The young ladies who attend Miss Primrose Crabapple’s finishing school have a new teacher:
Their new dancing-master was a tall, red-haired youth, with a white pointed face and very bright eyes. Miss Primrose, who always implied [to her pupils] that it was at great personal inconvenience and from purely philanthropic motives that their teachers gave them their lessons, introduced him as ‘Professor Wisp, who had very kindly consented to teach them dancing,’ and the young man made his new pupils a low bow, and turning to Miss Primrose, he said, ‘I’ve got you a fiddler, ma’am. Oh, a rare fiddler! It’s your needlework that has brought him. He’s a weaver by trade, and he dearly loves pictures in silk. And he can give you some pretty patterns to work from – can’t you Portunus?’ and he clapped his hands twice.
Whereupon, ‘like a bat dropped from the rafters,’ as Prunella, with an inexplicable shudder, whispered to Moonlove, a queer wizened old man with eyes as bright as Professor Wisp’s, all mopping and mowing, with a fiddle and bow under his arm, sprang suddenly out of the shadows.
‘Young ladies!’ cried Professor Wisp, gleefully, ‘this is Master Portunus, fiddler to is Majesty the Emperor of the Moon, jester-in-chief to the Lord of Ghosts and Shadows ... though his jests are apt to be silent ones. And he has come a long long way young ladies, to set your feet a dancing. Ho, ho, hoh!’
Need I add that Professor Wisp’s dancing lessons do not end happily? For characters in Lud-in-the-Mist suffer from the same inability as those in a Dickens novel, the inability to notice that a person’s name reflects his personality. ‘Professor Wisp’, for instance, hardly inspires confidence, does it? I wouldn’t entrust my daughter to him...
(Cover of the US first edition of Lud-in-the-Mist, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1927, found here; the novel has not been well served by its cover designers but this one is pretty)
Lud-in-the-Mist, published in 1926, is, in the author’s own words, ‘A Story of Smuggling, Kidnapping and Adventures on the Borders of Fairyland’. If you like classifying novels, this is a tricky one: a fantasy, a comedy (in the older sense) perhaps, a thriller, an allegory, related in jewel-like prose and a wry tone. The setting is Dorimare, a small but prosperous land in what I took to be a sort of early nineteenth century. Lud-in-the-Mist is Dorimare’s capital, a busy port whose life is dominated by a successful and rather complacent mercantile class which for centuries has rejected ‘the tragic sense of life’ from any art or poetry in favour of pragmatism and common sense. Unfortunately for the good burghers, the western border of Dorimare is shared with Fairyland, a country representative of all they fear and despise. However, while even the word ‘fairy’ is taboo in Dorimare, fairy fruit is regularly smuggled in. The eating of fairy fruit, with its unnatural colours and addictive flavours, is strictly forbidden as it causes outbreaks of ‘madness, suicide, orgiastic dancing, and wild doings under the moon’ as well as philosophising and daydreaming. And yet people do consume the banned fairy fruit, traces of an older and more fanciful Dorimarite culture – when fairies were welcome – persist in oaths, proverbs and ancient art, and not everyone in Dorimare is quite as rational as they might appear to be.
One such man is the Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nathaniel Chanticleer. Outwardly successful and all that Dorimare esteems, secretly he is prey to an unDorimarite terror of the unknown. When his son Ranulph starts behaving oddly, Chanticleer fears that he has eaten some fairy fruit and anxiously summons Dr Endymion Leer. Leer prescribes a restorative holiday for the boy at the Widow Gibberty’s farm (Widow Gibberty! Again, I wouldn’t entrust my child to someone called Widow Gibberty), some distance to the west of Lud. But strange things are afoot – visions, bleeding coffins, absconding young ladies. Defrocked – are mayors defrocked? Sacked? – as he is, after a bewigged clockmaker’s apprentice plants a stash of fairy fruit in his house, Chanticleer must solve an old murder and restore harmony to the nation.
(Photograph of Hope Mirrlees, undated; found here)
This brief outline might suggest that the fairy fruit is a metaphor for hallucinogenic drugs, and Lud-in-the-Mist has been interpreted by some as a pro-narcotics text. I find that metaphor too narrow and, even if you do not, both fairies and fruit are depicted in too complex a manner to act as a wholehearted endorsement for them. The fruit causes madness and suicide as well as dreaming and philosophy and Fairyland is the land of the dead. Instead, Mirrlees includes as an epigraph a quote from Jane Harrison, the classics scholar with whom she had a very close relationship, which suggests we might see fairy fruit as stimulating:
the impulses in life as yet immortalised, imperious longings, ecstasies, whether of love or art, or philosophy, magical voices called to a man from his man from his ‘Land of Hearts Desire, and to which if he hearken it may be that he will return no more [...]
Thus, while neither fairies nor Fairyland are idealised, they do represent an important dimension of human experience: the Dionysiac. And Euripides showed us the dire consequences of repressing that side of ourselves (but Lud-in-the-Mist is a happier and less brutal tale than The Bacchae). Officially Dorimare turns its back on all that, but in fact as a culture it hasn’t completely stifled its imaginative side: fairies have infiltrated it, fairy fruit is regularly brought into it, satisfying a craving which some Dorimarites feel, while the similarity of the names Chanticleer and Leer suggests that the two men are not so very different from each other after all.
Lud-in-the-Mist dramatises the healing of a sick society, but healing comes at the price of comfort. It requires an acceptance of the shadow side of life, of the pain and pleasure of love, and of the horror of death. Belatedly, Chanticleer discovers a powerful love for Ranulph, to save whom he will rise to heroic deeds. This self-sacrificing love, sharpened by a fear of loss, is in stark contrast to the affectionate tolerance which most Dorimarites consider to be love (and when their daughters dance away to Fairyland, nobody is bothered enough to rescue them). Mirrlees had, of course, lived through the First World War, a conflict which destroyed so many lives and left no one in Europe untouched. How does a society come to terms with that sort of loss? I cannot help thinking that this grief and fear lurks between the lines of Lud-in-the-Mist.
It is also a funny novel and just a bit bonkers. Ho ho hoh! I love it!