1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

Anonymous, "Miss Mary Russell Mitford" La Belle Assemblee NS 27 (June 1823) 239-40.



The Lady who is the subject of this sketch has recently excited a considerable degree of public notice, as the author of a successful tragedy. Among all the triumphs of female genius, this has long been regarded as the most difficult, and has been held by many to lie beyond its grasp. Miss Baillie, indeed, has written dramatic poems, distinguished by a noble severity of style, and yet richly tinged with fancy; but these have little of the vividness of present action; little of the everlasting interchange of thought and feeling; little of the striking situation and picturesque effect which are essential to theatrical success. Other eminent female writers have here proved their weakness, and have confirmed the idea, that though women may display the finest tact of sensibility, though they may exhibit the most nice and delicate observation of character, though they may have pathos, discrimination, and energy, they will always dwell on the sentimental and the reflective — always describe rather than vivify; and while they may imagine the noblest and most varied train of images and feelings, they will want that Promethean fire which shall give present life to the whole. It is not surprising, then, that a woman who has shewn the capability of her sex to excel in the purely dramatic, should have attracted very general observation, and should have awakened more envy and jealousy, and have excited a more bitter spirit of criticism than usually attend the efforts of a lady, who does not offend the pride of man by intermeddling with paradox or with politics.

Mary Russell Mitford is the only daughter of Dr. Mitford, who has long been known as an active and able magistrate for the county of Berks. Her father is a descendant of the ancient family of his name in Northumberland, and her mother is remotely but lineally descended from the House of Russell. Miss Mitford was born in the small town of Alresford, in Hampshire, and sent at an early age for education to London. Fortunately for herself and for the public she was placed under the care of Mrs. Rowden, a lady who, herself possessing considering talent and a fine and discriminating taste, was able to discern and to cultivate the peculiar genius of her young pupil. Under her auspices the powers of Miss Mitford were rapidly developed. Her first attempts in poetry gave promise of no ordinary excellence; and, encouraged by the praises of several of her father's friends, who stood high in the estimation of the literary world, she published a small volume of miscellaneous poems. These early effusions were marked by uncommon delicacy of feeling, by a graceful vein of fancy, and by singular sweetness of metre and ease of expression. They were shortly after followed by two narrative poems, "Christina, or the Maid of the South Seas," and "Blanch," both of which possessed considerable interest as tales, and yet greater merit as poems, and were attended with considerable success. There is a vividness in these poems — a feeling of the fresh air diffused over them, which makes them peculiarly delightful as contrasted with the gaudy and fading exotics which ladies too often prefer. They are thoroughly English, and exquisitely feminine.

Since the publication of these poems, Miss Mitford has lived in retirement with her parents in the neighbourhood of Reading. She has, we believe, occasionally visited London, where she has been constantly welcomed by some of the best known and most admired writers of the time. Were we to judge from her works, we should believe that her predilection was for a country life, as her descriptions of rural nature are not mere vague generalities, but distinct pictures, and are evidently written with a hearty love of the subject on which she expatiates.

Miss Mitford's dramatic powers were first, we believe, exerted in a few "dramatic scenes;" one or two of which have appeared in periodical works. They struck the friends by whom they were perused, as uncommonly spirited and true; and she was exhorted to attempt a regular tragedy. Her first complete work of this kind was the "Foscari;" a piece, the acceptance of which was announced in the newspapers; but which was not produced at the expected period, in consequence of some of those difficulties which, though incident in some degree to theatrical representation, too often bar the passage to the stage on works of genius. The play was written before the publication or announcement of Lord Byron's drama on the same subject, and took altogether different ground from that on which his stern and gloomy scenes are constructed. It was, we understand, much admired by all who saw it in manuscript; and would, we believe, if acted or published, confound all the theories which envy and prejudice raised from some incidental defects in Julian.

While it was uncertain whether the Foscari would be produced, Miss Mitford, with an activity of mind of which few are capable, completed the tragedy, which was afterwards acted. "Julian" was produced on Saturday 15th March, at Covent Garden Theatre, to a crowded house, and was afterwards performed during eight nights with great applause. When we recollect the strength with which former tragedies have been cast at this house, that Mr. Macready, Mr. Young, Mr. C. Kemble, and Miss O'Neil constantly acted in the same piece, and compare with this the talent put in requisition for "Julian," we shall feel that this success is really a greater triumph than it at first appears. No actor of any reputation, except Mr. Macready, supported Miss Mitford's play, nor was it assisted by the extrinsic aids of splendid drapery or beautiful scenery. Under these circumstances, a run of eight nights is a real and unequivocable testimony to its merits, which we trust will stimulate its amiable and richly-gifted author to further exertions.

"Julian," is unquestionably chargeable with some defects, of which malevolence and envy did not fail to take full advantage. The plot is not very probable; the scenes are not artificially connected; and the piece has the blemish of a double scheme, each part having its own catastrophe. But it has all the essentials of tragedy as distinguished from its forms — true passion, deep and heart-searching pathos, vigour and richness of language, and tenderness the most touching and true. There is no pause — no elegant trifling — no mere shewy declamation in its scenes. They are full of high and serious business; of quick and glancing thought; of action and of suffering. As individual passages, Annabel's description of Julian's departure, Julian's gradual recollection of the scene of honour which had driven him to madness, Melphi's grand and swelling allusions to the regality for which he is grasping, and Annabel's account of her own sufferings while confined in the tower, where she conjures up the fine images of "Bright chattering Madness and sedate Despair, and Fear — the great Unreal," will long dwell on the memory. The whole piece is entirely dramatic, as contradistinguished from the sentimental and narrative; and proves that its author may, and, if she proceed, must produce a piece which it will be "in vain to blame and useless to praise;" which theatrical differences shall have no power to set aside; and which shall compel the reluctant eulogium of those critics, who have plays of their own to patronize.