I’m a graduate student at Queens College, CUNY, and I’m working on an MA thesis on Hope Mirrlees’ 1926 fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. In the last few years, Mirrlees’ Wikipedia page has grown from a wee stub to a reasonably respectable article with a good bibliography, but I hope to create a more extensive resource for those interested in Mirrlees’ life and work. I write about everything but Mirrlees at blissbat.net.
The painting in the site’s header is Clara Peeters’ haunting Apples, cherries, apricots and other fruit in a basket, with pears, plums, robins, a woodpecker, a parrot and a monkey eating nuts, on a table (larger version, more info). Mirrlees’ work is infused with her literacy in visual art, and readers of her poetry and novels will recognize the resonance between her work and the symbolic register of the Flemish landscape painters.
This painting seemed especially suitable, not only because it prominently displays a decaying apricot—an image Mirrlees returned to repeatedly—but also because the career of Clara Peeters, a skilled and successful but subsequently neglected master of her period, is perhaps an appropriate cognate for Mirrlees’ own.
The long version
Somewhere around December of 2005, my partner gave me a copy of Lud-in-the-Mist. The book had come up in conversation because I’d run into two references that hit just the right note. The first was in Jo Walton’s short review of 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. [...] I think this is the most significant thing done with this in years. It’s as if we’ve all been building sandcastles in the shadow of a cliff and suddenly Clarke has raised a great castle out of the sea with a strange light shining through the foam-water windows.
That description got all the bells ringing. The second reference was John Clute’s explication of Neil Gamain’s cover blurb for Jonathan Strange:
Bloomsbury has used as dustjacket copy a somewhat overstated claim from [Gaiman] about the importance of the book, which, in the context of the hype blizzard, does less good than Gaiman might have hoped. This is all the more unfortunate because, stripped of excess, Gaiman’s statement points right to the heart of the book. We do, all the same, have to start with what he does actually say, which is that Strange is “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years.” To which one’s immediate response is: bollocks. But there is a still small voice in there. 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).
From Walton and Clute to a list of books to track down — a list filched and fulfilled by my own personal wish-granter. That winter, I’d been reading a lot of Woolf and Forster, and I’d gone from missing school (I graduated from Vassar in ’99 and missed academic life from the moment I stepped off that magical campus) a lot to dreaming constantly about academic research. I didn’t want to go to grad school without a solid academic research goal, and Modernism is both an extraordinarily crowded field and one that felt too far from the other half of my literary interests, which mostly coalesced around fantastic/speculative fiction. Lud-in-the-Mist turned out to be precisely the green-glowing, half-demiotic-half-hieroglyphic artifact that smushed together everything I loved and led me directly to the academic work I wanted to do.
Scholarship on Mirrlees is thin on the ground, but this is beginning to change. On this site, I’ll collect as much of existing research as copyright restrictions will allow, and I’ll also trace my own progress through the (to me) fascinating historical and artistic contexts of Mirrlees’ work. My biases run toward transparent processes and openly shared information, and I very much solicit information and analysis from scholars, fans, readers, and other people who care about Mirrlees’ work.
Erin Kissane, June, 2009
* A book that will, alas, always be Jonathan Strange and Mrs. Norris in my head.