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.

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s scathing first impression of Katherine Mansfield as ‘a civet cat that had taken to street-walking’ had always led us to put them down as enemies, but when our novelist friend Jill Dawson suggested them for our Times article on female writing friendships we began to question this preconception.

It turned out that Mansfield and Woolf considered themselves dear friends: they sought each other’s opinions on the books they traded; they exchanged gifts of Belgian cigarettes, loaves of bread, coffee beans, and columbine plants; they sent each other umpteen letters; and discussed their work over tea.

The two women were unlikely pals: Mansfield hailed from the far-flung colonies, whereas Woolf’s family was firmly entrenched in the English intelligentsia; Mansfield embraced her youthful desires with bohemian exuberance, whereas Woolf approached intimacy with timidity.

Both women experienced chronic illness, had complex relationships with editor husbands, and felt ambivalent about their childlessness. But it was really their shared literary endeavours that fired their friendship. Indeed, after spending a weekend with Woolf, Mansfield remarked that it was ‘very curious & thrilling that we should both, quite apart from each other, be after so very nearly the same thing’.

Although their friendship was relatively brief – from 1917 until Mansfield’s death in 1923 – its effect on their work was profound. During this time, Mansfield produced most of her celebrated stories (one of which Woolf published), and Woolf forged her trademark style. Although we more readily associate Woolf with the stream of consciousness technique, it was actually Mansfield who tried it out first.

In fact, Woolf seems to have been the more dependent of the pair: she was hurt (but likely also stimulated) by Mansfield’s damning review of her second novel; she worried when her letters failed to elicit a swift response; and references to Mansfield haunt her journal, showing her friend’s continued influence from beyond the grave.

Both friends recognised each other’s literary prowess: Woolf claimed that Mansfield’s was the only prose to have made her jealous, and Mansfield said that reading Woolf made her proud.

We too feel proud of our literary ancestresses – these women whose relationship could accommodate support and rivalry, criticism and praise; who were open to each other’s influence; and whose important friendship we’d been all too ready to write off.

Activity

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf enjoyed corresponding with each other. In this letter, Woolf describes jotting in her diary ideas she wanted to share with Mansfield. This way, she wouldn’t forget to mention them the next time she wrote to her friend.

This month, we will follow their example. Like Woolf, we will use our notebooks to keep track of the things we’d like to discuss. Then we will write about these ideas in letters that we will post to each other.

We’d appreciate any suggestions of other friendships between famous female writers (living or dead) that you’d like us to feature in future posts.