poetry might in fact be freighted with personal experience: for instance, I wrote a poem about the Hero and Leander myth which is informed by (and only exists because of) a fraught, rainy night on which I waited for a person to visit me when my marriage was breaking down. There appears to be a similar interplay between Mew’s lived experience and some of her poems: there are many details that parallel details from her life. We also know Mew believed other poets’ character traits could be discerned in their work. In an essay on Emily Brontë, she argues that ‘the true – the one original likeness – Emily herself has sketched: it is outlined in these slim pages of neglected verse’, and she picks out particular traits by quoting them from the poems: the ‘quenchless will’, the ‘savage heart’, and the ‘resentful mood’, for instance. For some poets (and no doubt other writers too) a tight web is built between the life and the work, and the web might in some sense support the life – even, at times, enable it. I think Mew was one of these writers.
W: I love that essay on Emily Brontë – not just because it exemplifies the impassioned, lyrical heights Mew achieves in her best prose, but also for its lucid expression of her unassuageable belief in the power of literature to manifest and to liberate the human spirit. What do you think your readers stand to gain from engaging (or indeed reacquainting themselves) with Mew today?
C: Mew’s poems questioned several of the orthodox assumptions of her day – concerning, for instance, the treatment of the mentally ill, the balance of power within marriage, and the unswerving wisdom of an all-seeing deity. Many of her themes remain powerfully relevant today. In challenging how things stand, her writing generates a degree of uncertainty but also holds within it the possibility of change for the good. It teaches us compassion for people who are ‘other’ than ourselves, and it shows us how much can be learned from paying closer attention to the natural world: ‘the larks that cannot praise us, knowing nothing of what we do, / And the divine, wise trees that do not care’, as she puts it in one poem. Perhaps most relevant of all in these globally uncertain times, her poems suggest that something like equanimity can be restored by listening in on the stillness that lies just outside the chaos and noise of human life. ‘Everything there is to hear,’ she tells us, ‘in the heart of hidden things’. I hope This Rare Spirit gives readers a window onto how the work was produced and shaped – by a particular life, mind and time – as well as a sense of the sacrifices that were made in order to produce that work. There are always risks inherent in choosing to be a writer – perhaps especially a writer of poetry, and perhaps especially (even now) a female writer. Writing biography forces you to think hard about how we measure the worth of a life, and looking back on Mew’s life and work – the extraordinary courage she showed – it’s difficult not to feel inspired by her example.
This interview is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.