1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

Henry Fothergill Chorley, "Mary Russell Mitford" The Authors of England (1838) 77-80.



There are few names which fall with a pleasanter sound upon the ears of those who adopt authors as friends, in recognition of the moral purity and geniality of feeling as much as of the original talent displayed in their works, than the name of Mary Russell Mitford. Happy thoughts and fresh images rise up when it is spoken; and yet we are a trifle too apt to think of it only as connected with all that is lovely in the rural scenery, and characteristic in the rural society of Southern England, and to forget that it also appertains to a dramatist of no common power, who has wrought in a period, when — if the theatres be deserted, and the popular acted drama have degenerated into melodrame, burletta, and farce — the plays published exhibit far more signs of strength and promise than were shown by those produced in the palmy days of Garrick, or the yet more glorious after-summer of the Kembles.

It was at Christmas time, in the year 1789, that Miss Mitford was born, her birthplace being the little town of Alresford, Hampshire. She is descended, on the father's side, from an ancient family in Northumberland, not remotely connected with nobility; and there is a quaint rhyme current in the north country, which promises the name a long duration.

Midford was Midford when Morpeth was nane,
Midford shall be Midford when Morpeth is gane;
So long as the sun sets or the moon inns her round,
A Midford in Midford shall always be found.

Her mother was the only daughter of Dr. Russell, of Ashe, in Hampshire; this lady was a singularly good classical scholar; and it would have been strange, if under such auspices, the education of her daughter had not been liberally planned and carefully completed. How delightfully Miss Mitford has chronicled her school pleasures and school feelings, during the years between the ages of ten and fifteen, passed by her at a London boarding school of high repute, no one who has read "Our Village" can have forgotten. By her own showing she was as shy as she was clever, after a somewhat original fashion — a keen lover of poetry and plays. And shortly after she left school, she showed the next evidence of talent, the possession of creative as well as appreciative power, by publishing a volume of miscellaneous poems, which were favourably received; for in those days poetry was read. This was shortly followed by a metrical tale, in Scott's manner, founded on the story of the discovery of the mutineers of the Bounty, a subject afterwards taken up by Lord Byron in "The Island;" and this second essay ("Christine, the Maid of the South Seas") by a series of narrative poems on the female character. These works, now all but forgotten, were, at the time of their appearing, successful; but their young writer was herself dissatisfied with them; conscious, perhaps, that they were little more than imitations, and forgetting that it is by imitation that genius has almost always in the first instance manifested itself. She withdrew herself from composition — read much, though without any decided aim or object, and would never (she thinks) have attempted authorship again, had not those vicissitudes of fortune, which try the metal of the sufferer no less searchingly than the sincerity of his friends, compelled her to come forth from her retreat, and honourably to exercise the talents with which she had been so largely gifted. It would be raising the veil too high to dwell upon the sequel; upon the rich reward of love, and respect, and consideration, which have repaid so zealous and unselfish a devotion of time and talent as Miss Mitford's life has shown. We have but to speak of the good which has come out of evil, in the shape of her writings.

Miss Mitford's principal efforts have been a series of tragedies, heralded by a volume of dramatic scenes, which received favourable notice from Coleridge. "The Two Foscari" — "Julian" — "Rienzi" — "Charles the First," — have been all represented, and all well received — the third with signal success. Besides these may be mentioned two other tragedies, still in manuscript, "Inez de Castro" and "Otto of Wittelsbach," Miss Mitford's last, finest work. In all these plays there is strong vigorous writing, — masculine in the free unshackled use of language, but wholly womanly in its purity from coarseness or licence, and in the intermixture of those incidental touches of softest feeling and finest observation, which are peculiar to the gentler sex. A rich air of the south breathes over "Rienzi;" and in the "Charles," though the character of Cromwell will be felt to vibrate, it is, on the whole, conceived with a just and acute discernment of its real and false greatness — of the thousand contradictions which, in reality, make the son of the Huntingdon brewer a character too difficult and mighty, for any one beneath a Shakspeare to exhibit. As also in Joanna Baillie's fine tragedies, the poetry of these plays is singularly fresh and unconventional; equally clear of Elizabethan quaintness and of the modern Della-cruscanisms, which, as some hold, indicate an exhausted and artificial state of society, in which the drama — the hearty, bold, natural drama — has no existence. At all events, it is now too much the fashion that every thing which is written for the stage shall be forgotten so soon as the actors employed in it have "fretted their hour; " were it otherwise, we should not have need to dwell, even thus briefly, upon the distinctive merits of Miss Mitford's tragedies.

In leaving them, however, we cannot but point attention to the happy choice of their subjects, and in doing this, may venture a remark or two which will lead us on to the works by which Miss Mitford is the most widely known — her sketches of country life and scenery. Among the characteristics which eminently distinguish female authorship, it has often struck us, that there is none more certain and striking than an instinctive quickness of discovery and happiness in working out available subjects and fresh veins of fancy. At least, if we travel through the domains of lighter literature during the last fifty years, we shall find enough to prove our assertion. We shall find the supernatural romance growing into eminence under the hands of Anne Radcliffe — the national tale introduced to the public by Miss Edgeworth and Lady Morgan — the historical novel by Miss Lee and the Miss Porters — the story of domestic life, with commonplace persons for its actors, brought to its last perfection by Miss Austen. We shall find "Kenilworth" anticipated by the "Recess" (a tale strangely forgotten), and "Werner," owing not only its origin, but its very dialogue, to "Kruitzner" — and the stories of "Foscari" and "Rienzi," ere they fell into the hands of Byron and Bulwer, fixed upon with a happy boldness by the authoress under notice. But the claims of Miss Mitford to swell the list of inventors, rest upon yet firmer ground, they rest upon those exquisite sketches, by which — their scenery all, and their characters half real — she has created a school of writing, homely but not vulgar, familiar but not breeding contempt, (in this point alone not resembling the highly-finished pictures of the Dutch school) wherein the small events and the simple characters of rural life, are made interesting by the truth and sprightliness with which they are represented.

Every one 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 end was, that the popularity of these sketches somewhat 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.

It should, perhaps, be owned in speaking of these village sketches, that their writer enamels too brightly — not the hedgerows and the meadow-streams, the orchards and the cottage gardens, for who could exceed Nature? — but the figures which people the scene; that her country boys and village girls are too refined, too constantly turned "to favour and to prettiness." But this flattery only shows to us the health and benevolence of mind belonging to the writer; nor would it be just to count it as a fault, unless we also were to denounce Crabbe as an unfaithful painter of English life and scenery, because, with a tendency diametrically opposite, he lingers like a lover in the workhouse and the hovel, and dwells rather upon decay, and meanness, and misery, than the prosperity, and charity, and comfort with which their gloom is so largely chequered. He may be called the Caravaggio — Miss Mitford the Claude of village life in England; and the truth lies between them. Both, however, are remarkable for the purity and selectness of their language; both paint with words, in a manner as faithful as it is significant. Crabbe should be reserved for those bright moments when the too buoyant spirits require a chastener, a memento of the "days of darkness;" Miss Mitford resorted to in hours of depression and misgiving, when any book bearing an olive-branch to tell us that there is fair weather abroad is a blessed visitant.

After publishing five volumes of these charming sketches, a wider field, for the same descriptive powers was found in a small market-town, Its peculiarities, and its inhabitants, — and "Belford Regis" was written. But the family likeness between this work and "Our Village" is so strong as to spare us the necessity of dwelling upon its features. Since its publication, besides many other fugitive pieces, Miss Mitford has completed her last tragedy, the "Otto." And now our record may be closed, as it is not permitted to us to dwell upon the private pleasures and cares of an uneventful life, spent for the most part "in a labourer's cottage, with a Duchess's flowergarden." We should mention, however, the recent addition of Miss Mitford's name to the pension-list, as one among many gratifying proofs, that literature is increasingly becoming an object of care and protection to our statesmen, and that in this much stigmatized world, talent and self-sacrifice do not always pass on their way unsympathized with or unrecognized.