1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

Harriet Martineau, Obituary in The Daily News (1855); Martineau, Biographical Sketches (1869) 37-43.



Miss Mitford was old, having been born in December, 1786. Her decline was so protracted that there could he no surprise or shock mingled with the sorrow which the English public could not but feel on the occasion of her death. After a fall from her pony-chaise in the autumn of 1852, her life was understood to be very precarious. The interest which was taken in her state might appear to be disproportionate to her abilities and her achievements; but if so, there must be a reason for it, and the reason is that she was so genial and so cheerful as to command the affection of multitudes who would have given no heed to a much higher order of genius invested with less of moral charm. There is nothing so popular as cheerfulness; and when the cheerfulness is of the unfailing sort which arises from amiability and interior content, it deserves such love as attended Mary Russell Mitford to her grave. Her ability was very considerable. Her power of description was unique. She had a charming humor, and her style was delightful. Yet were her stories read with a relish which exceeded even so fair a justification as this — with a relish which the judgment could hardly account for; and this pleasant, compelled enjoyment was no doubt ascribable to the glow of good spirits and kindliness which lighted up and warmed everything that her mind produced. She may be considered as the representative of household cheerfulness in the humbler range of the literature of fiction.

Her tendencies showed themselves early. She took up the pen almost in childhood, and was an avowed poet, in print, before she was four-and-twenty. However hard was her filial duty when she was herself growing old, she had all her own way in her early years; and her way seems to have been to write an immense quantity of verse as the pleasantest thing she could find to do.

She was born at Alresford, in Hampshire. Her father was a physician, one of the Northumberland family of Mitfords. Her mother was the child of the old age of a Hampshire clergyman, who had seen Pope, and been intimate with Fielding. Her father was, as it is understood, disliked and disapproved, if not despised, by everybody but his devoted daughter, whose infatuation it was to think him something very great and good; whereas there seems to be really nothing to remember him by but his singular and unaccountable extravagance in money matters, and the selfishness with which he went on to the last, obtaining, by hook and by crook, costly indulgences, which nobody else in his line of life, however independent of creditors, thought of wishing for. Dr. Mitford ran through half-a-dozen fortunes, shifted about to half-a-dozen grand residences, and passed the last quarter of a century of his life in a cottage, where, humble as seemed his mode of living, he could not keep out of debt, or the shame of perpetual begging from the friends whom his daughter had won. His only child was carried about, before she was old enough for school, from Alresford to Reading; from Reading to Lyme, and thence to London, where, when she was ten years old, her father was making up his mind to retrench and do something at last — a resolution which went the way of all the former ones. It was at that time the well-known incident happened which Miss Mitford related with so much spirit half a century afterward.

The little girl chose for a birthday present a lottery ticket of a particular number, to which she stuck, in spite of much persuasion to change it, and which turned up a prize of 20,000. This money soon disappeared, like some 40,000, which had vanished before. Her father put her to school in London, and there she spent five years, while he was amusing himself with building a very large house, four miles from Reading, to which she returned at the age of fifteen, to write poetry, and dream of becoming an authoress. After 1810 she put forth a volume almost every year. This was all done for pleasure; but she was meanwhile giving up to her selfish father one legacy after another, left to herself by the opulent families on both sides, after her mother's handsome fortune was exhausted; and hence at length arose the necessity of her writing for the sake of the money she could earn.

In their poverty they went to lodge for a summer at a cottage in the village of Three Mile Cross, near Reading, and there they held on for the rest of Dr. Mitford's long life. The poetess looked round her, and described in prose what she saw, sending the papers which, collected, form the celebrated Our Village, to Campbell for the New Monthly Magazine. Campbell made the mistake of rejecting them — an error in which he was followed by a great number and variety of other editors. It was in The Lady's Magazine, of all places, that articles destined to make a literary reputation of no mean order first appeared. They were published in a collected form in 1823; and from that time forward Miss Mitford was sure of the guineas whenever she chose to draw for them in the form of pleasant stories under her well-known and welcome signature. Few of her many readers, however, knew at what cost these pleasant stories were produced. They seem to flow easily enough; and their sportive style suggests anything but the toil and anxiety amidst which they were spun out. It is observable that each story is as complete and rounded as a sonnet, and provided with a plot which would serve for a novel if expanded. Each has a catastrophe — generally a surprise, elaborately wrought out in concealment. It was for stories of this kind that Miss Mitford exchanged the earlier and easier sketches from the Nature around her which we find in Our Village; and the exchange increased immensely the call upon her energies. But the money must be had, and the Annuals paid handsomely; and thus, therefore, the devoted daughter employed her talents, spoiling her father, and wearing herself out, but delighting an enormous number of readers. After frittering away the whole day, incessantly on foot, or otherwise fatiguing herself, at his beck and call, and receiving his friends, and reading him to sleep in the afternoons till she had no voice left, the hour came when she might put him to bed. But her own day's work still remained to be done. It was not a sort of work which could be done by powers, jaded like hers, without some stimulus or relief; and hence the necessity of doses of laudanum to carry her through her task. When the necessity ceased by the death of her father, her practice of taking laudanum ceased; but her health had become radically impaired, and her nervous system was rendered unfit to meet any such shock as that which overthrew it at last. Miss Mitford so toiling by candlelight, while the hard master who had made her his servant all day was asleep in the next room, is as painful an instance of the struggles of human life as the melancholy of a buffoon, or the heart-break — that "secret known to all" — of a boasting Emperor of All the Russias.

While this was her course of life, however, she was undergoing something of an intellectual training, together with her moral discipline. All this reading to her father, and the impossibility of commanding her time for any other employment than reading by snatches (except gardening), brought her into acquaintance with a wide field of English literature; and some of it of an uncommon kind. The fruits are seen in one of her latest works — her Notes of a Literary Life; and in her indomitable inclination to write Tragedies for immediate representation. Several of her plays were acted; and she herself was wont to declare that she should be immortalized by them, if at all; moreover, there are critics who agree with her: yet her case certainly appears to us to be one of that numerous class in which the pursuit of dramatic fame is a delusion and a snare. In no other act or attempt of her life did Miss Mitford manifest any of those qualities of mind which are essential to success in this the highest walk of literature. It does not appear that she had any insight into passion, any conception of the depths of human character, or the scope of human experience. Ability of a certain sort there is in her plays; but no depth, and no compass. Four tragedies and an opera of hers were acted at our first theatres; and we hear no more of Julian, Foscari, Rienzi, or Charles I. At first the difficulties were imputed to dramatic censors, and the great actors, and injudicious or lukewarm friends; but all that was over long ago. The tragedies were acted, and we hear no more of them. It is true Mr. Colman did refuse his sanction to Charles I. when it bore the name Cromwell (an amusing incident to have happened in the reign of poor William IV., whose simple head was very safe on his shoulders); and it is true that Young and Macready wrangled so long about the principal characters in her first acted play, that the tantalized authoress began to wonder whether it would ever appear: but the plays have all appeared; and they do not keep the stage, though Miss Mitford's friends were able and willing to do all that interest, literary and dramatic, can do in such a case. All the evidence of her career seems to show that her true line was that in which she obtained an early, decisive, and permanent success — much humbler than the Dramatic, but that in which she has given a great deal of pleasure to a multitude of readers. Her descriptions of scenery, brutes, and human beings have such singular merit that she may be regarded as the founder of a new style; and if the freshness wore off with time, there was much more than a compensation in the fine spirit and resignation of cheerfulness which breathed through everything she wrote, and endeared her as a suffering friend to thousands who formerly regarded her only as a most entertaining stranger.

Dr. Mitford died in 1842, leaving his affairs in such a state, that relief for his daughter had to be obtained by a subscription among her friends and admirers, which was soon followed by a pension from the Crown. The daughter inherited or contracted some of her father's extremely easy feelings about money, and its sources and uses; but the temptation to that sort of laxity was removed or infinitely lessened when she was left alone with a very sufficient provision. She removed to a cottage at Swallowfield, near Reading, in 1851; and there, with her pony-chaise, her kind neighbors, her distant admirers, and the amusement of bringing out a succession of volumes, the materials of which were under her hand, she found resources enough to make her days cheerful, even after the accident which rendered her a suffering prisoner for the last two years of her life. She remained to the end the most sympathizing and indulgent friend of the young, and the most good-humored of comrades to people of all ages and conditions. However helpless, she was still bright: and her vitality of mind and heart was never more striking or more genial than when she was visibly dying by inches, and alluding with a smile to the deep and still bed which she should occupy among the sunshine and flickering shadows of the village churchyard. Finally, the long exhaustion ended in an easy and quiet death.

Though not gifted with lofty genius, or commanding powers of any sort, Miss Mitford has been sufficiently conspicuous in the literary history of her time to claim an expression of respect and regret on her leaving us. Her talents and her character were essentially womanly; and she was fortunate in living in an age when womanly ability in the department of Letters obtains respect and observance, as sincerely and readily as womanly character commands reverence and affection in every age.