Hope Mirrlees was born in 1887 in Chislehurst, Kent (Google map) to wealthy Scottish parents, and grew up in Scotland and South Africa, where her father had an interest in a sugar plantation. As a young woman, she attended St. Andrews, and then, briefly, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art under the patronage of the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She studied Greek at Newnham College, Cambridge from 1910 to 1913, where she met the famous classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, who became her tutor—and, in later years, her literary collaborator and her closest friend and companion.
After leaving Newnham, Mirrlees made several extended visits to Paris, including a stint at the Ecole des Langues Orientales, where she studied Russian. In 1919, her first novel, Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists, was published by W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., a forerunner of Harper Collins, followed in 1920 by the publication of her long Modernist poem, Paris: a Poem, by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press.
In 1922, Mirrlees lived in Paris for three years with Harrison, who had just retired from Cambridge, and during this time, her second novel, The Counterplot, was published, also by W. Collins Sons & Co. In 1924, Mirrlees and Harrison’s translation (from the Russian original) of The life of the Archpriest Avvakum by Himself was published.
Mirrlees and Harrison returned to London in 1925, and in 1926, Mirrlees’ third and final novel, Lud-in-the-Mist, was published, along with the second of Mirrlees’ collaborative translations with Harrison, a folktale collection called The Book of the Bear: Being Twenty-one Tales newly Translated from the Russian. Throughout this period, several of Mirrlees’ essays and articles were also published in respected periodicals including The Nation & Athenaeum.
In 1928, Harrison, who had suffered from ill health and chronic pain since her early middle age, died at the age of 78. Soon after Harrison’s death, Mirrlees converted to Roman Catholicism.
From the early 1930s through the Second World War, Mirrlees lived in England with her mother—and, for a time, with T.S. Eliot, who stayed with Mirrlees and her mother on weekends during the war. After her mother’s death in 1948, Mirrlees moved to South Africa, where she lived until her return to England in 1963.
Two editions of her later poetry, Poems (1963) and Moods and Tensions: Poems (1965), were published, as was the first volume of the work which occupied her literary attentions for the last several decades of her life, the biography of the antiquarian Robert Cotton (A Fly in Amber: Being an Exravagant Biography of the Romantic Antiquary Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, published in 1962).
Hope Mirrlees died in Thames Bank, Goring, England, in 1978, having spent her final years in a cozy house that from time to time smelled, mysteriously, of fish—a phenomenon, she explained, produced by the elusive “ghost of a mermaid.”
We are very much in her debt.