"Whatever happens, some day it will look beautiful": Hope Mirrlees' Paris
Hope Mirrlees, English poet, novelist, and translator, was born in the North of England in 1887, and was, as Mary Beard writes, an "insistent, and often flamboyant, presence on the margins of Bloomsbury and the rest of literary London for much of the first half of the twentieth century." Yet her presence in literary history is vague, and her publications (translations from Russian with the classicist Jane Harrison, criticism, the long poem Paris, of 1920, and three novels, Madeleine, One of Love's Jansenists (1919), The Counterplot (1924), and Lud-in-the-Mist (1926)), though well received by contemporary critics, including Virginia Woolf, are now long out of print, with the exception of her final novel, Lud in the Mist, which has enjoyed for the last thirty-odd years minor cult status amongst readers of fantasy.
Mirrlees appears in Virginia Woolf's diaries as a weekend visitor and correspondent, and in T.S. Eliot's letters as the close friend whose family provided him refuge at their house Shamley during the Second World War. She surfaces briefly as a middle-aged former habitue of Bloomsbury in Anthony Powell's memoirs; is fulsomely addressed as "my daily Hope" in the correspondence of Ottoline Morrel; and is mentioned once as a visitor to 27 Rue de Fleurus in the Spring of 1914 in the pages of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Mirrlees herself left no autobiography, and her appearances in the published records of other's lives are much in the character of these: tangential, brief, with the occasional detail hinting at her intellect or her strength of personality. And strength of personality she indeed seems to have possessed: Woolf, who admired her fashion sense, and envied her facility with Greek, also described her in her diary entry of March, 1919, around the time of the composition of Paris, as “a very self-conscious, wilful, prickly & perverse young woman" (258). Despite this apparent prickliness and perversity, Mirrlees managed to maintain life long friendships with T.S. Eliot and Ottoline Morrel (she was named as one of Morrel's literary executors).
The way reputation and memory is determined from texts such as letters and diaries is a notoriously contingent process, making an assessment of a writer's life problematic at best. As much as we are able to ascertain the facts of anyone's life, here are some of Mirrlees' that arouse little argument: her intelligence is evident in her work, as is her classical education and her ability with languages. That she was beautiful is obvious from photographs. She tried a turn on the stage before going to Newnham College at Cambridge in 1910, and there also appears to have been an engagement, one quickly broken once she met Jane Harrison in Cambridge and became her star pupil, and in spirit, if not in fact, her lover. She lived with Harrison until the end of her life in 1928, and after Harrison's death she tried, and failed, to write her biography, a project which sank amidst fights over Harrison's papers which were really struggles for control over Harrison's intellectual legacy. She was wealthy, her income assured through her family's interests in sugar; she became a devout Catholic; and she lived during much of the latter part of her life in Capetown, South Africa, where she has spent part of her childhood, returning there following the Second World War and her mother's death.
Yet in all of these fragments of fact, and instances of anecdote, there is little sense of Mirrlees the writer, though her writing was both accomplished and varied. Mirrlees never repeated herself: Madeleine is a roman a clef set in 17th century France, The Counterplot a contemporary novel of manners set in an English country house (the last part of which is written as a playscript), and Lud in the Mist is a work of fantasy, complete with an enigmatic and dangerous Fairyland bordering the prosperous but unimaginative principality of Lud. Her work attracted contemporary critical attention: Virginia Woolf's guarded though generally positive review of Madeleine appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in October of 1919, and an essay on Mirrlees and Madeleine appeared in 1920 in R. Brimley Johnson's Some Contemporary Novelists (Women). "Just now", he writes, "[these writers] all count. They are conspicuously of the moment; keen to seize, and eager to present, the manifold currents of thought, experience of philosophy, that make up the big wave of mental activity thought which we have been hurried by war and its consequences." Mirrlees, by May of 1926, was recognizable enough to merit an appearance in English Vogue (alongside Elsa Lancaster) in their regular feature entitled "We Nominate for the Hall of Fame":
Miss Hope Mirrlees: Because she is the authoress of "The Counterplot", the most brilliant novel that has appeared for the past eighteen months: because her volume, "Paris", the only good dada poem in English, was the admiration of Monsieur Andre Gide: and because her erudition is equalled only by her wit.
But her work was not long remembered, and passed into obscurity with her silence following Harrison's death in 1928. The republication of Lud-in-the-Mist by American publisher Ballantine in 1970, in the wake of popular interest in fantasy sparked by the success of The Lord of the Rings, included a preface by editor Lin Carter in which he maintained that any information on the author was impossible to find, and it was in fact not known whether she was living or dead. Although, as Michael Swanwick notes in his biographical article on Mirrlees, "Hope in the Mist", Carter must not have tried very hard, as she was, in fact, still alive, and vigorously pursued royalties; an authorized edition of the book appeared in Britain two years later. Mirrlees was eventually to publish again, but not until very late in her life; her final works were privately printed chapbooks of formally conservative poems, and A Fly in Amber, one volume of a projected two volume biography of the Elizabethan antiquarian Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, published by Faber in 1962. She died peacefully in Oxford in 1978, remembered as a fringe figure, a friend of the famous, her name unattached to a lasting literary reputation.
Paris: A Poem was published as a twenty-three page chapbook in 1920 by The Hogarth Press (Virginia Woolf handset the type) in an edition of 175 copies. Woolf had urged Mirrlees to write a play or poem for the Press; and "very obscure, indecent and brilliant", she wrote of the result in August of 1919. Its obscurity can perhaps be located in its reliance on historical and mythological reference, and its brilliance in its determinedly experimental use of typographic experimentation, pastiche, juxtaposition of classical references with contemporary politics, the inclusion of scraps of overheard dialogue and musical notation, and particularly, and possibly most relevant in terms of its relation to contemporary modernism, in its polyvocality, its symphonic cascade of allusion, quotation, description, and speculation. It is also self-consciously provocative, and might fairly be called indecent: Mirrlees makes overt gestures to the Sapphic culture of the Left Bank, such as this description of a nightclub (or, just possibly, a movie theatre), where a voice identified as American speaks:
A hundred lenses refracting the Masque of the Seven
Elsewhere, Freud appears, "grinning horribly", and, having "dredged the river", "waves his garbage in a glare of electricity" (392-393); while the shade of President Wilson
grins like a dog and runs around the
There has recently been some gathering interest in Mirrlees, perhaps as a result of two recent biographies of Jane Harrison. In her review of Mary Beard's The Invention of Jane Harrison in the London Review of Books, Julia Briggs describes Paris: A Poem as:
[A] (pre) surreal tour through the postwar city on the eve of the Treaty of Versailles, a grotesque dance of the quick and the dead, featuring, among others, President Wilson, Freud, the Douanier Rousseau and Père Lachaise, father of the uncountable war dead … its readership remained strictly limited; those, like T.S. Eliot, who did read it, never forgot it.
The reference to Eliot here is suggestive: both Paris in Paris: A Poem and London in The Waste Land share an imagined physical and psychic cityscape which is at once both political and mythological, modern and ancient. Michael North writes of 1922 as a watershed year, seeing the publication of the great canonical texts of high modernism, Ulysses and The Waste Land; but those works, of course, did not spring as anomalies from isolated minds, but from a culture of artistic conversation, of response and imitation, and multi-directional currents of intellectual investigation. Paris can be positioned with this conversation, though its readership appears to have stayed within her own circle, and Mirrlees never submitted the poem to one of the little magazines where it might have found publication, and where it would have appeared beside other texts performing similar experiments with both the physical placement of text on the page and the exploration of daring thematic material. The French avant-garde also provides important context: Briggs notes in her review that Apollonaire is a primary influence on Paris, and I would add here particularly Apollinaire's Zone of 1913, which may be acknowledged within the poem in a reference to the Eiffel Tower as "two dimensional/Etched on thick white paper". Cocteau is also a possible influence, which brings other elements (the cinematic and the theatrical) into consideration, while Mirrlees' knowledge of Russian implies an acquaintance with contemporary artistic movements in Soviet Russia.
The narrator of Paris relays her experiences, thoughts and visions to the reader as she moves through the city; over the course of the work she negotiates her way from the Metro, through the Tuileries, and eventually, at evening, back to her room at "the top floor of an old Hotel", where she gazes, "tranced", down at the narrow rue de Beaune. On the way, during a day and a night, she passes the evidences of history in both corporeal and incorporeal form: she sees paintings in galleries, observes children playing in the public gardens, sees Hesiod's ghost, the Roman Legions, and Pere LaChaise walking the streets, notes the scents of lilac, vermouth, and tobacco, hears church bells (she provides musical notation) and imagines kingfishers flying over, and haunting, the Seine. Mirrlees makes both her gender and her authorship evident in the first page of Paris; the text begins with a statement of desire, one which is quickly followed (or perhaps answered) by a question: "I want a holophrase” and “Vous descendez, Madame?" One is the imperative of sense and reason, the desire for a wholeness of understanding which goes beyond language; the other is an interruption, a phantom voice which both breaks into the narrator’s reverie and locates her gender specifically as female. She is addressed formally, and given a formal title; the questioning voice here is solicitous and servile. But within the field of symbolic experience created by Mirrlees, this voice also resonates with myth, becoming that of the greeter to the Underworld, an inhabitant of Hell who speaks to Mirrlees as she rides the Metro and passes beneath a Seine which could just as easily be the Styx.
In the poem's first few lines we are met, as is the narrator, with a rush of advertisement, a squall of print jostling for space with the names of Metro Stations. The language of the advertising sign mingles with musings on the ancient; human figures from Etruscan tombs make an appearance, as does Aristophenes ("brekekekek coax coax", the chorus from The Frogs, demonstrating Mirrlees' ability to be at once cultured and vulgar), in a chaos of overlapping reference:
"Vous decendez Madame" becomes here both an invitation and a statement of intention. Met with the response "I can't/I must go slowly" Mirrlees asserts her control over the rush of sound and image with which she is confronted, and establishes in the text the presence of a mediating intelligence, one which throughout the poem selects and examines the history and monumentality of Paris. Her gaze is not only mobile, but so powerful that it in turn mobilizes the shades and traces of history, situating, for example, the torrent of modern advertising within the ancient representational logic of prophetic revelation: "The Scarlet Woman shouting BYRHH and deafening St. John at Patmos" figures the Revelation of St. John not as a message of the downfall of Rome, but instead that of the selling of fortified wine.
Walking through the imagined and physical landscape of Paris, Mirrlees' vision encompasses shiftings of time and space:
I see the Arc de Triomphe,
There is a long tradition of representations of the city of Paris to be found in French literature, from Baudelaire to Breton; and Mirrlees' exploration of the city echoes other works of this tradition, which seek to describe and textually contain the experience of urban Paris through both registering its literal monumentality, and through the invocation of the ghostly embodiments of past event. Margaret Cohen notes, in her reading of Breton's Nadja (1925), that:
The uncanny effects of Parisian places, Breton suggests, derive from effaced historical memories that continue to cluster around the place of their occurrence in invisible but perceptible form. The notion of Paris as a city haunted by ghosts, above all the ghosts of violent death, is moreover, familiar from a lineage of Parisian representation important to Breton … and also one with which the master theoretician of the uncanny [Freud] himself was also familiar. (83)
Paris: A Poem draws on this same complex tissue of historical memory and present reality: "I wade knee-deep in dreams", writes Mirrlees, and one of the most remarkable effects in the reading of this work is that of the experience of simultaneity. Everything that has ever happened in Paris, Mirrlees implies, is still happening, a continuo of event to which she has visual access and to which she applies her interpretative tools of language and education. Benjamin writes in The Arcades Project, in his notes on historical materialism, that "history decays into images, not stories" [N11,4], and it is images of history which fill the pages of this text: time is not stopped, but coexists with every other time, and time and space fold in on each other in a way that suggests that Mirrlees may have been paying close attention to Einstein, as well as the suspension of time, and the freezing of the image, made possible by the technologies of dynamic watching established by the invention of film.
This genre of literary representation, that of the recording of the sensations of city life as experienced during the negotiation of urban space, is typically a masculine one, and its agent is the flaneur, the man whom Baudelaire describes as "the perfect spectator" in Le Peintre de la vie moderne, and who is, as Anne Freidberg notes, "resolutely male, an observing prince who was allowed the paradoxical pleasure: to be at home away from home, in the midst of the world and yet hidden from it, impassioned and yet impartial, here and yet elsewhere". (29) He is sophisticated, a taster of the pleasures of the city, certainly a dandy, perhaps a dilettante. Sally Munt writes of the gendering of the act of flanerie that "[t]he flaneur is a hero of Modernity… His origin, in Paris, traditionally genders his objectification as masculine, his canvas, or ground, as feminine." (115) She goes on to add (parodically) that "[a]s pure male essence his visual trajectory projectile is uncorrupted—he sees windows, not mirrors." (117) It is the penetrating, even totalizing gaze which is the definitive act of the flaneur, a vision which is activated in, and by, the urban crowd; and his primary action is to watch not only the events and scenes of the urban landscape, but particularly, and inevitably, women.
When a woman walks down a city street, she leaves a trail of meaning; she cannot but be marked, visible, a signifier. Her appearance carries weight; that she occupies space is problematic. A woman in public troubles: she is irregular, unconfined. And yet she does appear, despite Janet Wolff's assertion that the "the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century rendered the flaneuse impossible." (45) The flaneuse is, in fact, possible, though she takes different forms than that of the flaneur of Baudelaire or Benjamin. While the flaneur as theorized by Benjamin is inherently male, the flaneuse is largely theorized as a consumer, though she may also occasionally be seen as lesbian, free to self-invent as a flaneuse in part because she acquires sexual agency through her freedom from the heterosexual binary (Sally Munt writes that "within contemporary lesbian writing we encounter a specific, even nostalgic, image of the stroller as a self-conscious lesbian voyeur" (119)). But the flaneuse is still seen as a woman whose agency derives from her freedom to spend money, not to cruise for sexual partners, and her public tracks are primarily those of the shopper, while the evidence of her presence is a collection of purchases. Anne Freidberg writes that:
The female flaneur, the flaneuse, was not possible until she was free to roam the city on her own. And this was equated with the privilege of shopping on her own … Shopping, like other itinerancies of the late nineteenth century—museum and exhibition going, packaged tourism, and, of course, the cinema—relied on the visual register and helped to ensure the predominance of the gaze in capitalist society.
A female consumer does possess an economic agency which counteracts the usual reading of the female body in public space, which is that she herself may be for sale, a consumable body; yet this reading of the flaneuse as consumer can be seen as reductive, or even as a problematic variation of the figure of the prostitute. The prostitute earns her money at the intersection of public and private space, and is also, typically, the woman watched by the flaneur and therefore his counterpart; but both prostitute and flaneuse in this reading are enmeshed in a primary economic construction of the city, confined to a binary of payment and exchange.
This does not allow for Mirrlees's acts of witness and recording. As Mirrlees explores the streets, she assumes the position and subjectivity of the flaneur without anxiety and with no evident conflict; she is a woman moving through public space who is there to watch and to interpret, rather than to be gazed upon. And though it must be noted that the British Mirrlees is capable here of assuming such a position specifically because of her foreignness, her wealth and class, implying that the act of flanerie is enmeshed in questions of power, leisure, and freedom, and not exclusively those of gender, Mirrlees is still a witness to the city life, and as such fulfils the function of the flaneur, rather than enacting the role of flaneuse within purely economic terms. The streets of Paris become in this work a site for the creation of female subjectivity, accomplished through Mirrlees' mobility and her capacity for observation.
Paris might at first seem to be a work which uncomplicatedly reverses the masculine gaze of the flaneur, but it might be more accurate to say that the text supplants the flaneur's gaze, making use of the evaluative and sophisticated vocabulary and relation to public life which defines the outsider's view; as such, it may be possible to read Paris as evidence of a modernist fracturing of the conventional masculine gendering of the public sphere, or as evidence that the masculine becomes, eventually, no longer monolithic but permeable to the female gaze. In Mirrlees' Paris, seeing becomes a transformative act; she invites us to consider the city of Paris as not an object but a process, an ongoing construction of collective memory, one where the muse of history stills the waters of the present:
Whatever happens, some day it will look beautiful:
Mirrlees stills the streets of Paris through her own walking, moving in the footsteps of the both the muse and the flaneur, at the threshold of public life and private perception. This vision of Clio, and of redemption through time, and the continual creation of beauty in the formation of historical record, does, perhaps, allow for the eventual primacy of the visual rather than the narrative in history, as Benjamin suggests; but Mirrlees might add that the story is encoded in the image, and, perhaps, that the image, and the seeing of the image, is, in itself, the story.
This paper was presented at the Women in Motion Interdisciplinary Conference, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, 2003
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