An enticing sepia photograph gazes from the jacket of P B Parris's "fictional autobiography" of the poet Charlotte Mew. Is it a man? Or a fancy-dressed child with its hair powdered white? Floppy black bow at its neck, it clutches a rose, but the pose is edgy, unconvincing.
It turns out to be the poetic publicity photo, snapped at the behest of others in 1921. Later on, its subject calls it a picture of "a defiant little woman with an abundance of short white hair and large dark eyes and arched, questioning eyebrows, who seemed to be saying, `I will not look away. Why should you?'"'
Every element of this sad, sad story is similarly unflinching, similarly fraught with paradox. Mew was brilliant, yet glaringly ignorant; she loved the same man all her life, yet forbade herself to have sex; a joyous, humorous person, she relished living, yet killed herself by drinking disinfectant.
These days - though maybe it will change - Charlotte Mew is not on anyone's syllabus, is not the answer to any literary quiz questions, and the pretend- sounding, pussycat name simply begs the question, Charlotte Who?
How did she so fall from grace? Is lasting fame more a matter of pot- luck and fashion than talent? Whether or not she deserves immortality is hard to judge from the verse snippets which lace the novel. But Parris has given an extraordinary account of her etiolated life, a deep-felt exploration of this poet's lonely, lively psyche, that bounces off the page and seems to recreate her sharp and painful presence in the room.
Parris's Mew is a memorable figure, crammed with conflict, funny and likeable and pitiful. Child-tiny, unformed, massively clever, unconventional without trying, she is also witty, sexually low-key, yet brim- ming with passion. She smokes, argues, weeps, writes and lusts after the freedoms enjoyed by men. She was (unsurprisingly) the model for Sue Bridehead in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure.
Hardy loved Mew all his life and she loved him back. They met in the British Museum where she stood out because she was untouched by the simpering coyness which passed in 1892 for femininity - she actually looked at him. Their subsequent relationship, though sexually stunted, was equally vital and blunt.
Hardy - married and living in Dorchester - greedily sought Mew's company when he came to London, wrote to her, encouraged her writing. He wanted sex of course, but Mew harboured a terrible secret fear - terrible because it was merely a sinister product of her times. Two of her siblings had "gone mad" and lived in asylums - a disgrace and an expense which destroyed the family - so Charlotte and her sister vowed they would eschew all sexual relationships with men, in order not to continue the "line" of mental illness.
The central, distressing tragedy of the book is that Charlotte never told Hardy why she could not love him. The scene where the middle-aged Hardy - touchingly vulnerable in his awkward state of half-undress - is rejected by a confused and aroused Mew, is emotionally explicit, profound and daunting. Running (literally) from his advances, Mew lost touch with him for many years, though each "spoke" to the other in published work.
They met only a couple more times - scenes which Parris infuses with tenderness and pathos. "I never quite managed the sweet acceptance of my body," Mew whispers to Hardy on his deathbed, "that would allow true intimacy."
Meanwhile, almost inevitably, she suffered unrequited crushes on heterosexual women, all of whom rejected her. Here, you feel, is not so much a latent or would-be lesbian, as a deep-feeling, sensuous person with no physical or emotional outlets, brimming with unspent sexuality and affection. The Victorian age has a lot to answer for.
Only one small flaw nags in this exquisitely gentle and imaginative book. So scorchingly alive is Parris's Charlotte Mew, so forthright and indignant her voice, that her final suicide seems too terrible, too sudden and hard to bear. Where does it come from, exactly? Why does the swift, almost jerky descent into hopelessness - following on from the deaths of her beloved sister and then Hardy - seem half-hearted, even unconvincing?
But this is a novel you don't want to finish. Inclined to give its author the benefit of the doubt, I wondered whether I was in denial - bereft and a little furious at being asked to relinquish my hold on its ever more beguiling central character?