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Dead [Women] Poets Society Blog

Review: 'This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew' (Julia Copus)

In advance of our Not in Oxford seance event, which is happening TONIGHT… now feels like a good time to review this treasure sent to us from Faber! We’ve loved reading this in preparation for hosting Julia Copus, who will resurrect Charlotte Mew for our live audience. Mew was resurrected in our first ever D[W]PS event back in 2015, and we cannot wait for her to grace us with her ghostly presence via Zoom.

This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew (Julia Copus, 2021, Faber) - review by Jasmine Simms

I always feel a certain amount of trepidation before reading biographies, and the weight and size of this hardback edition did add to this. However I overcame my initial slight fear, only to find myself reading and enjoying it like a novel. I honestly didn’t want to put it down, in large part thanks to Copus’ lovely writing. I was reminded again of one of our core ideologies at D[W]PS: the value of poets being

interpreted by poets.

Copus constructs Mew carefully, never assuming or casting unfounded hypotheses. The question of Mew’s sexuality and gender presentation, for example, she handles with particular care. Whilst many have cast assertions that Mew was a lesbian, Copus points rather to the lack of evidence (outside of her poetry and fiction, which cannot be taken as evidence) of any sexuality or of an ‘active love life’. What is more, Copus turns the gaze back to the Reader: why is it that we feel we require this information, to feel we ‘know’ the poet? Copus very appropriately quotes Mew’s asessment of Emily Brontë with respect to this:

It is said that her genius was masculine, but surely it was purely spiritual, strangely and exquisitely severed from embodiment and and freed from any accident of sex.

As Copus navigates in this chapter between the various accounts of Mew as ‘masculine’ in her dress or presentation, I am reminded of a recent post on our blog by Rachel Mann, on the gender transgressions of the Victorian poets, Mew’s generational predecessors.

Women poets in particular suffer from being sometimes unfairly charged with confessionalism (writing directly from personal experience), and Copus mostly avoids this interpretation in her reading of Mew - especially impressive in the context of a biography! Copus shows how Mew’s poetry and prose points to her perspective(s) on life and death, rather than necessarily to her direct experiences. Yet Copus also takes care to give us enough everyday (and occasionally juicy) details to make Mew feel ‘real’ to us. A particularly sweet moment is described when, whilst caring for her terminally ill sister, Mew tells (in a letter) how a bird flew into the living room and took refuge for the night.

Perhaps the highlight of this book for me, somewhat unexpectedly, was Copus’ account of Mew’s eventual death from suicide. Rather than allowing the manner of Mew’s death to dominate or cast a shadow over her life, as so often happens for Dead Women Poets, Copus dedicates only the final chapter of the book to this, and does so with especially poetic sensitivity. She achieves this by turning to Mew’s own words, perhaps more so in this chapter than in any previous chapter, and to wonderful effect. For example, she quotes an extract from Mew’s poem ‘Moorland Night’, in which Mew writes of the heart:

It does not want to beat any more,
And why should it beat?
This is the end of the journey;
The Thing is found.

I would recommend this book, and its companion, Selected Poetry and Prose of Charlotte Mew (Faber), introduced by Copus, to all admirers of Mew or curious about this remarkable Dead Woman Poet - and perhaps especially to those (like me) who don’t usually bother with biographies! You can order This Rare Spirit online here.

But whilst you’re waiting for your copy to arrive… Julia Copus will resurrect Charlotte Mew at our online event TONIGHT, Wednesday 2nd June. It’s not too late to get your ticket here.

Julia Copus is a celebrated UK poet, whose collections and poems have won prizes including the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Jasmine is a UK based poet and Co-Director of the Dead [Women] Poets Society.

Illustration of Julia Copus by Lily Arnold


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