Hope Mirrlees was born in 1887 into a wealthy family, and hung around the fringes of the Bloomsbury group; names like Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot pepper the pages of Swanwick's biography. Her masterpiece came out in 1926 (though she had previously published an epic poem about Paris in 1918), and she lived with the famous classical scholar Jane Harrison from 1913 to 1928. Swanwick concludes that she was, in a sense, cursed by family wealth; had she needed to scape a living after Harrison's death, she might have produced more works of genius, but as it was she could afford to sit back and produce a self-indulgent biography of Sir Robert Cotton, and do nothing much else for the next fifty years. She isn't a sad figure, but we readers are hungry for more.
Reading Lud-In-The-Mist, I did wonder about its influence on Neil Gaiman; he writes a preface here which is absolutely explicit about the importance of the book to his own view of fantasy. It's still not all that well known a book; Swanwick quotes this analogy:
Elizabeth Hand has compared Mirrlees to the Velvet Underground, of whose first album it has often been said that it sold only a hundred copies but everyone who bought one went on to start a band.Unlike the Velvet Underground, however, Mirrlees fell silent as a writer after Lud-In-The-Mist (also it was her third novel, coming after two much less impressive efforts). Literary one-shot wonders (one thinks also of Walter M. Miller, Daniel Keyes, and I'm sure you can think of many others) are in a sense more fascinating than those writers who buckle down and churn out a decent output for most of their career; partly because we feel sorry to have missed the unwritten sequels, but I think also because those of us who are not literary giants can still have the sneaking hope that one year we too might produce an unexpected masterpiece out of nowhere.
Swanwick's book includes an 18-page "Lexicon of Lud", explaining the meanings behind the names of the characters, places and species of the town, which helped a lot of things fall into place for me (and which I hope some enterprising future publsher will bind with Lud-In-The-Mist where it belongs). Poor marks, however, for the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. It always annoys me when relevant information is hidden at the end, far from the paragraphs to which it relates. It is even more irritating when reading a PDF version on a screen, particularly since the footnotes themselves are rather interesting; but their relationship to the text is destroyed by presenting them in this way.