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Hope Mirrlees Papers

Reference Code: GBR/2911/MIR

Scope and Contents

The Mirrlees Papers consist of 23 boxes of papers and 3 large cartons of research notebooks that now form 8 series. The bulk of the material, including most notebooks, is research for her biography of Sir Robert Cotton. 'A fly in amber', vol I, was published in 1962; vol II, 'The lost pearl', finished but not published, is also in the archive. There are research notebooks on other topics, travel albums, and articles. There is also poetry, in particular 'Moods and Tensions' (extensive notes and several versions, the last of which was published in 1976), unpublished poems, and essays. (Series 5-8.)

Hope Mirrlees was interested in and proud of her family's background and wrote a 'pedigree' of her mother, Emily Lina Moncrieff. Family history and photographs form part of the archive. There is also a signed photograph from TS and Valerie Eliot. (Series 3-4.)

It was a great surprise to discover hitherto unknown materials on Jane Ellen Harrison, the classical scholar with whom Hope Mirrlees worked and lived for the last six years of Harrison's life. (She died in 1928.) There are 2 boxes of papers, probably gathered for background information for the biography that Mirrlees and Jessie Stewart (Newnham 1897-1901) had hoped to write, with correspondence, lectures (including course notes for lectures on Russian), and photographs. The letters from Mabel Malleson (Newnham 1877-80) to her mother are particularly revealing, with detailed descriptions of her travels with Harrison in Europe in 1881-2. Also important are the 2 boxes of Mirrlees's correspondence with friends and family, with graphically descriptive letters to her mother of life in Paris with Jane Harrison in the 1920s. (Series 1-2.)

The Mirrlees family used nicknames extensively within their own circle. These are explained when and where they occur, though it was quite a challenge to identify those that were more eccentric: 'Terrier Tooth', 'Sneezor Snay,' etc, and inevitably a few family members remain unnamed; as do many in early photographs. Many files contain undated material as well as specific dates listed in the catalogue.


  • Creation: 1878 - 1978

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is available to researchers at Newnham College Archive

Biographical / Historical

Helen Hope Mirrlees, writer and poet, 1887-1978

Hope Mirrlees was born on 8 April 1887 at Erpingham, Chislehurst, Kent, the eldest child of William Julius Mirrlees (WJ) and Emily Lina Moncrieff (Lina, 'Mappie'). Her parents were both Scots: her father a successful industrialist from Glasgow, and her mother from a well established Edinburgh family. Although they produced six children, only three survived to adulthood: Hope, her sister Margaret (Margot) who married army officer Aubrey (Bolo) Coker, and her brother William (Reay), who became a major-general. Hope was educated in South Africa, where her father's businesses were located, and then in Scotland at St Leonard's School, Edinburgh. After a brief stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she chose classics over acting and became a student at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied under the tutelage of Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) from 1910-1913. The two quickly became close friends and remained so for the rest of Harrison's life. (See also the Jane Harrison Collection at Newnham College.) Hope Mirrlees was reputedly a very bright young woman, striking to look at, with a beautiful voice.

After leaving Newnham (without taking the tripos), she made several trips to Paris, including one with Karin Costelloe (later Mrs Adrian Stephen) in 1913, and several with Jane Harrison, whose heart specialist lived there. They would stay at the Hotel de l'Elysée, 3 Rue de Beaune, on the left bank, and discovered the Ecole des Langues Orientales close by, where they enrolled in a course on Russian. Their annotated course books can be found in 1/2/4. They continued to study Russian, which Jane Harrison taught at Newnham for three years from 1919, and in due course together translated 'The life of the archpriest Avvakum, written by himself' and 'The book of the bear', a collection of short stories.

Mirrlees's first novel, 'Madeleine, one of love's Jansenists' (published 1919), was set in Paris in the 17th century. 'Paris', an experimental poem of 600 lines, part English, part French, and possibly her best work, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1920 and hand set by Virginia Woolf herself, whom Hope had met the previous year. (Alas, no notes or manuscripts for either of the above, or her other two novels exist in this archive.) When Jane Harrison retired from Newnham in 1922, she and Hope Mirrlees moved to Paris where Mirrlees continued to write, producing two more novels: 'The Counterplot' in 1924 and 'Lud-in-the-mist' published in 1926. It was in 1923 that they met and befriended Prince Dimitry Mirsky, at whose urging they translated 'Avvakum' and who himself wrote the preface. After miserable, mean accommodations at the start, they moved to the American University Women's Club, pure luxury by comparison, until 1925. Mirrlees's letters to her mother describe in detail their daily lives in Paris and at the Club (2/1/3). After travelling in the south of France, they returned to a small house in Mecklenburg Street, London, where Harrison's health continued to deteriorate and where, diagnosed with leukaemia in 1925, she died on 15 April 1928.

This was a great blow to Mirrlees. She converted to Roman Catholicism, probably in 1929, and lived with her mother (her father having died in 1924) next to the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington. The biography of Jane Harrison that she was planning to write in consultation with Jessie Stewart, also a former student and lifelong friend of Harrison's, never materialised. However, she collected letters and reminiscences from Harrison's friends, and herself produced many rambling pages of notes (see the Harrison Collection). But in the end, couldn't or wouldn't write about her dear friend. Jessie Stewart's biography, based on the letters from Jane Harrison to Gilbert Murray, was finally published in 1959, more than 30 years after Harrison's death.

Mirrlees then began work on the biography of the seventeenth century antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton. But it was another 30 years before it was published. As noted in the description of these papers, the Cotton biography research is immense. During much of this time she continued to live with her mother, latterly in Shamley Green near Guildford, where TS Eliot was a house guest during the Second World War. After her mother's death in 1948, Mirrlees relocated to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa where she continued to write the biography of Cotton. In 1963 she returned to England and settled in Headington, Oxford, devoted as always to her dogs. Her sister lived in nearby Bicester.

With Margot, she travelled extensively in Europe, America, and the east in the 1960s (6/1/1-3). In 1970, 'Lud in the mist' was republished by Ballantyne Books and subsequently has been reprinted several times, both in the UK and the US. In 1972 Suzanne Henig wrote an article about Hope Mirrlees in the Virginia Woolf Quarterly, which also reprinted a version of 'Paris', much changed by its author to eliminate perceived blasphemies. Mirrlees died at Thames Bank, Goring, on 1 August 1978, a few short months after her sister, who had died that April, the Cotton biography finally completed and ready for publication.


23 archive box(es)

5 outsize box(es)

Language of Materials


Related Materials

The Jacques Doucet Library at the Sorbonne holds letters relating to Hope Mirrlees' conversion to Catholicism.

Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Newnham College Archives Repository

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