1820
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[To William Elford, 11 November, 1820; on Walter Scott.]

The Life of Mary Russell Mitford in a Selection from her Letters. 3 Vols [A. G. L'Estrange, ed.]

Mary Russell Mitford


Mary Russell Mitford compares Sir Walter Scott's skills in description to those of Chaucer, Boccaccio and Spenser; and insightfully criticizes his abilities as a historical novelist.

Oliver Elton: "Miss Mitford was a great reader, and her letters abound in remarks, sharply enough dashed off, on contemporary poetry and fiction, on Lady Morgan, and Melmoth, and the Scotch novels. She likes gentle and unpretentious writing, but is by no means deaf to romance. Her Early Recollections, which occur in Our Village, suggest the similar writing of Mary Lamb; less haunting in sentiment and language, they have the same sort of nice fidelity and carefulness. Everything is rapid, and usually the tone is buoyant; there is no posing; Miss Mitford is actually full of the 'vital feelings of delight' that quicken Wordsworth's girls and women, and of the 'intense feeling of existence,' as she calls it, that comes over her on the 'first mild day of March.' The spring she finds always incredible, which it is. She is fond of ordinary, pleasant, and lovely objects. She muses aloud, and speaks of her 'murmuring cogitations.' She coins words like 'betweenity,' or 'pastoralities,' or uses local ones, such as 'pightles' and 'deedily' (which means ploddingly, as she explains, referring to Miss Austen as a precedent). Not a page of her sketches could have been written by a man, and this is her merit. She gives the impression of her sex better than many more passionate women; her laughter is feminine too, and saves her from the risks of effusion and exaggeration, the bane of professed scene-painters and describers" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 1:374-75.




I don't think, my dear friend, that I quite agree with you as to the facility of imitating Scott's novels. We have had nothing like them yet, and I do not think we soon shall. Consider, with all his faults, the great and rare qualities that must be united in such a novelist; the minute and curious learning which seizes, with the certainty and ease of accurate knowledge, on all the antiquarian detail that suits his purpose; the almost magical power of placing scenes and forms before you as in a picture, and leading you through a changing country which you trace as in a map. This power of external representation is only equalled by Chaucer, Boccaccio, and, as far as scenery goes, by Spenser. And, lastly, consider his various extraordinary delineations of character. It is quite nonsense to compare him, as the "Edinburg" Reviewers do, to Shakspeare in this respect. Such extravagant praise gives one the tendency to underrate him. His characters have not the exquisite freedom of Shakspeare's. There is too much identity. He is afraid to trust them out of their prescribed bounds — afraid to let them make any speech which could not instantly be assigned to the right person. The keeping is too exact to be true to our mixed and varying nature. But still the characters are finely conceived and finely drawn, and there is a noble spirit of humanity, an indulgence to human frailty, which sets a grand lesson to the world. He makes good Shakspeare's most beautiful saying, "There is some soul of goodness in things evil;" and he is, as far as I know, the only writer who has ever had candor and fairness enough to tolerate opposite bigotries. No, my dear friend, it is not the mere fixing on some peculiar piece of history to illustrate that will produce, even in powerful hands, such novels as Walter Scott's. . . .


[New York edition (1870) 1:347]