Saturday, 22 March 2014

Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist

Lud-in-the-Mist is the capital of the free state of Dorimare, "scattered about the banks of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl":

The Dawl was the biggest river of Dorimare, and it became so broad at Lud-in-the-Mist as to give that town, twenty miles inland though it was, all the advantages of a port; while the actual seaport town itself was little more than a fishing village. The Dapple, however, which had its source in Fairyland (from a salt inland sea, the geographers held) and flowed subterraneously under the Debatable Hills, was a humble little stream and played no part in the commercial life of the town. But an old maxim of Dorimare bade one never forget that The Dapple flows into the Dawl.

We are in a Fantasyland, then, and an almost excessively charming one, whose inhabitants drink wild thyme gin and flower-in-amber, eat Moongrass cheese and smoked ham with pickled cowslips, and swear oaths like "Busty Bridget!" and "By My Great-Aunt's Rump". It's a kind of domestic Merrie England, not all that far from Tolkien's The Shire in its atmosphere, and with a touch of Shakespearean comedy, too. The hero, Nathaniel Chanticleer, a man of fifty, "rotund, rubicund, red-haired", has just been elected Mayor of this thoroughly bourgeois polis where the men are called Master, the married women Dame, everyone has an exaggerated respect for the Law, and the worst crime imaginable is to eat fairy fruit.

For, as the passage quoted above makes clear, this fantastic world has its dark side, the Fairyland where the River Dapple originates, on the other side of the Debatable Hills and the Elfin Marches. There was once commerce between the two, in the days of the legendary autocratic hunchback Duke Aubrey, whose sinister presence still haunts the psyches of the townspeople long after his mysterious disappearance: like the fairies themselves and their fruit, he embodies a chaotic force they dare not accommodate in their sunny lives. But it can't be suppressed for long. Mayor Nathaniel has a hidden neurosis, his obsession with a plangent note he once heard from an old lute, and this element of his personality seems to have been transferred to his son Ranulph, who is behaving strangely and claims to have eaten the fairy fruit. The respectable young ladies of Miss Primrose Crabapple's Academy go on the rampage; blood is seen leaking from a coffin; Nathaniel finds evidence of an old murder; and eventually he must journey to Fairyland itself in search of his missing son.

The central image of the book must owe something to Christina Rosetti's Goblin Market. More generally, it's in a tradition of fantasy that seeks to free the folklore of fairies from its sentimental trappings and recapture some of its old terror. In my last entry, on Robert Aickman, I mentioned Diane Purkiss's superb study of fairy stories; like Purkiss, Mirrlees understands the association of fairies with death. Her Fairyland is a land of the dead, and in order to be fully ourselves we have to reopen the borders and resume our relations with them, frightening as this is. If Lud-in-the-Mist seems cloying occasionally, the writing too pretty and whimsical, that's perhaps a consequence of Mirrlees's vision: for all the quaint comedy, the people of her world are suffering from a sickness, their failure to accept mortality and the violence, chaos and creative energy she sees as linked to it. They are meant to seem a little too good to be true.

Mirrlees was the author of a couple of other novels and what sounds like a very interesting modernist long poem called Paris. She lived with her former Cambridge tutor, the distinguished Classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison, and was a respected figure in the intellectual scene of the early twentieth century, admired by Virginia Woolf for her elegance and erudition. Recently, Lud, first published in 1926, has been championed by Neil Gaiman, and reissued in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks series. (Sophie Toulouse's brilliant cover illustration, shown here - if you think it's a mis-shapen pineapple, look again - gives a slightly misleading impression of a book more erotic than it is.) There is also a biography of Mirrlees by Michael Swanwick, and a website devoted to her, maintained by Erin Kissane. Like Aickman, Mirrlees seems poised for a long-delayed breakthrough, and with equally good reason. While she can overwrite (and I wish she wouldn't use speech tags like "she dimpled") her prose in general has the imaginative precision you'd expect from a poet-novelist: the sun shining on the brick Guildhall makes it look "like a rotten apricot", doves "with the bloom of plums on their breasts" waddle "on their coral legs", and the city has "little open squares where comic baroque statues of dead citizens [hold] levees attended by birds and lovers and insects and children". Beneath the comedy is a deep intellectual seriousness. Lud-in-the-Mist, part fairy story, part whodunnit (you can tell it was written in the Golden Age of the English detective story) part existential allegory, is a true cult classic.

Next time, a contemporary British comic novel that draws on the experimental techniques of the OuLiPo group.

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