||Erpingham, Chislehurst, Kent
||writer and poet
||Thames Bank, Goring
||13 Jul 2009
||William Julius MIRRLEES, b. 29 Aug 1860
||Emily Lina MONCRIEFF, b. 6 Dec 1861, Edinburgh
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Mirrlees, (Helen) Hope (1887–1978), writer and poet, was born on 8 April 1887 at Erpingham, Chislehurst, Kent, the eldest child of William Julius Mirrlees (d. 1924) and Emily Lina Moncrieff (Mappy to her family) (d. 1948). Both her parents were Scots, and her father ‘WJ’ had trained in Glasgow as an engineer, though he later became an immensely successful businessman, with interests in various manufacturing firms, as well as in a large sugar plantation near Durban. Her grandfather had established the firm of Mirrlees–Blackstone, which made diesel engines for many years. Her mother's family were cultured Edinburgh lawyers. Although six children had been born, only three survived to adulthood: Hope (known as Hopy), William (Reay), who eventually became a major-general, and Margaret (Margot), who married an army officer. Hope grew up in Scotland and South Africa, which she loved—she learned to speak Zulu. She was educated first at home, then at the age of eleven attended the Besires School as a boarder, and later St Andrews preparatory school and St Leonard's School, St Andrews. As a young woman she was presented at court, and then, under the influence of Mrs Patrick Campbell, attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but soon found herself more interested in languages; above all, she wanted to learn Greek.
In 1910 Mirrlees went up to Newnham College, Cambridge, having already met the great classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison (1850–1928), who became her tutor. Hope became deeply attached to her and, in turn, became Jane's favourite pupil. After Hope went down in 1913 the two remained in close contact, writing to each other in a private language in different personae, sometimes as the elder and younger walrus, or else as the two wives of ‘the Old One’, Jane's ancient teddy bear. Late in 1913 Hope visited Paris with her friend Karin Costelloe (soon to marry Virginia Woolf's brother Adrian); she went back again in 1914, 1915, and 1919, staying at the Hotel de l'Elysée, 3 rue de Beaune, on the Left Bank. Paris provides the scene for her first novel, Madeleine, one of Love's Jansenists (1919), set in the seventeenth century among the circle of précieuses around Mme de Scudéry (who fancies herself as ‘Sappho’). The novel seems to be a roman à clef recording Mirrlees's flirtation with Left Bank lesbianism (Mme de Scudéry may be an unflattering portrait of the writer and literary hostess Natalie Clifford Barney). As a young woman, Hope was striking, with dark hair, bright blue eyes, and a beautiful voice. Virginia Woolf described her as ‘her own heroine—capricious, exacting, exquisite, very learned, and beautifully dressed’ (Letters of Virginia Woolf, 3.200).
In 1919 Mirrlees was studying Russian at the École des Langues Orientales in Paris where she observed events in the city and read avant-garde poetry including that of Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy's journal Nord–sud, and Jean Cocteau's sequence Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, which she claimed ‘liberated’ her into writing her own experimental poem. Hope had met Virginia and Leonard Woolf the previous year, when they invited her to write for the Hogarth Press: Paris (1920) became their fifth publication (T. S. Eliot's Poems was the fourth). It was hand set by Virginia herself in an edition of 175 copies—only the smallness of the edition can explain the subsequent neglect of this extraordinarily daring and brilliant poem, which was arguably her greatest achievement. A 600-line modernist poem, it describes the city recovering from the First World War, haunted by its dead, yet springing back to life as it hosts President Wilson and the peace conference delegates. Paris is written partly in English, partly in French, citing or reciting Métro station names, posters, shop signs, and memorial plaques. Highly allusive and typographically original, it has claims to be the missing link between French avant-garde poetry and Eliot's The Waste Land (1923).
In 1922 Jane Harrison retired from Cambridge, and she and Hope moved to Paris, where they stayed at the American University Women's Club. Together they translated from Russian The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum by himself (1924), to which their friend Prince Mirsky contributed an introduction, and The Book of the Bear (1926), a collection of folk-tales. The bear was part of their private mythology, and the constellation of Ursa Major appears not only at the end of Paris but also as the tailpiece to Hope's three novels. Her second, The Counterplot (1924), is a contemporary story of family life (said to be based on her own), ending with a play set in a Spanish convent which reworks the family's relationships in fantasy mode. It numbered Christopher Isherwood among its admirers and in 1929 was translated into French as Le choc en retour, with an afterword by Charles Du Bos. Her third novel, the fantasy Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), is the story of Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, mayor of Lud, who struggles to save his town from an invasion by sinister fairy fruit that induce strange states of mind. In May 1925 Hope and Jane found they could no longer stay at the club, and returned to London, to 11 Mecklenburgh Street, where Jane died in 1928, leaving Hope bereft.
In the wake of Jane's death, probably at some time in 1929, Hope became a Roman Catholic convert, and during the 1930s she lived with her mother at Thurloe Close, next to the Brompton Oratory. Here she worked on her fanciful biography of the seventeenth-century antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (part of which was published as A Fly in Amber in 1962) and a projected but never completed biography of Jane Harrison. The material she collected for the latter and various drafts for it are deposited at Newnham. T. S. Eliot had become a close friend in the 1920s, and during the Second World War he stayed with Hope and her mother in their house at Shamley Green, near Guildford, where he wrote Dry Salvages and Little Gidding. In 1948 her mother died, and Hope moved to South Africa, to the Cape of Good Hope, where she wrote occasional elegant poems and continued working on her life of Cotton.
By now, Hope Mirrlees had grown heavy, with a booming contralto and a passion for dogs—at different times, she owned chows, pugs, and dachshunds. In 1963 she finally returned to England to live at Headington, Oxford. Here she was briefly rediscovered by Suzanne Henig, who in 1972 wrote an article about her for the short-lived Virginia Woolf Quarterly, which also reprinted a version of Paris, bowdlerized by its author, who now disapproved of its blasphemies. In 1970, in the wake of Tolkien, Lin Carter recommended Lud-in-the Mist to Ballantine Books, and since then it has been reprinted several times in Britain and the United States. Joanna Russ wrote a pastiche of it as ‘The Zanzibar Cat’ (in her collection The Zanzibar Cat), and it remains very popular and influential as a ‘fantasy novel of ideas’ (Swanwick); Henig drew attention to its allusions to Plato's ‘Allegory of the cave’, and its philosophical enquiries into the nature of reality and the imagination. Forty of Mirrlees's poems were published in Moods and Tensions (1976), with a preface by an old friend, Raymond Mortimer.
Hope Mirrlees died at Thames Bank, Goring, on 1 August 1978. There were no obituaries, though the newspapers noticed the size of her estate. She had always had everything she needed in a material sense, and it has been suggested that she might have written more had she found it necessary to earn her own living. Yet what is most striking about her work is the way in which she never repeated herself: her achievements are of amazingly different kinds, united only by the continuous need to relate the inner life of fantasy and passion to a stubborn and unresponsive world of fact.
private information (2004) · Newnham College, Cambridge, register · Newnham College, Cambridge, archive · S. Henig, ‘Queen of Lud: Hope Mirrlees’, Virginia Woolf Quarterly, 1/1 (autumn 1972) · The letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. N. Nicolson, 3 (1977) · M. Beard, The invention of Jane Harrison (2000) · M. Swanwick, ‘The lady who wrote Lud-in-the mist’, www.infinityplus.co.uk/introduces/mirrlees.htm, 23 Aug 2001 · b. cert. · d. cert. · Diary of Virginia Woolf 1931–35, ed. A. O. Bell and A. McNeillie, 4 (1982) · G. Stein, The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)
Newnham College, Cambridge, Harrison papers
photographs, Newnham College, Cambridge
Wealth at death
£120,816: probate, 25 Jan 1979, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £2188: further grant, 20 Sept 1979, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
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Julia Briggs, ‘Mirrlees, (Helen) Hope (1887–1978)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/62695, accessed 13 July 2009]
(Helen) Hope Mirrlees (1887–1978): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/62695