1831 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

William Maginn, "Gallery of Literary Characters: Mary Russell Mitford" Fraser's Magazine 3 (May 1831) 410.



In our village we have an authoress too, and her name is Mary Mitford. Now, let nobody suppose that Mary, on account of the pretty alliteration of her name, is one of the fine and romantic young ladies who grace pastorals in prose or verse. On the contrary, our Mary is a good-humoured spinster of a certain age, considerably inclined, we do not know whether with her own consent or not, to embonpoint, and the very reverse of the picturesque. There are, however, few girls in our village, or twenty villages beyond it, that can dress up so pretty a basket of good-looking and sweet-smelling natural flowers, all of the true English soil, not foreign and flaunting like the flaring dahlias that one class of bouquet gatherers thrust under our noses with so much pretence, nor smelling of turf and whiskey like the strong scented bog-lilies which are offered to us by the basket-women of the provinces; nor yet at all resembling the faded imitation roses picked up in second-hand saloons, and vended as genuine posies of quality by draggletail damsels, who endeavour to pass themselves off as ladies' maids, generally without character. And Mary's basket is arranged in so neat, so nice, so trim, so comely, or to say all in one word, so very English a manner, that it is a perfect pleasure to see her hopping with it to market. We say nothing as to the way in which she applies the profits of her business, though, if we did, it would redound to her praise and honour, because in these our sketches we have always looked at the subject before us only as it comes before the public.

We are afraid, however, that if we attempt to write any longer in this style, our prattle will be voted tedious: our imitation must partake of the vice of the original; and the only defect in Miss Mitford's own style of writing is its mannerism. We do not know any sketch manufacturer whose manner is so decided. Read only a single chapter, a character, a description, and you feel that you are introduced to one of a large family, the members of which have a likeness to one another, "qualem decet esse sororum." It is hard to say how you get such a feeling from a single specimen, but so it is. Dropping all metaphor, then, we have only to remark, that it is impossible that any thing can be cleverer and racier than Miss Mitford's sketches, and if she has not made so much noise in the literary world as other ladies far more slenderly qualified, why, the battle is not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift; and, moreover, a lady who does not write politics or double entendre, or make herself a lioness, or enlist into the honourable corps of the puffmongers, throws away a great many chances of renown, which are eagerly caught at by less scrupulous adventuresses.

From the good humoured and sonsy physiognomy opposite, it may easily be conjectured that she is not exactly the muse of tragedy, and yet her plays have always been popular for the season; which is as much as can well be expected. In her pieces we find good situations, fine verses, honourable sentiments, and sounding passages, which obtain, as they deserve, considerable applause. Male critics, however, are so ungallant as to say, that superior as ladies are to gentlemen in all other particulars, there are a few things out of their power: — they can never be distinguished generals, scientific cooks, first-rate tragedians, high class-epics, or piquant epigrammatists; and in spite of Joan of Arc, Mrs. Rundell, Joanna Baillie, Miss Mitford, and Louisa Sheridan, we are pretty much of that opinion.

Miss Mitford, in the plate, is attended, not by Eros, but rather Anteros; — not by love's god, but a printer's devil, to whom she is delivering copy, as they perversely call our original MS. for some of the thousand Annuals, perhaps, which she ornaments. As one of the same diabolic breed is at our own elbow, we must finish our page by a wish, that,

Still may her picture, when she's pleased to sit for't,
Shew her the same good-humoured Mary Mitford.