Penelope Fitzgerald wrote 'The Death of a Poet' in 1980 or 1981, intending it to form part of a group portrait of the writers published by Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury. In the event, however, she wrote a biography of Charlotte Mew, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, which was published, and reviewed in the LRB in 1984 - and will be reissued this summer.
In 1927 Charlotte Mew was 58 and living with her sister Anne, a decorative painter, at the Hogarth Studios near Tottenham Court Road. Alida was Harold Monro's wife, and a friend to both Mew sisters. Sydney Cockerell was the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Evelyn Millard had become a friend of Anne Mew's when they were students at the Female School of Art in Queen Square. (Now an actress, she played Cecily Cardew in the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.) Lucy Harrison had been Charlotte Mew's headmistress at the Gower Street School.
By the summer of 1927 Anne Mew had wasted away. When her eyes fell shut they looked as though they were sealed into her face, and would never open again. Alida wrote to Harold Monro that 'they ought to put her to sleep.'
One evening, summoned urgently by Charlotte, she found Anne sitting by the gas fire, only just able to speak. Something had to be found to talk about. Alida tried her last journey through France - she had been taking Harold to a clinic in Switzerland; the taxi-drivers and the porters at the Gare d'Orléans had robbed her as always. This seemed to amuse Anne. Perhaps she recalled her trip, nearly twenty years ago, where she had sketched the fish market while Charlotte resolutely made Madame scrub out their room at the pension, and they had both lost a few francs together at the tables. When Alida left, Charlotte followed her out and told her the doctor had said there was no further hope.
LRB 23 May 2002 | PDF Download