Mirrlees, Hope

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1887-04-08
Death 1978-08-01
Britons
English

Biographical notes:

Hope Mirrlees (1887-1978), author of novels, poems and translations, is also remembered for her distinguished literary friends, including T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Lady Ottoline Morrell. Her 1926 novel, Lud-in-the-Mist, has been recognized by science fiction critics as an outstanding example of English fantasy writing. Her work, however, has been overshadowed by the great literary men and women of post-World-War-I Britain with whom she associated.

Helen Hope Mirrlees was born in England in 1887, the daughter of William J. Mirrlees, a wealthy sugar merchant, and Emily Lena Moncrieff. Her elder sister, Margot, married into the landed gentry of Oxfordshire, and her younger brother, William, was a professional soldier who later became a major general. Mirrlees spent part of her childhood in South Africa and received her early education from a French governess. She returned to England to finish her education at St. Leonard's School in St. Andrews, Scotland. Mirrlees abandoned her early theatrical ambitions to study classics at Newnham College of Cambridge University. Jane Harrison, a Greek scholar and lecturer in classical archaeology at the college, became Mirrlees's friend and mentor, and together they travelled to Paris in 1915 to study Russian. Also at Newnham College, Mirrlees met Karin Costelloe, later studying French with her in Paris. Costelloe married Virginia Woolf's brother, Adrian Stephen, in October 1914. Through this association, Mirrlees became acquainted with Woolf.

Woolf and Mirrlees met in 1917 and remained acquaintances through the 1930s. Woolf described Mirrlees in a March 22, 1919, diary entry:

[Mirrlees is] a very self conscious, wilful, prickly & perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well dressed & pretty, with a view of her own about books & style, an aristocratic & conservative tendency in opinion, & a corresponding taste for the beautiful & elaborate in literature. . . . She uses a great number of French words, which she pronounces exquisitely; she seems capricious in her friendships, & no more to be marshalled with the long goose wand which I can sometimes apply to people than a flock of bright green parrokeets.

Woolf asked Mirrlees to correspond with her; Mirrlees responded, "O no. I can't write to people" ( Diary, March 22, 1919). In a January 1919 diary entry, Woolf included Mirrlees on a list of those she considered friends, and Mirrlees spent a weekend with the Woolfs at their country home, Asheham, in September 1919.

Woolf seems to have had ambivalent feelings about Mirrlees's writing. In 1919, she reluctantly reviewed Mirrlees's first novel, Madeleine: One of Love's Jansenists, for the Times Literary Supplement . The review disappointed Mirrlees who had spent several years working on the book and had difficulty getting the work published. However, Leonard and Virginia Woolf requested a story from Mirrlees to be published by their own house, Hogarth Press. Mirrlees produced a poem, Paris, which Virginia Woolf pronounced, "obscure, indecent and brilliant" ( Letters of Virginia Woolf, 385), and in May 1920 the poem became one of the first works published by Hogarth Press.

Mirrlees also was acquainted with one of the foremost literary hostesses of the early twentieth century, Lady Ottoline Morrell. Lady Morrell's circle of friends, including Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley, were known as the Bloomsbury Group. As early as 1919, Mirrlees visited the Morrell home during her stays in London and remained a close acquaintance of Lady Morrell for almost twenty years.

In 1922, Mirrlees moved to Paris with Jane Harrison. Together, they produced two Russian translations. The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum by Himself (Hogarth Press, 1924) was the first English translation of the earliest autobiography written in the Russian language. Their second collaborative translation was The Book of the Bear (1926), a collection of Russian folk tales about bears. Leonard and Virginia Woolf visited Mirrlees and Harrison in Paris in 1923, and Mirrlees continued to make frequent trips back to England to visit her friends and family. She produced two other novels, Counterplot (1924) and Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), both of which received generally favorable reviews. Mirrlees returned to England after the death of Jane Harrison in 1928 and rented an apartment in London.

Lud-in-the-Mist was Mirrlees's last novel. Shortly after its publication she began researching what was to become her lifework, a biography of seventeenth-century British antiquarian, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. One volume of this work, entitled A Fly in Amber, was published in 1962 by Faber and Faber. T. S. Eliot, a director of Faber and Faber, took close interest in Mirrlees's progress. Their relationship grew from a professional acquaintance into a close personal friendship. Eliot boarded at Shamley Green, the Mirrlees family home near Surrey, to escape London during World War II and corresponded regularly with Hope and her mother even after the war. Eliot wrote to Mirrlees that "it may be that I did there what will be regarded as my best work" (December 7, 1952).

After her mother's death in the late 1940s, Mirrlees travelled to Paris, Egypt and eventually Cape Town, South Africa. She lived in Cape Town for the next eleven years and continued to work on A Fly in Amber . In the biography, Mirrlees digresses into a survey of seventeenth-century British society, science and culture. Mirrlees never completed a proposed second volume to this work. Instead, her last work was a small book of poems entitled Moods and Tensions: Poems (1965). Mirrlees returned to England sometime before 1974, where she died in 1978.

From the guide to the Hope Mirrlees papers, 1920-1960, null, (Literature and Rare Books)

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