The Essays of Hope Mirrlees

After recently developing nothing short of an addiction to Sylvia Townsend Warner (a proper post on her forthcoming), I was reminded of another obscure talent of the early 20th century who moved on the periphery of more famous literary circles – Hope Mirrlees. I came to Mirrlees as most do, through her extraordinary work of pre-Inklings fantasy, Lud-in-the-Mist. I went on to read her poetry which has received some praise lately (particularly Paris) and then discovered, buried at the back of her collected poems,¹ six essays.

The majority of the essays were originally published in The Nation & Athenaeum. They cover diverse topics ranging from literary criticism, to travelogues, history and religion and show a lively, broadly educated mind able to make nimble observations and develop them into a personal philosophy that is somehow both conservative and subversive. Mirrlees makes brilliant little similes and turns everyday experiences into clever anecdotes. She is able to pull, from a vast memory of literature, disparate threads with such deftness and weave them in so neatly that it never seems mere name-dropping, but more like sitting in on a dinner conversation between herself and everyone she has ever read (Mirrlees would doubtless have a far better metaphor for this!)

As one of the few published articles on Mirrlees states: “she emerges as a travelling modernist in a broad sense, moving across overlapping coteries, from the intellectual circles of Cambridge to literary London and lesbian Paris. Elegantly dressed, relatively wealthy, accomplished in languages and the classics, she can be seen as a kind of intellectual flâneuse, working across literary genres, exploring and commenting on both the past and the present, never lingering long enough to be easily identified with a single group. “² The essays certainly give credence to this intriguing persona.

Some Aspects of the Art of Aleksey Mikhailovich Remizov is ostensibly an exploration of that author’s style, with a good deal of praise. However it quickly becomes a game of comparisons, with such tangents as the real meaning of ‘Shakespearian’ and the nature of Russian patriotism. She is at her best when accidentally poetic, “But for Russians in exile? All Moscow is in flower, and everything is so sweet that bees swarm on the tower of Ivan the Great.” The essay conveys a deep familiarity with the breadth of English literature and concludes with several insights into the nature of reading and writing.

Listening in to the Past muses on the ways in which we receive history, through the metaphor of a wireless tuned in to distant voices, catching fragments of conversation without answers. She argues that it is in the records of law, and not in literature, that we find honest voices, but I would disagree and say that it is both. To (clumsily) carry her metaphor; you might hear both the news and the song of the day on the wireless, and both will tell you something about when and where you are.

An Earthly Paradise is an amusing account of her stay in a Paris hotel, where she waxes lyrical about the library. She inserts little declarations which I think, reflect both her privilege and character: “And Life, if you make your demands with a pistol to her head, is apt to stand and deliver.” I liked best her clever descriptions, stories in themselves, “One was apt to see nuns in that street, on an average, say of two a week; and just as one begins to suspect by slow degrees that somewhere in one’s garden is concealed a nest of insects, so in time we came to realise that the grim taciturn buildings that lined one side of the street were all of them contraband nunneries.”

The Religion of Women would, I think, give gender studies scholars a bit of trouble. It begins with an unflattering examination of middle aged women (of the middle class in particular), but ends, after an enchanting musing on the lack of seasons on Jupiter and how that might effect poetry, in a rather more dolefully feminist tone, “One of the duties of slaves is to mourn their master, and women are the slaves of Time.”

Gothic Dreams investigates the development and influence of Gothic fiction. Mirrlees connects the Gothic to a negative form of medievalism and fear of Catholic superstition. It brought to mind Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment and the later witchcraft trials. She discusses the dreamlike quality of Gothic romance and points out the wide influence of writers like Radcliffe who, “though undoubtedly a goose” was read by far more than the Catherine Morlands of her time.

By far the best of the essays though, is Bedside Books. It begins by exploring the sort of books suitable for bedtime reading (“Above all, they must not be dull”) with a wry humour and lyricism that will warm the hearts of book lovers; “To extract the last drop of sweetness from this delightful hour, we must be conscious of our bed as well as of our book, and a detective story emphasises the conceit that our bed is a hare’s form, a warm secret refuge from hunters and hounds – while outside our sanctuary there is terror and flight, and the surging enemy, mute and terrible.” This introduction does not prepare the reader at all for the rest of the essay, except perhaps, by acting as a lullaby itself – which is a whirlwind  tour through Mirrlee’s own favourites, with which she has an intimate familiarity – imagining Lucretius in bed reading Epicurus for example. She extols Burton, “The A-na-tomy of Me-lan-choly. The syllables are made of poppy and mandragora” and gets carried away with Homer. In this essay, even more than the others, we are exposed to the full power of her agile intelligence and also her whimsical and mischievous creativity – she somehow gets in a parrot.

It has been suggested that Mirrlees did not publish more because her financial independence gave her no need earn a living by her letters. If, however, she is right in that “the measure of a writer’s greatness is the disparity between the things he says and the things he knows” I’m left wondering how very much she knew, compared to how sadly little she wrote. She certainly manages to say a great deal in her few short essays.

Skye M. W.

La Quema del Diablo, 2015

¹ Mirrlees, H., and Parmar, S., Collected Poems. New York, Carcanet, 2011. All direct quotes are taken from this edition.

² Boyde, M., “The poet and the ghosts are walking the streets: Hope Mirrlees-Life and Poetry”, Hecate, 35(1), 29-41, p. 321, 2009. – I haven’t given much biographical information on Mirrlees, but Boyde gives a good account as does Parmar.

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