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February, 2006 : Criticism:

Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand

Mortal Love
By Elizabeth Hand
HarperCollins, 2005
384 pp.
ISBN 0060755342

The paperback publication of Elizabeth Hand’s Mortal Love affords a fresh opportunity to consider an outstanding novel. From the beginning, Hand has been an ambitious writer, and this book is no exception. In the space of three hundred and sixty-four pages, we meet late-Victorian luminaries, mad painters and musicians, Americans abroad, and exiled Faeries. Through a pair of linked plots, Hand tells a story of desire, fantasy, and art, of the wounding of a land and the possibility of its healing. The novel gives much to consider; it contains (to borrow from Auden) “beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.” If, as Nabokov said, literature is what we are rereading, there is no doubt that Mortal Love is literature, and of the highest order.

The novel moves quickly, its speed facilitated by Hand’s decision to employ a style that is more pared down—though no less lyric—than that of such previous novels as Waking the Moon. If we are to discuss the book, then we must of necessity slow it down, separate out the elements that combine to make it succeed as well as it does. There are three aspects of Mortal Love that most demand commentary: its arrangement; its first two, framing chapters; and the paired narratives that comprise its principal subject. The novel consists of three movements: it opens with a pair of chapters that frame the stories to come; then proceeds to its main narratives; then moves to a third and final section that weaves the voice of the second chapter back into the narrative. The book’s structure is illustrated in a scene towards the end of one of its principal plots. The young American painter, Radborne Comstock, is shown an unfinished painting by its creator, the mad artist Jacobus Candell. The piece is oval, small, “less than two feet in height and half that in width,” and initially Comstock cannot make sense of it, because “Candell had begun painting from the outermost edges in, but in a peculiar spiraling fashion, so that one’s eyes traveled around and around, seeking the center.” Gradually, Comstock’s vision adjusts, and he is able to see that Candell has painted a “procession, a long skein of figures that began at the bottom of the oval and wound inward.” Although the painting’s center, the procession’s destination, is incomplete, Comstock sees “a slit or crevice in the middle of the painting,” which is surrounded by “the faintest outline of a door or tunnel.”

Like Candell’s painting, Mortal Love is built on the spiral: it loops in on itself, bringing various narrative strands in and out of view as it closes on its center. At that place, there is a slit, a crevice through which characters and reader will pass together.

The novel begins on a dark and stormy night in 1872, with Dr. Thomas Learmont. Safely ensconced in an inn in Northern England, Learmont is reading a letter from an old German colleague. This letter describes a young woman Dr. Hoffman (1) had attempted to treat in his hospital/sanitarium. Calling herself “Isolde” after the female lead in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, (and, of course, after the legends informing the opera), this woman met her end in a fire that reduced her to ashes. Hoffman’s letter prompts Learmont to a pair of revelations. The first is that, apparently, Learmont has not aged appreciatively in the last thirty years; the second is that, as a boy, he had a sexual encounter with a strange “woman by the river.” The memory of that meeting leads him to destroy his old friend’s letter, and then to burn himself deliberately on the candle by which he has been reading. The scar that results is the latest of many, some of them obviously self-inflicted, others “the fan-shaped imprints of a hand.”

The opening scene lays out much of the novel to come in shorthand: the tryst with a mysterious woman whose touch scars, which leads the one she has touched to continue to mutilate himself afterwards; the equally enigmatic woman who associates herself with legendary/mythic figures, hovers at the borders of sanity, and disappears into death; the probability that these women are one and the same. Perhaps the principal difference between Learmont and the other men who have met this woman is that he is not driven to create art, the almost universal effect an encounter with her engenders. Instead, Learmont devotes his energies to tracking manifestations of the art she inspires and, when the opportunity arises, to capturing her and one of her artists. (2)

The second half of the first chapter is devoted to a meeting between the (real) English poet, Swinburne, (3) and the (invented) painter, Jacobus Candell. Candell leads Swinburne deep under London, to the ruins of Roman Londinium and beyond, to an ancient space through a crack in whose wall spills emerald light. Peering through this crevice, Swinburne sees “a green world,” a fantastic place whose sensual effect is overwhelming. Eventually, the aperture closes, the other world retracts, leaving Swinburne and Candell in the dark. Yet they are exultant: with a cry of, “Cunt!” Swinburne lurches back to the surface. His exclamation is no mere obscenity; instead, it is one of the novel’s core images. Time and again in Mortal Love, we meet openings, slits and crevices from which issue forth all manner of marvels and into which the characters travel. Although all the point-of-view characters in the novel are male, its underlying sexual symbolism is female. Unlike phallic imagery, whose emphasis cannot help but be on penetration, vaginal imagery encompasses both penetration and parturition; it is a more dialectical symbol.

This aspect of the book is clarified in its second chapter, which switches from third to first person and introduces Valentine Comstock. Raised on an island off the coast of Maine, Val is the grandson of Radborne Comstock. Val is first a foundling, left at his father’s massive house by a mother whose identity he has never known, and then an orphan, his father dying when his sloop is lost at sea. Val’s older brother, Simon, assumes his guardianship; although the actual task of raising him falls to Red, the house’s caretaker, who, the novel hints, is not what he seems.

At the age of six, Val discovers a room full of his grandfather’s final paintings, done after Radborne Comstock had made his money and tastes in art had moved on. Idiosyncratic, increasingly stylized, these paintings elaborate a personal mythology. Val describes one canvas, of a naked woman, apparently asleep, lying “on top of a mossy rock.” Studying the picture, Val sees that ”(s)ilvery green spilled from the cleft between her legs. At first,” he proceeds, “I thought it was fog. But it wasn’t fog; it was light falling from a tiny lantern, held by one man.” This man appears to be the guardian of a door, and Val realizes that the woman’s sex “was a door—a tunnel, opening in the mossy cleft and leading…” he isn’t sure where. Beside the doorkeeper, Val is sure he can see “an entire crowd” of other figures, “some tiny and others not small at all, giants they would be if only I could see them clearly.”

While he is still gazing at his grandfather’s work, Val hears a woman’s voice asking him to remember her. The request ends with a word he does not recognize but nonetheless understands is a name, (his (true) name). This experience spurs Val on to his own artwork, in which he is precocious, talented, and encouraged by Red, who ransacks the house to provide Val with his grandfather’s supplies. Val creates his own fantasy world, Ealwearld, full of “labyrinthine trees that metastasized into vast yew cities” and “long-eyed warriors.” When he reaches puberty, Val’s attention fixates on the woman in his grandfather’s painting, whom he names Vernoraxia and whom he incorporates into his art, “a woman who was a vast tree, with boles for breasts and leaves for eyes and a mouth that opened into another, hidden country where even stranger creatures lived.” Eventually, Val’s imitation of Radborne’s painting becomes even more explicit: “There was Vernoraxia, her hands pulling her knees apart so that you could see the army issuing from between her legs, women riding greyhounds, men whose heads were on backward.”

Once again, Hand uses painting to encapsulate Mortal Love’s central concerns. The artwork in the novel’s second chapter makes clear the significance of female sexual imagery to the book. It also makes explicit the sexual subtext of the (male) artist-(female) muse relationship. The paintings of Vernoraxia cut two ways. On one hand, the image leaves no doubt as to the source of the creativity sparked by the artist-muse relationship; in this way, it might be said to de-mystify that relation. On the other hand, the image not only perpetuates the idea of woman-as-creative-source, it mythologizes it, subsuming individual relations between specific men and women into something resembling a universal principle.

It does more, besides. Desire is the engine that powers the literature of the fantastic; albeit often in a highly sublimated form. Pop the hood of any number of adventure fantasies, and you find a fairly straightforward power-fantasy throbbing underneath, the (male) hero employing his (big, magical) sword to defeat all enemies and gain the princess for himself. (Interestingly, the hero’s goal often seems less the princess herself than the potency that obtaining her will indicate; she is a marker that verifies the hero’s ability to perform.) More sophisticated fantasies play with this subtext, critique it and expose its limitations, suggest the price such fantasies exact. What Hand does in Mortal Love is to put everything on the table, to make desire part of the discussion, rather than its hidden point. Raising the subtext into the text is always a risk; there is the chance that the novel will collapse in on itself. But Hand is a talented enough writer for her dare to succeed. In Mortal Love, it is not so much that sex is the meaning of fantasy as it is that sex and fantasy are part of the same, larger process. This process is the operation of the self upon the world, the way(s) we interact with the world, attempt to project ourselves onto it.

Like Learmont, Val has an encounter with the mysterious woman. This occurs when he is fourteen, during a party his older brother is throwing at the house. As Val is wandering from room to room, he sees the woman from his grandfather’s painting standing before him. They have brief, furious sex, but once Val is finished, he discovers that the woman is gone, replaced beneath him by one of his brother’s friends. Unlike Learmont, Val bears no scars of the encounter, nor is he driven to mutilate himself; not long after this experience, however, Val assaults his older brother when he finds him and his friends riffling through his drawings. His brother suffers a concussion, and Val is diagnosed with a seasonal bipolar disorder for which he is medicated. By and large, the medication helps to stabilize Val’s behavior, but it does so at the cost of his creativity.

It is not hard to see Val’s medication at the late twentieth century’s answer to Learmont’s brick-and-mortar hospital, both of them ways of containing the mentally ill, and specifically, mentally ill artists. This strand will be picked up later in the novel, when we meet a present-day Learmont, (most likely the same Learmont from more than a century prior), who has developed a drug, Exultan, for use in treating mental illness. While Hand does not proselytize, the novel expresses a concern with the ways in which behavior judged deviant by the mainstream is controlled. The book does not assert that no one should be treated for mental illness, but it does cast a highly critical eye in that direction.

Following the opening two chapters, the novel proper begins. It is worth lingering at the threshold a moment longer, though, to offer a few observations. The use of two chapters about two different people, (four, counting Swinburne and Candell), foregrounds the importance of doubles and doubling to the novel. Mortal Love is deeply concerned with perspective, with the ways that different narratives illuminate one another, generating more meaning together than either could alone. It is deeply interested in desire, an interest its title underscores. There are several meanings of “mortal love.” It refers to the love of mortal beings; it references the mortality of love itself; and it suggests a love that may prove mortal, i.e. fatal. The first and to some extent the third implications of the title have been at work in the opening chapters; as the novel progresses, all the meanings of mortal love will play themselves out.

The principal stories of Mortal Love deal with two men, both Americans, in England. As with the opening chapters, one narrative is set in the past, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the other in the approximate present. The contemporary story focuses on Daniel Rowlands, a critic and journalist who has taken a leave of absence from his newspaper to write a critical study titled Mortal Love. Its subject is to be the Tristan and Isolde story, whose origins and various manifestations Daniel intends to trace. He has rented a flat in London’s Camden Town but, despite having been in the UK for two months, has accomplished very little in the way of actual work. In the nineteenth century narrative, we meet Radborne Comstock, a young painter who has come to London to fulfill a fantasy of living in one of the great metropolises of his day. Unlike Daniel, who visits London as a tourist from the great imperial power of the times, Radborne crosses the Atlantic very much as a cultural post-colonial making the pilgrimage to Mother England. (4) His dreams, however, have run up against the rather grimy reality of London, and he is running out of money.

Both Daniel and Radborne meet a mysterious woman—ultimately, the same woman; or rather, essentially the same woman, manifest in two different avatars. To Daniel, she is Larkin Meade, an old flame of his folk-rock friend, Nick Hayward, who introduces Daniel to her. Daniel quickly becomes infatuated and obsessed with her. To Radborne, she is Evienne Upstone, one of two patients at the Cornish asylum to which he comes to work at the invitation of its director, Thomas Learmont. The mysterious woman reveals her true identity to Radborne; although he takes her words to be an indication of her madness. Looking out her window at the sea, Evienne tells Radborne that there was a kingdom there, once, that is now in ruins. “Long ago,” its queen, grown restless, was lured away from her throne and her consort by “a painting of a place she had never seen.” In search of that place, the queen wandered the world and became lost in it. Unknown to her, her husband pursued her and also became lost. Eventually, the queen came to the edge of the world and leapt off, into the sea. As she was falling, “flames consumed her.” Her consort “called upon the sea to quench the fire, but not even the sea could do so.” “Beneath the water she is burning still,” Evienne declares, before identifying herself as the queen.

Here is the heart of the story, whose implications it will take the remainder of Radborne’s narrative and most of Daniel’s to clarify. The kingdom, whose geography links it to the lost kingdom of Lyonesse, we may call Faerie. At some point in the far past, its queen has succumbed to the temptation to abandon both duties and husband in favor of this world. She has been lured by art, by the human capacity for creation, and while she loses her way in this world, her fascination for art does not fade, leading her to adopt the role of muse. Yet her inspiration is not free, as an encounter with her raises scars physical and mental. She is like one of Rilke’s angels: to be drawn to her is to be drawn painfully nearer a greater, more intense existence; yet when she leaves, the pain of losing her is even worse. To know her is to suffer a wound that can not be healed. It can only be assuaged by making art.

In this way, Hand develops her concern with artistic inspiration. The paintings of the Faerie Queen highlight the sexual dynamic in the artist-muse relationship; the story behind those paintings emphasizes the role loss and obsession play in the artist’s psyche. Of course, it is difficult not to be reminded of Edmund Wilson’s famous study, The Wound and the Bow, which finds the wellsprings of art within the wounded artist. Cathy Caruth’s more recent investigation into the relation between trauma and art, Unclaimed Experience, is also relevant, particularly her assertion that it is not only that the artist has been wounded into making art, but that the artist creates art through her/his wounding.

However, Mortal Love is more than the story of a muse fatale, and this is indicated by Radborne and Daniel’s encounter with two different versions of the Faerie Queen. Although she is so long-lived as to be practically immortal, in this world, the Queen must die and be reborn every generation. Part of her reason for seeking out artists is to find a way of clarifying and thus stabilizing her latest incarnation. This is a fine symbol for the way that the muse is reimagined by each generation; indeed, by each artist; as well as for the continual recasting of Faerie. But it also indicates a tremendously unstable existence, one oppressively cyclical. The Faerie Queen’s life in our world is another spiral: she inspires men to art, but only art about her, art that defines her. As time goes on, she brings old art about her to inspire her new lovers to further art about her. (She has done this with Nick Hayward.) The spiral continually tightens, becoming increasingly claustrophobic, incestuous.

As in Evienne Upstone’s story, the Faerie King has also come through to our world. His interest is not in art, but in finding the Queen. Hand spends less time with the conditions of his existence, but he appears locked into the same cyclical pattern as the Queen. What is more, the novel strongly suggests that his avatar is birthed by the Queen following her congress with a mortal man, the child of that union taken away to be raised somewhere else and then to begin his quest for her.

Those familiar with Elizabeth Hand’s previous novels, especially Waking the Moon and Black Light, may notice similarities between them and Mortal Love. Once again, there is a dangerous, supernatural woman; once again, our world is revealed to be linked to a magic one; once again, powerful figures inhabit the novel’s background, (apparently) manipulating events in the foreground to their own ends; once again, the concern with art and artists. There are important differences, however, that distinguish this novel from its predecessors. Where both Waking the Moon and Black Light concern efforts to bring ancient supernatural forces back to our world—to reconstitute them—in Mortal Love, the supernatural forces have already come through, have in fact been here for a long, long time. Their departure has cast their own realm into disarray; indeed, many of the secondary characters, (including Val’s guardian, Red, and Dr. Juda Trent, who appears in both narrative strands), are former inhabitants of Faerie, refugees in our world. Rather than being a place of power, Faerie is itself suffering from an ongoing wound; it is, in the literary-historical sense of the phrase, a waste land. Nor can the supernatural figures in the novel, especially the Faerie Queen, be said to represent the same global threat to humanity that the moon goddess, Othiym, and the Horned God do in the earlier novels. While the Queen’s touch leads to scarring and madness, such is not her intent. She is seeking definition through the artists whose work continues to fascinate her. Indeed, enthralled as she is by human art, the Queen’s weaknesses seem as profound as her strengths. In the earlier novels, that which has been exiled from our world seeks to find a way back in, promising chaos with its return; in Mortal Love, our world is itself a place of exile, and the emphasis will turn, ultimately, on returning those exiled to it to their home. The novel has more in common with Hand’s recent novellas, “Cleopatra Brimstone” (2001) and “The Least Trumps” (2002). Like “Cleopatra Brimstone,” Mortal Love concerns a wounded yet powerful woman. Like “The Least Trumps,” Mortal Love’s ultimate concern is with an act of healing. There has been a sundering, now there must be a repair, which involves a sorting out, as two worlds that have become too entangled are allowed to be themselves again. (5)

As Daniel and Radborne’s stories continue, and the novel spirals onward, Val’s narrative strand weaves in and out and in again. Increasingly, Val emerges as a synthetic figure, bringing together the roles of artist and madman; in this regard, he is reminiscent of Jacobus Candell, with the key difference that he has a number of pharmacological treatments for his illness that Candell—who meets a spectacular end—does not. As the novel moves with increasing speed, and events build to a head, it is no surprise to learn that Val has a crucial role to play in it all.

At the novel’s climactic moment, we venture with Daniel through the passage that leads to the green world, to Lyonesse, to Faerie. He has pursued the Faerie Queen, who, reunited with her consort at long last, has fled to the Cornish coast, to the site of Learmont’s former hospital, and through to her former kingdom. There, Daniel finds the Queen and King sleeping together in a bower, vulnerable, and confronts a stark choice: violence or renunciation, perpetuating the wounding of the other or embracing his own wounding. In order that things be set right, Daniel must renounce, which he does, and in this narrative move, it is hard not to be reminded of Tolkien, of the renunciation at the heart of The Lord of the Rings (1954–55). Indeed, in its concern with renunciation, not to mention with Faerie, Mortal Love is in many ways Hand’s most Tolkien-esque fantasy. (6)

The novel ends with Daniel writing—a novel, having abandoned his plans for an academic study in favor of the consolations—and sublimations—of art. He is reminiscent of the protagonists of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and The Biographer’s Tale, who decide that, rather than writing about the thing, they should try writing the thing itself. It is tempting to say that, through his renunciation, Daniel has achieved something none of the other artists we have met—and who have been alluded to—have been able to, and that the book he is writing will be better for it. But this is to impose too much wishful thinking onto the novel, since the ending indicates that, renunciation or not, Daniel has been wounded, so deeply all he can do to heal himself is make art. Of course, it will not work, but in the meantime, it may suffice.


  1. Hoffman’s name is, of course, an allusion to E.T.A. Hoffman (1776–1822), the German writer whose stories often self-consciously evoke the fairy-tale mode, and whose protagonists frequently move from our world to a fairy world. [Back]
  2. Readers familiar with Hand’s other work, especially Waking the Moon and Black Light, may wonder whether Learmont is in fact one of the Benandanti, the world-wide organization dedicated to reigning in and containing the primal supernatural forces that held sway over primitive humanity. Though Hand never answers the question definitively, there is circumstantial evidence that Learmont is a member of the order. He has the preternaturally long life of a Benandanti; presented with the opportunity to contain a supernatural creature, he does so; when Hand brings Balthazar Warnick, the Benandanti who featured in Waking the Moon and Black Light, onstage for a cameo appearance in this novel, it is in Learmont’s company. If this is the case, it would make the latter-day Learmont’s connection with the drug Exultan part of something more sinister than immediately seems to be the case. [Back]
  3. Who, it is worth noting in the context of a novel that alludes to the Tristan story, wrote a poem titled Tristram of Lyonesse (1882). [Back]
  4. Daniel and Radborne’s relations to England as an Imperial power bear directly on the "postcolonial" reading of the novel Farah Mendlesohn suggests in her review of Mortal Love in the January, 2005, New York Review of Science Fiction. Indeed, the shift in the perspective on England from Imperial Center to Tourist Destination would seem to relate to the shifting view of the Faerie Queen and King the novel presents. [Back]
  5. We can and perhaps should invoke John Clute’s idea of the Instauration Fantasy here, particularly its emphasis on the healing of a wounded world (especially a healing that succeeds where others have failed); the amnesia of important characters; and the crosshatching of different realities. Although a Clutean reading of Mortal Love would be provocative, I am not sure how it would address the novel’s emphasis on the sorting out of the magical from the mundane—what Clute might otherwise call an act of Thinning—in order to return both magical and mundane to health and plenitude. [Back]
  6. We might also ponder Mortal Love’s connections with The Silmarillion, especially given Tolkien’s concern in that book with exile, amnesia, and redemption. [Back]

Copyright © 2006, John Langan. All Rights Reserved.

About John Langan

John Langan's fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; his non-fiction has been published in Lovecraft Studies, Fantasy Commentator, and The Thomas Ligotti Reader (2nd ed.). He lives in Upstate New York with his wife and son.


Feb 9, 13:52 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of John Langan's criticism -- or Elizabeth Hand's book.

The article is here.
Feb 9, 17:19 by Neile Graham
Just wanted to say thank you for this clear-sighted look at a wonderful, complex novel that hasn't yet received its just acclaim. This is by far my favourite of the Hand's novels, and indeed was one of the two or three best books I read in 2004.
Feb 12, 19:14 by John Langan

Thanks for the kind words; glad you liked the essay.


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