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Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) was the most famous female classicist of her day, and perhaps of any day. Mary Beard, a Cambridge don and author of the best Harrison biography now available, has even called her the first female “career academic.” She was also Hope Mirrlees’ tutor at Newnham College and later Mirrlees’ mentor, living partner, collaborator, and very close friend for many years. She deserves a proper introduction, but I don’t have the time to assemble one quite yet, so please forgive me for referring you to her Wikipedia page for details.

The influence of Harrison’s ideas on Mirrlees’ work is immediately visible once you start looking at Harrison’s extensive and groundbreaking work on ritual, myth, religion, and art—sometimes startlingly so, as in Lud-in-the-Mist—and I think anyone seriously interested in Mirrlees, and in Lud, should try to dunk themselves pretty thoroughly in Harrison. Not because it’s important to validate Mirrlees’ work by affixing it to the respectable texts of a more famous writer, nor because it’s useful (or true) to imply that Mirrlees ‘lifted’ her ideas from someone else, but because it opens up passages to the subterranean chambers of ritual and folklore that give Lud so much of its resonance. To those more interested in Mirrlees’ other works, a reading of Lud alongside Harrison’s work also reveals the womens’ interplay of ideas and casts more light on the extraordinary relationship the two women maintained until Harrison’s death.

There will doubtless be quite a few Harrison posts up here over the next few months, but for now, I just want to post an excerpt from Harrison’s 1925 incredibly charming autobiography, Reminiscences of a Student’s Life. This section falls toward the end of the book, which is short enough to read in a single happy afternoon, and resonates quite clearly with the inner life of Lud-in-the-Mist.

I have elsewhere tried to show that Art is not the handmaid of Religion, but that Art in some sense springs out of Religion, and that between them is a connecting link, a bridge, and that bridge is Ritual. On that bridge, emotionally, I halt. It satisfies something within me that is appeased by neither Religion nor Art. A ritual dance, a ritual procession with vestments and lights and banners, move me as no sermon, no hymn, no picture, no poem has ever moved me; perhaps it is because a procession seems to me like life, like durée itself, caught and fixed before me. Only twice have I seen a ritual dance, and first the dance of the Seises before the high altar in the Cathedral at Seville. It was at Carnival time I saw it. I felt instantly that it was frankly Pagan. Its origin is, as the Roman Church frankly owns, “perdue dans la nuit des temps”—we can but conjecture that it took its rise in the dances of the Kouretes of Crete to Mother and Son. The dance was accompanied by a prayer to the setting sun, a prayer for fight and healing. The movements executed by six choristers are attenuated to a single formal step. It is decorous, even prim, like some stiff stylized shadow. But it is strangely moving in the fading fight with the wondrous setting of the high altar and the golden grille, and above all the sound of the harsh, plangent Spanish voices. Great Pan, indeed, is dead—his ghost still dances.

Only last year I saw a wondrous ritual procession, a marked contrast to the Seville dance. It is held at Echternach each year, on the Tuesday after Pentecost. It is, I think, the most living survival of the ritual dance to be seen in Europe. Thanks to the kindness of a Luxembourgoise lady, Madame Emil Mayerisch de Saint Hubert, I was able to observe it in every detail. The dancing procession is held now in honour of our Saxon saint, St.Willibrord, but obviously it goes back to magical days. The dancers muster at the bridge below the little town and, gathering numbers as they go, dance through the streets, halting here and there and ending in the Basilica. As the dance is magical, it is essential that the whole town should be traversed. The clergy are in attendance, any one and every one dances or rather leaps, for it is a jumping step; like the Cretan Kouretes they “leap for health and wealth.” I saw an old, old woman, scarcely able to walk, but she “lifted her foot in the dance.” I saw a woman with a sick baby in her arms, and she danced for healing; but most of all it was the young men, the Kouretes, who danced.

The ritual dance is all but dead, but the ritual drama, the death and the resurrection of the Year-Spirit, still goes on. I realised this when I first heard Mass celebrated according to the Russian, that is substantially the Greek rite. There you have the real enacting of a mystery—the mystery of the death and resurrection of the Year-Spirit which preceded drama. It is hidden, out of sight; the priest comes out from behind the golden gate to announce the accomplishment. It is the coming out of the Messenger in a Greek play to announce the Death and the Resurrection. The Roman Church has sadly marred its mystery. The rite of consecration is performed in public before the altar and loses thereby half its significance.

I mention these ritual dances, this ritual drama, this bridge between art and life, because it is things like these that I was all my life blindly seeking. A thing has little charm for me unless it has on it the patina of age. Great things in literature, Greek plays for example, I most enjoy when behind their bright splendours I see moving darker and older shapes. That must be my apologia pro vita mea.

Hope Mirrlees’ two most visible and prolific living champions, Michael Swanwick and Neil Gaiman, have very graciously sent their readers this way last night and this morning.

Mr. Swanwick has written a short biography of Mirrlees, Hope-in-the-Mist, that collects more information about her than any other public source to date and which includes an extended version of his wonderful “Lexicon of Lud,” a great introduction by Neil Gaiman, and an extraordinary frontispiece by Charles Vess. Its print run has sold out, alas, but it can currently be got used from a few booksellers online. He’s also written a series of blog entries on Mirrlees and her work, and his Mirrlees biography was preceded by a couple of shorter biographical essays as well.

Mr. Gaiman has written a wonderful introduction to Lud-in-the-Mist (and another to Hope-in-the-Mist) as well as posting a handful of journal entries mentioning her work. I get the sense that his steady references to Mirrlees over the years are the single biggest contributor to the relative popularity in the last decade or so of Lud-in-the-Mist, which is finally reaching a wider readership. I’m more grateful for his advocacy of Mirrlees and her work than I can say.

My thanks to both men!

The whispers and references to assumed knowledge that brought me to Lud-in-the-Mist in the first place were these:

  • Jo Walton, on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell:

    Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is clearly written from an alternate universe where the great fantasy-defining genre-starting book of the twentieth century, after Dunsany, was not Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings but Hope Mirlees Lud-in-the-Mist. It’s not a great deal like Lud-in-the-Mist, but it’s much closer to it than it is to anything else, or than Lud-in-the-Mist is to anything else.

  • John Clute, also on Jonathan Strange (temporary archive, do not bookmark):

    What Gaiman was pretty clearly not quite getting around to saying in clear was that, in his opinion, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was the finest English novel of the fantastic since Hope Mirrlees’s great Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), which is almost certainly the finest English fantasy about the relationship between England and the fantastic yet published (a personal communication from Gaiman has confirmed this sense that Mirrlees was very much on his mind).

Also very useful, though encountered later:

  • If I’d seen Elizabeth Hand’s review of Jonathan Strange, it would have increased the urgency of my search for a copy of Lud:

    However, the book to which Jonathan Strange owes its most obvious debt is Hope Mirrlees’s sui generis (not anymore, I guess) Lud-in-the-Mist, one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. I suspect Gaiman’s canny use of “seventy years” rather than a hundred serves to ringfence Lud, a novel he much admires and which was first published in 1926. Mirrlees’s novel suffuses Clarke’s like a blush: the melancholic tone; the notion of antiquarian Mysteries coming to light and changing the nature of the world; the echoes of sad airs played upon antique instruments; the mournful conception of Faerie and its inhabitants. Clarke’s gentleman with the thistle-down hair seems a direct descendent of Mirrlees’s Duke Aubrey, just as the characterization of Lud‘s protagonist, Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, appears to have influenced Messers Norrell and Strange.

  • Catherynne Valente’s review of Lud, which touches on most of the things I love best about the book:

    If Lord of the Rings is the big, bombastic Grandfather of modern fantasy, Lud is obviously the quiet, unassuming Grandma who showed everyone how to grow wild mint out back and jitterbug in the kitchen. In fact, given that Mirrlees published in 1926, some time before Dr. T’s opus, I would not be at all surprised if the Shire was full of Granny Hope’s patented mint. Look carefully at any work of fantasy in which urban worldbuilding, provincial farmlife, idyllic villages, or fanciful names figure largely, and you’ll see Mirrlees’ ghost peeping through the pages. She could even be called the mother of interstitial literature, since Lud combines the fantasy genre with horror and of all things, procedural crime drama and political philosophy.

  • Michael Dirda’s superb essay on Lud for the Barnes & Noble Review:

    Like so many fantasies, Mirrlees’s book is at heart an exploration of humankind’s pervasive sense of rift, the unshakeable feeling that Things Aren’t as They Should Be. The world, our manner of life, or even the fundamental nature of the universe is somehow…wrong. Using both whimsy and mystery, Lud-in-the-Mist looks hard at the human condition and suggests how a sick society might be healed, how our divided selves gradually be made whole.

And here’s the first chapter. Have a taste.

Madeleine begins with a quotation in French:

Aux faiseurs ou faiseuses de Romans,
l’histoire de ma vie et celle de ma mort.

Le Testament de Clyante.

“Le Testament de Clyante,” or “The Will of Clyante” is a piece in a 17th-century collection of poetry and prose called Recueil des pièces en prose,  published by Charles de Sercy in 1638 and reissued with additions by Charles Sorel in 1644 and 1658 as the Recueil de Sercy (Sercy’s Collection). “Le Testament de Clyante” is apparently found only in the 1658 edition, and is one of a series of comic send-ups of the last will and testament. Mirrlees’ quote is a bequest, and it means something like:

To the authors and authoresses of novels,
the history of my life and that of my death.

I haven’t found a copy of the Recueil itself, but I did find a reference to another of its mock-bequests, which is certainly related to the world of Madeleine: “aux Précieuses cinq cents annees de sévérité et d’orgueil.” My French is worse than bad, but that means something like “to the Précieuses 500 years of austerity and pride.”

Mirrlees’ quotation serves two main purposes: it introduces a theme that will be central in Madeleine—the interaction of art and life—and it invokes the world of the 17th century précieuses, a world that will form half the novel’s backdrop. It’s with the précieuses, therefore, that I’ll begin: this entry, like those that will follow, is intended to serve both as a record of my study of the novel and—I hope—a list of possible routes into the text for other readers who may not have time to do the background research.

Les Précieuses

Painting of Madame de Rambouillet

Madame de Rambouillet, snitched from Swedish Wikipedia

The précieuses were a group of mostly female writers, artists, and wits who gathered at the salon held by Catherine de Vivonne, the marquise of Rambouillet, commonly known as Madame de Rambouillet, whose story is charmingly told in a brief article published in the New York Times in 1873—it’s a PDF from the Times site, but it’s free and substantially tastier than the Wikipedia article about her. Mme de Rambouillet is a character in Madeleine, as is the salon’s most well known writer, Madeleine de Scudéry, more frequently called Mademoiselle de Scudéry. (She’s not the Madeleine of the novel’s title, but do keep the coincidence in mind.) Mlle. de Scudéry wrote a number of sometimes very long novels, the bulk of which consisted of intense conversations between characters.

Oil painting of Madeleine de Scudery

Mademoiselle de Scudéry, swiped from regular old English Wikipedia

From the précieuses’ gatherings also emerged a series of French fairy tales written for adults, most notably by Madame d’Aulnoy (some of whose fairy tales can be found in English at Sur la Lune); this tradition continued for about a hundred years and produced some of the most famous fairy tales in the European tradition, including Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Charles Perrault’s very famous tales. This has nothing at all to do with Madeleine, but it’s nice to know.

The most relevant points about the précieuses for readers of Madeleine is that the salon at the Hôtel de Rambouillet was made up of intellectuals and artists who made a strenuous effort to demonstrate in their art and conversation a set of neo-classical virtues: elegance, gallantry, correct language, and especially wit. Moliére made them the target of satire in Les Précieuses ridicules, the play that made his name, and if you’ve read or seen Cyrano de Bergerac, you’ve met another caricatured précieuse in the character of Roxane.

Wikipedia’s article in English on the précieuses is very basic, so I recommend a quick look through the delightfully typeset Hôtel de Rambouillet and the Précieuses (1900) on Google Books if you’re interested in more on the salon and its brightest lights. (The Wikipedia article in French is also pretty good—much better than the English.)

Some readers of Madeleine, most notably the late literary critic Julia Briggs and fantasy writer Michael Swanwick, have read Madeleine as a roman à clef. Briggs suggests that the novel “records” Mirrlees’ disillusionment with Natalie Barney, “the Sappho of her day” and her “circle of latter-day précieuses,” while Swanwick questions this point and considers the book a transparent picture of Mirrlees’ own family life. More on that in the next post.

References

Roy, Emile. La vie et les œuvres de Charles Sorel, sieur de Souvigny (1602-1674). Hachette 1891.

New in Mirrlees Resources

In addition to the full text of Madeleine and the first chapter of Lud-in-the-Mist, this week also brings scans of the front cover and title page of Paris and the title page and last page of the first edition of Lud, all four scans courtesy of the very gracious H. Wessells.

Front cover of Paris: A Poem

The thing that the scanned image can’t convey is that the cover paper is tissue-thin, and the gold is a beautiful dull metallic color. It’s also, as Julia Briggs has pointed out, the same paper the Woolfs used as endpapers in the Hogarth Press first edition of Jacob’s Room.

Holding Paris at the Bodleian was such an extraordinary experience not only because I quite like the poem and am so interested in Mirrlees, but also because Virginia Woolf hand-set the poem herself, bound it in this delicate paper, and then hand-corrected the final copies. The copy I examined came in a little box with a receipt, also written in Virginia’s handwriting, for a quarterly subscription to Hogarth Press’s literary output. Benjamin was right, I think; as much time as I’ve spent doing academic research on Mirrlees (and Woolf), there’s nothing quite like holding the artifact in your hands.

The Free State of Dorimare was a very small country, but, seeing that it was bounded on the south by the sea and on the north and east by mountains, while its centre consisted of a rich plain, watered by two rivers, a considerable variety of scenery and vegetation was to be found within its borders. Indeed, towards the west, in striking contrast with the pastoral sobriety of the central plain, the aspect of the country became, if not tropical, at any rate distinctly exotic. Nor was this to be wondered at, perhaps; for beyond the Debatable Hills (the boundary of Dorimare in the west) lay Fairyland. There had, however, been no intercourse between the two countries for many centuries.

The social and commercial centre of Dorimare was its capital, Lud-in-the-Mist, which was situated at the confluence of two rivers about ten miles from the sea and fifty from the Elfin Hills.

Lud-in-the-Mist had all the things that make an old town pleasant. It had an ancient Guild Hall, built of mellow golden bricks and covered with ivy and, when the sun shone on it, it looked like a rotten apricot; it had a harbour in which rode vessels with white and red and tawny sails; it had flat brick houses—not the mere carapace of human beings, but ancient living creatures, renewing and modifying themselves with each generation under their changeless antique roofs. It had old arches, framing delicate landscapes that one could walk into, and a picturesque old graveyard on the top of a hill, and little open squares where comic baroque statues of dead citizens held levees attended by birds and lovers and insects and children.

It had, indeed, more than its share of pleasant things; for, as we have seen, it had two rivers.

Also, it was plentifully planted with trees.

—Lud-in-the-Mist

I’ve just posted the first chapter of Lud-in-the-Mist so that those of you who haven’t read it can get a sense of the book’s tone and rhythm. There’s some angst about the novel’s copyright status—it was published four years after the magical cutoff for U.S. exemption and was originally published in the UK and has been in the public domain and then out again—so I’ve held off posting any till now.

Thing is, there are several small presses and print-on-demand outfits selling awful (ugly, typo-ridden, ill-printed) copies on Amazon without troubling themselves about copyright, so I’ve decided to publish this chapter here and suggest that you purchase the authorized and very reasonably printed edition published by Gollancz in the UK for a good reading experience.

Madeleine Meets the Web

It is a great pleasure to introduce the full text of Hope Mirrlees’ first novel, Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists, to the web.

Madeleine is almost impossible to acquire as a physical book unless you have access to one of the handful of libraries worldwide that hold a copy. The publication of this copy rests entirely on the labors of Ide Cyan, who spent countless hours scanning a library copy, running it through OCR, and correcting the text, then marking up the text. She has my sincere gratitude for all the work, and for allowing the result to be published here with my markup alterations.

Most of the few living humans who’ve read it have done so because they loved Mirrlees’ most famous novel, Lud-in-the-Mist, and Madeleine is a very different sort of book, so its reputation has remained dim. Having read it through a couple of times, I’ve found many points that connect up with Lud in surprising ways, but Madeleine is also an interesting text in its own right. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some of my own thoughts, and now that the text is out in the wild, I hope to see some of yours as well.

Paris: a Poem

…behind the ramparts of the Louvre
Freud has dredged the river and, grinning horribly,
waves his garbage in a glare of electricity,
Taxis,
Taxis,
Taxis,
They moan and yell and squeak
Like a thousand tom-cats in rut.
The whores like lions are seeking their meat from God :
An English padre tilts with the Moulin Rouge…

That’s from Paris: a Poem, the work for which Hope Mirrlees is best known in academic circles. Paris is a very visual poem, and it’s best experienced via the original 1920 edition, which you can buy if you have oodles of money, or in fascimile, which you can view now, if you don’t mind a slightly dodgy scan. (PDF download, 900KB)

I have this copy because the interlibrary loan librarians at Portland State University in 2005 were both kind and persuasive, and I am very grateful for their assistance.

Welcome!

Hope Mirrlees wrote a novel that has influenced many of the best writers of modern fantastic and speculative fiction, and one long poem that rightfully stands alongside classic examples of Modernist and experimental poetry of the early 20th century. She also wrote quite a bit of other stuff, collaborated with the most famous female classicist of all time on several literary projects, and was an all-around interesting person who responded in unusual and frequently beautiful ways to an especially traumatic period in the history of the Western world.

To date, Mirrlees remains all but unknown in the literary world. There are a few stray academic articles that deal with her work (only two of much substance, both by Woolf scholar Julia Briggs) floating around, along with a lot of informal appreciations written by fantasy writers and readers. There’s a slowly growing Wikipedia article and another article on the Feminist SF wiki — and, as of this month, there’s a slender book on Mirrlees’ “extraordinary career and mysterious life” written by SF novelist Michael Swanwick.

None of these texts, valuable as many of them are, present a sustained analysis of Mirrlees’ work or of her position within the literary and cultural circles in which she moved. Some of the essays on Lud-in-the-Mist are excellent, and Swanwick’s book provides a small though precious horde of biographical details from letters and other archival documents, but I think Mirrlees’ work deserves more.

Furthermore, although I’m working on my own Mirrlees project—a master’s thesis on the uses of art, history, and transcendence in Lud—I’m well aware that there’s far too much for any single person to do. One of the most promising things about the current version of the web is that it’s very easy to collect and interlink information—and the cost of publication is tiny. In the process of researching my thesis, I’ve learned far more about Mirrlees’ work and cultural milleu than I’ll ever be able to use in a single article or thesis, and I know there are others out there working, quietly, on similar projects.

My aim here is to build a central place in which information on Mirrlees can be collected, analyzed, and discussed. Not because centralization is intrinsically better, but without a central list of resources, I fear that the efforts of our small community of readers and enthusiasts will spread so thinly as to be invisible. If you’re interested in contributing, please do send in relevant links and leads, and stick around as our discussions begin to develop. (Eventually, I’d love to publish some guest posts as well.)

Here we go.