Pearson (Poetry as Liturgy, 2010) imagines the life of the early 20th-century English poet Charlotte Mew in this novel.
Charlotte and her sister Anne have always been close. After their two siblings, Henry and Freda, were institutionalized for mental instability in 1894, the sisters swore to each other that they would never get married or have children, in order to avoid passing on what they saw as a family curse. Now, in 1909, the nearly 40-year-old women are still single, living with their ailing mother, her maid, and other tenants in a modest house in Bloomsbury area of London. Charlotte thinks back on her life over the past two decades, which has hardly been what she’d hoped for: “Her run as a fiction writer and essayist….That utter foolishness in Paris, not so long ago….It seemed now as if she were waiting, but for what?” She begins to express her rich interiority in her poetry. Sensing that Anne is attracted to a man at their church, she encourages her sister to rent a studio to pursue her painting, while Charlotte begins to participate in the city’s salon scene, where other ambitious women discuss art and suffrage. She’s finally building the life that she always wanted as an independent, artistic woman—but things become complicated when she falls in love with a woman herself. Pearson writes in an elegant prose that summons the era of the novel in precise detail: “Gone were the full skirts and crinolines, fitted bodice, and stiff, upright collar of the Victorian era. Today the fashionable Edwardian woman wore the less confining shirtwaist and a more fitted, ankle-length skirt, which was slightly less cumbersome than its predecessor.” In its pacing and style, the novel earnestly evokes the works of Edith Wharton and other writers from the period without ever stumbling into parody or awkward pastiche. In Mew’s story, Pearson not only uncovers central questions of first-wave feminism, but also finds an opportunity to resurrect an intriguing and worthwhile real-life poet for posterity.
A rich, enjoyable historical novel with compelling themes.