Mary Russell Mitford: Author of Our Village

Mary Russell Mitford (16 December 1787 - 10 January 1855), was an English novelist and dramatist. She was born at Alresford, Hampshire. Her place in English literature is as the author of Our Village. This series of sketches of village scenes and vividly drawn characters was based upon life in Three Mile Cross, a hamlet in the parish of Shinfield, near Reading in Berkshire, where she lived. She was the only daughter of Dr George Mitford, or Midford, who spent her mother's fortune in a few years. Then he spent the greater part of £20,000, which in 1797 Mary, then aged ten, drew as a prize in a lottery. The family lived in large properties in Reading and then Grazeley (in Sulhamstead Abbots parish), but, when the money was all gone, they lived on a small remnant of the doctor's lost fortune and the proceeds of his daughter's literary career. He is thought to have inspired Mary with the keen delight in incongruities, the lively sympathy, self-willed vigorous individuality, and the womanly tolerance which inspire so many of her sketches of character. She was devoted to him, refused all holiday invitations because he could not live without her, and worked incessantly for him except when she broke off to read him the sporting newspapers. Later in life she moved from Three Mile Cross to Swallowfield, where she died on 10 January 1855 after being injured in a road accident. She is buried in the village. Her writing has all the charm of unaffected spontaneous humour, combined with quick wit and literary skill. She met Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1836, and their acquaintance ripened into a warm friendship. The strain of poverty told on her work, for although her books sold at high prices, her income did not keep pace with her father's extravagances. In 1837, however, she received a civil list pension, and five years later her father died. A subscription was raised to pay his debts, and the surplus increased Mary's income. She eventually moved to a cottage in Swallowfield, where she remained for the rest of her life. She is buried in the churchyard there. Her youthful ambition had been to be the greatest English poetess, and her first publications were poems in the manner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Walter Scott (Miscellaneous Verses, 1810, reviewed by Scott in the Quarterly; Christine, a metrical tale, 1811; Blanche, 1813). Her play Julian was produced at Covent Garden, with William Charles Macready in the title role, in 1823; The Foscari was performed at Covent Garden, with Charles Kemble as the hero, in 1826; Rienzi, 1828, the best of her plays, had a run of thirty-four nights, and Mary's friend, Thomas Noon Talfourd, imagined that its vogue militated against the success of his own play Ion. Charles the First was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, but was played at the Surrey Theatre in 1834. The prose, to which she was driven by domestic necessities, is more successful than her verse. The first series of Our Village sketches appeared in 1824, a second in 1826, a third in 1828, a fourth in 1830, a fifth in 1832. They were reprinted several times. Belford Regis, a novel in which the neighbourhood and society of Reading were idealized, was published in 1835. Her Recollections of a Literary Life(1852) is a series of causeries about her favorite books. Her talk was said by her friends, Elizabeth Browning and Hengist Horne, to have been even more amusing than her books, and five volumes of her Life and Letters, published in 1870 and 1872, show her to have been a delightful letter- writer. Mary was an enthusiast of Jane Austen's works, in spite of her gossipy nature, as when writing to a friend in 1815 (recall though, that when the Austens and Russells were neighbors, Jane was but a child of ten...was she truly husband hunting or merely entertaining herself by entering false marriages into the church register?)
 “À propos to novels, I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman; that mamma knew all her family very intimately; and that she herself is an old maid (I beg her pardon – I mean a young lady) with whom mamma before her marriage was acquainted. Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers; and a friend of mine, who visits her now, says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of “single blessedness” that ever existed, and that, till ‘Pride and Prejudice’ showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quietness. The case is very different now; she is still a poker – but a poker of whom every one is afraid. It must be confessed that this silent observation from such an observer is rather formidable. Most writers are good-humoured chatterers – neither very wise nor very witty: – but nine times out of ten (at least in the few that I have known) unaffected and pleasant, and quite removing by their conversation any awe that may have been excited by their works. But a wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk, is terrific indeed!...After all, I do not know that I can quite vouch for this account, though the friend from whom I received it is truth itself; but her family connections must render her disagreeable to Miss Austen, since she is the sister-in-law of a gentleman who is at law with Miss A.’s brother for the greater part of his fortune. [original footnote: Every other account of Jane Austen, from whatever quarter, represents her as handsome, graceful, amiable, and shy.] You must have remarked how much her stories hinge upon entailed estates; doubtless she has learnt to dislike entails. Her brother was adopted by a Mr. Knight, who left him his name and two much better legacies in an estate of five thousand a year in Kent, and another of nearly double the value in Hampshire; but it seems he forgot some ceremony – passing a fine, I think they call it – with regard to the Hampshire property, which Mr. Baverstock has claimed in right of his mother, together with the mesne rents, and is likely to be successful.” [April 3, 1815 (vol. 1, pp. 305-7)]
The mention of Mr. Baverstock in this letter, regards his claim to the Chawton properties. Edward Austen-Knight was successful, of course, in his defense of his inheritance, and Jane and her family continued to live at Chawton Cottage for years to come. Mary Russell Mitford, on the other hand, has been described by friends as having the "habit of flattery, and the twin habit of disparagement of others". Another called her "a near but hostile neighbour”, still, in spite of this, in spite of her habit of criticism, extending even to Elizabeth Bennet herself (exclaiming to a friend, "The want of elegance is almost the only want in Miss Austen...in every word of ‘Elizabeth,’ the entire want of taste which could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy. Wickham is equally bad. Oh! they were just fit for each other, and I cannot forgive that delightful Darcy for parting them. Darcy should have married Jane."), she cannot help but admire Jane's talent and even take delight in Emma.
“… go for amusement to Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen. By-the-way, how delightful is her ‘Emma!’ the best, I think, of all her charming works.” [2 July 1816 (vol. 1, p. 331)]
Bibliography
  • 1810: Miscellaneous Poems
  • 1811: Christina, the Maid of the South Seas (poetry)
  • 1812: Watlington Hill
  • 1812: Blanch of Castile
  • 1813: Narrative Poems on the Female Character
  • 1823: Julian: A tragedy (play)
  • 1824: Our Village, Volume 1 (Volume 2 1826; Volume 3, 1828; Volume 4, 1830; Volume 5, 1832)
  • 1826: Foscari: A tragedy (play)
  • 1827: Dramatic Scenes, Sonnets, and other Poems
  • 1828: Rienzi: A tragedy (play)
  • 1830: Editor, Stories of American Life, by American Writers, Volume 2
  • 1831: Mary Queen of Scots
  • 1832: American Stories for Children
  • 1834: Charles the First: An historical tragedy (play)
  • 1835: Sadak and Kalascado
  • 1835: Belford Regis; or, Sketches of a Country Town (in three volumes)
  • 1837: Country Stories
  • 1852: Recollections of a Literary Life, or Books, Places and People (three volumes)
  • 1854: Atherton, and Other Tales (three volumes)
  • 1854: Dramatic Works

From Wikipedia, The Online Encyclopedia.

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