starlady: (through the trapdoor)
Swanwick, Michael. Hope-in-the-Mist: The Extraordinary Career & Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees. Upper Montclair, NJ: Temporary Culture, 2009.

I mentioned in a recent post that I had ordered this book from the internet on impulse, and it arrived in the Friday post. There is something viscerally thrilling about getting books in the mail, I have to say, at least for me.

Michael Swanwick is now unquestionably the foremost living expert on Hope Mirrlees, though I think eventually Erin of hopemirrlees.com, who is doing her graduate work on the writer, may rival or surpass him. In the meantime, Swanwick's monograph takes an appealing middle course between academic and genre writer in evaluating Mirrlees' life and work, the former being as long as the latter was brief. He's not afraid to state his own opinions, particularly on Mirrlees' first two novels (Madeleine and The Counterplot, respectively), but he also knows when to withhold judgment despite the facts making intuitive sense towards a conclusion, particularly with regards to the influence of Mirrlees' poem Paris on her friend T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

Essentially, this book confirms my own conclusion that Mirrlees' life effectively ended with the death of her friend Jane Ellen Harrison in 1928; she returned the contract for her fourth novel during Harrison's final illness, and in her remaining 50 years of life produced 1.5 biographies and one chapbook of 12 poems. It seems to be the consensus among Mirrlees fans that her money was her undoing; instead of being forced to keep writing to keep a roof over her head, she was able to rely on the trust her father had set up for her and so had no need to keep writing. Considering that she died when she was 91, that is clearly a treasure trove of books that were never created. (Just think if she'd had Ursula K. LeGuin's output, and LeGuin is only 80!)

Somewhere else on the Internet recently (anyone know who?) I saw someone saying that even if Mirrlees only produced one masterpiece (well, two if you count Paris, which the few scholars who know it seem to do, albeit in a minor way), that's one more than most people ever write, and that's certainly true. But personally speaking, writing is such a central part of how I relate to the world that I literally cannot imagine who I would be or how I would go about my life without it, even if I never publicly posted another word anywhere until the day I died, and so I found Mirrlees' story to be ultimately rather terrifying.

My copy is, somehow, signed by the author, and the book also includes an illustration by Charles Vess, which I may have framed one of these days, and Swanwick's "Lexicon of Lud," which has opened up new perspectives on my interpretation of Lud-in-the-Mist. In light of my comments on Cat Valente's The Girl Who…, I couldn't help but think that I should have twigged to the Ned-Chanticleer-as-Eleusinian-initiate that Swanwick puts forward, because I think it's utterly correct. There are a few annoying typos in the text, and the cover doesn't look as good in person as it does online, but Temporary Culture seems pretty cool nonetheless, and I shall have to keep an eye on them in future.

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