by John Holbo on November 12, 2014

Hope Mirrlees’ 1926 fantasy novel/fairy tale, Lud-in-the-Mist, has a funny old publication history. An unauthorized version appeared in 1970, again in 1977, because publishers couldn’t figure out whether the lady – who died in 1978 – was alive. (Here’s Michael Swanwick, trying to sort it out.) I just noticed Amazon has a cheap Kindle edition available. I think you would be quite mad to read any other fantasy novel or fairy tale first, if you have so far failed to read this one, and are looking for anything of the sort with which to stock your electronic device.

It’s a fable of alienation and reconciliation. I’ll quote from chapter 1. Our proper Master Nathaniel has a strange secret, tucked into his soul.

All who knew Master Nathaniel would have been not only surprised, but incredulous, had they been told he was not a happy man. Yet such was the case. His life was poisoned at its springs by a small, nameless fear; a fear not always active, for during considerable periods it would lie almost dormant—almost, but never entirely.

He knew the exact date of its genesis. One evening, many years ago, when he was still but a lad, he and some friends decided as a frolic to dress up as the ghosts of their ancestors and frighten the servants. There was no lack of properties; for the attics of the Chanticleers were filled with the lumber of the past: grotesque wooden masks, old weapons and musical instruments, and old costumes—tragic, hierophantic robes that looked little suited to the uses of daily life. There were whole chests, too, filled with pieces of silk, embroidered or painted with curious scenes. Who has not wondered in what mysterious forests our ancestors discovered the models for the beasts and birds upon their tapestries; and on what planet were enacted the scenes they have portrayed? It is in vain that the dead fingers have stitched beneath them—and we can picture the mocking smile with which these crafty cozeners of posterity accompanied the action—the words February, or Hawking, or Harvest, having us believe that they are but illustrations of the activities proper to the different months. We know better. These are not the normal activities of mortal men. What kind of beings peopled the earth four or five centuries ago, what strange lore they had acquired, and what were their sinister doings, we shall never know. Our ancestors keep their secret well.

Among the Chanticleers’ lumber there was also no lack of those delicate, sophisticated toys—fans, porcelain cups, engraved seals—that, when the civilisation that played with them is dead, become pathetic and appealing, just as tunes once gay inevitably become plaintive when the generation that first sang them has turned to dust. But those particular toys, one felt, could never have been really frivolous—there was a curious gravity about their colouring and lines. Besides, the moral of the ephemeral things with which they were decorated was often pointed in an aphorism or riddle. For instance, on a fan painted with wind-flowers and violets were illuminated these words: Why is Melancholy like Honey? Because it is very sweet, and it is culled from Flowers.

These trifles clearly belonged to a later period than the masks and costumes. Nevertheless, they, too, seemed very remote from the daily life of the modern Dorimarites.

Well, when they had whitened their faces with flour and decked themselves out to look as fantastic as possible, Master Nathaniel seized one of the old instruments, a sort of lute ending in the carving of a cock’s head, its strings rotted by damp and antiquity, and, crying out, “Let’s see if this old fellow has a croak left in him!” plucked roughly at its strings.

They gave out one note, so plangent, blood-freezing and alluring, that for a few seconds the company stood as if petrified.

Then one of the girls saved the situation with a humourous squawk, and, putting her hands to her ears, cried, “Thank you, Nat, for your cat’s concert! It was worse than a squeaking slate.” And one of the young men cried laughingly, “It must be the ghost of one of your ancestors, who wants to be let out and given a glass of his own claret.” And the incident faded from their memories—but not from the memory of Master Nathaniel.

He was never again the same man. For years that note was the apex of his nightly dreams; the point towards which, by their circuitous and seemingly senseless windings, they had all the time been converging. It was as if the note were a living substance, and subject to the law of chemical changes—that is to say, as that law works in dreams. For instance, he might dream that his old nurse was baking an apple on the fire in her own cosy room, and as he watched it simmer and sizzle she would look at him with a strange smile, a smile such as he had never seen on her face in his waking hours, and say, “But, of course, you know it isn’t really the apple. It’s the Note.



clew 11.12.14 at 9:07 am

Come buy, come buy!


ZM 11.12.14 at 9:28 am

How nice – a Luddite and Love-in-the-Mist joke as the title (I presume?).

As we have indigenous music and culture in Australia it does not seem quite so fanciful here. I am not sure about ancestors in notes of music, but for instance Gurrumul’s recent song Marrandil is about seeing clouds like shapes of people and his connections to ancestors. I am not sure if the ancestors are meant to be exactly sort of in the clouds or not, but anyway this idea is not uncommon.

We also have Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country at the start of many talks and events . This is interesting culturally because white people hardly publicly acknowledge their own ancestors except for occasions like Remembrance Day just passed – so indigenous ancestors are now more often publicly remembered and acknowledged than any other ancestors in Australia since this custom began.

This is Marrandil by Gurrumul:

This is his relation Yirrmal, singing another song (a bit into the clip which has an intro to him first) that I have been quite taken by – the notes or tones (?) are very expressive of longing


ZM 11.12.14 at 9:31 am

I will try to embed Gurrumul again, I don’t know why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t


maidhc 11.12.14 at 9:38 am

The fantasy literature of that era has an atmosphere all its own. Quite different from what came later. I acquired a taste for it from my mother, who was very partial to it when she was a girl, even though it was out of date by then.

I hadn’t heard of Hope Mirlee, but this has caught my attention. That’s a very interesting excerpt. I will have to seek out the book.


Maria 11.12.14 at 10:52 am

It’s one of a kind, Lud in the Mist.

By the bye, I learnt from Hermione Lee’s book on Virginia Woolf that Hope Mirlee’s poetry was published by Hogarth Press. Mirlee later got Catholicism in a big way and denounced the poetry. In fact a copy of the book exists that she went through and scratched out anything she later found sinful.

What is it with one of a kind literary geniuses getting religion and destroying their early work?


John Holbo 11.12.14 at 1:11 pm

Her poetry is also available on Kindle. I just got a copy, Maria.


William Berry 11.12.14 at 4:20 pm

I had not heard of Mirlee either.

How does she compare, reputation-wise, to someone like, say, James Branch Cabell? Did she have a comtemporary literary reputation? Was she known as primarily a fantasist or, like Cabell, as a satiric allegorist?

I will do some research and try to answer these questions for myself.

I tried i-Books, but had no luck. I generally avoid Amazon (Jeff Bezos, incarnation of neo-liberal evil, etc.), but will make an exception in this case and see if I can download it to my i-Pad Kindle reader..


Rich Puchalsky 11.12.14 at 4:22 pm

Hope Mirrlees was, according to some contemporary account that I read once but can’t recall enough to cite, one of those people who stopped writing because of wealth rather than because of poverty. This person said that if only she’d been poorer we might have had more books like Lud-in-the-Mist, but that she had no pecuniary need to write.


Dave W. 11.12.14 at 4:34 pm

@Rich: That’s in the Michael Swanwick piece that’s the second link in the main post.


Anderson 11.12.14 at 4:49 pm

Thank you, Rich, for spelling her name correctly.


Rich Puchalsky 11.12.14 at 4:51 pm

Thanks, Dave W. — I should have looked through the links. But I’d once pursued Swanwick’s contention back to some contemporary writer of Mirrlees who wrote something similar. I can no longer recall who it was.


Anderson 11.12.14 at 5:22 pm

Ordered a copy. Thanks for the tip, Holbo!


William Berry 11.12.14 at 5:30 pm

Rich @8:

Fascinating bit on the wealth thing, and almost counter-intuitive.

Think of the best-known writers through history, including Mirrlees’ comtemporaries (e.g., Edith Wharton). Before the modern era it was pretty much the rule that you wrote because you could— i.e., because you were wealthy.


Joshua W. Burton 11.12.14 at 5:30 pm

That passage reads like an Eddison novel copy-edited by Mary Mapes Dodge. I’ll read the book, of course (and thanks JH for the pointer!), but . . . .


Rich Puchalsky 11.12.14 at 5:39 pm

William Berry @ 13, I never got deeply enough into it to figure out whether it was sour grapes on the part of the contemporary of Mirrlees. As Swanwick mentions, notes about her e.g. in the diaries of Virginia Woolf could easily be read as somewhat jealous.

I think that Lud-in-the-Mist is well worth reading, although I don’t think I’d say you’d be “quite mad to read any other fantasy novel or fairy tale first, if you have so far failed to read this one.” As Virginia Woolf notes, there’s something of a “conservative tendency in opinion, & a corresponding taste for the beautiful & elaborate in literature.” She and James Branch Cabell (who is one of my favorites) followed a very similar rediscovery path: republished by Lin Carter, and then to some extent repopularized by Neil Gaiman.


Anderson 11.12.14 at 5:40 pm

Re: her motive for writing, it can’t be an accident that her novels stopped after Jane Harrison died. I know Woolf thought the 1st novel was transparently “Sapphist” with Mirrlees and Harrison behind the main characters.


Jay Conner 11.12.14 at 8:47 pm

There is a with lots of links.

One is to her poem “Paris”, a shabby but readable pdf, written and published at about the same time Eliot published “The Wasteland”. Eliot was a sometime houseguest of hers.


clew 11.12.14 at 9:19 pm

And if you like Mirrlees, you might also like Stella Benson, perhaps starting with Living Alone.


Niall McAuley 11.13.14 at 2:09 pm

One of my very favourite books.

As a child, I once had a dream in which I touched a thing which felt unlike anything I ever felt in real life. I used to wonder if I ever felt something like it while awake whether I would die.

30 years or so later, reading this book, the bit about the Note resonated.


M. Corwin 11.13.14 at 5:46 pm

Mirrlees is an interesting character; I first heard of her because of her relationship with Jane Harrison, which was cloying and twee. “Lud-in-the-Mist” does inspire comparison with James Branch Cabell, but to my mind she’s closer literary kin to Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo). Her other novels and her incomplete biography of the antiquary Sir Robert Bruce Cotton are, to be polite, disappointing.


Zora 11.13.14 at 10:45 pm

I bought the book based on the recommendation here. I do not think I can finish it. I find that I do not care what happens to any of the characters. I am distressed by the wholesale attack on bourgeois values, which are denigrated as small-minded and unimaginative. The book is nothing but an attack on middle- and upper-class stuffiness. It is Lives of Eminent Victorians as a fantasy novel.


Anderson 11.13.14 at 10:48 pm

“It is Lives of Eminent Victorians as a fantasy novel.”

Now to me, that sounds like a further recommendation.


OneRatNoWalls 11.14.14 at 1:33 pm

I couldn’t help comparing Duke Aubrey to that other absent mystical ruler, Susanna Clarke’s Raven King of “Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell”. RK was clearly the better administrator.


John Holbo 11.14.14 at 2:25 pm

“I am distressed by the wholesale attack on bourgeois values, which are denigrated as small-minded and unimaginative.”

While personally I can stomach attacks on bourgeois values, and might be guilty of peddling them from time to time, in this case I plead innocent as charged. The book is tender towards its bourgeois protagonist, Master Nathaniel, and scrupulously equinanimous in weighing bourgeois virtues against fairy virtues, and bourgeois vices against fairy vices. (Anyway, who needs a defense of upper-class stuffiness, per se?) If only you had misspelled “Eminent Victorians” as “Emanant Victorians”, in honor of the curious status of the denizens of Lud, vis a vis their neighbors! (But I am sorry if you feel you have wasted your money!)

I fear you should look elsewhere for astringent Stachey-isms, Anderson. But perhaps you can still enjoy Lud on its indigenous merits.

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