Copus has chosen to tell Mew’s life in the most straightforward way, with plenty of archival digging and a narrative structure that marches from cradle to grave. While this might seem a plodding approach to such a vaporous sprite, it actually serves Mew well. Woolf’s pronouncement about the importance of a room of your own and £500 a year starts to look hopelessly out of touch when considered in relation to Mew. Ironically, she too was a denizen of Bloomsbury, at one point living with her parents and siblings in Gordon Street. Yet following the early death of her architect father in 1898 the family became systematically poorer, obliged to let out bits of their house so that eventually Mew and her elderly mother and sister Anne, a talented artist, were crammed into the grubby basement eating suppers off a tray.
Copus is alert to political resonances. Mew wrote at a time of ardent debate about women’s rights, and contributed several pieces to the feminist periodical The Englishwoman. Her most horrifying story, A White Night — available in Copus’s Charlotte Mew, Selected Poetry and Prose (2019) — tells of monks ceremoniously burying a nun alive beneath the flagstones of a Spanish cathedral. For Copus it represents Freda buried alive in her asylum, and Charlotte buried in responsibilities. When Anne died of cancer in 1927 Charlotte tried to go on living, perhaps for Freda’s sake, and entered a nursing home tended by nuns. But on March 28, 1928 she went out, bought disinfectant from the chemist, drank it and took her own life.