"Lud-in-the-Mist" was first published, to both some incomprehension and some critical success, in the 1920s. It opens with, as an epigraph, a reflection by the author's friend and sometime-collaborator, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, on the otherwise inexpressible longings revealed in myth. The setting is the land of Dorimare, which is certainly not England, but is something like it; just as the seaport of Lud-in-the-Mist is not exactly London in the Fog. For one thing, England never had such remarkably *interesting* neighbors as does Dorimare -- at least not across any merely geographical border. Not that the solid, and increasingly stolid, burghers of Lud have any intention of acknowledging Fairyland or its inhabitants. That nonsense was all done away with in a glorious (but not The Glorious) Revolution, by their brave, revered, but (now) embarrassingly enthusiastic, ancestors, who chased the last Duke, and the Priests, off to -- well somewhere over the border.
The story is, among other things: a cold-case murder mystery, with a play-by-the-rules solution worthy of John Dickson Carr or Dorothy Sayers; a psychological drama of self-discovery and generational conflict; a critique of British middle-class culture, including an aesthetic defense of aristocracy, ceremony and (by implication, or historical association) Roman Catholicism, against drab and (also by implication) Puritanical commercial modernity; and, above all, one of the finest adaptations of British fairy lore I have seen, effortlessly including in its scope medieval and Elizabethan versions, modern folklore, and even academic interpretations.
Oh yes -- there is also the matter of that forbidden Fruit, or in strict legal terms in Dorimare, since the stuff, officially speaking, doesn't really exist, those illegally imported textiles.
Obviously, some genuine issues are engaged, but never in a heavy-handed manner; they give a little weight to what might otherwise be a frothy and inconsequential story about madwomen dancing, and dead men harvesting the fields of fairyland. The book invites applications, but needs none. There are, as indicated, resemblances to English history. But there are too many differences to read it as an allegory (or as taking a position for or against a specific religion, rather than an attitude toward life), instead of what Tolkien called a sub-creation.
The names of the characters (both major ones, like the Mayor, Nathaniel Chanticleer, and Doctor Endymion Leer, and such minor figures as Professor Wisp, Ambrosine Pyepowders, and Miss Primrose Crabapple) are a mixture of real, if sometimes odd or overblown, English names, often Biblical or classical, and interesting variations on them. At least one family seems to have thought that anything medieval-sounding was not only old but impressive -- even if the family name comes from beast-fables, and is rather less dignified than they might like to think it.
The language of the characters is mostly rather nineteenth-century (including some memorable euphemistic "oaths" which aren't actually Victorian, but should have been). There are some indication of social rank by speech level; but no lapses into "comical" rusticisms or cockneyisms for no other purpose than amusing the reader. Some of the "old" or "traditional" verse and prose quoted or read by characters in the book is authentic sixteenth and seventeenth-century literature, some is adapted, and some is original; but the joins are seamless (at least to the eyes of this English major), and their presence lends a sense of layered history and culture.
New readers consistently have greeted it with enthusiasm; many of those who like the book seem, indeed, to love it. But, for some reason, it seems that it has to be rediscovered -- in its own terms, brought back from over the Debatable Hills and through the Elfin Marches -- every few decades. (Actually, its obscurity in Britain during the grim 1930s, 1940s and 1950s is easy enough to understand; it is the need to seek out used copies in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, after the book's revival in the 1970s, which I still find surprising. The existence of an ASCII text on-line since 1993 -- an admirable thing in itself -- has not been a real substitute.)
At the moment "Lud-in-the-Mist" seems to be doing unusually well (may it long continue!). There was a North Books hardcover edition in the Twelve-Point series in 1998, followed by a Millennium Fantasy Masterworks paperback edition in Britain (Gollancz, 2000; with a cover too mysterious to be misleading, but too dramatic to be quite accurate, and an introduction by Neil Gaiman). Currently available are American hardcover and paperback editions from Wildside Press (2002; with a tasteful Pre-Raphaelite cover, John Everett Millais' "Ferdinand Lured by Ariel"). A German translation (by Hannes Riffel) was just published, as "Flucht ins Feenland" (2004; with a lovely, if too insectile, vision of fairyland for the cover); it includes an epilogue by Michael Swanwick, on Hope Mirrlees and her work. And back in the U.S., a Cold Spring Press paperback is scheduled for April 2005. An abundance of Fairy Fruit, after too long an embargo. (And if you don't know what *that* means, well, you haven't yet read the book; I can't imagine anyone who has forgetting it.)
I am familiar with three older editions. These are: the original W. Collins Sons edition (London, 1926), examined briefly, but intently, shortly after reading the first paperback edition; the mass-market paperback Ballantine Adult Fantasy version (dated March 1970) which reintroduced it to the world, with an enthusiastic, but uninformative, introduction by Lin Carter, and a lovely scene-setting wraparound cover of the town and the rivers, by Gervasio Gallardo; and the second Ballantine printing (after the company had been acquired by Random House, as A Del Rey Book, dated August 1977), dropping the introduction and the Adult Fantasy label, and with a cheerful, and accurate, cover by Michael Herring, portraying Mayor Chanticleer (but I prefer Gallardo's).
I have not seen the Pan-Ballantine reprinting of 1972, in which the book (reportedly) returned to print in Britain by way of its American revival, nor examined in detail the more recent British and American editions, but I am going to assume that no one has tampered with the text, or subjected it to garbling in reprinting, and on that basis give them my whole-hearted endorsement. (Information on the German translation can be found at Amazon Germany, and elsewhere.)
For those who are curious about the author, there is a limited amount of information, much the most interesting of which has been researched by Michael Swanwick. From my own work with older published sources, I was aware that Helen Hope Mirrlees (1887-1978) collaborated with Jane Harrison on translations from Russian (one of which, the 50-page autobiography of the Arch-Priest Avvakum, was anthologized -- in re-edited form -- in Zenkovsky's "Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales," in print in various editions since 1963). She was listed as the author of two earlier novels, both reflecting a cultural interest in Catholicism, "Madeleine -- One of Life's Jansenists" (1921; not seen), and "The Counterplot" (1924, with a small American edition from Knopf in 1925), both long out of print. A book of verse also was published. Her announced biography of Jane Ellen Harrison never appeared, and books on Harrison's life and career were ultimately written by others, after Mirrlees' death (to the accompaniment of complaints about her failure to produce it, and her handling of the materials).
Although the 1920s encompassed most of her known works, in 1962, Faber & Faber published a "A Fly in Amber: Being an Extravagant Biography of the Romantic Antiquary Sir Robert Bruce Cotton," covering part of the life and times of a seventeenth-century collector who saved, among other things, the unique manuscripts of "Beowulf" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." (For English majors, Sir Robert is the *Cotton* in the "Cotton Manuscripts" -- his habit of putting busts of Roman Emperors on his bookcases accounts for such odd-looking catalogue designations as "Cotton Caligula" or "Cotton Vitellius.")
Mirrlees, who had been associated with the "Bloomsbury Group" (Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who published the "Avvakum" volume, T.S. Eliot, etc.), is said to have withdrawn from public life soon after Jane Harrison's death in 1928. However, she seems to have given at least a brief interview about T.S. Eliot some time in, apparently, the 1960s; a very short segment in which she describes one of "Tom's" marriages appeared on a British documentary, aired in the US on Public Television in the early 1970s, which I happened to catch.