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 Motherhood of Writers, a Sisterhood of Readers

My heart sank when Emily challenged me to read The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch.

Although it is hardly in the spirit of Something Rhymed, I considered myself firmly in the Elizabeth Bowen camp. My copy of her Collected Stories accompanied me when I first left for college and has been packed and unpacked so many times since. When I got my first lecturing post, I put it on my syllabus, and nowadays I often quote Bowen to encourage my New York University students to focus on creativity during their time in the UK: ‘Imagination of my kind is most caught, most fired, most worked upon by the unfamiliar’.

My memories of reading Murdoch, on the other hand, are scant and chequered.

My cousin Nic – a voracious and insightful reader – had devoured Murdoch’s novels, and my writer friend Wendy Vaizey had written about Murdoch in her PhD. Nic and I shared a love of Thomas Hardy’s books and Wendy and I had introduced each other to our favourite texts by medieval mystics, so I felt sure that I too would fall in love with Murdoch’s work.

On one of my trips down to stay with Nic in her book-lined cottage in Cornwall, I picked up a copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I read it over Easter, sitting in Nic’s sunlit conservatory – the mugs of tea at my side replaced at dusk by glasses of gin. When Nic got home from work, I’d put down the book and we’d take cliff-top walks or share plates of fish straight from the sea.

There was such a stark difference that week between my external life – full of sunshine and hyacinths and warm conversation – and the world that Murdoch’s novel set up in my mind. Neither the story nor the characters have stayed with me, but the coldness and cruelty of the book have remained.

The Unicorn also has an iciness to it, yet I found it compelling and clever and self-consciously indebted to its literary forebears.

Tree of life. Creative Commons License.
Tree of life. Creative Commons License.

Bowen’s influence is clear: the faded glory of the Irish country house and the Anglo-Irish cast, which are said to have been inspired by guests Murdoch met at Bowen’s Court.

Yet it was another female author who came to mind when I read the opening of The Unicorn. Its gothic setting and the simultaneous presence and absence of the mistress of the house was redolent with echoes of Rebecca.

It quickly became obvious, however, that Murdoch’s approach to the gothic differed from that of Daphne du Maurier. As I read on, I began to feel that The Unicorn shares more of its DNA with Northanger Abbey. Like Jane Austen before her, Murdoch self-consciously plays with gothic conventions, calling them into question and sending them up.

Even more prominent still, is Murdoch’s engagement with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre since, like its predecessor, The Unicorn features an imprisoned mistress of the house. But Murdoch makes Hannah Crean-Smith a more central character than Brontë’s Bertha, and the novel investigates the question of her sanity.

Critics have tended to interpret Hannah Crean-Smith as an enchantress: apparently pure but ultimately revealed as an evil manipulator. I see her more as a damaged being, fashioned by the scarring experiences of torture and imprisonment.

I would love to sit beside my cousin in her Cornish conservatory, sipping gin and finding out what she made of Hannah Crean-Smith. But Nic died last year in a sunlit room, our family reading to her right up to the end. When I talk with Wendy and Emily about The Unicorn – and about Murdoch’s other novels, which I will surely now read – my memories of Nic will inform this conversation between my sisterhood of readers, just as Austen and Brontë and du Maurier lived on as Murdoch’s literary mothers.

Can You Help Us?

We’re hoping that one of our online sisterhood of readers might know of a female writing friendship enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier. If so, please could you tell us about it by using the comment tab below or by using the ‘Contact Us’ form. We’d love to profile du Maurier on this site.