THR Web Features   /   February 16, 2023

A Novelist’s Reflections on Useful Fictions

Hope Mirrlees and her curious masterpiece.

Alan Jacobs

( The central illustration from the dust jacket of the 1927 Knopf edition of Lud-in-the-Mist; public domain.)

One way to describe the brilliant Hope Mirrlees, the author of a great novel that still hasn’t found the readership it deserves, is as a satellite member of the Bloomsbury group in early twentieth-century London. She knew them all—during World War II, T. S. Eliot lived for a time at her house in Surrey and wrote parts of the Four Quartets there—but was closest to Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Virginia was sometimes puzzled and even exasperated by her younger friend (they were five years apart in age). In her diary she described Mirrlees as “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.” In a letter Woolf expressed the same ideas more generously: Mirrlees is “her own heroine—capricious, exacting, exquisite, very learned, and beautifully dressed.” (The immediate juxtaposition of praise for learning and praise for clothing is very Woolfian.)

As a young woman, Mirrlees, under the patronage of the famous actress universally known as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but abandoned that path in order to study Greek. At Newnham College, Cambridge—then one of only two women’s colleges in that university—her tutor was the great classicist Jane Ellen Harrison. (A famous classicist of our moment, Mary Beard, wrote a biography of Harrison, and has said that “she was the first woman in England to become an academic, in the fully professional sense—an ambitious, full-time, salaried, university researcher and lecturer. She made it possible for me to do what I do.”)

In 1913, when Mirrlees was twenty-six and Jane Harrison sixty-three, they began to live together, and remained inseparable until Harrison’s death in 1928. No one really understood the relationship, though all saw that it was deeply intimate: The two women developed, for instance, a private mythology in which they were the wives of Harrison’s ancient teddy bear, whom they called the Old One. What outsider can read such language? Some relationships evade our categories. But Harrison spoke of Mirrlees as her “spiritual daughter” and the great gift of her old age.

While Harrison and Mirrlees were living together, Mirrlees wrote three novels, plus an experimental poem called Paris, first published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in 1920. The critic Julia Briggs has called Paris “modernism’s lost masterpiece.” Virginia Woolf thought it “obscure, indecent and brilliant.”

But after Harrison died in 1928, Mirrlees stopped publishing for three decades. Though she never wrote another novel, late in life she had some poems privately published and produced the first half of a biography of the seventeenth-century antiquarian Robert Cotton. No one understands her long silence any more than they understand her relationship with Harrison; but it’s worth noting that her conversion to Roman Catholicism soon after Harrison’s death prompted her to ask what kinds of work and thought were acceptable to God. Thus in a journal entry in the 1930s she made a resolution: “To accept my talent gratefully and to offer it to God. To pray that if it never gets recognition that I may accept it with resignation; and that if it does, I may accept it with humility.” Others have speculated, more prosaically, that her personal wealth—her grandfather and father had been immensely successful businessmen—made publishing unnecessary to her. This commercial background is one of the key ways in which she differed from most of the Bloomsbury set.

The last novel Mirrlees published is called Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), and it is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. It is also, I believe, a response to a major work of fantasy that had been published two years earlier, Lord Dunsany’s The King of the Elfland’s Daughter. Dunsany’s novel describes the kingdom of Erl, a mostly rural world that happens to be situated on the boundary of Elfland. Though it has a parliament, it is ruled by a king, as is Elfland, and the world of the book seems largely medieval.

Settings of this sort had been the norm for fantasy since the days of George MacDonald and William Morris, but Mirrlees didn’t think it had to be that way. She seems to have asked herself what a fantasy novel would look like if it were set not in a medieval society but in a later one, not in a feudal society but in a mercantile one. Perhaps her own upbringing among successful capitalists prompted her to think along these lines. In any case, the question led her to a novel unlike any other.

The King of the Elfland’s Daughter begins with the parliament of Erl telling their king that they “wish to be ruled by a magic lord.” By contrast, the second chapter of Lud-in-the-Mist tells how the country of Dorimare, led by the merchants of its capital city, Lud-in-the-Mist, had overthrown a ruling lord who was thought to be too intimate with the practices of Fairyland, and transformed itself into a modern mercantile republic. Which required, these merchants believed, a complete severance of their country’s longstanding relationship with the neighboring realm of Fairy.

The story Mirrlees tells centers on the inability of the senators of Dorimare to prevent smugglers from bringing intoxicating fairy fruit into their city. Thus the main arc of the story is, essentially, a drug war centered on a puzzlingly permeable border. Call it Narcos: Fairy Land Edition. But it is also a story of political intrigue; a cold-case murder mystery; and, above all I think, an extended meditation on the necessary fictions that inevitably sustain any political economy. As I say: a very peculiar book.

In many respects, Lud-in-the-Mist articulates in narrative form the point that philosopher Charles Taylor would make eighty years later in his great book A Secular Age: that Western society at a certain point in its history moved from an understanding of the human self as essentially porous—open to the divine and the demonic—to an understanding of the human self as buffered—self-enclosed, neither vulnerable in the way that the porous self is nor capable of exaltation either. The buffered self is a safer, more predictable self, one that exists in an essentially horizontal world, rather than in the vertical and vertiginous cosmos of medieval Christianity. In the old understanding human beings are made in the image of God but fallen and subject to demonic assault (if also sometimes angelic aid). In what Taylor calls the Modern Moral Order, we are merely rational, sociable animals.

Were one inclined to think in terms of political economy rather than philosophy, one could also describe this change as the Victorian jurist and historian Henry James Sumner Maine did: the move from a world governed by status—the status embodied in a hereditary aristocracy, for instance—to a world governed by contract—agreements entered into formally by competent individuals. “Starting, as from one terminus of history, from a condition of society in which all the relations of Persons are summed up in the relations of Family, we seem to have steadily moved towards a phase of social order in which all these relations arise from the free agreement of Individuals…. we may say that the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.”

Like many other fantasy writers, Mirrlees is interested in what happens if the power of Fairyland cannot be wholly excluded from our well-buffered society. In this case, we see what happens when magic begins to creep back into well-ordered and well-buffered lives. To figure this as essentially a drug war—an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to prevent the smuggling of what one character in the story significantly calls the “commodity” of fairy fruit—is a wonderful conceit and developed with delightful panache, tracing an elegantly oscillating line between the economic and the metaphysical. When one character tells a senator that he should be more aware of the high levels of consumption of fairy fruit among the poor, I find myself murmuring, Fairy fruit is the opiate of the masses.

The makers of modernity, those who helped shepherd the move from a world of porous selves to the Modern Moral Order of rational and sociable beings, thought the world they promoted was more true, more closely correspondent to what-is-the-case, than the “superstitious” world of porous selves had been. Mirrlees is less sure. One of the recurrent themes of Lud-in-the-Mist is the suspicion that the move from a world led by a magical and mysterious aristocracy to a world governed by law is not necessarily a closer approximation to the way things are. Indeed, one of her characters suggests, it is simply a move from one useful fiction to another that those who grasp for power find more useful. “In the eye of the law, neither Fairyland nor fairy things existed. But then, as Master Josiah [a senator and scholar of a previous generation] had pointed out, the law plays fast and loose with reality and no one really believes it.” The law, says Master Josiah Chanticleer’s son Nathaniel, reflecting on his father’s thought, is but “the homeopathic antidote that our forefathers discovered to delusion”—a carefully measured dose of the very delusion we wish to dispel.

It impossible to talk about this in any detail without spoiling the story. Since I will do that now: reader, be forewarned.

What happens at the end of the book is a restoration of magic to Dorimare and Lud-in-the-Mist. In this sense, the end of the story might be thought to resemble that of The King of Elfland‘s Daughter, in which Elfland, which had previously “ebbed” or withdrawn itself from our world, rushes back to enclose the kingdom of Erl, making it a region of Elfland. But in Mirrlees’s tale, that’s not quite how things work out. The once and future mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nathaniel Chanticleer, restores Dorimare’s friendship with Fairyland and not only makes fairy fruit freely available rather than legally prohibited but indeed suggests, as does his friend Ambrose Honeysuckle, that everyone eat it. He is in his own way making the argument that Gore Vidal made half a century ago at the height of an American panic over drug use: Legalize drugs and make them available to anyone who wants them at cost.

But—and here perhaps we should recall Woolf’s description of Mirrlees as a “prickly & perverse young woman”—Master Nathaniel’s radical policy does not result in in Dorimare’s being absorbed into Fairyland. Rather, there is a kind of negotiated contract between the two worlds that in many ways confirms, rather than refutes or overcomes, the mercantile and capitalist character of Dorimare. Fairy fruit becomes so plentiful in Dorimare that it can’t all be eaten, and the people of Dorimare extend their commercial influence by learning how to produce candied fairy fruit, which they then export to the whole world. We witness not the absorption of Dorimare into a magical world but rather the triumph of its commercial expertise and ambition. Fairy fruit becomes indeed a commodity, and a commodity that makes mercantile Dorimare richer and more powerful than it had ever been. For those who grow tired of the merely horizontal world of the well-buffered self, the porous self may now be purchased at a reasonable price. What could go wrong?

Hope Mirrlees lived for fifty-two years after publishing Lud-in-the-Mist, dying at the age of ninety-one in 1978. In the 1970s the novel was reprinted by Ballantine Books, whose editor, Lin Carter, had no idea that Mirrlees was still alive. This led to the tale being discovered by a young Neil Gaiman, who has regularly celebrated it ever since and who rightly calls it “a little golden miracle of a book.” It is not clear that Mirrlees, in her last years, had any idea that her book was being rediscovered; nor do we know whether she would have cared.