Review: Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Hope Mirrlees’ 1926 novel drops us straight into Lud-in-the-mist, a town at the confluence of two rivers, the Dawl and the Dapple, and the capital of Dorimare. Dorimare was a duchy, until an uprising saw the last duke overthrown, and a republic installed. But the rulers and law makers of the republic have become just as lazy and comfortable as the aristocrats of old, as rulers and law makers are wont to do, and there are murmurs of trouble among the common people. Complicating matters further is the place said to exist over the hills to the west, Fairy land, which is the source of the Dapple and the topsy-turvy fairy fruit that cause fits of delusion and whimsy among the townsfolk. When the republic was founded, a taboo was placed on all things fairy. Instead, the rulers create their own form of delusion, the law. But there’s a saying in Dorimare, “the Dapple flows into the Dawl”, alluding to the porous boundaries between the two lands, but also reality and fantasy, and present and past.

The novel centres on Nathaniel Chanticleer, mayor of Lud-in-the-mist. As a boy he heard a mysterious Note and is now haunted by a “small, nameless fear”, a “nostalgia for what was still there”. His son Ranulph is similarly afflicted, and when he appears to have succumbed to fairy fruit, Nat sends him away to the country on the orders of a doctor who may not be who he says he is. Meanwhile strange things start happening – mysterious people inspire the town’s daughters to run away, there are apparitions of the old duke, and an unsolved crime resurfaces. Nat and Ranulph become entangled with various conspiracies old and new, which will ultimately resolve the artificial boundary placed between the two lands.

Lud-in-the-mist is in effect an occult murder mystery, complete with clues, detectives and courtroom drama. It is also the story of an estranged father and son, a man estranged from himself, and a people estranged from their history. Dorimare is an incredibly rich setting, there are lots of details to admire, and the fantasy is pleasantly inexplicable. Like the Dorimarites, we never get a really solid grasp of the faerie, except that they seem more likely to have red hair and a penchant for old folk songs with riddling lyrics. It’s fantasy that draws much of its power from leaving you in the dark.

There are many things going on in this novel. What is Nathaniel and his son’s fear and longing? It could be what we would now call depression, or a more existential dispute with the lives they lead. The doctor diagnoses Nat with “life-sickness”; there’s a pervasive feeling that the Dorimarites have forgotten how to really live in their comfort and security. They have become fearful of the unknown, but as one character suggests:

There’s no bogey from over the hills that scares one like Time. But when one’s been used and one’s life to seeing him naked, as it were, instead of shut up in a clock, like he is in Lud, one learns that he is as quiet and peaceful as an old ox dragging the plough.

What is the meaning of the fairy? At first I thought the kerfuffle over the fairy fruit was just a good ol’ moral panic; substitute the fruit for whatever vice you like, drugs, communists, homosexuality. There is always something queer about fairies anyway, but here the word could almost be a synonym. To queer something is to make it strange, to see it in a new light. But there also really does seem to be something menacing about the faerie, in their subterfuge and willingness to commit murder. The novel has a curiously conservative resolution, which sees the town’s corrupted political class only barely disturbed, despite the pointed satire that appears throughout. The revolution here is an personal one, not a political one.

Mirrlees’ writing is persistently strange. She conceives of flowers in a garden as a “sort of punctual surprise”. A flash of a kingfisher, a fox running through the grass are “terrestrial comets”. While sometimes this imagery feels strained, it is often lovely (as when the ridiculous dishes served at the aristocrats’ dinners are described as “a series of tragic sonnets”), and serves the novel’s wider themes, that “there is a not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy”. It’s a book that has a lot on its mind.

Gay rating: not gay

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