1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (30 November 1833) 809.



MARY RUSSELL MITFORD is no sighing sister like Hannah More, but a kindly and gladsome lady, who promotes the happiness of the nation by her hearty sketches of domestic manners, rural pursuits, village pastimes, and her all but living portraits of cottage dames and rustic husbandmen. In doing this, when is promoting morality and true devotion, more than if she were to come abroad in a religious allegory, and prove to the world that we are sunk in folly and sin, and that hell is gaping for the nine-tenths of mankind. She commits no such folly: she takes a walk down the greenwood glades, drops into the smoking cottage, sees the healthy child in the cradle and the fatpot on the fire, and the thrifty housewife presiding over all; she extends her walk to the fields — sees the shepherd on his hill, the rustic at the plough, eyes the growing crops, aids the farmer in calculating the promise of the year, and returns home through the village, where the hinds play at bowls, publicans burnish their pewter, and some staid old squire, who loves to look on his patrimonial timber, comes sauntering along, and gossips with her about merry old times, and resolves, from something she has said, to send a Christmas log and a junk of beef to all his poor neighbours. No one has painted with such a true hand, and in such natural colours, the joys and sorrows which crowd the landscape of humble life; she has looked through and through society, and the result is those sketches and tales which vindicate Old England from the aspersions of Crabbe. Those who desire to feel how the unsophisticated heart of the country beats — who wish to see the peasantry at wakes, and fairs, and festivals, must have recourse to the works of this accomplished authoress. She is no dealer in the poetic and the lofty — she limns us no high-souled maidens, mourning under the moon, and sighing out fantastic woe; on the contrary, she deals in the sober realities of existence, and uses colours of a modest and quaker-like hue. Neither does she seem anxious about strong contrasts or studied effects: yet all is in unity and strict harmony. That she does not study this, would be to say, that she is not a mistress of the art in which she excels: we have all the effect of study without its appearance; every incident drops naturally into its place, and every portrait takes us its individual position. To all this she unites admirable good sense, and a thoughtfulness and penetration alike original and pleasing.

She made her first debut as a poetess; and no doubt the practice of "the art unteachable, untaught" introduced her to the study of character and scene, in which she has since excelled. It also taught her, what it taught Franklin — a graphic truth of language and readiness of illustration, peculiar to poets who excel in prose. It is not along as a mistress in the art of domestic fiction that we have to regard her: she has made a strong impression on the public mind as a dramatist, and has witnessed the slope of wet faces from the pit to the roof, of which Cowper speaks as the accompaniment of a well-written and well-acted tragedy. She is, perhaps, not quite aware of the deep hold which her compositions have taken of the heart of the country. One friend of mine (Richie), now in the grave, proved himself a stern and stubborn critic in works save those of Miss Mitford — Mary Mitford, as he loved to call her. "How could I be otherwise than kind?" said he, the last time I had the joy of meeting him, "she speaks to the heart and to the understanding, and deals in rational beings and landscapes, such as a plain man may hope to see without going to another world. She is the only painter of true English nature that I know of: the rest are splendid daubers — all light and shade, darkness and sunshine; Mary Mitford gives the land and the people, and for that I honour her."