1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 43 (April 1855) 428-30.



Jan. 10. At Swallowfield Cottage, near Reading, aged 68, Miss Mary Russell Mitford, the author of "Our Village."

Miss Mitford was born at Alresford, in Hampshire, on the 16th Dec. 1786. She was the only child of a physician, who died a few years ago, and her mother was the only daughter of the Rev. Dr. Russell, of Ashe, in Hampshire, a man of scholarship and letters. Her father, as her own "Reminiscences" have told us, was a sanguine, cheerful, and speculative man, who tried physic, played at whist, spent every one's money, and something more (including a 20,000 prize won in a lottery), and made every living creature about him love him, lend to him, and forgive him. To this love and to his extravagance his daughter's life was sacrificed.

Miss Mitford's education, from ten to fifteen, was received at the school of Madame —, in Hans-place, Chelsea.

"At this school," says she, in the introduction to her Dramatic Works, (well known afterwards as the residence of poor Miss Landon,) "there chanced to be an old pupil of the establishment, who having lived, as the phrase goes, in several families of distinction, was at that time disengaged, and in search of a situation as a governess. This lady was not only herself a poetess (I have two volumes of verse of her writing), but she had a knack of making poetesses of her pupils. She had already educated Lady Caroline Ponsonby (the Lady Caroline Lamb of Glenalvon celebrity), and was afterwards destined to give her first instruction to L. E. L., and her last to Mrs. Fanny Kemble. She was, however, a clever woman, and my father eagerly engaged her to act by me as a sort of private tutor, or governess out of school hours. At the time when I was placed under her care, her whole heart was in the drama, especially as personified by John Kemble; and I am persuaded that she thought she could in no way so well perform her duty as in taking me to Drury Lane whenever his name was in the bills." The results of this training are graphically told by Miss Mitford in the introductory preface to her dramas. No other influence seems to have proved so powerful on her subsequent literary career, except, perhaps, her eager perusal of the dramatic works of Voltaire and Moliere, and her recollection of the dramatic exhibitions at Reading School, under the famous Dr. Valpy, of which she was always a spectator.

Of her first appearance as an author she thus pleasantly speaks in the same autobiographical memoir. "In my very early girlhood I had followed my destiny, as a pupil of Miss Rowden, by committing the sin of rhyming. No less than three octavo volumes had I perpetrated in two years. They had all the faults incident to a young lady's verses, and one of them had been deservedly castigated by the 'Quarterly.'" "Mr. Gifford, she adds, "afterwards made amends for the severity of his strictures on the young girl's book, by giving a very favourable and friendly notice of the first series of 'Our Village.'" The volumes in question all appeared in 1806; one was filled with miscellaneous verses, and the others with two poetic narratives, in the style of Scott, — "Christina, the Maid of the South Seas," founded upon the story of the "Mutiny of the Bounty"; and "Blanche," a Spanish story. Another of her early productions was "Watlington Hill; a Poem," printed in 1812, by A. J. Valpy, 12mo. It is dedicated to James Webb, esq. and William Hayward, esq. having been "written chiefly for their amusement," and commemorates the coursing performed at that locality by the "celebrated greyhounds belonging to Messrs. Newell, Hayward, Webb, Hunt, and Mitford." For her favourite greyhounds Miss Mitford retained her partiality, and she is drawn with them in some of her portraits.

Her passion as an authoress was dramatic composition, and her principal works which made their way to the public stage were "Julian," 1823; "Foscari," 1826; "Rienzi," 1828; and "Charles the First." She has related with great frankness many interesting details connected with their production. "Rienzi" had a temporary success; and, among other critics of mark, we are told that "Maria Edgeworth, Joanna Baillie, and Felicia Hemans vied in the cordiality of their praises." The author of "Ion" also cheered her by his advice and sympathy; through his suggestion it was that she wrote her next best play, "Foscari." "Julian" "was suggested by the first scene of the 'Orestes' of Euripides, which happened to be given that year at the Reading School." About this time she wrote also an opera, called "Sadak and Kalasrade," the music of which was composed, by Mr. Packer: it was produced at the Lyceum, but did not prove successful. Her "Charles the First" was suppressed by George Colman, the licenser, as of dangerous principles, though the spirit of the piece was ultra-loyal, and, as the author herself said, "in taking the very best moment of Charles's life, and the very worst of Cromwell's, she had, in point of fact, done considerable injustice to the greatest man of his age." It was at length produced at the Coburg Theatre.

To the magazines, the annuals, and other periodicals, Miss Mitford's contributions were numerous. At length, in the sketches of "Our Village," she hit upon the vein most profitable in its direct advantages, and most favourable for her literary reputation. It is mentioned as an instance of lack of editorial discernment, that these papers were originally offered to Thomas Campbell for the New Monthly Magazine, and rejected by him as unsuitable. The Lady's Magazine had the honour of first bringing these charming papers before the public, about the year 1819. The general verdict of popular taste has approved of "Our Village," as presenting true sketches of English rural life, while a warm and cheerful tone of kindliness and domesticity pervades the work. Those who look for romance and excitement in what they read, have little patience for scenes so quiet and homely; but there will always be a goodly number of sympathizing admirers of Mary Russell Mitford's stories. Happy both for herself and for her readers was it, when, in the words of her own affecting narrative, "the pressing necessity of earning money, and the uncertainties and delays of the drama at moments when disappointment or delay weighed upon me like a sin, made it a duty to turn away from the lofty steep of Tragic Poetry to the every-day path of Village Stories."

Four other volumes of sketches were added, the fifth and last in 1832. For her work entitled "Belford Regis; or, Sketches of a Country Town," the neighbouring town of Reading suggested the materials. It is included in the series of "Standard Novels." In Mrs. Johnstone's "Edinburgh Tales," 1845, are four by Miss Mitford: "The Freshwater Fisherman;" "Country-Town Life;" "Christmas Amusements, Stories and Characters;" "and Old Master Green."

She afterwards published a volume of "Country Stories" (included in "The Parlour Library," vol. 39, 1847); one of "Dramatic Scenes," and edited three volumes of "Stories of American Life by American Authors;" and also four of the annual volumes of Finden's Tableaux.

In 1852 Miss Mitford produced her "Recollections of a Literary Life; or, Books, Places, and People," in three volumes, 12mo. This was not a personal narrative, but "an attempt to make others relish a few favourite authors as heartily as I have relished them myself." However, the anecdotes and reflections which form the bulk of the book, while rendering it delightful reading, furnish the best illustrations of the writer's taste and character.

A new edition of "Our Village" appeared in the same year, and in 1854 her Dramatic Works were collected in two volumes 12mo. The first volume contains the four tragedies we have already named. In the second are, "Sadak and Kalasrade," in two acts; "Mer de Castro," in five acts; "Gastron de Blondeville," in three acts; "Otto of Wittelsbach," in five acts; and eleven shorter pieces, entitled "Dramatic Scenes." These had been previously published in the London Magazine and in various annuals. Her last work was "Atherton, and other Tales," 1854, 3 vols. 8vo.

Very pleasant is the picture of the peaceful evening of her life in her cottage home in Berkshire, as given in her own pages, and in those of kindred hearts who have visited her. In some recent American records of travel, there are gratifying notices of Mary Russell Mitford in her old days. Declining health, and an accident about three years ago from her pony-chaise being overturned, have required greater seclusion of late; but the active and genial disposition of her mind remained, and she has passed away amidst regrets which surviving writers may well be ambitious of equally meriting.

Miss Mitford's Portrait by Haydon is prefixed to her Dramatic Works, 1854.