Michael Arditti on the poet who might have said "kiss me, Hardy"; His Arms are Full of Broken Things by P B Parris, Viking, pounds 16
To most contemporary readers, Charlotte Mew is Charlotte Who, the unfortunate rhyme emphasising the fate of a poet who was never admitted into the canon of great literature and is now rarely even allowed through the journeyman's door. And yet, as the epigraphs to P B Parris's fictionalised biography make clear, Thomas Hardy revered her while Siegfried Sassoon declared her the equal of Emily Bronte.

With one major exception, Parris's fictional life sticks very closely to the factual account in Penelope Fitzgerald's admirable Charlotte Mew and Her Friends.

Her book is a first-person variant on Fitzgerald's third-person narrative, from the opening incident (the arrival of a doll's house designed by her architect father), to her final words ("Don't keep me. Let me go"). Even tiny details are the same, such as Charlotte banging her head against a wall when her beloved teacher retires, her adult voice veering as erratically as an adolescent boy's, and Frederick Rolfe leaving lice on chairs.

Mew's life was more deeply rooted in domesticity than even Stevie Smith's, and Parris vividly portrays the world of an upper-middle class family whose social position was threatened not only by poverty but by insanity.

Two of Mew's siblings were incarcerated in asylums and both she and her remaining sister, Anne, swore never to marry (in Charlotte's case this was clearly a way of rationalising her repressions). Although Parris describes her visit to Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Mew's own drama was closer to the guilty secrets and hereditary curse of Strindberg's Ghosts.

Parris's chief invention is a romance between Charlotte and Thomas Hardy (whom Fitzgerald records merely as an admirer of her poetry and an occasional host). Their love, declared after a chance meeting in the British Museum and left unconsummated for more than 30 years, not only dominates Mew's life but influences both of their writings. To Parris, Hardy is the inspiration for Mew's poem "The Farmer's Bride", while Mew is the model for Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure.

Like Mew's own poetry (liberally quoted here), Parris's novel is strongest in the depiction of loneliness and unrequited love: not just the relationship with Hardy but Mew's two more authentic passions for the writers Ella D'Arcy and May Sinclair, both of whom receive her declaration with the contempt that "the normal heart" reserves for the deviant. No fictional character since Radclyffe Hall's Stephen Gordon has been more obviously propelled into lesbianism than Parris's Mew, who wears her dead father's clothes and is blithely told by her mother that "You must be the man of the family, Charlotte".

Parris's richly imagistic prose is particularly suited to conveying the isolated intensities of childhood. It is less successful at evoking the more complex web of adult life.

Nor does it provide the thematic, symbolic or intellectual unity required of a novel. It remains a fictionalised biography rather than biographical fiction. Chronology becomes its only guiding principle, with a resultant lack of weight. One understands why Mew, who wrote much from her own experience (however disguised), became a poet and a short-story writer rather than a novelist.

Parris's Hardy advises Mew that she should write "those stories - however extraordinary or unorthodox - that one would never relate to one's family at the dinner table".

The problem for Parris herself is that stories of sexual ambiguity and murky domesticity which would have been unrepeatable in polite Victorian society are commonplace today. Nevertheless, what the book lacks in force, it makes up for in imagery. Mew has been fortunate in drawing such a distinguished stylist to her cause.

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