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Mary Russell Mitford(1787-1865)
Born: 16th December 1787 at Alresford, Hampshire
Novelist & Dramatist
Died: 10th January 1855 at Swallowfield, Berkshire
Mary Russell Mitford was the only child of George Mitford, a descendant of an ancient Northumberland family, and of Mary Russell, an heiress, the only surviving child of Dr. Richard Russell, a richly beneficed clergyman, who held the livings of Overton and Ashe, both in Hampshire, for more than sixty years. George Mitford, who was ten years his wife’s junior, had been educated for the medical profession and was a graduate of Edinburgh University. He was clever, selfish, unprincipled and extravagant, with an unhappy love of speculation, and an equally unfortunate skill at whist. He squandered altogether in his lifetime about Ј70,000 and, finally, became entirely dependent upon his daughter’s literary earnings. William Harness, who knew the family well, and was Miss Mitford’s lifelong friend, heartily disliked him and called him “a detestable old humbug” but his many failings never succeeded in alienating the affections of his wife and daughter.
Mary was a very precocious child who could read before she was three years old. In 1797, she drew a prize in the Irish Lottery worth Ј20,000. The child herself insisted on choosing the number, 2224, because its digits made up the sum of her age. On the strength of this, Dr. Mitford built a fashionable town house on the London Road in Reading before moving to ‘Bertram House’, a small country estate in Grazeley. Between 1798 and 1802, the girl was at a good school at 22 Hans Place, London, kept by Mrs. St. Quintin, a French refugee, where Lady Caroline Lamb had been an earlier pupil and ‘L.E.L.’ was later educated.
In 1802, Mary settled at home with her parents and her literary taste began to develop. She read enormously. In 1806, she mastered fifty-five volumes in thirty-one days and, in 1810, appeared her first published work, ‘Miscellaneous Poems.’ The volume, dedicated to the Hon. William Herbert, is a collection of fugitive pieces, written at an earlier period. Some were in honour of her father’s friends, others recorded her own tastes and pursuits and illustrate her love of nature and the country. In the spring of the same year, she made the acquaintance of Sir William Elford, a dilettante painter, and, in 1812, began a long correspondence with him. Through him, she came to know Haydon, who subsequently painted her portrait. Meanwhile, she continued publishing poetry. ‘Christina, or the Maid of the South Seas,’ appeared in 1811; ‘Blanch of Castile,’ which had been submitted in manuscript to Coleridge, in 1812; and ‘Poems on the Female Character,’ dedicated to the 3rd Lord Holland, in 1813. Her poems were severely criticised in the ‘Quarterly,’ but the volume of 1810 passed into a 2nd edition (1811) and all the volumes met with much success in America. At this period, Miss Mitford paid frequent visits to London and stayed at the house of James Perry, editor of the ‘ Morning Chronicle’. There, she met, among others, Lord Erskine, Sir Samuel Romilly, Dr. Parr, Lord Brougham and Moore.
By March 1820, Dr. Mitford’s irregularities had reduced his family to the utmost poverty and it was necessary for Mary to turn to literature for their means of livelihood. The household removed to Three Mile Cross, a village on the turnpike road between Reading and Basingstoke, and lived there in “an insufficient and meanly furnished labourer’s cottage”. The largest room was about eight feet square. Miss Mitford resided there for more than thirty years, allowing herself only one luxury – a flower garden. She wrote much for the magazines, but soon grew convinced that her talent lay in tragedy, a view in which Coleridge, on reading ‘Blanch of Castile,’ had encouraged her.
Her earliest dramatic efforts were rejected, but Macready, to whom Talfourd gave her an introduction, accepted ‘Julian’ and, with the great actor in the title role, it was performed at Covent Garden on 16th March 1823. Eight performances brought her Ј200. Macready, in his ‘Reminiscences’, states that the performance made little impression and was soon forgotten. Neither prologue nor epilogue was introduced into the performance and that innovation, which soon became the rule, is ascribed to Miss Mitford’s influence. A second piece by Miss Mitford, ‘Foscari,’ with Charles Kemble as the hero, was produced at Covent Garden on 4th November 1826 and was performed fifteen times. According to her own statement, it was completed and presented to Covent Garden Theatre before the publication, in 1821, of Byron’s drama on the same subject. The best of her plays was ‘Rienzi,’ a poetical tragedy of merit, which was produced at Drury Lane on 9th October 1828. Young played the hero and Stanfield painted the scenery. It was performed thirty-four times and Miss Mitford received Ј400 from the theatre, besides selling eight thousand copies of the printed play. Its success caused a temporary coolness between Miss Mitford and her friend, Talfourd, who fancied that his ‘Ion,’ which was being performed at the same time, was unduly neglected through ‘Rienzi’s’ popularity. The piece became popular in America, where Miss Charlotte Cushman assumed the part of Claudia. Another of Miss Mitford’s tragedies, ‘Charles I,’ was rejected by Colman because the Lord Chamberlain refused it his license, but, in 1834, when urgently in need of money, Miss Mitford disposed of it on liberal terms to the manager of the Victoria Theatre, on the Surrey side of the Thames, and beyond the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction.
Miss Mitford also wrote ‘Mary Queen of Scots,’ a scene in English verse (1831), and an opera libretto, ‘Sadak and Kalascado,’ produced in 1835; and she contributed several dramatic scenes to the ‘London Magazine’ and other periodicals. Genest finds her plays meritorious, but dull. They met with the approval of Miss Edgeworth, Joanna Baillie and Mrs. Hemans. After passing separately through several editions, they were published collectively in 1854 in two volumes, with a valuable autobiographical introduction describing the influences under which they were written and their adventures among the theatrical managers.
Happily, the pressing necessity of earning money, led Miss Mitford to turn, as she says herself, “from the lofty steep of tragic poetry to the every-day path of village stories”. Her inimitable series of country sketches, drawn from her own experiences at Three Mile Cross, entitled ‘Our Village,’ began to appear in 1819 in the ‘Lady’s Magazine,’ a little-known periodical, whose sale was thereby increased from 250 to 2,000. She had previously offered them to Thomas Campbell for the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ but he rejected them as unsuitable for the dignity of his pages. The sketches had enormous success and were collected in five volumes, published respectively every other year from 1824 to 1832. Editions of the whole first appeared in 1843.
The book may be said to have laid the foundation of a branch of literature hitherto untried. The sketches resemble Dutch paintings in their fidelity of detail and in the brightness and quaint humour of their style. Chorley calls Mitford the ‘Claude’ of English village life. The tales, at once, made Miss Mitford famous. Charles Lamb declared that nothing so fresh and characteristic had appeared for a long time. Christopher North spoke of their “genuine rural spirit”. Mrs. Hemans was cheered by them in sickness. Mrs. S.C. Hall acknowledges that they suggested her own ‘Sketches of Irish Character’. Mrs. Browning called Miss Mitford “a sort of prose Crabbe in the sun”. While Harriet Martineau looked upon her as the originator of the new style of ‘graphic description.’
Distinguished visitors crowded to her cottage. Passing coachmen and post-boys pointed out, to travellers, the localities in the village described in the book and children were named after Miss Mitford’s village urchins and pet greyhounds. She was feted on her visits to the metropolis. In 1836, Mr. Kenyon introduced her to Elizabeth Barrett, afterwards Mrs. Browning, and the acquaintance speedily ripened into friendship. Miss Mitford’s popularity enabled her to command high prices for her work. Writing to Miss Mitford in 1832, Mrs. Trollope says that “Whittaker [the publisher] told me some time ago that your name would sell anything.” In 1835, Miss Mitford remarked, “It is one of the signs of the times that a periodical selling for three halfpence [‘Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal’] should engage so high-priced a writer as myself.” But her mother died on 1st January 1830, and was buried in the parish church at Shinfield, while her father’s increasing extravagances kept her poor. She confessed to Miss Barrett that “although want, actual want has not come, yet fear and anxiety have never been absent.”
Miss Mitford still wrote with energy, but the strain injured her style. A novel, ‘Belford Regis, or Sketches of a Country Town,’ viz. Reading, appeared in 1835 and, although Mrs. Browning ranked it with Miss Mitford’s best work, it plainly lacks the spontaneity and charm of ‘Our Village’. A second and third edition appeared respectively in 1846 and 1849. In 1837, she received a civil list pension of Ј100 a year and, on 11th December 1842, her father died. His heavy liabilities were met by a public subscription, which left a surplus to be added to the daughter’s narrow income. “I have not bought a bonnet, a cloak, a gown, hardly a pair of gloves, for four years” she had declared on 10th January 1842.
In 1861, Miss Mitford removed to her last residence. In order to be near her friend, Lady Russell of Swallowfield Park near Reading, she took on a little cottage in that village “placed where three roads meet”. Though her cheerfulness and industry were unabated, her health was broken by her earlier anxieties and she had severe rheumatism. In 1852, she published ‘Recollections of a Literary Life, or Books, Places and People,’ three volumes of delightful gossip, much of it autobiographical. Other editions came out in 1853, 1857 and 1859. Her last production, ‘Atherton and other Tales,’ published in 1854, won high praise from Mr. Ruskin. Her death, hastened by a carriage accident, took place at Swallowfield on 10th January 1855. On the 18th, she was buried in the village churchyard. A few months before her death, Walter Savage Landor addressed to her some eloquent verses in praise of her “pleasant tales”‘ Nor could, he concluded, any tell the country’s purer charms so well as Mary Mitford.
In childhood, Mr. Harness remarks on the “sedateness and gravity of her face’. Miss Sedgwick describes her, in 1839, as “truly a little body..…She has a pale gray soul-lit eye, and hair as white as snow”. Mr. Hablot Browne spoke of “that wonderful wall of forehead”. While both Mr. Home and Miss Cushman mention the wonderful animation of her face. Charles Kingsley asserts that “the glitter and depth” of her eyes gave a “French or rather Gallic” character to her countenance. The best portrait of her was that painted by Lucas in 1852, now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Miss Mitford was an admirable talker. Both Mrs. Browning and Mr. Home preferred her conversation to her books. Mr. Fields called her voice “a beautiful chime of silver bells”. About her friends, she was always enthusiastic and, to the last, respected her father’s memory. She was very widely read in English literature and was catholic and unconventional in her literary judgment. Her familiarity with French writers is traceable in her clear English style. She was an inveterate letter writer and corresponded with scores of persons whom she never met. Her letters, scribbled on innumerable small scraps of paper, are fully as attractive as her books. The most interesting are those written to Sir William Elford and Miss Barrett. But her correspondents also included Macready, Mrs. Hemans, Mrs. Trollope, Dyce, Charles Boner, Allan Cunningham, Mr. and Mrs. SC. Hall, Haydon, Douglas Jerrold, Mary Howitt, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Jameson and Barry Cornwall. Vexatious difficulties were placed by her servants, her residuary legatees, in the way of the publication of the letters, but they were finally overcome by Mr. L’Estrange and her correspondence was issued in 1870.
In addition to the works already mentioned, Miss Mitford published: ‘Dramatic Scenes, Sonnets, and other Poems’ (1827); ‘Stories of American Life’ (1830); ‘American Stories for Children’ (1832). She contributed to Mrs. Jolmstone’s Edinburgh Tales, the London Magazine, the Reading Mercury, Mr. S.C. Hall’s Amulet, a religious annual (1826-30), and his Juvenile Forget-me-not and others. She edited ‘Finden’s Tableaux,’ a fashionable annual, from 1838 to 1841, and a selection from Dumas for the young (1846).