1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 744-45.



MARY RUSSELL MITFORD, was born on the 16th of December, 1786, at Abresford, in Hampshire, England. Her father was of an old Northumberland family, one of the Mitfords of Mitford Castle; her mother the only daughter of the Rev. Dr. Russell of Ash, in Hampshire, and she was their only child. When still a young girl, about the year 1806, Miss Mitford published a volume of miscellaneous poems, and two volumes of narrative poetry after the manner of Scott, "Christina the Maid of the South Seas," (founded upon the story of the mutineers of the Bounty, afterwards taken by Lord Byron;) and "Blanche, a Spanish Story." These books sold well and obtained a fair share of popularity, and some of them were reprinted in America. However, Miss Mitford herself was not satisfied with them, and for several of the following years devoted herself to reading instead of writing; indeed it is doubtful whether she would ever have written again had not she, with her parents, been reduced from the high affluence to which they were born to comparative poverty. Filial affection induced her to resume the pen she had so long thrown aside, and accordingly she wrote the series of papers which afterwards formed the first volume of "Our Village, Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery," about 1820. But so little was the peculiar and original excellence of her descriptions understood at first, that, after being rejected by the more important publications, they at last saw the light in the English "Lady's Magazine." The public were not long in discovering the beauties of a style so fresh yet so finished, and in appreciating the delicate humour and the simple pathos of these tales; and the result was, that the popularity of these sketches outgrew that of the works of a loftier order from the same pen; and every nook and corner of the cluster of cottages around Three-Mile-Cross, near Reading, in Berkshire, (in one of which the authoress herself resides,) is as well known as the streets and lanes around the reader's own home. Four other volumes of sketches were afterwards added; the fifth, and last, in 1832. Extending her observation from the country village to the market-town, Miss Mitford published another interesting volume of descriptions, entitled "Belford Regis." She edited three volumes, called "Stories of American Life by American Writers." She also published a volume of "Country Stories;" a volume of "Dramatic Scenes;" an opera called "Sadak and Kalasrade," and four tragedies, the first entitled "Julian," which was represented at the great London Theatre in 1823, Mr. Macready playing Julian. Her next was "Foscari;" then "Rienzi" and "Charles the First;" all were successful. "Rienzi," in particular, long continued a favourite. She also edited four volumes of "Finden's Tableaux," and is now, after eight years' cessation of writing, engaged on a series of papers called "Readings of Poetry, Old and New," which will probably form two or three volumes, and will soon be published.

Although her tragedies show great intellectual powers, and a highly cultivated mind, yet it is by her sketches of English life that she has obtained the greatest share of her popularity, and it is on them that her fame will chiefly depend. In these descriptions Mary Mitford is unrivalled. She has a manner, natural to her, no doubt, but inimitable and indescribable, which sheds interest around the most homely subjects and coarsest characters. Who ever threw by a sketch of hers half read? No one who admired a spring daisy — or that most fragrant blossom, the wall-flower, which beautifies every object, however rough, rude or ruinous, around which it wreathes. And, though she does not trace the motives of conduct very deeply, or attempt to teach principles of moral duty, yet there is much in her sprightly and warm sketches of simple nature which draws the heart to love the Author of all this beauty; and much in her kind and contented philosophy to promote love and good feelings. She is a philanthropist, for she joys in the happiness of others — a patriot, for she draws the people to feel the beauties and blessings which surround the most lowly lot in that "land of proud names and high heroic deeds."

"As a proof that we love her, we love her dog," says an American writer. "Walter Scott's stately Maida is not more an historical character than her springing spaniel, or Italian greyhound. If she began by being prosaic in poetry, she has redeemed herself by being most poetic in pastoral prose."

In 1833 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.