1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:618.



MISS MARY RUSSELL MITFORD, the painter of English rural life in its happiest and most genial aspects, was born in 1789 at Alresford, in Hampshire. Reminiscences of her early boarding-school days are scattered through her works, and she appears to have been always an enthusiastic reader. When very young, she published a volume of miscellaneous poems, and a metrical tale in the style of Scott, entitled Christine, the Maid of the South Seas, founded on the discovery of the mutineers of the Bounty. In 1823 was produced her effective and striking tragedy of Julian, dedicated to Mr. Macready the actor, "for the zeal with which he befriended the production of a stranger, for the judicious alterations which he suggested, and for the energy, the pathos, and the skill with which he more than embodied its principal character." Next year Miss Mitford published the first volume of Our Village, Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery, to which four other volumes were subsequently added, the fifth and last in 1832. "Every one," says a lively writer, "now knows Our Village, and every one knows that the nooks and corners, the haunts and the copses so delightfully described in its pages, will be found in the immediate neighbourhood of Reading, and more especially around Three-Mile Cross, a cluster of cottages on the Basingstoke road, in one of which our authoress has now resided for many years. But so little were the peculiar and original excellence of her descriptions understood, in the first instance, that, after having gone the round of rejection through the more important periodicals, they at last saw the light in no worthier publication than the Lady's Magazine. But the series of rural pictures grew, and the venture of collecting them into a separate volume was tried. The public began to relish the style so fresh, yet so finished, to enjoy the delicate humour and the simple pathos of the tales; and the result was, that the popularity of these sketches outgrew that of the works of loftier order proceeding from the same pen; that young writers, English and American, began to imitate so artless and charming a manner of narration; and that an obscure Berkshire hamlet, by the magic of talent and kindly-feeling, was converted into a place of resort and interest for not a few of the finest spirits of the age." Extending her observation from the country village to the market-town, Miss Mitford published another interesting volume of descriptions, entitled Belford Regis. She also gleaned from the new world three volumes of Stories of American Life, by American Writers, of which she remarks — "The scenes described and the personages introduced are as various as the authors, extending in geographical space from Canada to Mexico, and including almost every degree of civilisation, from the wild Indian and the almost equally wild hunter of the forest and prairies, to the cultivated inhabitant of the city and plain." Besides her tragedies (which are little inferior to those of Miss Baillie as intellectual productions, while one of them, Rienzi, has been highly successful on the stage), Miss Mitford has written numerous tales for the annuals and magazines, showing that her industry is equal to her talents. It is to her English tales, however, that she must chiefly trust her fame with posterity; and there is so much unaffected grace, tenderness, and beauty in these rural delineations, that we cannot conceive their ever being considered obsolete or uninteresting. In them she has treasured not only the results of long and familiar observation, but the feelings and conceptions of a truly poetical mind. She is a prose Cowper, without his gloom or bitterness. In 1838 Miss Mitford's name was added to the pension list — a well-earned tribute to one whose genius has been devoted to the honour and embellishment of her country.