Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Reginald Brimley Johnson
Mary Russell Mitford (17871855)
[Mary Russell Mitford was born on the 16th of December 1787, being the only child of fairly well-connected parents, who were then living at Arlesford in comfortable circumstances. But Dr. Mitford was a reckless and dissipated gamester, who rapidly reduced his family to poverty. His daughter wrote poetry and criticism for magazines, edited annuals and collections, turned her hand to plays and operas, with indefatigable energy; and thus, at the cost of her own health, managed to keep the wolf from the door. By 1820, however, the Mitfords were compelled to move to a tiny cottage at Three Mile Cross, the original Village, a mile or two from Reading, and when the doctor died in 1843, more than £1600 in debt, she was almost worn out. By the help of friends and a pension, she lived on till 10th January 1855.
She published poems and plays, 18101828. Our Village appeared in a periodical, and afterwards in parts, 1824, 1826, 1828, 1830, 1832. It was followed by Belford Regis, 1835, other stories, and Recollections of a Literary Life, 1835. A Life of Miss Mitford, related in a selection from her letters to her friends, 3 vols., edited by Harness and LEstrange, appeared in 1870.]
OF course I shall copy as closely as I can nature and Miss Austenkeeping, like her, to genteel country life; or rather going a little lower, perhaps; and, I am afraid, with more of sentiment and less of humour. I do not intend to commit these delinquencies, mind. I mean to keep as playful as I can; but I am afraid of their happening in spite of me It will be calledat least, I mean it so to beOur Village; will consist of essays and characters and stories, chiefly of country life, in the manner of The Sketch Book; connected by unity of locality, and of purpose. It is exceedingly playful and lively, and I think you will like it. Charles Lamb (the matchless Elia of the London Magazine) says nothing so fresh and characteristic has appeared for a long time.
So wrote Miss Mitford in those delightful letters which, by her own account, are just like so many bottles of ginger-beer, bouncing and frothy, and flying in everybodys face, concerning the work with which her name has since become inseparably connected.
Her own estimate of her powers and their limitations is singularly discerning, though somewhat over modest, for Our Village is not entirely imitative. At another time, indeed, she ventured to criticise the authoress whom she thus frankly owns as her model, and she had doubtless some right to desire for Miss Austen a little more taste, a little more perception of the graceful, since these are the very qualities in which her own writings excel. With an individuality of their own, a charm rather subtle than brilliant, they have the flavour of culture, and were clearly composed by a woman familiar with the world of books and in touch with the best intellects of the daya professional in comparison with the authoress of Pride and Prejudice.
She was not without experience in composition when she began Our Village, though at that time, and apparently always, she found much difficulty in writing prose; being more at home in metre, and having accustomed herself by much letter-writing to a certain careless sauciness, a fluent incorrectness, that she feared would not do at all for that tremendous correspondent, the public. We are less pedantic, however, than she anticipated, and rather choose to praise her style for the epistolary characteristics, which it exhibits in such perfection.
In her own day Miss Mitford was charged with working in the literal manner of Crabbe or Teniers, and it is certain that she drew entirely from her own experience. But, unlike them, she always sought out the beautiful and, despite her own protests to the contrary, regarded life with the eyes of a sentimentalist. Are your characters and descriptions true? asked her friend Sir William Elford, and she replied: Yes! yes! yes! as true as is well possible. You, as a great landscape painter, know that, in painting a favourite scene, you do a little embellish, and cant help it; you avail yourself of happy accidents of atmosphere, and if anything be ugly, you strike it out, or if anything be wanting, you put it in. But still the picture is a likeness.
Mrs. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, has thus recorded, in the new illustrated edition of Our Village, her impressions of the little hamlet from which it was named: I saw two or three common-place looking houses skirting the dusty road, I saw a comfortable public house with an elm tree, and beside it another gray unpretentious little house, with a slate roof and square walls, and an inscription, The Mitford, painted over the doorway. She who found so much beauty and goodness in this spot, must have been acting on the motto,
It may be acknowledged that Miss Mitfords work requires pruning, though the excuse is not far to seek:I write for remuneration, she says emphatically, and I would rather scrub floors, if I could get as much by that healthier, more respectable, and more feminine employment. The urgent necessity for earning money, from which she was never absolved, forced her to use her pen when, to put it plainly, she had nothing to say. The most sprightly writing requires more body than is provided for some of her sketches, and the most charming spots or characters become tiresome when treated at too great length.
Thus it happens that the first series of Our Village is on the whole the best, and that her later books are again on a slightly lower level. In Belford Regis she touches on the comparatively new material of a small country town (i.e., Reading), and introduces the same character in several of the stories; features which led her to prefer it above her other works, and gave her some confidence in attempting to comply with Mr. Bentleys desire for a novel. But, though Atherton, her one attempt at the novel proper, contains some charming passages, it is wanting in varied interest, and the progress of the story is too slow. She had not, in fact, enough imagination to construct a plot or create a character. Persons and scenes which were before her, whether in books or in nature, she could describe and even compose, but more ambitious attempts proved a failure.
Her letters are almost as interesting as Our Village, and the attractiveness of both springs from the writers own personality, her enthusiasm for books and friends, her devotion to animals, and her great love for flowers, so prettily recognised by the gardeners, who were constantly calling plants after her, and sending her one of the first cuttings as presents. That which she loved, moreover, she observed with unerring attention, and described with a light touch and graphic humour, tempered and refined by a generous loving-kindness for humanity, which long trials could not weaken.