Hope Mirrlees: A Cult Fantasy Writer and Forgotten Modernist

It is clear from a number of the posts here at Great Writers Inspire that reputation is crucial to critical reception. I’ve recently come across a writer who underlines this fact more than most. This writer became resistant to critical interest in her work later in life by forbidding reprints of her novels and poems and keeping her distance from critics interested in her life and work. As such, her work might have been forgotten, if it hadn’t been for mistakes (and copyright infringement)…

Hope Mirrlees was born in England in 1887, and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) before heading to Newnham College, Cambridge to study Greek. There, she became very close to her tutor Jane Harrison (who many deem Britain’s first professional female academic). After leaving Newnham, she and Harrison lived and worked together between Paris and the UK, before Harrison died in 1928. In her lifetime, Mirrlees was a contemporary of many major writers of the modernist movement, including Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Gertude Stein.

While in Paris, Mirrlees wrote a 600 line modernist poem which details a day walking around the city, beset by all the myriad of confusing and unsettling sights and sounds. Paris: A Poem (1919), was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press (the press at the vanguard of the British modernist movement). Critics including Julia Briggs speculate that Paris would have had an influence on other writers of the period, including T.S. Eliot, author of the most famous modernist poem, The Waste Land (1922).

Was T.S. Eliot influenced by Hope Mirrlees's poem?
Drawing of T.S. Eliot by Simon Fieldhouse. Sourced from wikicommons.

Mirrlees never wrote a poem like Paris again. After her companion Jane Harrison’s death she became distanced from the Bloomsbury set and when she converted to Catholicism she found her earlier work was at odds with her faith. It is only recently that critics are rediscovering Mirrlees’s poem and giving it renewed attention.

And yet, in another genre entirely, Mirrlees stumbled on accidental fame shortly before her death in the 1978. In her lifetime, she wrote three novels; Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists (1919), The Counterplot (1924) and Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). Lud-in-the-Mist, a fantastic tale set in a fictional land called Dorimare, was rediscovered and republished without the author’s knowledge. It was even read aloud on BBC Radio as the producers assumed the author was dead. This unwitting publicity drive seems to have been enough to secure Mirrlees’s reputation in the burgeoning fantasy genre. Neil Gaiman, himself a prolific fantasy writer, listed Lud-in-the-Mist as one of his top ten novels in 2011, and it has remained (more or less) in print in recent years while her other works lie in the archives.

The good news is that there has been a new drive to return all of Mirrlees’s work to print, spear-headed by Mirrlees expert Dr Sandeep Parmar. While we wait for them to become available once more, it seems poignant to consider how greatness, and reputations of greatness, can be hidden or unveiled by a complex combination of authorial resistance, the passing of time and happenstance.

** In writing this post, I am indebted to the recently published Collected Poems (2011), edited and wonderfully introduced by Dr. Sandeep Parmar.**

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