Bloomsbury’s Late Rose, by Pen Pearson, will be published by Chickadee Prince Books on September 1, 2019. It is available for pre-order in paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and on Kindle.
Audere: Tell us a little about Bloomsbury’s Late Rose.
Pearson: It’s a novel about Charlotte Mew, a real-life British poet whose personal life was as fascinating as her career as a poet. When Charlotte and her sister Anne were young adults, their older brother and little sister were institutionalized with schizophrenia. Afraid of passing insanity onto children, Charlotte and Anne made a secret pact to never marry. Following their father’s death, the sisters survived day to day on a dwindling inheritance. Unable to work as professional women because of their invalid mother’s gentility, each sister earned pin money through her chosen art: Charlotte as a poet, Anne as a painter.
In 1909, when the novel opens, Charlotte is on the cusp of minor celebrity, winning popular and critical acclaim for her poems. Meanwhile, Anne’s paintings suffer increasing critical neglect. Further testing the sisters’ close relationship and their pact, each sister is on the brink of falling in love: Anne with an Italian emigrant, Charlotte with novelist May Sinclair.
What inspired you to dramatize Mew’s life?
Along with her compelling personal story, I was drawn to the historical period in which Charlotte wrote. Born in 1869, Charlotte lived through significant events in British and world history. The New Woman and Art for Art’s Sake movements. The death of Queen Victoria and the reign of King Edward. World War I. The waning of class distinctions and genteel society. Women’s suffrage. The birth of modernist literature and the little magazines that published modernist works.
Telling Mew’s personal story was impossible without including the effects of those momentous events on her life.
What research did you do?
I drew on the events recorded in Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography, Charlotte Mew and her friends, Charlotte’s correspondence in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, and letters from and to Mew, which helped me appreciate her wry voice and self-deprecating sense of humor. They also revealed her attitudes toward the various people she corresponded with. Visiting Mew’s homes and haunts in London, even where buildings no longer exist, was equally helpful. Those sites include her childhood home on Doughty Street (which still exists), her adult home on Gordon Street (which no longer exists), Gordon Square garden (where a placard pays tribute to the Bloomsbury Group but not to Mew), the building on Charlotte Street that housed Hogarth Studios, and Charlotte and Anne’s grave in Hampstead Cemetery.
When did you first learn about Charlotte Mew’s poetry?
I was looking for a topic for my M.A. thesis. Among many American and British poets’ work, Mew’s poems asked to be read, reread, and studied. From that introduction to this day, I admire her poems’ preoccupation with the haunting aspects of romantic love and their poignant yet unsentimental vision of life. But, most of all, I love her poetry’s language. The sounds and rhythms are at once colloquial and musical, and the varying line lengths are as original as the unconventional line breaks and spare imagery. Mew’s poetry stands by itself, of course. But when read in the context of her life, the matter-of-fact pathos of her best poems is heartbreaking. Even before I finished my thesis, I decided I would one day attempt a creative project centered on her life. More than fifteen years later, I have been fortunate enough to do just that.
What’s the significance of the title?
Charlotte Mew loved roses, and she used them frequently as a motif in her poems. She lived in Bloomsbury almost the entirety of her adult life. And, as a poet, she was a late bloomer.
Did Charlotte cross paths with members of the Bloomsbury Group?
The Mews’ house on Gordon Street stood half a block from the Gordon Square house where the Bloomsbury Group met in the early 1900s. In 1920, Virginia Woolf wrote of Mew and her poetry: “I think her good and interesting and unlike anyone else,” but the two women didn’t meet until 1926 when they happened to visit Thomas Hardy’s wife, Florence, in the hospital at the same time. However, the two women were too shy to speak to one another. Of course, Bloomsbury and timidity weren’t the only things Woolf and Mew had in common. Each writer had a sister who was a visual artist.
What are your goals for the novel?
Though Mew’s poems continue to be anthologized online and in print, as well as taught in England’s high schools, I believe Mew’s poetry remains underappreciated today. I hope this novel introduces more readers to her poems and helps fulfill Thomas Hardy’s prophecy that Charlotte Mew’s poems will be read when other poets’ work is forgotten.