Hope Mirrlees

(I’m back from my travels now, and that means you can look forward to regular posting again – sorry for the intermission).

Often overlooked entirely, Hope Mirrlees is sometimes described as a contemporary of Virginia Woolf. I sometimes think this is disingenuous – I think it would be more appropriate to describe her as a hero of Woolf’s, given Woolf’s own strange but endearing praise:

“…a very self conscious, wilful, prickly and perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well dressed and pretty, with a view of her own about books and style, an aristocratic and conservative tendency in opinion, and a corresponding taste for the beautiful and elaborate in literature…rather an exquisite apparition.”
– Virginia Woolf

While Mirrlees was a successful translator and poet, she is best-known for her fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist, a tale of conflict between the world of Faerie and the world of the Law. It reads like a detective story as mayor of Lud, Nathaniel Chanticleer, investigates strange behaviours and disappearances in his town. All signs point to the outlawed ‘faerie fruit’, a fruit with hallucinatory effects similar to recreational drugs. As Chanticleer delves further and further into the mystery, he loses his children, his title, and the respect of his townspeople. He’s a curious example of a character courageous enough to continue when everything seems to be telling him to stop – curious because he’s not immediately a character we can like or even respect. Still, he earns it by the end.

For me, the true strength of this book is Hope Mirrlees’ narrative voice, the omniscient, conversational tone she adopts throughout the book. Events are punctuated with thoughts directed at the reader, thoughts that add a fresh perspective and create a warm environment to truly envelope you in the storytelling experience.

“Pride and resentment are not indigenous in the human heart; perhaps it is due to the gardener’s innate love of the exotic that we take such pains to make them thrive.”
– Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

It might be seen as a weakness in her writing, a lack of subtlety that results in jarring asides to the reader to ensure their complete understanding. I don’t think so, though. There may be flowery language that reflects old fables and folktales, but this is an unpretentious story that has an uncomplicated message highlighting the importance of balance, moderation, and peace. The story achieves all of that, and makes for a really enjoyable and unique read. I don’t think it would be half as fun or relatable without these small interjections by Mirrlees.

“But when it is another person suffering in this way, in spite of one’s pity, how trivial it all seems! How certain one is of being able to expel the agony with reasoning and persuasion!”
– Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

This may be a fanciful tale of faeries and fantasy, but when Hope Mirrlees tells it, she really tells us who we are. This is a book that you will read, and on many occasions, nod your head profusely, surprised that you’ve found someone who has actually put into words the thoughts that you’ve encountered often, from the very basic to the most profound. There’s something very comforting about that, and while Woolf’s description of her resembles more of a wicked-fierce warrior, I like to entertain the feeling that she was also a serene storyteller, someone you could approach for any and every bit of advice you could ever need.

It’s all in there, if you’re looking for it.

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