A new blue plaque: rediscovering Charlotte Mew by Julia Copus

Towards the end of last year, a blue plaque was unveiled to mark the first home of the poet Charlotte Mew (1869-1928). Julia Copus, who is currently writing a forthcoming biography of Mew’s life and work, was at the plaque’s unveiling ceremony, where she gave the following speech, which reflects on Mew’s life at 30 Doughty Street.

The poet Charlotte Mew was born at 30 Doughty Street, London on 15th November 1869 (a Monday) into a middle-class Victorian family. Her father was Fred Mew, an architect, and her mother was Anna Maria, a tiny but domineering woman. Charlotte’s nursery was right at the top in the attic, and her nursery days were overseen by the family’s faithful servant Elizabeth Goodman, whom Charlotte was extremely fond of.

Julia Copus and Heather Greetham unveil Charlotte Mew's blue plaque
Julia Copus (right) unveiled the blue plaque in October alongside Heather Greetham, a relative of Charlotte Mew.

As a special treat Elizabeth would invite Charlotte and her brothers and sisters down to the basement kitchen, where she took as much delight as they did in watching a lump of sugar melt into dark, sticky ‘pig’s blood’ over the gas.

When Charlotte stood at her nursery window she could see right out into Mecklenburgh Square – and if she spotted someone cheating at croquet it would make her boil with fury. Sometimes on Sundays, Fred would walk with the children over to the Foundling Hospital, just a few minutes’ walk, on the other side of Mecklenburgh Square, to hear the Hospital choir singing in the chapel. Occasionally they’d chat with the foundling children afterwards as they ate their Sunday lunch in the refectory.

From the age of about ten, Charlotte attended a small, private day-school in Gower Street, and it was there that she met her dear, lifelong friend Ethel Oliver [whose great nephew, Stephen Oliver, was in attendance at the unveiling of the plaque].

A house of many secrets

All Charlotte’s siblings were also born at 30 Doughty Street. At the time of her own birth, Charlotte had just one brother, Henry. Two more boys arrived after that, but they both died in childhood. And two more girls were born after Charlotte. The first of those, Anne, came along just a few days after Charlotte’s fourth birthday. The two sisters were incredibly close and remained living together for the whole of their lives, until Anne died of cancer in her early fifties.

Charlotte Mew with Elizabeth Goodman
Charlotte Mew (right) with Elizabeth Goodman

The house on Doughty Street held many secrets (one of which I’ve uncovered only recently) but suffice to say that eventually two of Charlotte’s siblings – Henry and the youngest sister, Freda – were confined to asylums in their late teens and stayed there for the rest of their lives. In adulthood, only Charlotte’s closest friends even knew of their existence.

Charlotte didn’t publish anything while she lived in this house, but she did write here. Years later, she recalled how her nurse, Elizabeth, was in the habit of sweeping her manuscripts into a dustpan with a gesture of disgust – while advising her that the habit of writing poetry was no better than that of smoking. Both vices, Elizabeth said, were unquestionably ‘injurious to the brain’.

The Mews moved from 30 Doughty Street at the start of 1890, when Charlotte was twenty: they went on to Gordon Street, about a fifteen-minute walk from here. Charlotte remained in London for the rest of her life, living in and around Bloomsbury – though, perhaps tellingly, she never became a part of the famous Bloomsbury group.

An extraordinary poet, rediscovered

Charlotte Mew was an extraordinary person and an even more extraordinary poet – as many of her contemporaries recognised. Thomas Hardy predicted that she would be ‘remembered when others are forgotten’; Siegfried Sassoon that ‘many will be on the rubbish heap when Charlotte’s star is at the zenith where it will remain’; and the poet laureate John Masefield said of Mew that ‘Hers is the one mind now living […] comparable to Emily Brontë’s for depth and fire…’

Mew has been relatively neglected since her death – with one or two notable exceptions, including Penelope Fitzgerald’s affectionate portrait of Charlotte and her friends, first published back in 1984. In fact, Fitzgerald herself made an application to English Heritage in 1992 for a blue plaque for Charlotte Mew, but it was unsuccessful. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the installation of this blue plaque marks a turning point.

Charlotte never sought fame for herself but there are plenty of signs that she wanted it for her work. Mew’s poems have already begun making their way onto poetry syllabuses and into new anthologies. Her unique poems – so vibrant and modern in feel, even today – deserve to reach the widest possible audience. The placing of this plaque (thanks to the suggestion of Nicholas Murray and the hard work of Ricci de Freitas, Richard Ekins, Andrew Roberts and others) will make a vital contribution to building that audience and attracting many new (very lucky!) readers to her work.

Julia Copus’s biography of Charlotte Mew will be published in 2018.