Mitford, Mary Russell (1787–1855)
Mitford, Mary Russell (1787–1855)
English author whose evocation of the English countryside has proved the most lasting aspect of her many writings. Born Mary Russell Mitford on December 16, 1787, in Alresford, Hampshire, England; died in Swallowfield, Berkshire, on January 10, 1855; daughter of George Mitford (a medical practitioner) and Mary (Russell) Mitford; educated at a private school in London, 1798–1804; never married; no children.
Moved with her family between Alresford, Lyme Regis and Reading before settling in the vicinity of the latter town for the remainder of her life; began to write poetry in her late teens, then drama and country sketches in her early 30s; wrote prolifically, often through pressure to earn an income; in later life, had the reputation of a "bluestocking" who knew many of the leading authors of her day; awarded the civil list pension (1842).
Our Village (Whittaker, 5 vols, 1824–32); Belford Regis: Sketches of a Country Town (Bentley, 1835).
On Saturday, December 16, 1797, Dr. George Mitford took a stroll with his daughter through the streets of London. It was her birthday. During the outing, they entered what she later described as "a not very tempting-looking place," a lottery office. There he invited her to choose a ticket as a birthday present, and she selected number 2,224 because the digits totalled ten, her age that day. The lottery was drawn in Dublin, some weeks later, and number 2,224 won the huge prize of £20,000; the win repaired the fortunes of the Mitford family. Yet, with hindsight, the success can be seen as strengthening the reckless belief of George Mitford that material wealth was a matter of good luck. His daughter perhaps shared some of his irrational optimism; she certainly had to engage in a lifelong struggle to avert the worst consequences of his financial irresponsibility. To commemorate the lottery win, he commissioned a Wedgwood dinner service embellished with his coat of arms, the Irish harp and the number 2,224. As his daughter remarked in her Recollections: "That fragile and perishable ware outlasted the more perishable money."
George Mitford claimed to hold a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, but investigators have uncovered no evidence of such an award. More probably, he acquired his medical knowledge, as was possible at the time, as a surgeon's pupil and by working in a hospital. His proficiency as a doctor and the consequences for his patients, whether good or evil, are of little importance, for he lacked those systematic powers of application that would have enabled him to build up a successful practice. Though having the qualities of intelligence and amiability, all his life he preferred amusement and diversion. His good looks and great personal charm were the assets he exploited within the upper-class society he frequented, but eventually these were insufficient to save him from bankruptcy.
George's first great stroke of good fortune was to marry an heiress. Mary Russell was the only surviving child of a prosperous and socially well-connected cleric. On inheriting an estate of £28,000 in cash, as well as houses and land, she had moved to the small town of Alresford in southern England. There she was introduced, by the dean of Winchester, to George Mitford, who also maintained he had a connection with an old, titled family (though the validity of this claim has been doubted). Undeterred by her plain looks and relatively advanced age—at 35, she was 10 years his elder—George Mitford courted Mary Russell and the two were soon married, in October 1785.
Towards the end of 1786, the couple had a son Francis, but he died in infancy; on December 16, 1787, a daughter was born and named Mary after her mother. She grew slowly, but her small stature contrasted with her mental precocity: by age three, she was able to read. To astonish and amuse his visitors, Dr. Mitford would stand the tiny child on the table for her to read aloud from the newspapers. In 1791, the family moved to Reading, then a flourishing market town in the Thames valley, about 35 miles from London. There George had some patients, though he preferred to spend his time at the card table. He was a compulsive gambler and despite some success he often lost. When not gambling indoors, he pursued wagers outdoors—particularly in the hare-coursing field—and he bred his own greyhounds for the sport. Within a few years, there were rumors that the doctor had nearly ruined his family by his gambling and other reckless speculations (George put money into a number of schemes involving high profits and high risks, which usually showed evidence of only the latter). Perhaps believing a change of residence would produce a change of fortune, he moved to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, in 1795. Characteristically, he rented one of the town's best houses, in which the then prime minister William Pitt had once lived. Within 12 months, the family moved on to London, where they were able to afford only dingy lodgings while Mary's father struggled to regain his former prosperity. A small income from a trust fund set up for Mrs. Mitford, the capital of which her husband could not get his hands on, probably saved them from destitution.
Suddenly, early in 1798, the struggle ended with the Irish lottery prize. Learning nothing from his previous experiences, George immediately resumed his free-spending ways. On deciding that a gentleman such as he should inhabit a country house, he had one constructed near Reading. It was not completed until 1804; the family meanwhile lived in a rented house in Reading, where George threw himself into the town's social and political affairs (in politics he was a Whig, and during his life met most of the leading figures in the party). Mary's education was added to between 1798 and 1802 by her attendance at a girls' school in Hans Place, London. The level of instruction was high, particularly in the French language which the girls were expected to use when speaking to each other.
Mary's early habit of reading never left her; during her later teens, she read scores of books. In 1806, she traveled north with her father on a visit to friends and relations that included an invitation to a large dinner party at Alnwick Castle, the seat of the duke of Northumberland. Another notable visit, in 1808, was to the home of William Cobbett, the radical journalist. There were also holidays in London, the theaters of which were of great interest to Mary who also enjoyed the capital city's social round. Her publication in 1810 of Miscellaneous Poems gave her a modest literary success and widened her circle of contacts. In 1811, she brought out a second, enlarged, edition of her verses, as well as a long narrative poem, Christina, the Maid of the South Seas. The proofs of this work were read by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poet with an established reputation and a friend of George Mitford. Coleridge appears to have substituted some of her work with what she described as "his own beautiful lines." He also provided help with her next narrative poem, Blanche of Castille (Blanche of Castile ), but despite his encouragement and the popularity it enjoyed after publication in Britain and America, her poetry has not retained any critical reputation. Mitford perhaps, after a few more months of versifying, realized that her output was mediocre and gave up. Many years later, she wrote to Elizabeth Barrett Browning : "I had (of this proof of tolerable taste I am rather proud) the sense to see [the poems] were good for nothing; so I left off writing for ten or fifteen years."
The break from writing was not long, and might be partly explained by the continued decline in her father's financial standing. Their home was auctioned in 1811 for £5,985, but characteristically George Mitford became involved in a legal case with the purchaser: this dragged on until 1819 and cost both parties more than the value of the house. While the case was in the courts, the Mitfords continued in residence, in a state of genteel poverty, although Mary frequently visited London. In 1818, for example, she attended a dinner party and sat next to the duke of Sussex, the sixth son of King George III; the Mitfords were never quite destitute enough to be excluded from polite society. Her lack of a fortune might have discouraged suitors. All who knew her admired her powers of conversation and the beautifully musical voice with which she spoke, but equally all agreed that she had her mother's plain looks, was somewhat plump and of short stature. Biographers have discovered no affairs of the heart, and hints from her own writings suggest that she
chose to devote herself to the support of her parents, whose own marriage also perhaps was a poor advertisement for the state of matrimony.
Mary Mitford's combination of garrulous enthusiasm with gentle wit and sincere interest in the inhabitants of her village provide the perfect tone for communicating the humble chronicles of Three Mile Cross.
The Mitfords' unsettled circumstances during the 1810s might have discouraged Mary from writing for publication, but she was—as she remained all her life—an enormously prolific letter writer. One regular correspondent was Sir William Elford. Both were early admirers of Jane Austen 's novels and it was to him she made the oft-quoted remark, "Mamma says" Jane Austen was the "prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers." A letter to Elford of January 1814 gives a glimpse of a style of writing Mitford was to make her own. This was the lyrical and fluent prose with which she captured the atmosphere of the English countryside. She wrote:
Here the scene has been lovely beyond any winter piece I ever beheld; a world formed of something much whiter than ivory—as white, indeed, as snow—but carved with a delicacy, a lightness, a precision to which the massy, ungraceful tottering snow could never pretend. Rime was the architect; every tree, every shrub, every blade of grass was clothed with its pure incrustations; but so thinly, so delicately clothed, that every twig, every fibre, every ramification remained perfect; alike indeed in colour, but displaying in form to the fullest extent the endless, infinite variety of Nature. This diversity of form never appeared so striking as when all the difference of colour was at an end—never so lovely as when breaking with its soft yet well-defined outline on a sky rather gray than blue. It was a scene which really defies description. The shrubberies were slightly different; there some little modification of colour obtruded itself. The saffron-tinted leaves of the cutleaved oak, fringed round with their snowy border—the rich seed-vessels or the sweet briar, blushing through their light veil—and the flexible branches of the broom, weighed down, yet half unloaded of their fine burden, and peeping out in their bright verdure like spring in the lap of winter; all this was yesterday enchanting. To-day it is levelled and annihilated by the heavy uniformity of snow.
She was later to say that when she handled such scenes for publication, a great deal of effort was necessary in order to write in a seemingly spontaneous and lucid style.
However, before Mitford began to specialize in village themes, she tried her hand at playwriting. In 1820, the Mitfords had finally given up their country house and moved to a cottage in Three Mile Cross, a village about three miles from Reading. Aware that a successful play could bring its author several hundred pounds, she began to write dramatic works on historical themes. At first, she may not have been motivated purely by money, but the seemingly endless revisions called for by theater managers reduced composition to a dreary chore. She was also drawn, very reluctantly, into the rivalry between the two leading actors of the day, Charles Kemble and William Charles Macready. Eventually, her play Julian was performed at Covent Garden in 1823 and brought her £200. Foscari, which she had begun earlier, was not put on the stage until 1826. Her tragedy Rienzi enjoyed a successful season at Drury Lane in 1828 and became popular in America where Charlotte Cushman took the role of Claudia.
While a play might yield a large fee, shorter articles for the magazines paid only a few guineas. This income, however, could be regular for an author able to cater to the public taste. Mitford therefore began to submit to publishers some brief, light sketches, the most successful of which appeared in the Lady's Magazine in the early 1820s as "Our Village." Later, she was to claim that all were based on real persons and events, though no doubt these were enlivened and rearranged. It was a classic example of an author achieving success by writing about what she knew best, though she perhaps drew some inspiration from the scenes and characters of country life published by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book (1819). So popular were these pieces that soon her publisher was calling for more. She took advantage of public demand: a collection of her writings appeared in 1824 under the title Our Village: Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery. Her book was generally well reviewed, with the Quarterly Review for example commenting: "We scarcely know a more agreeable portfolio of trifles for the amusement of an idle hour." In the next few years, she wrote four more volumes of Our Village. All had a good sale and were widely read in the United States, but at a time when authors sold their copyright, rather than receive royalties, and when foreign publishers often pirated books, her income was not in proportion to the popularity of the volumes.
In 1830, she edited a book, Stories of American Life by American Authors, which did sufficiently well to warrant a similar compilation in 1832, Lights and Shadows of American Life. Her omnivorous taste for literature extended to that of the United States, which she helped to make better known in England. An early American acquaintance was Catharine Sedgwick , who sent her a copy of her novel Clarence in 1830 and was to stay at her cottage in 1839, the same summer that Daniel Webster paid Mitford a visit. (On his return home, he sent her some seeds of American flowers for her cherished garden.) Belford Regis, tales based on Mitford's knowledge of Reading, appeared in three volumes in 1835 and her Country Stories (1837) amounted to a sixth volume of the Our Village sketches.
These successes, however, did not solve her financial problems. In her extensive correspondence she often complained of the sense of sickness that a pen and bottle of ink caused her—so long and often did she have to sit at her desk producing manuscripts for publishers in order to bring in an income. In 1837, the Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne granted her a civil list pension of £100 a year, which he had been pressed to do by among others Lord Devonshire and Lord Holland. She had a wide circle of admirers and, despite living in an obscure village in a humble cottage, distinguished literary visitors regularly traveled to see her. Several left accounts of their visits. For example, George Ticknor, the American author, recorded in his journal a visit of 1835:
We found Miss Mitford living literally in a cottage neither ornée nor poetical—except inasmuch as it had a small garden crowded with the richest and most beautiful profusion of flowers—where she lives with her father, a fresh, stout old man who is in his seventyfifth year. She herself seemed about fifty, short and fat, with very gray hair, perfectly visible under her cap, and nicely arranged in front. She has the simplest and kindest manners, and entertained us for two hours with the most animated conversation and a great variety of anecdote, without any of the pretensions of an author by profession.
A painting by John Lucas, now in the National Portrait Gallery, was agreed by those who viewed it to have caught both the homely appearance and alert character described by Ticknor.
Her mother had died in 1830, but George Mitford, who was then 82, remained active and as extravagant as his daughter's income would allow until his demise in 1842. Usually, accounts of the family portray him unfavorably. The Dictionary of National Biography, for example, states he was "selfish, unprincipled and extravagant, with an unhappy love of speculation and whist." However deep his flaws, there is no doubt that his daughter was devoted to him. In 1811, at the time when George Mitford was selling the family home, she assured him:
Whatever those embarrassments may be, of one thing I am certain, that the world does not contain so proud, so happy, or so fond a daughter. I would not exchange my father, even though we toiled together for our daily bread, for any man on earth, though he could pour all the gold of Peru into my lap. Whilst we are together, we can never be wretched; and when all our debts are paid, we shall be happy. God bless you, my dearest and most beloved father!
Though vastly more practical than he ever was, Mary perhaps had some sympathy for his almost childish optimism and his Micawber-like belief that something would turn up. While only once (despite further attempts) did a lottery win save them, there were friends who tried to help. After George Mitford's death—in debt to an extent of several hundred pounds—a public subscription was launched. Within a short time over £1,600 had been donated, often by well-known figures, including Queen Victoria , Lady Byron ( Anne Milbanke ), Maria Edgeworth and the archbishop of Dublin. The surplus after the debts had been paid was passed to Mary to supplement her other income.
By the 1840s, Mitford's health was declining. Years of anxiety, long hours of literary work (to produce, ironically, prose that sparkled with gaiety and wit) and the discomforts of a damp and draughty cottage had helped give her bronchitis, rheumatism, and digestive troubles. Weakened by these, she was susceptible to attacks of fever and nervous prostration. Her literary output perhaps faltered, but it by no means dried up. She began her autobiography, which appeared in three volumes in 1852 as Recollections of a Literary Life and demonstrated her immense knowledge of literature (her cottage was packed with some 6,000 books, and she had borrowed many others from the circulating libraries). In 1854, she brought out her Dramatic Works and in the same year completed a novel, Atherton, the only lengthy work of fiction she produced. Ruskin wrote to her with praise; he found "an indescribable character about it, in common with all your works—an indescribable perfume and sweetness, as of lily of the valley and honey, utterly unattained by any other writer." Literary critics, however, have usually concluded that she lacked the creative imagination that is to be found in the work of the true novelist.
Her present-day reputation largely rests on Our Village. At a time when towns and industry were growing, her portrayal of rural England was reassuring. Her comment while recommending Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers might also apply to her own work: "a lady might read it all aloud." Modern readers are apt to find the discursive style and homely virtues too cloying, yet these cheerful and animated sketches of people and scenes (particularly the glorious cottage garden she created) were fixed on the page with such vivacity that the colors have remained fresh. To quote a brief example, from an essay that was particularly admired by Catharine Sedgwick and Felicia Hemans :
A London fog is a sad thing, as every inhabitant of London knows full well: dingy, dusky, dirty, damp; an atmosphere black as smoke and wet as steam, that wraps round you like a blanket; a cloud reaching from earth to heaven…. Of all detestable things a London fog is the most detestable.
Now a country fog is quite another matter…. This last lovely autumn has given us more foggy mornings, or rather more foggy days, than I ever remember to have seen in Berkshire: days beginning in a soft and vapoury mistiness, enveloping the whole country in a veil, snowy, fleecy, and light, as the smoke which one often sees circling in the distance from some cottage chimney, or as the still whiter clouds which float around the moon, and finishing in sunsets of a surprising richness and beauty when the mist is lifted up from the earth and turned into a canopy of unrivalled gorgeousness, purple, rosy and golden.
Among others who admired her work was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Their correspondence extended over a lengthy period and gives much information about the personalities and interests of both women. Mitford presented her with a cocker spaniel named Flush; it was immortalized by Browning's pen.
Although the house in Three Mile Cross was not so cramped as the word cottage (a word employed by all who visited) suggests, it was poorly maintained. In 1851, therefore, she decided to move to a house in Swallowfield, about three miles away. In this cottage, as she and her visitors habitually referred to it, she settled in with her small domestic staff (even in their most impoverished phases, the Mitfords managed to employ—if not always regularly pay—a couple of servants). A frequent visitor there was the author and cleric Charles Kingsley who lived a few miles away at Eversley. Though all who recall going to Swallowfield in that part of her life found in their host all the old powers of intellect and much of the old vivacity, Mitford was approaching the condition of an invalid. An accident in 1853, when the carriage in which she was a passenger overturned, led to several months during which she could only be moved in a wheelchair. Though very weak, she wrote letters to her many friends and, as she had all her life, avidly devoured books. In one of her last letters on January 1, 1855, she wrote:
It has pleased Providence to preserve to me my calmness of mind and clearness of intellect, and also my powers 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. This very day, not only my common pensioners, the dear robins, but a saucy troop of sparrows, and a little shining bird of passage, whose name I forget, have all been pecking at once at their tray of bread-crumbs outside the window.
A few days later, on January 10, she died. On January 18, Mary Russell Mitford was buried, as she had anticipated, "where the sun glances through the great elms in the beautiful churchyard of Swallowfield."
Astin, Marjorie. Mary Mitford: Her Circle and Her Books. London: Douglas, 1930.
Chorley, Henry. The Letters of Mary Russell Mitford. London: Bentley, 1870.
Hill, Constance. Mary Russell Mitford and Her Surroundings. London and NY: John Lane, 1920.
Lee, Elizabeth. Mary Russell Mitford: Correspondence with Charles Boner & John Ruskin. London: Fisher Unwin, 1910.
L'Estrange, A.G. The Life of Mary Russell Mitford. London: Bentley, 1870.
Miller, Betty. Elizabeth Barrett to Miss Mitford: Unpublished Letters. London: Murray, 1954.
Mitford, Mary Russell. Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places and People. London: Bentley, 1852.
Watson, Vera. Mary Russell Mitford. London: Evans Brothers .
The main collection of Mary Russell Mitford's papers is in the town library at Reading, Berkshire.
D.E. Martin , Lecturer in History, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England