What a strange creature Hope Mirrlees was!
I use the word "creature" because she hardly seemed human. "In Hope would dart like a humming-bird, towards the end of a lesson, her sapphire eyes flashing, her pendant earrings swinging; a soft torrent of musical sounds issuing from her lips," wrote one admirer, who also called her, "a cross between a pixy and a genius." Another later reminisced, "Over fifty years ago Miss Hope Mirrlees bowled me over, first by the beauty of her bearing and cerulean eyes, a minute later by her dulcet voice, and next by the charming acuteness of her talk; never previously had I met so seductive a bluestocking."
Virginia Woolf, however, found her exasperating. In her diaries, she called Mirrlees "a very self conscious, wilful, prickly & perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well dressed & pretty, with a view of her own about books & style, an aristocratic & conservative tendency in opinion, & a corresponding taste for the beautiful & elaborate in literature." She invited Hope over for the weekend, and was appalled to discover that she not only changed her dress every night for dinner, but wore powder and scent in profusion and a wreath in her hair that matched the color of her stockings and every night, a different color of stockings. She was, Woolf concluded bemusedly, "rather an exquisite apparition."
Moreover, Mirrlees received a university education at a time when few women did, spoke five languages fluently, including Zulu, and was an up-and-coming literary figure. Her first two novels, now forgotten, received the kind of respectful reviews that difficult works by promising new writers do. She knew all the intellectual lights of her time, flitting inconsequently through the lives and sometimes biographies of Gertrude Stein, Bertrand Russell, Andre Gide, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Anthony Powell, Walter de la Mare, Katharine Mansfield, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and the classicist, Jane Ellen Harrison, with whom she lived for several years.
In her salad days Mirrlees must have seemed like the heroine of her own fairy tale, one in which a flock of fairy godmothers gathered at her cradle to vie with each other to give her beauty, intelligence, wit, charm, and social contacts. This triumphant period climaxed in 1926 when, amid a welter of novels, poems, and translations, she published the sole work for which she will be remembered, Lud-in-the-Mist.
For a moment everything hung in the balance. With Mirrlees' usual luck, Lud-in-the-Mist was reviewed widely and positively. If she had continued in that vein and built upon it, she might have left her mark on English letters.
But in all stories in which fairy godmothers gather, there is always one evil fairy bearing a gift meant to undo all the others. In Hope's case, the poisoned gift was wealth. Her father and grandfather were both successful industrialists and the founders of companies like Tongaat-Hulett (sugar) and Mirrlees-Blackstone (diesel engines) which still exist today. Mirrlees' father set up a generous trust fund for her, and it destroyed her as a writer.
When Jane Ellen Harrison died, Hope Mirrlees had the means to retreat from the world, from her writing, and into silence. Poverty might have saved her by forcing her to continue in the word trade just to keep a roof over her head. But poverty was the single virtue she lacked.
Much has been speculated about the relationship between Harrison and Mirrlees. Harrison wrote, "Fate has been very kind to me. In my old age she has sent me, to comfort me, a ghostly daughter dearer than any child after the flesh." Others supposed that they were lovers, that their relationship was "erotic but not sexual," even that, in the spirit of epater les bourgeoises, they pretended to be lesbians but were not.
The truth is that we simply cannot know the exact nature of their relationship. But whether as daughter or wife, Mirrlees genuinely loved Harrison, and the older woman's death hit her hard. She disappeared from the public arena.
So thoroughly was Mirrlees forgotten that when, decades later, a friend recommended her book to him, Lin Carter, a lifelong fantasy reader, was astonished to learn of its existence. Carter was then editor of the Ballantine Fantasy line, second in importance to the development of modern fantasy only to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. After an unsuccessful (and probably perfunctory) attempt to locate Mirrlees, he published Lud-in-the-Mist in 1970 without her permission, since by the laws of the time, it was in the public domain. Though Mirrlees lived until 1978, there is no record that she ever learned her book had come back into print.
But what of the novel itself? Lud-in-the-Mist is simultaneously one of the least known and most influential of modern fantasies. It is an underground classic among fantasists, many of whom list it among their favorite books, Joanna Russ wrote a pastiche of it ("The Zanzibar Cat"), and its diffuse influence runs like a scarlet thread through the body of serious fantasy today. Yet it has never found the readership it deserves.
We all know what a fantasy novel looks like. Small wonder that Lud-in-the-Mist seems so odd to us, though it was taken in stride by its original readers in 1926. Its hero, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is not a worthy young nobody with a heart of oak but a grown man and, of all things, a mayor! Moreover, he is self-satisfied, a touch fatuous, has a not entirely successful marriage, and is privately obsessed with death. Structurally, the book defies our expectations (a unicorn by page six, or three dwarfs and a magic sword by page twenty-seven), building slowly at first, with a close emphasis on the private lives of the Luddites, and then with a sudden quick rush plunging headlong into the wild depths of Faerie. It was written before fantasy became a genre, and it is its literary qualities that most command our respect.
The high concept is as follows: The land of Dorimare, a nation of stolid burghers, borders the land of Faerie, whose eldritch wonders are so feared that the very word fairy has become an obscenity. But the port city of Lud-in-the-Mist lies at the confluence of the Dapple and the Dawl, and the Dapple flows out of the Debatable Hills bordering that land whose name is never spoken. And strange creatures have begun smuggling fairy fruit down the Dapple, to excite and madden the good citizens of Lud.
We have been conditioned by contemporary fantasy to know exactly where our sympathies lie: with the fairy smugglers and against the self-satisfied merchants. But the fairy fruit is not wholesome stuff, and its effects are alarming. Sexually, do I mean? Oh, yes, there is definitely a pleasant whiff of perversion here. But there is also the sick stench of cruelty. In its etiology, the eating of fairy fruit resembles the unpleasant course of drug addiction. And the inhabitants of Fairyland are the dead.
Chanticleer is, for most of the novel, a bumbling fool, laughable, and easily gulled. But when he loses his son, he is stung to move beyond himself and to cross the boundaries of life and reason in a heroic attempt to regain young Ranulph.
This is not your standard size 6, off-the-rack War between Good and Evil.
What we have here is that rarest of creatures, the fantasy novel of ideas. Now, what these ideas are is difficult to epitomize in a handful of words. One academic has characterized Mirrlees' novels as being about "the contested boundaries of Art and Life." True enough. I see also the influence of Jane Ellen Harrison in the division of the world into Apollonian and Dionysian aspects, the homely and the wild. Nor are the centuries-long struggle between Classicism and Romanticism or Freud's theories of the conscious and unconscious mind or the relationship between terror and beauty irrelevant to our understanding of this work.
Neil Gaiman once said in conversation that Lud-in-the-Mist "deals with the central matter of fantasy -- the reconciliation of the fantastic and the mundane." Which, perhaps, comes as close to the heart of the question as anybody's going to get.
To learn more, you'll simply have to read the book.
Hope Mirrlees was a literary aesthete, yet capable of appreciating the material comforts that corporations like Tongaat-Hulett and Mirrlees-Blackstone make possible for everyone. Her novels contrasted "the meaningless drip of circumstances" in the outer world with the richness of the inner life of the imagination but, ironically enough, in her own life circumstances proved stronger than fantasy. She never got the fame she desired or the recognition she deserved. She never fulfilled her potential to become a truly great writer. But she did go deeper into Faerie than any other writer has ever gone, and she brought back a glimpse -- no more -- of what lies within. If that is less than what might have been, still it is a real accomplishment.
She wrote Lud-in-the-Mist.
For some of us, that is enough.
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