Penelope Fitzgerald's Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, which I have just read, is a model of what a biography should be (and these days so seldom is) - short, sharp, empathetic and imaginatively engaged, an acute study in character rather than an accumulation of facts in a dreary chronological plod. Michael Holroyd describes Fitzgerald's book as 'a beautifully choreographed performance between two writers', and so it is.
I knew little of Charlotte Mew or her poetry, but now have a very clear picture of her self-thwarting nature, in all its oddity, contradiction and curious charm. And not only of her but (as the title suggests) the people around her, deftly portrayed by Fitzgerald, sometimes in a few words. Charlotte's mother, for example, was 'a tiny, pretty, silly young woman who grew, in time, to be a very silly old one. But she had the great strength of silliness, smallness and prettiness in combination, in that it never occurred to her that she would not be protected and looked after, and she always was.'
With her keen, but always forgiving, eye for the ridiculous, Fitzgerald paints vivid portraits of two men who were very important to Charlotte's fitful literary career: Harold Monro of the Poetry Bookshop - alcoholic, unhappily gay, but willing to do anything for 'his' writers - and Sydney Cockerell of the Fitzwilliam Museum, fixer and networker supreme, a terrible fusspot, but (with his wife Kate) a much-needed tower of strength to Charlotte. Lesser figures cross the stage, such as Walter de la Mare, who 'had a more exact ear than perhaps any other English poet. In his verse every pause, as well as every stress, falls into place like a language we once knew, but have to be reminded of' (a perfect summing-up) - and who, Fitzgerald also tells us, 'once argued for two days over whether marmalade could properly be called a kind of jam'.
Fitzgerald tells us all we need to know about the Georgian poet John Drinkwater by listing the contents of his Poems of Love and Earth, in which he 'thanks God for (1) sleep, (2) clear day through little leaded panes, (3) shining well water, (4) warm golden light, (5) rain and wind, apparently at the same time as (2), (6) swallows', etc, etc. Charlotte Mew and Her Friends is as much a portrait of a literary milieu as of a life, achieved in remarkably few pages thanks to Fitzgerald's elegantly concise style, delicate touch and sharp eye for the telling detail. It is also - despite the sadness of its principal subject's short, troubled life - great fun to read, with something new and surprising at every turn. Even the index is enjoyable. Here is the entry for Wek, the Mew family's long-lived parrot:
'awkward character, 94, 97; Alida Monro introduced to him, 148; has queer turns, 150; chews up CM's MSS, 149; poorly, 177; dislikes men, 177; CM and Anne distressed at his death, 177-8.'
(The death of Wek, by the way, is a hilarious scene of black comedy.)
I finished this book determined to read more of Charlotte Mew's extraordinary poetry - and Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones, her first published work.