1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 63-66



"In our village," — I take the description as I find it, for it is a capital imitation of the manner and style of the subject of this notice, — "we have an authoress too, and her name is Mary Mitford. Now, let nobody suppose that Mary, on account of the pretty alliteration of her name, is one of the fine and romantic young ladies who grace pastorals in prose and verse. On the contrary, our Mary is a good-humoured spinster of a certain age, inclined, we do not know whether with her own consent, or not, to embonpoint, and the very reverse of picturesqueness. There are, however, very few girls in our village, or twenty villages beyond it, that can dress up so pretty a basket of good-looking and sweet-smelling natural flowers, all of the true English soil, not foreign and flaunting like the flaring dahlias that one class of bouquet-gatherers thrust under our noses with so much pretence, nor smelling of turf and whiskey like the strong-scented bog-lilies which are offered to us by the basket-women of the provinces nor yet at all resembling the faded imitation roses picked up in secondhand saloons, and vended as genuine posies by draggletail damsels, who endeavour to pass themselves off as ladies' maids, generally without character. And Mary's basket is arranged in so neat, so nice, so trim, so comely, or, to say all in one word, so very English a manner, that it is a perfect pleasure to see her hopping with it to market."

This amiable and accomplished lady was born at Alresford, in Hampshire, December 16, 1786. Her father, George Mitford, M.D., appears to have been one of those men who manifest an extraordinary talent in getting rid of money; — in whose cases the total disappearance "without a wreck behind," of any given sum, — whether earned, inherited, borrowed, gained, accepted, or what not, — is simply a question of time. In this manner went all his own fortune, which was considerable; the sum settled upon his wife, bequests from relations; legacies left to his daughter at various times, and a sum of 20,000, won in a London lottery, — the lucky number, 2224, having been fixed upon, and pertinaciously adhered to, in spite of the difficulty in obtaining it, by little Mary, when just ten years old!

Then came the actual necessity of literary exertion, — and that of a remunerative kind. At her career as a woman of letters, the briefest glance must suffice. In dramatic literature she has displayed no inconsiderable ability, and is known as the author of several plays which enjoyed a fair share of success at the time of their appearance. Of these may be mentioned Julian, and Foscari, as most striking in dramatic power; together with Rienzi, which Macready thought "an extraordinary tragedy, — for a woman to have written." Another drama, — Charles the First, which really seems to me ultra-royal in tendency, was suppressed, like the Alasco of Sir Martin Archer Shee, R.A., by George Colman, the deputy Licenser for the Stage, acting under the authority of the Lord Chamberlain. Both plays appear alike innocent to me, and I am at a loss to understand their exclusion from the theatre. Miss Mitford has also written a volume of Dramatic Scenes (1827, 8vo), marked by much vivid and pathetic action. These, however, will hardly survive; neither, too, her minor poems, spirited and graceful as some of them are. It is rather by her Belford Regis, and Our Village, that she must hope to be remembered by posterity. In these works we are presented with a series of pictures of English country life, painted at once with the minute fidelity of a Flemish artist, and the refined grace of a pure-minded and educated lady. The papers known in their collected form as Our Village, were at first offered to Campbell, the poet, for publication in the New Monthly Magazine, but were unaccountably rejected by him as unsuitable; and the Lady's Magazine (1819) had the honour of giving them to the world. They were next collected in one volume, in 1823, a second series appeared in 1826; a third in 1828; a fourth in 1830, and a fifth in 1832. These simple and natural delineations of English country life at once found favour with the public, and will, in all probability, continue to be read. They charm one in youth, and, like a blind man's bride, retain all their freshness and beauty for us in "hoary eld." When heated from the lava-flood of modern and foreign fiction, it is refreshing to turn to these pure and tranquil streams, where we seem, as it were, to experience a spiritual rebaptism, and the perturbed soul regains a wholesome serenity.

In 1837, a literary pension of 100 per annum was conferred upon Miss Mitford by Lord Melbourne; a sum the exiguity of which she did not find derogatory, when she reflected that it was the same as was bestowed upon Felicia Hemans and Mary Somerville.

On the death of her father in 1832, — she had lost her mother in 1830, — she left the cottage at Three-Mile Cross, where she had lived so long, and which she loved so well. Here Haydon, says S. C. Hall, in his Memoirs, had "talked better pictures than he painted," — here Talfourd had brought the delightful gaiety of his brilliant youth, — here Amelia Opie, Jane Porter, Cary (the translator of Dante), and a host of others, had visited the authoress in her humble home, and made her shabby little parlour more glorious by their presence than a regal saloon. It was to Swallowfield that she migrated, — a few miles from Strathfieldsaye, the doors of which were ever open to her; and Eversley, where Charles Kingsley lived and laboured, and whence he would often come to enjoy a rest and chat in Mary's cosy cottage.

It is sad to record that the lot of one who composed for us such pure and graceful episodes of English life was not itself easy and devoid of care. It was, indeed, hardly so; a literary career, even when successful is fraught with frequent anxiety and disappointment, and that of Mary Russell Mitford was no exception to the rule. Her latter days were, to some extent, clouded over by narrow means and disease, she put the last touches to her novel Atherton, as a letter to her constant friend, Mr. Bennoch, informs us, "when very few people could even have held a pen." Finally, esteemed and regretted by all who knew her, she died at her residence, Swallowfield Cottage, near Reading, January 10, 1855 aged 68. Three days before her death, — in almost her last letter, — she wrote: "It has pleased Providence to preserve to me my calmness of mind clearness of intellect, and also my power of reading by day and by night and, which is still more, my love of poetry and literature, and my enjoyment of little things."

As materials for her biography we have her own Recollections of a Literary Life and Selections from my Favourite Poets and Prose-writers (1851, 3 vols. 8vo), — a made-up book, singularly deficient in interest, with an almost entire absence of personal recollections of any kind whatsoever. It must not therefore be sought for as an autobiographical narrative; but, in her own words, as an attempt to make others relish a few favourite authors as she relished them herself. Then we have the Memoirs and Letters of Charles Boner, with Letters by Mary Russell Mitford to him during Ten Years, edited by R. M. Kettle (2 vols. Bentley 1871, 8vo); the Letters of Mary Russell Mitford, edited by Henry Chorley (1872, 2 vols. 8vo); an article by the writer last mentioned in the Quarterly Review, No. cclv., January, 1870, on "Miss Austen and Miss Mitford;" the Life of Mary Russell Mitford, etc., related in a Selection from her Letters to her Friends (1870, 3 vols. 8vo); The Friendships of Mary Russell Mitford, in Letters from her Literary Correspondence edited by the Rev. A. G. L'Estrange (1882, 8vo); an obituary notice in the Gentleman's Magazine (vol. xliii. p. 428); the Memories (of Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall; and lastly, some very interesting "Recollections of Miss Mitford," published soon after her death in the Art Journal, to which they were contributed by her faithful and confidential friend, Mr. Francis Bennoch, a city merchant, with additions by the editor of that admirable serial.

In person, Miss Mitford was certainly, if the truth must out, like Thomson, "more fat than bard beseems." She was described by Jerdan with truly British lack of gallantry, as "short, rotund and unshapely." My friend, Mr. S. C. Hall, from whom better things might have been expected, talks of her as a "stout little lady, tightened up in a shawl," and alludes to her "roly-poly figure, most vexatiously dumpy." This latter is the very phrase which Jerdan says Lord Byron was wont to apply to women of her build. Obnoxious, however, as all these phrases are, they can hardly be thought misapplied to a lady whose appearance elicited from so kindly and refined a person as "L. E. L." (Miss Landon) the poetess) the exclamation: "Good heavens! a Sancho Panza in petticoats!" In her manners, this much maligned lady was easy, amiable and interesting, as in her writings, — teste Jerdan, — natural, intellectual and delightful. The lineaments of her outward woman are preserved to us in her portrait by Haydon, prefixed to her Dramatic Works, 1854 another by S. Freeman, in her Recollections; a third, in La Belle Assemblee, for June, 1823, after a painting by Miss Drummond, another in the New Monthly Magazine, for October, 1831; a charming stippled head, engraved by Thomson, from a drawing by I. R. Say, giving a favourable idea of the kindliness of her humour, and the keenness of her powers of observation, and lastly, the engraving from the well-known portrait, painted by her friend, John Lucas, — the preference shown to which, over that painted by Haydon, awoke ill-feeling in the mind of the jealous artist, and an estrangement for a time between him and the fair authoress. This latter portrait, — that by Lucas, I mean, — was presented by Miss Mitford to her friend, Mr. James S. Fields, the eminent publisher of Boston, U.S.A., from whose pen we have Yesterdays with Authors (1872, 8vo), where the letters of Miss Mitford, from 1848 to 1854, occupy pages 263-350 of the volume.

There may be some who will thank me for recording a very charming book, in which an acute and kindly foreign observer has given us his own impressions of English country life, with especial reference to its institutions, social and educational. This is entitled La Vie de Village en Angleterre; ou Souvenirs d'un Exile (Paris, 1862, 8vo), and, though published without the name of the author, may be stated to have been written by M. Charles de Remusat.

Mary Russell Mitford was buried at Swallowfield, in a spot chosen by herself, where now a simple granite cross marks the resting-place of one of the most simple, graphic, and unaffected of our female writers.