Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair

We were delighted when Jess Molyneux got in touch. The youngest contributor to Something Rhymed, Jess first contacted us when she was still a sixth-former. We were impressed and touched that she had traveled from Manchester to Nuneaton to attend the George Eliot Fellowship’s Annual Lecture, which we delivered last year. She has since won a place to study English at Cambridge, and we’re thrilled that she’s continuing our conversation on female literary friendship – this time with her filling us in on the bond between the retiring Charlotte Mew and the more outgoing May Sinclair.

Charlotte Mew is one of the most famously un-famous poets of the early 20th century, the genius remembered for not being remembered. According to her contemporary Thomas Hardy, she was ‘far and away the best living woman poet’. Other admirers included D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, and Ezra Pound. But what of support from female writers?

This image is in the public domain.

Mew seems to have eschewed literary companionship. Whilst Mew herself was deeply unwilling to promote herself (characterized as ‘almost pathologically demure’ by The New York Times), her literary champions wanted to see her succeed. But her reluctance to promote herself (or become a ‘performing monkey’, as she said) led her to withdraw from support offered by fellow literary women.

But Mew did eventually submit to the literary patronage of a sister, and was rewarded with a friendship which, for a time, allowed her an outlet for the passion and sensitivity which pulsate through her poetry.

In 1913, Mew was invited to recite some of her poems at the west London home of Catherine Dawson Scott, literary hostess and founder of PEN International, known to Mew as ‘Mrs Sappho’. Mew’s reading of her innovative and heartfelt verses, including ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ and ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’, impressed her audience, who found their author no less fascinating.

Through Dawson Scott, Mew became familiar with the work of Mary Amelia St. Clair, writing under the name May Sinclair. Disciplined and commercially successful, Sinclair had produced eight books in the previous seven years. She was constantly active, belonged to many groups like the Woman Writers’ Suffrage League, and had first used the term ‘stream of consciousness’ in a literary context.

Mew and Sinclair engaged on a literary level first. Both passionate about the Brontë sisters, Sinclair’s theory of Emily’s ‘virility’ in The Three Brontës (1912) jarred with

This image is in the public domain.

Mew’s ideas about her favourite poet’s ethereal qualities. But Mew wrote to express her admiration on reading Sinclair’s next novel, The Combined Maze (1913). She still avoided an encounter, telling Dawson Scott that she ‘didn’t want to meet clever people’.

Mrs Sappho nonetheless persevered in bringing them together, and her intuition proved right: upon Mew’s recitation of ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, Sinclair was ‘won over’ and the two ‘went away together’, as the deserted Dawson Scott described in a triumphant letter.

Sinclair continued to be impressed by the liveliness and depth of Mew’s poems. This mutual admiration cemented their intimacy, giving the withdrawing Mew an emotional and professional outlet for her literary enthusiasm. Despite her ambivalence about Mew’s metrical experiments, which chimed with the emerging modernist style, Sinclair recommended her to Pound, who published ‘The Fête’ in the The Egoist, alongside the serial of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But Mew’s intense, potentially erotic love for this friend wasn’t returned in full. After exerting herself to help Sinclair hunt for a new house, Mew was met with pity rather than the hoped-for, warm thanks. Sinclair had in fact casually solicited the help of several friends for the project; Mew had not been singled out. Mew ‘bolted’, by her own admission, to Dieppe, a favourite holiday destination and safe haven, and their intimacy felt fragile when she returned.

Sinclair’s plea for Mew to take their relationship at face value captures her desire for loving friendship without the intensity Mew seemed to demand: ‘And when I say, “I want to walk with you to Baker Street Station”, I mean to walk, and I want to walk with you, and I want to walk to Baker Street Station…Better to take things simply and never go back on them, or analyse them, is it not?’

Whilst their friendship stood in peril, its foundation in literary affinity remained firm. Sinclair was moved when Mew first read ‘Madeleine in Church’ to her, ‘so furiously well’. Likewise, Mew was touched by the attempts at French poetry which Sinclair shared with her.

But what drew them together would break them apart. Mew interpreted the pitying intimacy of the poems as a special communication, returning deep affection. Mew reached out, and a rupture followed. Sinclair later (somewhat cruelly, and probably hyperbolically) claimed to have been chased by Mew up to her bedroom and forced to ‘leap the bed five times’, as Sinclair’s friends reported to one of Mew’s biographers. ‘Charlotte has been bothering and annoying May,’ wrote Mrs Sappho to one of her circle. If Dawson’s curt conclusion that ‘Charlotte is evidently a pervert’ is anything to go by, she appears to have sided with Sinclair.

Years later, Mew refused the invitation to read to Mrs Sappho’s latest initiative, the Tomorrow Club; she evidently felt that something in her relationship with Sinclair, and indeed the whole circle, had been irreparably broken. Perhaps Sinclair regretted the fall from friendship which followed her rejection of Mew. She continued to offer professional advice, but their correspondence never again reached its former intimacy. Sinclair remained a great admirer of Mew’s work; but neither was able to rekindle the flame of mutual esteem, enthusiasm, and love which had burnt so strongly in its short course.

Jess Molyneux is studying English at Jesus College, Cambridge. She enjoys writing about her thoughts on literature, language, feminism, and the intersections between the three on her blog, Jess Writes.

Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is currently working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930.

 If this has inspired an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

A Secret Sisterhood – available for pre-order

Even though writers are supported by a team of people at their publishing house, bringing a book into the world can sometimes feel a lonely business. There’s usually one person hunched over her desk, one name on the cover and one person travelling to interviews and events.

We feel so fortunate to be able to share the experience. During the most intense periods of editing A Secret Sisterhood, we stayed in each other’s homes for days on end, took walks together during our breaks, and cooked each other late-night bowls of pasta.

Now that our UK publication date is almost upon us, we’re working in the same room once more. This time our advance copies are stacked on the desk beside us, our names side by side on the cover – alongside Margaret Atwood’s, who generously wrote our foreword.

Now available for early purchase. Every pre-order raises the book’s profile with retailers.

In keeping with the theme of A Secret Sisterhood, during our years of research and writing, a great many individuals and organisations have extended the hand of friendship to us – not least the readers of this blog. Your confidence from early on that this subject deserved to be explored in greater depth inspired us to write this book.

We’re hoping to meet lots of you in person during the coming months at some of our events. We’ll be interviewed by Michèle Roberts and Sarah LeFanu at Waterstones Gower Street; talking with Kate Mosse at the British Library; and delivering the keynote speech at the 46th Annual George Eliot Lecture. Details of these and other events can be found here, and we’ll be adding to it regularly over the coming days and weeks.

Just to add:

The UK edition will be out on 1 June. The US edition, with a slightly different title (A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) will be out on 17 October. We’ll say more about this nearer to the time, but both editions are available for pre-order now. The US edition is currently heavily discounted if you pre-order it here.