1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

S. C. Hall, "Mary Russell Mitford" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 432-44.



MARY RUSSELL MITFORD was born on the 16th of December, in the year 1786, at the little town of Alresford, in Hampshire. Her father was George Mitford, M.D., the son of a younger branch of the Mitfords, of Mitford Castle, Northumberland, and Jane Graham, of Old Wall. Westmoreland, a branch of the Netherby Clan. Her mother was Mary Russell, the only surviving child and heiress of Richard Russell, D.D., who for more than sixty years was Rector of Ashe and Tadley, and Vicar of Overton, in Hampshire. He was the intimate associate of Fielding and many of the wits of the period, remembered to have seen Pope at Westminster School, and died at the ripe age of eighty-eight.

Three or four years after the birth of his daughter, Mary Russell, Dr. Mitford removed from Alresford to Reading, and a few years subsequently to that removal he went to reside at Lyme Regis, Dorsetshire, in a fine old mansion previously occupied by the great Lord Chatham, whose two sons frequently spent their holidays there. The French Revolution and the great continental wars, with threats of invading England, brought prominently out the patriotic spirit of the nation. The militia was trained, volunteer corps were formed, and the yeomanry cavalry was thoroughly prepared to aid in repelling any invader of the sacred soil of England. Dr. Mitford, at his own cost, raised, equipped, and maintained a troop of yeomanry cavalry at an expense that few could bear, and he was not long in discovering that just in proportion as his popularity rose, his fortune fell. In a few years 30,000 or 40,000 had disappeared; his troop was disbanded, and he went to London to "retrench" and determine his future course. His daughter was his companion; and then occurred an incident in the life of Miss Mitford that reads like a page from a fairy tale. The circumstances are related by her in her "Recollections of a Literary Life," accompanied by sundry hints and suggestions leading to the conclusion that much of Dr. Mitford's property had vanished at the gaming-table.

They were then lodged in dingy apartments near Westminster; and, in the intervals of his professional pursuits, Dr. Mitford would walk about London with his little girl holding his hand. They one day found their way to a lottery office; the child determined she would have no other ticket but that numbered 2,224; it was obtained with some difficulty, and "turned up" the prize of 20,000. The day was her birthday: she was then ten years old.

"Ah me " reflects Miss Mitford, "in less than twenty years, what was left of the produce of the ticket so strangely chosen? What, except a Wedgwood dinner service that my father had ordered to commemorate the event, with the Irish harp within the border on one side, and his family crest on the other? That fragile and perishable ware long outlasted the more perishable money. Then came long years of toil and struggle and anxiety, and jolting over the rough ways of the world, and although want often came very close to our door, it never actually entered."

Within twenty years of the lottery prize (and notwithstanding that other acquisitions, inherited through the deaths of relatives, had more than once repaired his fortunes) Dr. Mitford had again run through his property, little or nothing being left beyond 3,000 settled upon his wife as pin-money. This, in course of years, well-nigh evaporated also, as well as different legacies left to his daughter, and given up by her on various emergencies. Then they retired to a small cottage at Three-Mile Cross, near Reading, modestly taken for three months, but inhabited by them for thirty years. And there it was that Miss Mitford, finding it needful to turn her talents to profitable account, began those charming sketches which formed the first series of "Our Village." Like many other of our now standard works, they were lightly esteemed when first written. They were declined by Campbell, who was then editor of the New Monthly Magazine, and rejected also by the editors of several other periodicals, but at last found favour in the eyes of the editor of the Lady's Magazine, where they were published. In 1823 they were collected in one volume, and never after had the author occasion to beg the acceptance of any work from her pen. The first series of "Our Village " was followed by a second in 1826, a third in 1828, a fourth in 1830, and a fifth in 1832.

In 1842 she lost her father (her mother had died in 1830); and in the autumn of 1851 she left her old cottage at Three-Mile Cross (in which she had resided since 1820) for another at Swallowfield, about three miles farther south, where her later works were written. In the immediate neighbourhood resided Lady Russell, who generously ministered to the wants of the aged, but evercheerful, authoress. A few miles off in a quiet valley lies Strathfieldsaye, the doors of which were ever open to Miss Mitford, whence, too, by special command of the great Duke, the choicest fruits of the season, which meant all the year round, were sure to find their way to Swallowfield. At Eversley, Kingsley preached and laboured as a country parson, and found much pleasure in his walks to the cosy cottage, and in the lively talk of its occupant.

In her youth Miss Mitford was much in London, with every opportunity of seeing and mingling in the best society, with occasional glimpses of shadow that brought out the brighter points of the picture. Admired and appreciated by a large number of literary folk of her own standing, she saw much, spoke freely, and in her later years became the kindly critic and literary adviser of many of the rising and now risen spirits of the age. Her closing years were passed in the serene quiet of a country village, cheered by the kindness of neighbouring families, enlivened by the frequent visits of admiring friends, and keeping up a free, but almost voluminous, correspondence with distinguished people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Miss Mitford — if opinion may be formed from her correspondence and the collected incidents of her life — never had a lover; yet it is difficult to reconcile that belief with the following statement, communicated to Mrs. Hall by Mrs. Hofland, one of Miss Mitford's nearest, dearest, and most intimate friends. Mrs. Hofland's letter is so remarkable that I print it:—

"Och to be sure, my dear honey, and it's yer own swate self that is quite ignorant of the most wonderfullest, astonishing surprise that is just come upon a body, and that has done a body's heart good to think about; an' niver a word the spalpeen writers in the Times has tould us about it; bekase ye see she commanded her nebour (the father o' them) to hould their black and white tongues, and niver mintion the particular case; but as to not telling you, my dare, all as I just happen to know, why it's out o' the question — so here goes. Miss Mary Mitford is married, honestly married to one of her own kith and kin; a true Mitford, though his relationship is a mighty way off. And he has taken her down to his own fine estate and noble ould mansion, and made her who was a Yale lady asy for the rest of her days, and her parents asy too; an' if that isn't good news, what is, honey dear?

"In plain English, my dear Mrs. Hall, this is the fact, not communicated to me by her, for she has not told any living creature — for what reason I do not know, but I conjecture that it may not interfere with the arrangements respecting her forthcoming tragedy. I have no doubt that the song printed in your excellent magazine was written in reference to this gentleman, who was attached to her in early life, but could not then marry, and whom she had not seen for many years, until within a very few weeks. The marriage and all the arrangements have been kept a profound secret, and they are gone to his seat in Northumberland. They are perfectly suited in age; he is a man of great abilities and proud of her fame; so that there is every prospect of happiness. No woman wanted a friend more, or deserved one better; and I sincerely thank God she has found such a friend."

On the 10th of January, 1855, she died, and was quietly laid in a corner of the adjacent churchyard of Swallowfield, in a spot chosen by herself. There a few friends erected a simple granite cross to perpetuate the memory and mark the resting-place of one of England's purest and sweetest writers.

The family name was originally Midford: when or why it was changed does not appear to be known. Her father was a remarkably fine old man — tall, handsome, and stately, with indubitable indications of the habits of refined life. All his life long he had exaggerated value of himself, and was the very embodiment of selfishness. That terrible defect in character was encouraged and strengthened by his wife and daughter. They seem to have considered it an honour to be his slaves, and to have derived happiness from any sacrifices that could enhance his pleasure. He was their "dear darling," their "itty pet," their "tenderly beloved," all the while that he was squandering, shamefully and shamelessly, not only the inherited property of the one, but the hardly-earned fruits of daily and nightly toil of the other. They could see no fault in the husband and father. At length his recklessness and heartlessness steeped them in poverty — "want came very near their door" — they seem to have attributed no blame to him, though he was all blame, and he appears to have given no thought to the privations they endured and the misery they suffered. It is a melancholy and very degrading picture — that which brings before us the sensualist at his club in London, and the wife and daughter in their poor cottage, beseeching him to send them if but a pound, which he graciously does, and which they acknowledge humbly and gratefully. He died, of course, in debt; and the friends of Miss Mitford subscribed to raise a fund for the discharge of liabilities she had taken on herself. Considerably more than 1,000 was thus raised.

These are Mrs. Hall's recollections and impressions of Miss Milford:—

It is a source of intense, yet solemn, enjoyment, that which enables me to look back through the green lanes of Memory, to recall the people and events of the "long-ago time."

You may break — you may ruin the vase, if you will;

But the scent of the rows will hang round it still.

They are all, or nearly all, gone, "the old familiar faces," from the old familiar places; but they have been. I can bring them back. I can even hear their voices, and quote some of the sentences that passed from their lips to my mind and heart.

If I remember rightly, it was Maria Edgeworth who introduced me to Mrs. Hofland, and Mrs. Hofland who introduced me to Mary Russell Mitford, in 1828. In those days I had an intense admiration for "Our Village;" and a desire — which I thought most presumptuous, and hardly at first dared confess to myself — to do something for my native Bannow like what Miss Mitford had done for "Aberleigh." My natural veneration for genius led me to seek the acquaintance of those who had achieved literary distinction. I was content to be considered insignificant so long as I was permitted to enter the charmed circle. Miss Mitford had visited her old friend, Mrs. Hofland, then living in Newman Street, to superintend the getting out her play of Rienze — certainly the most perfect of her dramas — at Covent Garden; and Mrs. Hofland invited us to meet her there one morning. All the world was talking about the expected play, and all the world was paying court to its author.

"Mary," said the good lady, "is a little grand and stilted just now. There is no doubt the tragedy will be a great success; they all say so in the greenroom; — and Macready told me it was a wonderful tragedy — an extraordinary tragedy 'for a woman to have written.' The men always make that reservation, my dear; they cramp us, my dear, and then reproach us with our lameness; but Mary did not hear it, and I did not tell her. She is supremely happy just now, and so is her father, the doctor. Yes, it s no wonder she should be a little stilted-such grand people coming to call and invite them to dinner, and all the folk at the theatre down-upon-knee to her — it is such a contrast to her cottage life at Three-Mile Cross."

"But," I said, "she deserves all the homage that can be rendered her, — her talents are so varied. Those stories of 'Our Village' have been fanned by the pure breezes of 'sunny Berkshire,' and are inimitable as pictures of English rural life; and she has also achieved the highest walk in tragedy—"

"For a woman," put in dear Mrs. Hofland. She had not forgiven our great tragedian — then in the zenith of his popularity — for his ungallant reserve.

I certainly was disappointed, when a stout little lady, tightened up in a shawl, rolled into the parlour in Newman Street, and Mrs. Hofland announced her as Miss Mitford; her short petticoats showing wonderfully stout leather boots, her shawl bundled on, and a little black coalscuttle bonnet — when bonnets were expanding — added to the effect of her natural shortness and rotundity; but her manner was that of a cordial country gentlewoman; the pressure of her "fat" little hands (for she extended both) was warm; her eyes, both soft and bright, looked kindly and frankly into mine; and her pretty, rosy mouth dimpled with smiles that were always sweet and friendly. At first I did not think her at all "grand or stilted," though she declared she had been quite spoilt — quite ruined since she came to London, with all the fine compliments she had received; but the trial was yet to come. "Suppose — suppose Rienzi should be—" and she shook her head. Of course, in full chorus, we declared that impossible. "No! she would not spend an evening with us until after the first night; if the play went ill, or even coldly, she would run away, and never be again seen or heard of; if it succeeded—" She drew her rotund person to its full height, and endeavoured to stretch her neck, and the expression of her beaming face assumed an air of unmistakable triumph. She was always pleasant to look at, and had her face not been cast in so broad — so "outspread" — a mould, she would have been handsome; even with that disadvantage, if her figure had been tall enough to carry her head with dignity, she would have been so; but she was most vexatiously "dumpy." Miss Landon "hit off" her appearance when she whispered, the first time she saw her (and it was at our house), "Sancho Panza in petticoats!" but when Miss Mitford spoke, the awkward effect vanished, — her pleasant voice, her beaming eyes and smiles, made you forget the wide expanse of face; and the roly-poly figure, when seated, did not appear really short.

I remember asking her if she would go to the theatre the first night of Rienzi. She gave a dramatic shudder, and answered, "No: the strongest man could not bear that." She, however, had a room somewhere in the theatre, or very near it; her friends ran to her repeatedly during the evening to tell her how the play went, and she often rejoiced in the fact that Haydon, the painter, was the first to bring her the assurance of its unmistakable success. It achieved a triumph, and deserved it.

Miss Mitford, like Miss Landon, was, in conversation, fond of producing startling effects by saying something extraordinary; but what L. E. L. would cut with a diamond, Miss Mitford would "come down on" with a sledge-hammer. I remember her saying out boldly that "the last century had given birth only to two men — Napoleon Buonaparte and Benjamin Robert Haydon!"

She kept her promise to us, and after Rienzi's triumph, spent an evening at our house, — "the observed of all observers." She did not, however, appear to advantage that evening: her manner was constrained, and even haughty. She got up tragedy looks, which did not harmonise with her naturally playful expression. She seated herself in a high chair, and was indignant at the offer of a footstool, though her feet barely touched the ground; she received those who wished to be introduced to her "en reine;" but such was her popularity just then, that all were gratified. She was most unbecomingly dressed in a striped satin something, neither high nor low, with very short sleeves, for her arms were white and finely formed; she wore a large yellow turban, which added considerably to the size of her head. She had evidently bought the hideous thing en route, and put it on, in the carriage, as she drove to our house, for pinned at the back was a somewhat large card, on which were written, in somewhat large letters, these astounding words, "Very chaste — only five and threepence." I had observed several of our party, passing behind the chair, whispering and tittering, and soon ascertained the cause. Under pretence of settling her turban, I removed the obnoxious notice; and, of course, she never knew that so many wags had been merry at her cost.

I valued Miss Mitford far more at her humble dwelling, Three-Mile Cross, than in the glare of London: here she was by no means "at home;" there she was entirely so; and though our visit to her was brief, during "a run" through Berkshire to Bristol, I had opportunities of properly estimating her among the scenes she has made famous. It was very pleasant to make acquaintance with her and her greyhound Mayflower, the familiar friend of all who love her writings; to walk in her tiny garden; and to stroll through the green lanes she has lauded so often and so much.

She was a very Flora among her flowers; she really loved them, and enjoyed them as flowers are not always enjoyed; she treated them with a loving tenderness, not because they were the "new kinds," but because they were old, dear friends. One rose-tree I recall now — a standard, quite six feet high, I think — certainly much taller than herself, for she stood under it.

She was deeply read in the old poets, and it was a rich treat to hear her talk and quote from them, filling her small sitting-room with their richest gems. I never saw her after she left Three-Mile Cross; never at Swallowfield (although I did visit the place after her death), where, if the neighbouring cottagers speak truth, she must have grown strangely eccentric. They say she would not leave her house and garden in the daytime, but that at night she would put on strong boots, and, staff in hand, take long and lonely walks. That must have been some time before her departure from earth, for of late, her unfailing friend, Mr. Bennoch, tells us she became very feeble; indeed, in some of her later notes to me, she complained of increasing weakness.

So far go the "Memories" of Mrs. Hall.

In Miss Mitford's "Recollections of a Literary Life," a work in three volumes, singularly deficient of interest, and almost entirely free from personal recollections of any kind, she speaks of her grief at leaving the cottage that for thirty years had been her shelter. But "in truth," she adds, "it was leaving me:" the foundations were damp and rotten, the rain came dripping through the roof, and, in fact, "it was crumbling about us." She had "associations with the old walls" that endeared them to her: there she had "toiled and striven," and tasted deeply of anxiety, of fear, and of hope. There, in that poor and dull home, friends many and kind — "strangers also, whose mere names were an honour" — had come to tender to her their homage. There Haydon had "talked better pictures than he painted." Talfourd had to that home "brought the delightful gaiety of his brilliant youth;" Amelia Opie, Jane Porter, the translator Cary, and a host of others, had been her guests — in that ill-furnished parlour, and in that natural, yet ungraced, garden.

It is pleasant to recall some of them to memory.

She did not go far: from Three-Mile Cross to Swallowfield was but a walk; she took that walk one autumn evening, and in her new dwelling she lived thenceforward and died.

She calls Three-Mile Cross "the prettiest of villages," and her cottage "the snuggest and cosiest of all snug cabins." "Hers must have been that continual feast, a contented mind, to have been so easily satisfied; for the village is one of the least attractive in broad England, and the cottage one of the least pretty and picturesque that could be found from John o' Groat's to the Land's End.

"Sunny Berkshire" may be seen to infinitely greater advantage a few miles off.

Again I draw on the memory of Mrs. Hall.

Some time after Mary Russell Mitford passed away from earth, finding ourselves in her pleasant county, "sunny Berkshire," we made a detour to visit once more her cottage at Three-Mile Cross, and also that at Swallowfield. We fancied we remembered the roads, and even the trees. It was a day brimful of air and sunshine, — no dust, no rain, — every bird in song, every leaf at maturity, every streamlet musical, — a jewel of a day! The rough-coated elms stood boldly and bluntly out from the velvet hedgerows; we were nearing the village; there were the signs of the over-many public-houses, so quaint and un-London-like — "The Four Horse-shoes," "The Fox and Horn," "The George and the Dragon;" there were children clapping their hands, and blooming "like roses;" the jobbing gardener With his rake, his garland of "bass," and his bundle of shreds — "blue, black, and red;" the muscular village blacksmith; the white-faced shoemaker; the ragged, rosy, saucy boys; the fair, delicate, lily-of-the-valley-like maidens — descendants of those who were boys and girls when "Our Village" was written. We arrived, after delicious loiterings, at the quaint village "Three-Miles X," as it is described by itself on a wall to the right. It is a long, lean, straggling hamlet of twenty houses and a half — the "half" being the shoemaker's shop, from which, in Miss Mitford's time, "an earthquake would hardly have stirred the souter." The village shop was there, still "Bromley's shop," just as it was in her day, except that the master and mistress were "elderly," and the children not young; but children still flourished round them, keeping the picture "fresh." The master of the shop, a handsome old man, was pleased to talk of Miss Mitford and "the doctor," and of her good-nature and her oddities. "Yes," he said, "that was her house, the very next door: every one called it small and ugly and inconvenient; but she liked it — she made herself and everybody else happy in it. He did not know what visitors expected the house to be; he could repeat every word she had written on't." "A cottage! No; a miniature house, with many additions, little odds and ends of places, pantries, and what not; a little bricked court before the one half, and a little flower-yard before the other; the walls old and weather-stained, covered with hollyhocks, roses, honeysuckles, and a great apricot-tree."

Out upon Time! The hollyhocks, the honeysuckles, the roses, even the great apricot-tree, were dead or gone; the flowers, her dearly-loved flowers, had all perished; the trim, neat garden was a mass of tangled weeds; every tree in the garden gone, except the old bay and the "fairy rose."

The house — a body without a soul — was much as she left it, "an assemblage of closets," which "our landlord," she said, "has the assurance to call rooms." "That house," to quote her own cheerful words, "was built on purpose to show in what an exceedingly small compass comfort may be packed." Then, tenantless and without furniture, it was damp and dreary; we felt the impossibility of imparting to such a dwelling anything approaching the picturesque of cottage life, and felt far more than ever the most intense admiration and respect for the well-born and once wealthy lady who brought within those "old and weather-stained walls" an atmosphere of happiness — an appreciation of all that is true and beautiful in nature. Who ever heard her murmur at changed fortunes? When obliged to leave "the home of eighteen years," "surrounded by fine oaks and elms, and tall, massy plantations, shaded down into a beautiful lawn by wild, overgrown shrubs," she confesses, indeed, in her own playful way, it almost broke her heart to leave it. "I have pitied," she writes, "cabbage-plants and celery, and all transplantable things, ever since, though, in common with them and other vegetables, the first agony of transportation being over, I have taken such firm and tenacious root of my new soil that I would not for the world be pulled up again, even to be restored to the beloved ground." What was this — philosophy or heroism? or the perfection of that sweet, plastic nature which receives and retains and fructifies all happy impressions — which opens to, and cherishes, all natural enjoyments, and adapts itself to circumstances with the true spirit of the practical piety that bends to the blast, and sees sunshine bright and enduring beyond the blackest cloud?

Swallowfield is a pleasant wayside cottage, much more commodious than Three-Mile Cross could ever have been; it is seated on a triangular plot of ground, skirted by roads overshadowed by superb trees; it is the beau ideal of a residence for those who love the country; but we think Miss Mitford must have missed the village, missed the children, missed the homely life interests that clung round her heart at Three-Mile Cross. The aged tree had been transplanted, and superior as this cottage is in extent, in beauty, in comfort, in the richness of its close scenery, we believe the roots never struck far below the surface; the "dear father" never sat under that mantel-shelf, "pretty May" never stretched before that fire. To the old, these delicious home-memories are more "life" than the actual life in which others exist: the eye may be closed and the lip silent, but the past, the PAST is with the old, ever fresh and young as a blind man's bride.

It is gratifying to know that when life was drawing towards a close, the world was "shut out" from her heart, except when it opened to beloved friends, and to the high and holy hope that is ever the comfort and the consolation of the Christian. She was not without suffering — much suffering, indeed — but her mind was clear and fresh and young to the last.

There has been time, since her death, to place her in the position she will occupy in British literature: it is a high one, though not of the highest; her works have gone out of public favour; her novel was never worth much; her tragedies were but second rate at best, and took no hold of the stage; her fame rests — mainly, if not exclusively — on her sketches of village character, incident, and scenery; and these will delight readers so long as Nature can charm.

On the 7th of January, 1855, she thus wrote — almost her last letter:—

"It has pleased Providence to preserve to me my calmness of mind, clearness of intellect, and also my power of reading by day and by night; and, which is still more, my love of poetry and literature, my cheerfulness, and my enjoyment of little things."

She sleeps in one of the prettiest of old village churchyards, where the lads and lasses pass, every Sabbath-day, beside her grave — fit resting — place of one who delighted in picturing "The humble loves and simple joys" of the Sylvias and Corydons that still gather round an English homestead.

Pleasant is the memory, because happy was the life, kindly the nature, and genial the heart, of Mary Russell Mitford. She had her trials, and she bore them well; trusting and faithful, and ever true to the Nature she loved; sending forth from her poor cottage at Three-Mile Cross — from its leaden casement and narrow door-floods of light and sunshine that have cheered and brightened the uttermost parts of earth.