Hope Mirrlees and the Forgotten Female Modernists
Like Mina Loy (whose Stories and Essays I have just reviewed in the TLS), Helen Hope Mirrlees (1887–1978) is a fine example of the “forgotten-female-Modernist” (FFM for short). She spent much of her life in transit, writing poetry but also, in the 1920s, three novels. But, unlike Loy, she was not in flight from an oppressive domestic situation or a destructive love affair. When she wrote her best-known work, the long, psychogeographic poem Paris, shortly after the First World War, she was living in the 6ème arrondissement with the classics scholar Jane Harrison (the original don of Newnham College). (Virginia Woolf described them in a letter to Mary McCarthy as living in a “Sapphic flat somewhere”.)
They had met when Harrison tutored Mirrlees at Newnham a decade earlier, after which they became companions, with Mirrlees nursing Harrison – almost forty years her senior – up to her death in 1928. Indeed, it is mostly through her association with Harrison that Mirrlees has featured in academic discourse so far. With the exception of Michael Swanwick’s biography of Mirrlees, Hope-in-the-Mist (2009), and the late Julia Briggs’s work – notably her essay in Gender in Modernism: New geographies, complex intersections, edited by Bonnie Kime Scott (2007) – Mirrlees has been edited out of the history of Modernism.
Now after Sara Crangle’s edition of Mina Loy, it is with great pleasure that I find, on my desk this morning, the Collected Poems of Hope Mirrlees. Two FFMs in quick succession – the likes of Loy and Mirrlees are now being remembered it seems. What Sandeep Parmar’s enlightening introduction does well to emphasize, however, is how much of the forgetting was done by Mirrlees herself. She is, in this sense, the FFM par excellence. Paris was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1920 (only the fifth book in their catalogue), and right up to and beyond the printed version, Mirrlees scrawled corrections and comments in the margins, insisting on particular typographical choices, and much to Virginia Woolf’s frustration, changing the order and inserting a number of misspellings (accidentally, we presume). Mirrlees was tireless in her self-editing, it turns out. Fifty-two years on, following her conversion to Catholicism, she revisited Paris to cut out what she regarded as the many “blasphemous” passages. Parmar describes the original poem as unfinished, or unfinishing, compared to the “highly formal, mannered verse” she wrote in the 1960s.
The fact that Mirrlees and Loy have been re-issued after so many years out of print, shows that they might yet play an important role in Modernist studies. It seems from a review of Paris published in 1920, quoted by Parmar, that the TLS missed out on Hope Mirrlees the first time round:
“This little effusion looks at the first blush like an experiment in Dadaism; but there is a method in the madness which peppers the pages with spluttering and incoherent statement displayed with various tricks of type . . . . It is certainly not a ‘Poem’, though we follow the author’s guidance in classing it as such. To print the words ‘there is no lily of the valley’ in a vertical column of single letters might be part of a nursery game. It does not belong to the art of poetry.”
Thank goodness for second chances.