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The literary relations of Mary Russell Mitford

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THE LITERARY RELATIONS OF
MARY RUSSELL MITFORD
A Thesis
Presented to
the Faculty of the Department of English
University of Southern California
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
by
June Downey
June 1941
UMI Number: EP44147
All rights reserved
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UMI EP44147
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T h i s thesis, w r i t t e n by
...jg&L
u n d e r the d i r e c t i o n o f h rf^trd F a c u i ty C o m m it te e ,
a n d a p p r o v e d b y a l l its m e m b e r s , has been
presented to a n d accepted by the C o u n c i l on
G r a d u a t e S t u d y a n d Research in p a r t i a l f u l f i l l ­
m e n t o f the re q u ire m e n ts f o r the degree o f
.-
D eatt
Secretary
D a te .
m
/
F a c u lty Com m ittee
C hairm an
TABLE OP CONTENTS
CHAPTER
I.
II.
PAG-E
THE PURPOSE OF THE S T U D Y ........................
1
Statement of the purpose ......................
1
Justification of the study ....................
3
Scope of the s t u d y ............................
3
THE LITERARY LIFE OF MARY M I T F O R D ..............
6
Heritage and parental influence
III.
.............
6
Early life, schooling, and r e a d i n g ...........
11
Relationships with contemporariess ...........
21
MARY MITFORD AS CORRESPONDENT AND CRITIC . . . .
Correspondence:
her theory of letter writing,
her views of the age, her autobiography
. .
C r i t i c i s m s ............
IV.
73
73
115
WORKS AND LITERARY REPUTATION
. .
Mary Mitford's literary creations
............. 151
. ........
152
D r a m a s .........................................152
V e r s e ......................................... 171
Prose
............
Her literary reputation
Contemporary reputation
Posthumous reputation
V.
. . .
174
............... 185
...................
185
................. 196
C O N C L U S I O N ......................................... 206
S u m m a r y .........................................206
iii
CHAPTER
PAGE
E v a l u a t i o n ..................................
BIBLIOGRAPHY ..
208
212
CHAPTER I
TEE PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
The purpose' of this study is to trace as completely
and as accurately as possible, the literary relations of
Mary Russell Mitford, a writer of the first half of the
nineteenth century— now scarcely known except as the friend
of greater people and scarcely at all as an author in her
own right— who has been given a rather inconspicuous place
in most histories of English literature.
Miss Mitford was
a writer for almost half a century and was held in high
esteem by most of her contemporaries.
She was the friend,
critic, and in some cases, even literary adviser of many
important authors of her time, including Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Crabb Robinson,
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley,
Walter Savage Landor, Henry Chorley, Sir William Elford, an
amateur poet, B. R. Haydon, the painter, Charles Boner,
Richard Cobden, founder of the Anti-Corn-Law League, and
Mr. James T. Fields, her American publisher.
Although not
a particularly obvious influence upon the style of other
writers, Miss Mitford was a famous figure in Victorian lit­
erature.
She was a sincere critic of her period, and al­
though her criticisms may not always be accurate, they re­
flect her own opinions, and because she was recognized as a
woman of importance in literary circles during her time, her
remarks are interesting to us.
She was also the author of
certain works of significance in the history of English
literature:
Mrs. J. T. Fields, wife of the American pub­
lisher, and also known as Annie Fields, said that when Miss
Mitford wrote Our Village the reading world recognized a
"new note, a fresh sympathy, the beginning of a literary
epoch.
The modern short story was perhaps born to the world
straight from Miss Mitford*s heart."1
Although Miss Mitford experienced periods of sorrow
and despair, almost continuous hardships and disappoint­
ments, and many years of poor health, she was always able
to maintain a spirit of optimism, and became one of the
most beloved figures in the realm of early nineteenth cen­
tury English literature.
She was ill during most of her
life and suffered great pain much of the time, but she was
always cheerful and incredibly courageous.
This cheerful­
ness , perhaps, was one of the most important factors to
which her success can be attributed.
The writer intends to review as accurately as possi­
ble those circumstances of Mary Russell Mitford*s life that
bore directly upon the themes and qualities of her literary
1 The Critic "Mary Russell Mitford" by Annie Fields.
Boston: I960. V. 2$, p. 512.
achievement; to acertain the literary personages with whom
Mary Russell Mitford formed friendships, either through per­
sonal meetings or correspondence; to observe the impressions
*
made upon her life and her works by these relationships; to
present her critical attitude toward other writers and their
works; and to discover what authors Miss Mitford admired and
why she admired them.
The present study seems justified since there is no
complete record of Miss Mitford*s literary relationships.
The
various accounts of her life and friendships are scattered
through many volumes and collections of Victorian memoirs
and correspondence.
There is no existing information on this
subject in the form of a concise compilation, and any facts
obtained must be a result of extensive reading and laborious
investigation.
The chief source-of information regarding Miss Mitford's friendships with important authors is the enormous
number of letters from her pen and from those of her corre­
spondents.
The correspondence of her friends and acquaint­
ances who wrote-to each other about her has also been ex­
amined.
As there is no complete collection of these letters,
the difficulty of obtaining and assembling the material can
readily be seen.
In this study particular emphasis is placed upon Mary
Mitford's relations with her contemporaries,
She took much
delight in her friendships and frequently wished that she
might have had more time to devote to the wide circle of
diverse persons she called her friends.
Because she knew
intimately such notable persons as Elizabeth Barrett Brown­
ing, Charles Kingsley, John Ruskin, B. R. Haydon, the paint­
er, and James T. Fields, her American publisher, her criti­
cisms and letters are particularly interesting to us.
Miss
Mitford had interesting little bits of rare information to
tell us about most of her friends, and these informal re­
marks seem to make those famous figures of other generations
clearer and more alive to us.
Much attention is given to Miss Mitford’s literary
criticisms.
She seldom made an acquaintance or read a book
without expressing somewhere her opinion of that person or
book.
Her critical expressions are interesting because in
them are reflected her keen powers of discrimination and her
own personality.
Miss Mitford’s remarks on books and authors
may be divided into two classes:
the informal criticisms,
which are obtained chiefly from her correspondence, and the
formal remarks, which were put on record in her Recollections
of a Literary Life.2
In her own right, Miss Mitford was a writer of con­
siderable importance during her time.
Life.
Her works included
2 Mary Russell Mitford, Recollections of a Literary
New York: (Harper and Brothers, 1852).
poetry, drama, prose, and some critical works, as well as
numerous personal letters published after her death.
She
was best known for her prose writings, and her books were
read widely throughout the British Isles and America.
Miss Mitford*s reputation as a woman of letters— her
rise to fame and the decline in popularity of her literary
efforts after her death— is discussed, with emphasis upon
the reasons for her failure to hold her position as one of
the popular writers in English literature.
CHAPTER II
THE LITERARY LIFE OF MARY MITFORD
The first main division of this chapter is devoted to
a review of Miss Mitford*s heritage and of the influence of
her parents, particularly Dr. Mitford, upon her life and
literary career.
and schooling.
The second is a treatment of her early life,
In this division, also, are discussed the
authors and types of literature which Mary Russell Mitford
read and loved before she herself became a writer.
The third
section deals with her relationships with her contemporaries
in the field of literature.
I.
HERITAGE AND PARENTAL INFLUENCE
Mary Russell, the mother of the charming authoress of
Our Village, was an heiress and the only surviving child of
Dr. Richard Russell, a wealthy clergyman, who held the liv­
ings of Overton, and Ash, both in Hampshire, for more than
sixty years.
Miss Russell was too plain to be married for
anything but her money,^ and for this reason the heiress was
married by a physician, ten years her junior, and a man, it
is said, of extraordinary personal beauty.2
At the time of
1 Goldwin Smith, "Miss Mitford*s Letters" The Nation.
10:210, March 31, 1870. 2 Loc. cit.
her marraige Mrs. Mitford brought her husband a dowry of
twenty-eight thousand pounds, a house, and landed property.
She retained for herself the small settlement of two hundred
pounds a year for pin-money.
Like many a literary rogue, this disreputable father
of Mary Bussell Mitford possessed manners which were easy,
natural, and apparently extremely frank.
"But,” says Mr.
Harness, her literary executor, "he nevertheless met the
world on his own terms, and was prepared to allow himself
g
any insincerity which seemed expedient.”
Dr. Mitford ran
through several fortunes, the first of which was his wife’s
dowry, which was lost in a very few years as a result of
speculation, and little remained but Mrs. Mitford*s two
hundred pounds a year.
He was an enthusiastic and uncompro­
mising Whig, and practically ruined his professional pros­
pects by engaging in the fervent hatreds of the hotly
contested county elections.
As a result he was forced to
move from Hampshire, to Berkshire; ”then he offended a rich
cousin who intended Mrs. Mitford to inherit his wealth, so
that the money was left elsewhere; and finally quarrelled
with the corporation of his new dwelling-place.^
3 Living Age. 262:478, August 21, 1909.
* Elizabeth Lee,
editor , Mary Russell Mitford:
Correspondence with Charles Boner and John Buskin. (“Chicago:
Rand McNally and Company,cn.d.j), pp. 16-17.
Although he was constantly losing money by gambling
and speculation," and ill-used his wife and daugher scandal­
ously, this degenerate scion of an old family was young and
gay, handsome and clever, manly and generous, and was able
to maintain the respect of his daughter to his dying day.
He was well liked by such important English business men and
politicians as Sir William Elford and William Cobbett.
Mary Mitford, the subject of this study, was well
born and well connected, with a modest position which not
even poverty could seriously affect.
The habit of her child­
hood of meeting people of some distinction and eminence, and
her conviction of feeling herself possessed of a large share
in the important business of the world by reason of having
friends and relations playing a real part in it, all gave
her a lively sense of being very much a person.5
Dr. Mitford was utterly selfish at heart and was in­
capable of sacrificing the slightest inclinations of his own
for the maintenance of his wife and daughter.
He was not
only recklessly extravagant, but was addicted to high play,
and his love of sports and a career of dissipation constant­
ly kept his pecuniary resources reduced to the lowest possi­
ble ebb.
Dr. Mitford was utterly unfitted to support a
5 'Xiivlng A g e , 105:39, 1870
family, and by miraculously winning in a lottery his little
daughter, at the age of ten, came to the rescue.
Dr. Mitford frequently took Mary on walks with him,
and it was on one of these walks while they were visiting
in London that he took her into a "not very tempting-looking
. place," which was, as she soon discovered, a lottery office.
Mary did not know the meaning of a lottery then, hut her
account of the episode fifty years later is so remarkably
fresh and charming, and so revealing of her personality,
that one must quote it at some length:
...An Irish lottery was upon the point of being
drawn, and he desired me to choose one out of several
bits of printed paper (I did not then know their sig­
nificance) that lay upon the counter:
"Choose which number you like best," said the dear
papa, "and that shall be your birthday present."
I immediately selected one, and put it into his
hand:H o . 2,224.
"Ah,” said my father, examining it, "you must choose
again. I want to buy a whole ticket; and this is only
a quarter. Choose again, my pet."
"No, dear papa, I like this one best.”
"Here is the next number,” interposed the lottery
office keeper, "No. 2,223."
"Ay," said my father, "that will do just as well.
Will it not, Mary? We*11 take that."
"No!" returned I, obstinately; "that w o n ft do.
This is my birth-day you know, papa, and I am ten years
old. Cast up my number, and you111 find that makes ten.
The other is only nine.”
10
My father, superstitious like all speculators, was
struck with my pertinacity, and with the reason I gave,
which he liked none the less because the ground of
preference was tolerably unreasonable, resisted the
attempt of the office keeper to tempt me by different
tickets, and we had nearly left the shop without a
purchase, when the clerk, who had been examining dif­
ferent desks and drawers, said to his principal:
"I think, Sir, the matter may be managed if the
gentleman does not mind paying a few shillings more.
That ticket, £,2£4, only came yesterday, and we have
still all the shares; one half, one quarter, one
eighth, two sixteenths.
It will be just the same if
the young lady is set upon it."
The young lady was set upon it, and the shares
were purchased.
The whole affair was a secret between us, and my
father whenever he got me to himself talked over our
future twenty thousand pounds--just like Alnascher over
his basket of eggs.
Meanwhile, time passed on, and one Sunday morning
we were all preparing to go to church, when a face that
I had forgotten, but my father had not, made its appear­
ance. It was the clerk of the lottery office. An ex­
press had just arrived from Dublin, announcing that
number £,££4 had been drawn a prize of twenty thousand
pounds, and he had hastened to communicate the good news.
Ah, meI In less than twenty years what was left of
the produce of the ticket so strangely chosen? What?
except a Wedgwood dinner-service that my father had had
made to commemorate the event, with the Irish harp with­
in the border on one side, and his family crest on the
other! That fragile and perishable ware long outlasted
the more perishable money!6
The fitful splendour which flickered about her youth
vanished within the next ten years, and it again fell the
6
Mary Russell Mitford, Recollections of a Literary
Life, pp. 378-380.
lot of Mary to support her family as best she oould.
The
deprivations and hardships which he had forced upon his wife
and daughter still did not change the disreputable life of
Dr. Mitford.
His high animal spirits and continual love of
play constantly plunged his family deeper and deeper into
debt, and his good-natured little daughter was driven out
into conflict and struggle from almost the earliest moment
at which her peculiar genius revealed itself to support and
maintain the credit of as miserable a creature as ever preyed
on, and weighed down the women of his family.
"Hers was the
history of a credulous woman sacrificing herself to an utter­
ly worthless idol— told over again; but with some difference
from its usual formula."7
II.
EARLY LIFE, SCHOOLING, AND READING
Mary was a precocious little girl, who was spoiled by
both of her parents.
She learned to read almost by the time
she could talk, and tells the story of her early accomplish­
ment as follows:
In common with many only children, especially where
the mother is of a grave and home-loving nature, I learn­
ed to read at a very early age. Before I was three years
old my father would perch me on the breakfast-table to
exhibit my accomplishment to some admiring ^guest, who
7
Living A g e . 104:558, 1870.
12
admired all the more, because, a small, puny child,
looking far younger than I really was, nicely dressed,
as only children generally are, and gifted with an
affluence of curls, I might have passed for the twin
sister of my own great doll. On the table was I perch­
ed to read some Foxite newspaper, "Courier," or "Morn­
ing Chronicle," the Whiggish. oracles of the day, and
as my delight in the high-seasoned politics of sixty
years ago was naturally less than that of my hearers,
this display of precocious acquirement was commonly
rewarded, not by cakes or sugar-plums, too plentiful in
my case to be very greatly cared for, but by a sort of
payment in kind. I read leading articles to please
the company; and my dear mother recited the "Children
in the Wood" to please me.
This was my reward; and I
< looked for my favorite ballad after every performance,
just as the piping bullfinch that hung in the window
looked for his lump of sugar after going through "God.
save the King." The two cases were exactly parallel.8
Her favorite ballad, the "Children in the Wood,"
was one of the collection of ballads in an old three volume
edition of Fercyfs Reliques. Mary persuaded her
put the volumes in charge of
father to
her maid, Nancy, in order that
she might hear "Children in the Wood" read to her whenever
she so desired.
Nancy, however, became weary of "Children
in the Wood" and gradually took to reading to her some of
the other ballads; "and as from three years I grew to four
or five," wrote Miss Mitford in 1852, "I learned to read
them myself, and the book became the delight of my child­
hood, as it is now the solace of my old age."9
8 Mitford, 0£. cit., pp. 1-2.
9 Ibid.. p. 2.
Miss Mitford joyfully recalls her early life, prob­
ably the happiest days she ever knew, at the mention of the
ballads, the first book to have a permanent effect on her
life and character.
She states:
What a play-ground was that orchard! and what p l a y - .
fellows were mine! Nancy, with her trim prettiness,
my own dear father, handsomest arid cheerfulest of men,
and the great Newfoundland dog Coe, who used to lie
down at my feet, as if to invite me to mount him, and
then to prance off with his burden as if he enjoyed
the fun as much as we did. Happy, happy days! It is
good to have the memory of suoh a childhood! to be
able to call up past delights by the mere sight and
sound of Chevy Chase or the battle Otterbourne.10
Dr. Mitford continued to spoil Mary and to exhibit
her talent to visitors.
The Mitfords were wealthy in those
days, or at least they had not yet left off the habit and
sense of being rich; and Mary did everything and learned
everything which was considered right for a young lady of
family and fashion to d o .
At the age of ten, Mary was decidedly fat.
The ex­
pression of her face was kind, gentle, and intelligent, and
she should have been pretty, for the features were all sepa
rately good and like her fathers, "but from some almost
imperceptible disproportion, and the total change of colour
ing, the beauty had e v a n e s c e d . T h u s was her appearance
10 Ibid.. p. 3.
11
R. Brimley Johnson (editor), The Letters of Mary
Russell Mitford.
(London: John Lane. The Bodley Head Ltd
1 9 2 5 ) , pp. 14-15.
14
until her death, never common-looking, never beautiful, but
always loved and admired although undeniably plain.
Prom 1797 to 1802, Mary remained in a London school
kept by a French emigrant.
She always loved knowledge, and
while in school she studied Latin, French, Italian, history,
geography, astronomy, music, singing, and drawing.12
She
also acted in plays and took lessons in ballet dancing.
During these five years she kept a catalogue of her
readings, an average of fifty-five volumes per thirty-one
]a
days. ^ She discovered that Goldsmith’s Animated Nature
was "quite a lady’s natural history, and extremely enter­
taining. ..free from technical terms, generally the greatest
objection to books of that kind."14
Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature
was a schoolroom favorite during this early part of the
nineteenth century.
The book was published in eight volumes
and was a huge compilation of information gathered from many
sources.
Goldsmith possessed only a limited knowledge of
natural history and readily accepted the "current old wives’
tales and legends."1®
The book states that horses "would
12 Ibid., p. 15.
13 Ibid., p. 16.
f
14 L O O . cit.
15
Amy Cruse, The Englishman and His Hooks (London:
Geo. G. Marrap and Company, L t d .), 1356. P. 89
15
go mad if a tub of blood were placed in their stable, and
describes "gravely how monkeys caught crabs by baiting their
tails and drawing their prey out of the water with a violent
jerk."-1-6
But in spite of its lack of scientific truth, it
was considered "delightful reading," and in her Moral Tales,
even Maria Edgeworth makes the children read it and profit
greatly thereby*17
Question books were extremely popular in the class­
room.
The most famous of these quiz books was Mangnall*s
Historical and Miscellaneous Questions for the Use of Young
People. published in 1800.
These questions, with their
answers, compiled by Miss Richmal Mangnall, a Yorkshire
schoolmistress, were "intended to awaken a laudable spirit
of curiosity in young minds."18
Mary Russell Mitford used
it while in school at London, and picked up
such precious items of information as the characteristic
traits of the ancient Scottish Highlanders, where nut­
megs grow, the duties of Justices of the Peace, how to
make candles, the opinions, employments, and manner of
living of the ancient Brahmins, the great mutual friend­
ship, the place and period in which iron passed as
current coin, and the way in which ducks give notice of
coming rain by preening their feathers.19
16 Cruse, loc. oit.
17 L o c . cit.
18 Ibid., p. 83.
19 Ibid., pp. 83-84.
16
Amy Cruse tells us that Mary Mitford read about twen­
ty-four novels per month,20 and that she was surpassed in
quantity only by Mary Lamb.
It seems logical to assume that
with her other activities, time for serious consideration of
the enormous number of books she read must have been very
scarce, if not totally lacking, and that her impressions
regarding them must have been flash judgments.
However,
when she left Miss Bowden*s school in 1802, she was recog­
nized as the prize pupil in English literature and compo­
sition.
She returned to a new home, Bertram House, near
Reading,— a house built with part of the money which Mary
won in the Irish lottery.
At Reading was a circulating library "from which the
Minerva novels could be obtained, so we can only think of
her visiting the Leadenhall Street establishment during the
brief visits she paid to London.”
was never quenched:
21
Her thirst for novels
she read the works of Maria Edgeworth,
Ioanna Baillie, and Mrs. Opie, and regarded these authors
as ”three such women as have seldom adorned one age and one .
22
country.”
During the month of January 1806, Amy Cruse
records her readings in the following manner:
20 Ibid.. p. 98.
2^ Cruse, loc oit.
22 1,0 0 . cit.
17
Her list of books read in January 1806 includes many
novels little known even in their own day and now quite
forgotten— the trash of the libraries— with a few of
slightly higher type. There is Clarentine. by a sister of
*Fanny Burney, Miss Edgeworth1s Leonora, Mrs. Meeke’s
Midnight Weddings— eighteen novels altogether, out of
a total of twenty-four books.23
Miss Mitford continued to read and enjoy the books
from the peii of Maria Edgeworth, and in a letter to Sir
William Elford, Dr. Mitford*s friend, dated July 1, 1812,
she wrote:
To say that I anticipate with delight every book of
Miss Edgeworth’s is but to re-echo the opinion of all
the world; but I must do my own taste the justice to
say that I delight in her works for the same reason
that ygu admire them— her exquisite distinction of char­
acter. %
As each of Sir Walter Scott’s poems and books made
its appearance, Mary Hussell Mitford was sure to have read
it before its first week on the market had passed.
In a
letter to Sir William, dated September 20, 1810, she dis­
cusses with ability certain of Scott’s works:
...I completely agree in the justice and discrimination
of your critique on The Lady of the L a k e . The singular
want of invention in the similarity of the two surprises
had quite escaped me, though I have read the whole poem
aloud three several times; so careless a reader am II
But I have since recollected a still more extraordinary
circumstance.
The denouement of Marmion and that of The
Lay of the Last Minstrel both turn on the same discovery.
This repetition is wonderful in a man of so much genius,
23 Cruse, loc. cit.
24 Johnson, o£. cit., p. 78.
18
and. the more so as the incident is in itself so stale,
so like the foolish trick of a pantomime, that to have
used it once was once too often.25
Mary Mitford had never been particularly fond of
historical novels, and before she read Anne of Brittany, she
wrote to Sir William on July 1, 1812:
I am not, however, sure that I shall like Anne of
Brittany the better for being historical. I never read
an historical novel in my life that I did not exchange
my little previous knowledge of the period and characters
referred to, for the falsified events and imaginary per­
sonages of the novelist; and in spite of Sir Bobert
Walpole's notion of history, I sm.t>y no means certain
that the change is in my favour.26
She became not only a voracious reader, but a critical
one whose instincts were by no means unsound; she preferred
Homer to Virgil, and found Dryden "careless, heavier reading
27
than Fope, too fond of triplets and Alexandrines."
At this time she was also reading such books as
Triumphs of Religion. Suicide. and Mary Brunton*s Self-Control,
of which she said:
"Having read it. . . 1 would only send it
to the pastrycook and the trunkmaker— am I not merciful?"28
Apparently Miss Mitford was mistaken in the identity of the
author of Self-Control as she referred to it as "Miss Wilson*s
25 Ibid., p. 45.
26 Ibid*. PP- 78-79,
27 Ibid.. p. 16.
28
P*
51 •
19
mueh-talked-of-book . . . Self-Control.
because there is
no record of such a book having been published by a Miss
Wilson.
In discussing books popular during this period,
Amy Cruse wrote of the novel,
"Self-control - - a novel high­
ly thought of at that time by most people."30
In spite of
the fact that Self-Control was well received by most of the
English public, Miss Mitford remained firm in her opinion of
the book, and her remark demonstrates early in her life a
talent for criticism, for, in our own generation, Mary Brunton’s Self-Control is practically unheard of.
Also among her readings at this time were The Countess
and Gertrude. a philosophical novel of much note in 1812,
but which Miss Mitford regarded with contempt because "it
abused spoilt children."
Miss Mitford believed that spoiled
children were often very innocent little simpletons.
Mary
Mitford had been a "spoilt child" all her life, and yet it
seems that her actions were always those of a talented, but
average child; hence the distaste for The Countess and
Gertrude.
She found Sir Walter Scott’s Don Roderick and
Canning’s New Morality extremely interesting.
But a year before this, in 1810, Miss Mitford had
burst into print with her little volume of poems entitled
20 Johnson, loc. cit.
30 Cruse, Oja. cit., p. 99.
20
Miscellaneous Poems.
She was now regarded by her friends,
and by herself, as an amateur author.
Miss Mitford seldom
read a book without commenting on it, and the reading which
she did during the rest of her life will be discussed in the
section dealing with her critical opinions, both formal and
informal.
Miss Mitford was always anxious to learn and to im­
prove herself, and it was for this purpose that she made a
trip to London in December of 1811.
Of the trip, she wrote
to Sir William Elford after her return:
I went thither to improve in my vocation (just as
country milliners and mantua-makers go to finish and
learn fashions) by hearing divers lectures — on Milton
and Shakespeare, and criticism and poetry, and poets
and critics, and whipping little boys, and love and
philosophy, and every subject that ever entered the
head of man — from my good friend Mr. Coleridge. And
here I am returned quite Coleridgified; much in the same
way, I suppose, as Boswell was after a visit to Johnson;
sprinkling, but not mixing, his brilliancy with my
dulness, "like sprigs of embroidery on a ground of linseywoolsey.”31
¥/hile she was in London for the purpose of "improving
herself" she went to see Mrs. Siddons in Pizarro.
Concerning
the performance, Miss Mitford stated:
. . . I contrived to obtain a place, and saw her; and
(for the first time in my' life) without pleasure, in
Pizarro. I had never before seen that disgrace to
Kotzebue, to Sheridan, to the stage, and to the audience;
and I really think the horses of last year, and the
*21
^
Johnson, o£. oit., p. 54
21
elephants of this, are rational amusements compared to
the penance of hearing such rhodomontade from human
organs.32
Dr. Mitford had taken Mary at a very early age to the
theatre, and this love for the drama lasted throughout her
life and probably was one of the determining factors which
prompted her to write dramas rather than any particular
talent for the art.
III.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH CONTEMPORARIES
The people of the eighteenth century and the early
part of the nineteenth century
led quiet and uneventful lives, little disturbed by the
lust for travel and seldom interrupted by journeys from
their place of abode. The average village was practical­
ly cut off from the outside world, and news of great
events trickled in slowly. Most people never in their
lives traveled more than fifty miles from their birth­
place, and for many persons twenty miles would be the
limit.33
Travel was slow and friends were able to see each
other only after the long hours of an uncomfortable journey.
Such difficulties in travel encouraged correspondence rather
them personal visits, and consequently many of Mary Russell
Mitford*s relations with friends consisted chiefly of corre-
32 Ibid.. p. 57.
33 Walter Phillips Hall and Robert Greenhalgh Albion,
The History of England and Greater Britain (New York:
Ginn
and Company, 1937), p. 510.
22
spondence, with, perhaps, several personal contacts during
the year.
In this section the personal meetings and the
events occurring thereby will be treated.
Only that corre­
spondence which is absolutely essential to the understanding
of the relationship will be mentioned here.
Her letters are
to be treated fully in a later chapter.
Sir William Elford.
In 1810 Miss Mitford was intro­
duced to her fatherfs friend, Sir William Elford, recorder
of Plymouth, fellow of the Royal and Linnaean Societies, an
exhibitor in the Royal Academy, and a writer of verses which
did not survive him.
A strong liking sprang up between the
amateur of sixty-four and the little poetess of twenty-three.
She sent him her book, he painted a picture for her— and a
correspondence followed in which Miss Mitford poured out all
her feelings, opinions, and experiences with a confidence
and enthusiastic frankness usually reserved by a girl for
girl friends.
This friendship consisted chiefly of correspond­
ence, for Miss Mitford lived at Reading, about forty miles
west of London, and Sir William lived at Plymouth, on the
southern shores of Devon.
Miss Mitford said that the old
gentleman
coaxed me into a correspondence, which was of no small
use to me, as giving me a command of my pen, and the
habit of arranging and expressing my thoughts. He
S3
always said that none of my writings were so pleasant
as those letters. 4
The gossips, however, began to talk, and when a friend
asked her if she intended to marry Sir William, she replied:
I shall not marry Sir William Elford, for which there
is a very good reason: the aforesaid Sir William having
no sort of desire to marry me; neither shall I marry
anybody.
I know myself well enough to be sure that if
any man were so foolish as to wish such a thing, and I
were foolish enough to answer nyes," yet a timely fit
of wisdom (caprice some might call it) would come upon
me, and I should run away from the church door. . . .
He is the kindest, cleverest, warmest-hearted man in the
world, perfect in everything but not being in love with
me.35
As would be expected, there was a tone of deference
to a distinguished senior, but Miss Mitford was outspoken
and frankly independent in her reply.
Their friendship took the form of a correspondence
between distant, but devoted friends.
His influence upon
Miss Mitford was one of encouragement, and their discussion
of books and authors was an important factor in the develop­
ment of Miss Mitford*s critical ability.
Their meetings
were very seldom, and their friendship was made possible by
a mutual appreciation and kindly respect for each other,
together with similar interests.
The desire to maintain the
beautiful relationship resulted in a charming association
34
35
Johnson, oj>. cit., p. 19.
P* 1 9 *
24
which lasted until Sir William’s death fourteen years later.
He was then seventy-eight and she was thirty-seven.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The story of Coleridgefs
enlisting in a cavalry regiment under a feigned name, of his
being recognized as a Cambridge scholar because he wrote some
Greek words.over the bed of a sick comrade is well known.
But it is not generally known that the arrangement for his
discharge took place at the Mitford’s house in Beading.
The
story was this:
Dr. Ogle, Dean of Winchester, was related to the
Mitfords, as relationships go in Northumberland, and
having been an intimate friend of my maternal grandfather,
had no small share in bringing about the marriage between
his young cousin and the orphan heiress. He continued
to take an affectionate interest in the couple he had
brought together, and the 15th Light Dragoons, in which
his eldest son had a troop, being quartered in Beading, "
he came to spend some days at their house. Of course
Captain Ogle, between whom and my father the closest
friendship subsisted, was invited to meet, the Dean, and
in the course of the dinner told the story of the learn­
ed recruit. It was the beginning of the great war with
France; men were procured with difficulty, and if one
of the servants waiting at the table had not been induced
to enlist in his place, there might have been some hes­
itation in procuring his discharge. Mr. Coleridge never
forgot my father’s zeal in the cause, for kind and clever
as he was, Captain Ogle was so indolent a man, that with­
out a flapper, the matter might have slept in his hands
till the Greek kalends.36
In 1794, at the time of Coleridge’s discharge from
the cavalry regiment, Mary Mitford was seven years of age.
Mitford, oj). cit., pp. 394-5.
There is no mention in her letters, of a meeting between
Miss Mitford and Coleridge prior to her trip to London in
1812 to hear Coleridge’s lectures.
It is possible, however,
that Coleridge may have gone to the Mitford home when he was
near London; for when Miss Mitford went to London to hear
the lectures, she referred to him as "my good friend Mr.
Coleridge."37
Dr. Mitford was interested in literature and
had a number of acquaintances in the literary field; he was
by nature a congenial fellow, and neither he nor Coleridge
appeared too interested in taking care of their families.
With these qualities in common, and with the obligation which
Miss Mitford claimed Coleridge felt for her father, as a
result of his part in procuring the p o e t ’s discharge, it is
not unreasonable to suppose that Coleridge and the Mitfords
saw each other between 1794 and 1811.
Miss Mitford’s Christina made its appearance in 1811,
and her Blanch was published in December of 1812.
read the poems and gave her advice on them.
Coleridge
Either he seems
to have regarded them with more than passing interest or
else he felt his obligation to Dr. Mitford so keenly that he
could not bring himself to speak truthfully about them.
He
may (for Coleridge’s critical hand was not always steady)
have sincerely praised them.
Of Coleridge’s criticism,.Miss
Johnson, o£. cit., p. 54.
26
Mitford wrote:
Such, was Mr. Coleridge*s kind recognition of my
father1s exertions that he had the infinite goodness
and condescension to look over the proof-sheets of two
girlish efforts, "Christina" and "Blanch," and to en­
courage the young writer by gentle strictures and stim­
ulating praise. Ah!
wish she had better deserved
this honoring notice!’58
Miss Mitford admired Coleridge*s genius, and her
account of the lectures which she heard him give, and which
were very successful for Coleridge, should be quoted here:
I wish you had heard him. You would certainly have
been enchanted; for, though his lectures are desultory
in the highest degree, and though his pronunciation is
an odd mixture of all that is bad in the worst dia­
lects of England, the Somersetshire and the Westmoreland,
with an addition, which I believe to be exclusively his
own, namely giving to the a long as in "wave" and "bane,"
a sound exactly resembling*"that which children make in
imitating the bleating of a sheep, "ba-a-a"; yet in spite
of all these defects, he has so much of the electric
power of genius— that power which fixes the attention by
arousing at once the fancy and the heart— that the ear
has scarcely the wish to condemn that which so strongly
delights the intellect. * . . The orator was more than
usually brilliant, . . . 9
Of Coleridge*s poems, Miss Mitford particularly liked
his Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni, (1802).
When she quotes this poem in her Recollections of a Literary
L i f e , she introduces it by saying, "I add one of his sublimest p o e m s . I t
is precisely the sort of poem one would
558 Mitford, ojd. cit ., p. 395.
39
Johnson, o£. cit., p. 55.
48 Mitford, o£. cit., p. 395.
27
have expected Miss Mitford to admire and to imitate, for it
is a hymn in praise of nature; it conceives of Nature as the
visible symbol of the Deity, and the use of exclamatory sen­
tences is overdone.
Coleridge’s influence on Miss Mitford’s
poems will be discussed in a later chapter.
Miss Mitford regarded the great poet’s work with'high
esteem, and even imitated his poems.
Mrs. Browning was aware
of another way in which Miss Mitford resembled Coleridge;
she wrote to Mr. Buskin on November 5, 1855, eleven months
after Miss Mitford’s death:
People have observed that she resembled Coleridge in
her granite forehead— something, too, in the lower part
of the face--however unlike Coleridge in mental character­
istics, in his tendency to abstract speculation, or in­
deed his ideality.
There might have been, as you suggest,
a somewhat different development elsewhere than in Berk­
shire— not very different, though— souls don’t grow out
of the ground.9:1
William Wordsworth.
Miss Mitford was never a great
admirer of Wordsworth, although she recognized in him a great
poet.
On September 13, 1817, she wrote to Sir ITilliam Elford:
. . . I have been . . . trying to learn to admire Words­
worth’s poetry. . . . and, strange to say, a large pro­
portion of the cleverest young men in London (your friend
Mr. Haydon among the rest) do pay him this homage.
One of the circle, a Reading gentleman of the name of
Talfourd . . . talked to me about Mr. Wordsworth’s genius
41 E. G. Kenyon, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett
Browning (London: Smith, Elder, andlTompany, 1897). II, 216.
28
till I began to be a little ashamed of not admiring him
myself. Enthusiasm is very catching, especially when it
is very eloquent. So I set about admiring.
To be sure,
there was the small difficulty of not understanding;
but that, as Mr. Talfourd said, did not signify. So I
admired. But, alas! my admiration was but a puny, flick­
ering flame, that wanted constant relighting at Mr.
Talfourd1s eloquence. He went to town, and out it went
for good. . . . One1s conscience may be pretty well
absolved for not admiring this man: he admires himself
enough for all the world put together.42
Her letters contain casual references to Wordsworth
and his poems, but there is no specific information concern­
ing a meeting with him until 1836.
She probably met Words­
worth for the first time on, or a few days before, May 26,
1836, for on this date she wrote to her father from London:
Mr. Wordsworth, Mr. Landor, and Mr. White dined here.
I like Mr. Wordsworth of all things; he is a most venerable-looking old man, delightfully mild and placid,
and most kind to me.43
On May 27, 1836, she went with the Harnesses to dinner
at Mr. Kenyon1s.
Wordsworth was there, and Miss Mitford
talked with him.
She wrote to her father on May 28 and 29,
1836:
Our dinner at Mr. Kenyonfs (to which I went with the
Harnesses) was magnificent. Mr. Wordsworth, whom I love
— he is an adorable old man—
You cannot imagine how very, very, very kindly Mr. Words­
worth speaks of my poor works. You, who know what I
think of him, can imagine how much I am gratified by his
praise.44
42 Johnson, o£. cit., pp. 142-144.
43 Ibid., p. 185.
44 Ibid., pp. 186-187.
29
Miss Mitford was proud of having met the famous Words­
worth, and upon her return to Three Mile Cross, wrote to Miss
Jephson on June 19, 1836:
I spent ten days in London--ten days crowded with
gratification. Wordsworth was there; I sat next him at
dinner three following days, and had the pleasure of
finding my old idolatry of the poet turned into a warm
affection for the kind, simple, gracious man. We met
also almost every morning; . . .45
Apparently, the excitement over meeting Wordsworth and
his courtesy to her caused Miss Mitford to forget that in 1817
she had said that her admiration for Wordsworth was "but a
puny, flickering flame, that wanted constant relighting at
Mr. Talfourd's eloquence."46
However, both Miss Mitford and
Wordsworth were different now.
A careful check of all of the published letters of
Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, reveals no mention of
Miss Mitford.
Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Mrs. Martin on December
7, 1836, of a trip which she took to Chiswick with Wordsworth
and Miss Mitford.
This trip was made about the first of
June, 1836, while Miss Mitford was visiting in London.
Quoting Miss Barrett,
I . . . must have told you that one of my privileges
has been to see Wordsworth twice. He was very kind to
45 Ibid., p. 191
46 Ibid., p. 143
30
me, and let me hear his conversation. I .went
and Miss Mitford to Chiswick, and thought all
that I must certainly be dreaming.
I.saw her
every day of her weekTs visit to London . . .
with him
the way
almost
7
Miss Mitford does not mention seeing Wordsworth again,
and as the meetings with him were gradually forgotten, her
remarks concerning his works are not as enthusiastic.
Words­
worth died in 1850, and in February, 1851, Miss Mitford
wrote to Charles Boner:
We are ungrateful people, and knock down our idols
to avenge our own idolatry. You'll see that will be
the case with Wordsworth, who, first underrated then
overrated, will fall again below his proper level, ay,
and very soon. The posthumous articles upon him would
have driven him crazy, poor man. 8
There is no evidence of Wordsworth ever having influ­
enced Miss Mitford.
However, Miss Mitford remained inter­
ested in Wordsworth's activities throughout his life, and
apparently Wordsworth regarded Miss Mitford with high esteem,
and had not forgotten meeting her for it was through him
that Miss Mitford met Charles Boner, an English writer of
minor importance.
Boner was living at.Ratisbon, but while
he was visiting in England in 1845 he went to see Wordsworth
at Rydal Mount, and at the poet's suggestion, on his way
south paid Miss Mitford a visit at Three Mile Cross.
47 Kenyon, o p . cit., p. 43.
48
Lee, o£. cit., pp. 182-183.
Charles Boner.
"Mr. Boner," Miss Mitford wrote to
Mr. Bennoch on April 5, 1854, "is a most accomplished man.
He came to see me eight or nine years ago from Mr. Words­
worth, and we have been fast friends ever since.
Miss Mitford’s friendship with Charles Boner extended
from their meeting in 1845 until Miss Mitford’s death in
January of 1855.
Charles Boner was born at Weston, not so
far from Bath, on April 29, 1815.
His education had been
rather intermittent due to his delicate health as a boy.
For six years, from 1831 to 1837, Boner was tutor to the
two elder sons of Constable, the painter, who found Boner’s
services of benefit in other ways as well.
He handled Con­
stable’s private affairs, helped him in preparing and writing
his lectures on landscape-painting, and was the author of
Constable’s letterpress to his book of engravings entitled
Constable’s English Landscape.
In 1833, after the death
of his father, Boner paid,several visits to Germany for the
purpose of learning the language; while there he stayed
chiefly at Frankfort-on-Main and Darmstadt.
Six years later
he became tutor to the children of Prince Thurn and Taxis
at Ratisbon, and retained his post there for twenty years.
It was while he held his position at Ratisbon that he met
49 Ibid.. p. 10.
32
Miss Mitford.
He was an intrepid climber and chamois hunter,
and in 1853 published his Chamois Hunting in the Mountains of
Bavaria. which Miss Mitford had read and referred to con­
stantly.
Boner wrote verses which are mentioned in the
correspondence between him and Miss Mitford.
He remained
abroad and was special correspondent to the Daily News in
Austria in the sixties.
He died in 1870 in Munich.
His
Transyrvania (1865) had some importance as a "first-hand
account of the country, and was translated into German in
1867."50
Miss Mitfordfs correspondence with Charles Boner,
in which she assumed the role of a sort of English corre­
spondent writing a letter of news to a friend abroad, was a
joy to her.
The letters reveal in Miss Mitford*s bright
humorous manner all that was happening to herself and to
her friends near her and abroad; she comments on the books
she had read and their authors, and gives friendly suggestions
to the struggling young writer, who, judging from his rather
vague and unimpressive claim to fame, needed more than Miss
Mitford was able to give him.
Not quite a year after Boner made his first acquaint­
ance with Miss Mitford and read to her parts of his trans-
60
Ibid., pp. 12-13.
33
lation of the tales of Hans Andersen, he published his vol­
ume of translations under the title The Nightingale and
Other Tales*
The dedication to Miss Mitford was worded
exactly to please her.
A few sentences of the prefatory
address are quoted here:
You will not, I dare say, have forgotten the tales I
read to you when sitting comfortably by your fireside
some weeks ago. As you were so delighted with the few
you then heard, and expressed yourself so favourably
of the translation, it gives me great pleasure to be
able to present you now with the complete collection.
I trust you will receive it kindly, and as a token that
the pleasant fifteenth of October is well remembered
by me. 1
Miss Mitford*s reply was one of deep appreciation;
it is found in Miss Mitford*s letter to Charles Boner under
the date of July, 1846:
How can I ever thank you half enough for the two
charming volumes which I have just received, and for
the surprise, the honour, and the gratification of the
prefatory address? The books are, in every sense of
the word, beautiful; the illustrations worthy of the
stories, and the translation best of all. . . . Once
more accept my truest thanks.52
Miss Mitford then proceeded to make a suggestion re­
garding the wording of the edition.
She wrote:
. . . The one only word that I have found to change in
the next edition is "grey" as applied to the Nightin­
gale— lowly brown is the right colour, though no doubt
51 Lee, loc. cit.
52
Ibid., p. 52.
-• 1
lir- •
•
r
34
Mr. Andersen said "grey.” Don’t you remember that
Thompson, always so accurate, talks of her russet
robe?53
A remark of this type at such a time is only made
between friends whose affection is deep and undoubted.
Miss Mitford regarded Boner as one of her best friends.
Boner was in England during the summer of 1847 and frequent­
ly spent the day with Miss Mitford.
In a letter to Mrs.
Partridge, dated July 26, 1847, Miss Mitford wrote:
Mr. Boner, my favourite friend, and Andersen’s best
translator, has been in England and much here. He
sent me the other day . . . an autograph of Spohr’s.
and one of Andersen’s, and the latter is so pretty.54
Their friendship continued by letter, Miss Mitford
advising him to the best of her ability, and her affection
for Boner and his sister increasing as time passed.
Quoting
Miss Mitford, August 25, 1848,
. . . I am quite without near relatives, and make my
dearest and choicest friends serve instead as restingplaces to my affections; and you and the sister whom
you love so well must pardon me for claiming you amongst
those whom my judgment and my affection combine to place
‘ very, very near the head of the list.55
In 1850 Boner sent Miss Mitford the manuscript of the
first four chapters of his book on chamois hunting.
Lee, l o c . cit.
54 Ibid., p. 73.
55 Ibid., p. 98.
Its
35
arrival after much delay was a great relief to Miss Mitford*s
distressed mind.
She read the manuscript,56 criticizing it
candidly, hut praising it highly.
Miss Mitford*s comments
will he reserved for the later chapter dealing with her
0
literary criticism.
Miss Mitford had developed rheumatism, and at the
end of 1852, a fall from her pony carriage greatly increased
the lack of power in her limhs.
Her death was not far dis­
tant, and in June of 1854, Charles Boner paid Miss Mitford
a visit; he came to England a year before he had intended
in order to see her once again.
His visit caused Miss
Mitford so much excitement and the exertion of talking with
him brought on such exhaustion and such a terrible struggle
for breath that her servants thought she was dying.
Miss
Mitford rallied wonderfully, however, and shortly afterwards
wrote of the incident to Boner:
You will be sorry, I know, but not angry with me for
writing this letter. It is indeed necessary that it
should be written, painful as it is to us both. I was
so glad to see you, and so excited by your conversation
that the fatigue and the exhaustion were in proportion
to the excitement, and on being lifted into bed the
gasping for breath which now attends every exertion,
became such a struggle that both K. and Sam thought me
dying.
This was followed by sickness and low fever.
I am still suffering from the exertion, and must not
56 Ibid., p. 152.
36
risk a repetition.
I have just written to the oldest
friend in the world, requesting him not to come here,
and I must make the same of you. . . .
Be very sure that I have never for one moment ceased
to recognize that the fault of your staying a little
too long with me was exclusively mine. You were most
considerate.5”
The frankness and delicacy of her account of a truth
painful to both of them is admirable.
There were no lies,
no false pretenses between Miss Mitford and Mr. Boner.
Her esteem and respect for him were of the highest, and a
month later she wrote to Mr. Fields on his behalf:
Mr. Boner, my dear and valued friend, wishes you and
dear Mr. Ticknor to print his "Chamois-Hunting" from a
second edition which Chapman and Hall are bringing out.
I sent my copy of the work to Mr. Bennoch when we were
expecting you, that you might see it. It is a really
excellent book, full of interest, with admirable plates,
which you could have, and, speaking in your interest,
as much as in his, I firmly believe that it would answer
to you in money as well as in. credit to bring it out in
America.58
Miss Mitford regarded Boner as something of a protege
and appointed herself to act as a sort of aunt to him.
The
friendship brought her much pleasure, and their discussions
of public affairs, of books and people were always interest­
ing to her.
In a letter to Mr. Fields, dated April, 1855, after
the death of Miss Mitford, Charles Boner expresses his
57 Ibid., p. 270-271.
J . T. Fields, Yesterdays With Authors (Boston:
J. R. Osgood and Company, 1878}, p . 345.
37
sorrow over the loss of his "sincere and beloved friend” and
his appreciation for "her kindly suggestions which have
been of great value to me in my work.”^
Charles Lamb and Henry Crabb Robinson.
Unfortunately,
Miss Mitford did not record in her correspondence her meet­
ings with Charles Lamb.
In fact, her letters do not even
mention an acquaintance with him, but other sources reveal
that Miss Mitford had met Charles Lamb on several occasions,
but there was, no correspondence between, the two.
If we
examine the journals of Crabb Robinson, we find that on
December 5, 1824, Crabb Robinson
Walked back to Islington Lambfs home and met there
with Mr. and Mrs. Talfourd and Miss Mitford, the dram­
atist and poet, a squat person but with a benevolent and
intelligent smile.
Scarcely any conversation. Lamb
m e rry.
And on December .10, 1824, Crabb Robinson recorded:
At ten went to Talfourd1s, where were Haydon and his
wife and Lamb and his sister. A very pleasant chat with,
them. Miss Mitford there, pleasing looks but no words.
At this time Miss Mitford was in the flush of the
success of Our Tillage. the first series of which was pub­
lished in 1824.
That she valued the opinion of Charles Lamb
59 Living A g e . 38:475.
60 E. V. Lucas, Life of Charles Lamb (G. P. Putnam1s
Sons), p. 185.
^
L o c . cit.
38
is evidenced by a quotation from her letter, dated March,
1824, to Sir William Ilford concerning Lamb’s evaluation of
Our Village which appeared in the London Magazine in 1824.
Charles Lamb (the matchless "Elia” of the London
Magazine) says that nothing so fresh and characteris­
tic has appeared for a long while.
It is not over mod­
est to say this; but who would not be proud of the
praise of such a proser?62
In the Gentleman*s Magazine for May and June, 1838,
is an account of a visit to Colebrooke Cottage; it concludes
the review of Talfourdfs Letters of Charles Lamb.
We called . . . Lamb was out, and we sate chatting
with Miss Lamb for an hour. Miss Mitford had just left,
who came to consult them on some dramatic reading for
a new play. Lamb was then reading the old dramatists
at the Museum, and making extracts.63
It is strange that while Miss Mitford admired Lamb
and visited their home, she failed to leave any records of
their meetings.
The few times Lamb’s name is mentioned in
her letters, it is referred to with respect and appreciation
for his genius.
An amusing account of one of the meetings of Lamb and
Mary Mitford is related by E. V. Lucas:
On March 26th, Lamb had tea with Robinson at the
Temple, and afterwards they went together to Cary’s.
We see him again in London in May.
John Payne Collier,
in his Old M a n ’s Diary, records, under the date of
62 Johnson, o£. cit., p. 175.
63
Lucas, ££. cit.-, p. 235.
39
May 15, 1832, that he went to dinner at W. Harness*s
to meet Mary Bussell Mitford, and others.
**In the
evening, the Lambs joined the party, and Charles was
joked about the charming young Quakeress who had lived
in the same street in Pentonville where Lamb had lodged:
she generally wore white, and somebody called her *a
white witch.*
*No* said Lamb, *if a witch at all, as
she lived at the last house in our street, she must be
the Witch of End-door. ***o4
Having been a neighbor of Lamb*s it seems quite
likely that they saw each other regularly; the passage just
quoted would indicate that meetings between the two authors
had been of sufficient quantity to create jokes upon the
nature of their association.
However, as many relation­
ships pass unrecorded, perhaps because of their insignifi­
cance, or because there was no occasion for such a record,
or of necessity, so Mary Mitford*s friendship with Charles
Lamb must forever be only partly known.
Mary Mitford*s acquaintance with Crabb Bobinson
seems to have interested her more than did her association
with Lamb, for she mentions Bobinson more often in her
letters.
On May 26, 1836, Miss Mitford wrote to her father:
**Mr. Crabb Bobinson is to come and have a gossip with me
tomorrow.
We had a pretty good gossip tonight. **v^
Again,
on May 30, 1836, she wrote her father that Crabb Bobinson
was **here last night,**®6 but she was so excited by the
64 Ibid., p. 342.
66 Johnson, o p ♦ cit.. p. 185.
66 Ibid., p. 187.
40
attention given to her by the Duke of Devonshire that she
did not mention the meeting thereafter.
Like Lamb, Robinson was a neighbor of Miss Mitford*s
and there is no correspondence so far as is known.
Charles Kingsley.
Charles Kingsley, divine, novelist,
controversialist, and poet, became the neighbor of Miss
Mitford about the end of
1848, and she
in 1849 in connection with his
first mentions him .
dramatic poem on the story
of Elizabeth of Hungary, called the Saint*s Tragedy.
She
was impressed by the work of her twenty year old neighbor,
and by December 31, 1850, Miss Mitford had met him.
It
seems that he took her "quite by surprise in his extraordi­
nary fascination."67
She found him to be a "high-bred
gentleman," with "the most charming admixture of softness
and gentleness, with spirit, manliness, and frankness— a
frankness quite transparent— and a cordiality and courtesy
that would win any heart."6®
Miss Mitford could never say
too many nice things about Charles Kingsley and his charm­
ing wife.
Erom 1850 through 1853 they saw each other reg­
ularly, and Miss Mitford
seems to have
liked them better
each time she saw them.
After a spell
of illness, Mrs.
67 Ibid., p. 822.
68 Ibid., pp. 222-223.
41
Kingsley was sent to Devon to recuperate, and Kingsley spent
much of his time at her side.
When he returned to his home
he always went to see Miss Mitford, but they never corre­
sponded.
1854:
Concerning their relationship Miss Mitford said in
”He is in Devonshire,
...
I do not know his address.
We see each other when he comes to look after his curate,
and we hear of each other, but we do not correspond."6^
Miss Mitford once admitted that her fondness for
Kingsley was so great that her judgments of his books were
likely to be affected thereby.
In 1852 she wrote to Reverend
Harness concerning Kingsley*s Phaeton:
"Perhaps I like this
pamphlet the better because I so entirely like the author.
He spent one of these wet mornings with me, and is certainly
one of the most charming persons in the world.”
70
^
Kingsley*s impressions of Miss Mitford, as he saw her
shortly before her death, give us a closer and more intimate
picture of the authoress than it is possible to glean from
any of her letters:
I can never forget the little figure rolled up in
two chairs in the little Swallowfield room, packed
round with books up to the ceiling, on to the floor—
the little figure with clothes on, of course, but of
no recognized or recognizable pattern; and somewhere
out of the upper end of the heap, gleaming under a
69
70
Lee, oj3• cit., p. 284.
Johnson, op. cit., p. 230.
48
a great deep globular brow, two such eyes as I never,
perhaps, saw in any other Englishwoman--though I be­
lieve she must have had French blood in her veins, to
breed such eyes, and such a tongue, for the beautiful
speech which came out of that ugly (it was that) face;
and the glitter and depth, too, of the eyes, like li"Kf
coals. . . . She was a triumph of mind over matter. 1
Walter Savage Landor.
Miss Mitford met Landor, poet
and prose writer, in London in 1836 at the same time she met
Wordsworth.
The three attended the same parties, and it
was with Landor and Wordsworth that Miss Mitford and Miss
Barrett went to Chiswick in 1836.
There are no records of
other meetings, and so far as is known a correspondence
between them does not exist.
Miss Mitford read all of
Landor's works, and praised them highly, but the poem which
she cherished most of all was the one which Walter Savage
Landor wrote in her honor in the autumn of 1854:
The hay is carried; and the Hours
Snatch, as they pass, the linden flowers;
And children leap to pluck a spray
Bent earthward, and then run away.
Park-keeper, catch me those grave thieves,
About whose frocks the fragrant leaves
Sticking and fluttering, here and there,
No false nor faltering witness bear.
I never view such scenes as these
In grassy meadow, girt and trees,
But comes a thought of her who now
Sits with serenely patient brow
Amid deep sufferings. None hath told
More pleasant tales to young and old.
71
Lee,
0£.
cit., pp. 889-830.
Fondest was she of Father Thames,
But rambled in Hellenic streams;
Nor even there could any tell
The country’s purer charms so well
As Mary Mitford.
Verse!
go forth
And breathe o ’er gentle breasts her worth.
Needless the task . . .but, should she see
One hearty wish from you and me,
A moment’s pain it may assuage—
A rose-leaf on the couch of Age.72
Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Chief among Miss Mitford’
closest friends was Miss Barett whom she met in 1836.
This
friendship became a foremost happiness in the lives of both
of these illustrious women.
They wrote to each other with
perfect freedom and spontaneity regarding their domestic
life, their literary projects, and their general concerns,
giving informal and affectionate accounts of their activi­
ties.
These two ladies exchanged hundreds of letters, a
correspondence which began shortly after their meeting in
1836 and continued until Miss Mitford’s death in 1855.
No
life of Miss Mitford can be adequately treated without a
careful study of Mrs. Browning’s remarks addressed to Miss
Mitford and those about her to be found in various letters
to other friends.
Of Miss Mitford’s letters to her, Miss
Barrett wrote to Bobert Browning on February 3, 1845:
72
Ibid.. p. 275.
44
. . . She has filled a large drawer in this room with
delightful letters, heart-warm and soul-warm, . . .
driftings of nature (if sunshine could drift like
snow), and which, if they should ever fall the way of
all writing, into print, would assume the folio shape
as a matter of course, and take rank on the lowest shelf
of libraries, with Benedictine editions of the Fathers.
I write this to you to show how I can have pleasure in
letters, and never think them too long, nor too frequent,
nor too illegible from being written in little *p.et
hands.*73
According to Miss Mitford, Mrs. Browning preferred
those letters written to her in such complete abandonment
to anything Mary could do in the way of autobiography.74
Miss Mitford*s letters were a strong influence on
Miss Barrett, for they were filled with cheerfulness, hope,
and courage, and helped to free her from hesitations and
constrictions, and encouraged her to try her imaginative
powers.73
It was under the editorial urgency of Miss Mitford
that Elizabeth Barrett wrote "A Romance of the Ganges" and
"The Romaunt of the Page" for Finden«s Tableaux. 1838-1839,
respectively.
Miss Mitford1s letters, together with Our
Village, taught Miss Barrett
the use of simple, realistic, charming details and the
love of quiet beauty in the world of nature. The image
73 R. B. Browning (editor). Letters of Robert Browning
and Elizabeth Barrett. 1845-46 (New York and London: Harper
and Brothers, 1898), I, IS.
74 Lee, op cit.. p. 898.
73 M. H. Shackford, Letters from E. Barrett to B. R.
Haydon (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1939), p. liiT.
45
of Miss Mitford among her red geraniums was a potent
symbol to Miss Barrett of homely cares and tender sym­
pathies.76
Concerning these compositions for F i n d e r s Tableaux.
Miss Barrett wrote to Mrs. Martin on August 16, 1837:
Speaking of Homer and Virgil, I have been writing a
♦Romance of the Ganges,* in order to illustrate an en­
graving in the new annual to be edited by Miss Mitford,
Finden’s tableaux for 1838. It does not sound a very
Homeric undertaking— I confess I d o n ’t hold any kind of
annual, gild it as you please, in too much honour and
awe— but from my wish to please her, and from the ne­
cessity of its being done in a certain time, I was
♦quite frightful,* . . .. But she was quite pleased—
she is very soon pleased. . ,77
In all of Elizabeth Barrett’s letters to friends
before and after her marriage, her remarks concerning Miss
Mitford were considerate, kind, affectionate, with frequent
expressions of the love and high regard which she felt for
her friend.
Miss Barrett always found Miss Mitford*s letters
charming, and enjoyed hearing from her by mail considerably
more than an actual visit from her.
In her letters, Miss
Barrett frequently quotes from Miss Mitford*s letters, but
of her visits to Wimpole Street, Miss Barrett tells a deci­
dedly different story in her correspondence with Robert
Browning.
It was only to her future husband that she ever
wrote her true feelings about Miss Mitford; it is obvious
76 Ibid., p. liv.
77 Kenyon, oj>. cit., I, 52-53.
46
that she could not trust
others enough to confide in them.
The following account o f Miss
Mltford’s visit was
written in
a letter to Robert Browning on November 1, 1845:
All today, Friday, Miss Mitford has been here!
She
came' at two and went away at seven— and I f eel as if I
had.been making a five-hour speech on the corn laws in
Harriet Martineau's parliament; . . so tired I am. Not
that dear Miss Mitford did not talk both for me and
herself, . . for that, of course, she did. But I was
forced to answer once every ten minutes at least--and
Flush, my usual companion does not exact so much— and
so I am tired and come to rest myself on this paper. . . .
So your name was not once spoken— not thought of, I do
not say— perhaps when I once lost her at Chevy Chase and
found her suddenly with Isidore, the queen’s hairdresser,
my thoughts might have wandered off to you and your un­
answered letter while she passed gradually from that to
this.— I am not sure of the contrary. And Isidore, they
say, reads Beranger, and is supposed to be the most
literary person at court— and wasn't at Chevy Chase one
must needs think.7®
Flush, the dog mentioned in the above quotation, was
a gift to Elizabeth Barrett by Miss Mitford.*?®
Miss Mitford
had a dog with the same name, and their letters frequently
chronicled from time to time the many virtues and occasional
misbehaviours of their pets.
The writer, Henry Chorley, had been a guest In Miss
Mitford*s home for several days, and apparently had dis­
pleased her in some way, for she referred to him as a
Browning, op. cit.. I, 263*
^ Leonard Huxley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters
to Her Sister. 1846-1859 (London: J. Murray,"1929)/ p. 3 .
47
"presumptuous coxcomb"®0 when she wrote to Miss Barrett.
Miss Barrett*s comment on this incident to Bobert Browning
is particularly interesting:
Think of Miss Mitford*s growing quite cold about Mr.
Chorley who has spent two days with her. lately, and of
her saying in a letter to me this morning that he is
very much changed and grown to be *a presumptuous cox­
comb.* He has displeased her in some way— that is
clear.81
Perhaps, it was for reasons such as this that Eliza­
beth Barrett Browning, during their long friendship, humored
Miss Mitford in her fashion, told her nothing which would
offend her, and never confided in her indiscreetly; she
understood Miss Mitford for what she was, yet she always
loved and respected her.
On February 26, 1846, she wrote
to Bobert Browning:
For Miss Mitford.
. .
But people are not angels quite . . .
and she sees the whole world in stripes of black and
white, it is her way.
I feel very affectionately to­
wards her, love her sincerely.
She is affectionate to
me beyond measure.
Still, always I feel that if I were
to vex her, the lower deep below the lowest deep would
not be low enough for me. I always feel t h a t . She would
advertise me directly for a wretch proper.
Then, for all I said about never changing, I have
ice enough over me just now to hold the sparrows! —
80 A. G. K. L*Estrange, Life of Mary Bussell Mitford
(London:
Bentley, 1870), II, 104.
ft!
Browning, o£. cit., p. 489.
48
in respect to a great crowd of people, and she is among
them— for reasons— for r e a s o n s . °2
Miss Mitford was never aware of any such feeling on
the part of Mrs* Browning, and we find an expression of her
devotion for her "dear young friend" in a letter addressed
to Elizabeth Barrett in 1842:
M y love and ambition for you often seem to be more
like that of a mother for a son, or a father for a
daughter (the two fondest natural emotions) than the
common bonds of even a close friendship between two
women of different ages and similar pursuits. I write
and think of you, and of the poems that you will write,
and of that strange brief rainbow crown called Fame,
until the vision is before me as vividly as ever a
mother’s heart hailed the eloquence of a patriotic son.83
Miss Mitford had seen Browning once and had heard
that he was an accomplished man.
1847:
She wrote to a friend in
"If he makes his angelic wife happy, I shall of course
learn to like him.”8^
In 1852 appeared Miss Mitford’s Recollections of a
Literary Life which contained a chapter relating to Elizabeth
Barrett Browning and Robert Browning.
With the best inten­
tions in the world, she told the story of the drowning of
Edward Barrett, and of the gloom cast by it on his sister’s
life.
The revival of the greatest sorrow in her life upset
82
q
, P- 496.
rj»
-•Lee, o p . c i t .. p. 37.
84 Ifrld-» P- 67.
49
Mrs. Browning considerably.
Sections from Miss Mitfordfs
chapter are quoted here:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is too dear to me as a
friend to be spoken of merely as a poetess. . . .
M y first acquaintance with Elizabeth Barrett com­
menced about fifteen years ago. She was certainly one
of the most interesting persons that I had ever seen.
Every body who then saw her said the same; so that is
not merely the impression of my partiality or my en­
thusiasm. . . .
The next year was a painful one to herself and to
all who loved her.
She broke a blood-vessel upon the
lungs which did not heal. . . . Her eldest brother, a
brother in heart and in talent worthy of such a sister,
together with other devoted relatives, accompanied her
to Torquay, and there occurred the fatal event which
saddened her bloom of youth, and gave a deeper hue of
thought and feeling, especially of devotional feeling,
to her poetry.
I have so often been asked what could
be the shadow that had passed over that young heart,
that now that time has softened the first agony it
seems to me right that the world should hear the story
of an accident in which there was much sorrow, but no
blame.
. . . One fine summer morning her favorite brother,
together with two other fine young men, his friends,
embarked on board a small sailing-vessel, for a trip
of a few hours. . . . in sight of their very windows,
just as they were crossing the bar, the boat went down,
and all who were in her perished.
Even the bodies were
never found. . . .
This tragedy nearly killed Elizabeth Barrett.
She
was utterly prostrated by the horror and the grief, and
by a natural but a most unjust feeling, that she had
been in some sort the cause of this great misery.85
The Brownings were living in Paris when the book
came out, and a friend, who had been hearing a lecture at
85 Mitford, ££. cit., pp. 169-171.
the College de France, told them that the professor, in the
introduction to a new series of lectures on English poetry,
intended to discuss Tennyson, Browning, and Elizabeth Bar­
rett Browning, "from whose private life the veil had been
raised in so interesting a manner lately by Miss Mitford."86
In the midst of their anxiety, a newspaper writer appeared
upon the scene to ask permission to make use of some bio­
graphical details extracted from Miss Mitford*s book into the
Athenaeum.
Finally, they were able to procure a copy of the
Athensfeum, but Mrs. Browning was too upset to read the notice
herself, and asked her husband to read it aloud to her.
This he did with omissions, and assured her that for the
facts to be given at all, they could not possibly have been
presented with greater delicacy.
But Mrs. Browning could
not be angry with Miss Mitford; she could not help but rec­
ognize the affectionate intentions, and yet she deplored
the obtuseness of understanding.
She wrote to Miss Mitford
and explained the agony which the article had caused her.
She concluded this part of the letter by telling her that
she understood her kindness, that she felt it through tears
of pain, and that she could never be ungrateful to her
87
"much loved and kindest friend."
86 Kenyon, o£. cit., II, 46.
87
Ibid., p. 47.
51
Miss Mitford replied that she would rather the entire
book had perished than that it should have caused her dear­
est friend a moment*s pain.®®
With this, Mrs. Browning
acknowledged that her sensitiveness on some points amounted
almost to disease, which was doubtless very difficult for
others to understand.
Mrs. Browning could not be angry
with Miss Mitford, and wrote to Mrs. Jameson in 1852:
. . . I couldn’t be angry with her. How could I, poor
thing? She has always loved me, and been so anxious to
please me, and this time she seriously thought that
Robert and I would be delighted. Extraordinary defect
of comprehension!®9
Their correspondence continued with unabated affection.
Mrs. Browning’s reminiscences on Miss Mitford after her
death in a letter to John Ruskin (also a close friend of
Miss Mitford*s) are too interesting to be omitted here:
I agree with you that she was stronger and wider in
her conversation and letters than in her books. Oh, I
have said so a hundred times.
The heat of human sym­
pathy seemed to bring out her powerful vitality, rustling
all over with laces and flowers. She seemed to think
and speak stronger holding a hand— not that she required
help or borrowed a work, but that the human magnetism
acted on her nature, as it does upon men born to speak.
Perhaps if she had been a man with a m a n ’s opportunities,
she would have spoken rather than written a reputation.
Who can say? She hated the act of composition. . . .
®® L ’Estrange, o£. cit., III, 81.
89
Kenyon, 0£. c i t ., V. II, 58.
52
Her
deeply
unfits
tails*
letters were always admirable, but I do most
regret that what made one of their greatest charms
them for the public— I mean their personal de­
« • •
Mrs. Browning also believed that Miss Mitford was too
intensely sympathetic not to err often in her opinions.
If
the quaint little old maid loved a person, it was enough.
Said Mrs. Browning:
She made mistakes one couldn’t help smiling at, till
one grew serious to adore her for it. And yet when she
read a book, provided it wasn’t written by a friend,
edited by a friend, lent by a friend, or associated with
a friend, her judgment could be fine and discriminating
on most subjects, especially upon subjects connected
with life and society and manners .91
John Ruskin.
Miss Mitford corresponded with both
John James Ruskin and his more famous son, John Ruskin.
The
Ruskins showed Miss Mitford much kindness during the last
years of her life.
It was in January, 1847, that Miss Mit­
ford became personally acquainted with Ruskin.
Her descrip­
tion of him in a letter to Mrs. Partridge, dated January 27,
1847, is interesting:
Mr. Ruskin was here last week, and is certainly the
most charming person that I have ever known. . . . He is
just what if one had a son one should have dreamt of his
turning out, in mind, manner, conversation, everything .92
90 Kenyon, oj>. cit., II, 216^217.
91
Q9
Loc. cit.
B ’Estrange,
0£.
cit., II, 118.
53
Miss Mitford's correspondence with the Ruskins cov­
ered a period of two years, from 1852 until her death in
January of 1855.
It is unfortunate that more of Miss Mit­
ford's letters to Ruskin are not available.
Only a few are
printed, and these are scattered through various volumes.
Those in print show that her letters to them were written
with the same "laisser aller "^3
as those to Mrs. Browning.
Miss Mitford was writing to her friends about Mr.
Ruskin, the charming Oxford graduate, shortly after their
meeting, and her correspondence frequently reveals casual,
yet flattering references to him.
Ruskin usually gave Miss
Mitford each of his books as they came out, and on April 17,
1851, shortly after receiving his Stones of Venice, she wrote
to Charles Boner:
"A very different book which John Ruskin
has just sent me is his "Stones of Venice," most beautiful as
to writing and as to decoration.
It will make a great hit."
Miss Mitford sent a copy of Atherton to John Ruskin,
and his praise of it delighted her.
Writing to her he said:
-I have just finished 'Atherton,* to my great regret,
thinking it one of the sweetest things you have ever
written, and receiving from it the same kind of refresh­
ment. which I do from lying on the grass in the spring. 0
Lee, o£. cit.. p. 11.
94 Ibid.. PP* 186-187.
95 Ibid., p. 268.
54
It was Miss Mitford*s custom to address Ruskin as
”M y very dear friend,** or ”My ^dear Mr. John Ruskin,** and
his father always as **Mf. Ruskin.**
While John was on the
continent, his father frequently sent Miss Mitford, who was
now very ill, champagne and sherry which seemed to give her
temporary relief from pain.
Her expression of gratitude to
the son for the gifts is touching:
But in the meanwhile I am better— and for that I
am unspeakably thankful to Him whose visitations are
mercies. I am afraid that I cling too fondly to life.
Much of this amendment is owing to diet. Tell dear
Mr. Ruskin that I have been forced to substitute cognac
brandy for champagne on account of the latter after
doing its work so well producing flatulence— but I am
still benefiting by his bounty by taking a glass full.
of sherry in every dose of grouse or turtle soup. . .
In her letters to Ruskin, Miss Mitford had made only
one casual reference to her serious illness, and in his
reply from Geneva on July 29, 1854, he merely says in ref­
erence to it:
’’You do not know how much you have done for
97
me in showing me how calamity may be borne.”
Almost every mail brought Miss Mitford something
from ,the Ruskins, sometimes sherry, sometimes figs, and on
other occasions books, papers, or letters telling her the
news both there and abroad.
These letters which express
her gratitude to the Ruskins are among the best she has
96 H>ia«» P- 291.
97
» P* 286.
55
written both for their beauty of expression and for their
autobiographical value.
Not content with sending Miss
Mitford everything which they thought she would enjoy,
they were constantly asking her what she wanted or needed.
Twice Miss Mitford took advantage of their generous offer.
Once on November ££, 1854, she wrote to John Ruskin:
Your figs arrived last night after post time. You
exhaust the vocabulary of gratitude, though not the
feeling. Do not send any more of those precious
boxes.
That was a sick woman*s fancy and has been
sparingly taken. And now I wonder if I be doing right
or wrong in going on— wrong in all the conventional­
ities— right probably according to my knowledge of you
and your excellent father— the motive being of course
that what I am about to beg is a part of life— the
prescription which interposes between death and m e —
and that the motive for begging it of dear Mr. Ruskin
is the not knowing where to get it in anything resem­
bling the same purity— I mean the sherry, . . .98
Miss Mitford died on January 10, 1855; her last
letter to John Ruskin was written on December £ 6 , 1854.
She began:
**You ask me if I have a fancy for a book— and
reading last night Mrs. Browning’s last letter I find her
speaking of *Les Maitres Sonneurs*
...
I ask you frankly
for that little tale ."99
The Ruskins were Miss Mitford*s kindest friends,
according to her own statements.
98 ^ i d ., p. 301.
QQ
Ibid., pp; 313-314
She had written to Mrs.
56
Browning of the Ruskins* generosity to her, and Mrs. Brown
ing wrote to Ruskin after Miss Mitford*s death:
It would be a comfort to me now if I had had the
privilege of giving her a very very little of the
great pleasure you certainly gave her (for I know how
she enjoyed your visit— she wrote and told me), but
I must be satisfied with the thought left to me, that
now she regrets nothing, not even great pleasure .100
James T. Fields.
It was through John Kenyon that
the American publisher, James T. Fields, on a trip through
England made the acquaintance of Miss Mitford one midsummer
afternoon in 1847.
Fields* account of their meeting is
interesting:
The day selected for my call at her cottage door
happened to be a perfect one on which to begin an
acquaintance with the lady of "Our Village." She was
then living at Three-Mile Cross, having removed there
from Bertram House in 1820. The cottage where I found
her was situated on the high road between Basingstoke
and Reading; and the village street on which she was
then living contained the public-house and several
small shops near by.
There was also close at hand the
village pond full of ducks and geese, . •; . The windows
of the cottage were filled with flowers, and cowslips
and violets were plentifully scattered about the little
garden. Miss Mitford liked to have one dog, at least,
at her heels, and this day her pet seemed to be con­
stantly under foot. I remember the room into which I
was shown was sanded, and a quaint old clock behind the
door was marking off the hour in small but very loud
pieces.
The cheerful old lady called to me from the
head of the stairs to come up into her sitting-room.
I sat down by the open window to converse with her, and
it was pleasant to see how the village-children, as they
went by, stopped to bow and curtsey.
Kenyon, ££. cit.. p. 216.
101 yields, 0£. cit., pp. 264-265.
57
Their friendship continued from that summer day
until her death, and during other visits to England, Mr.
Fields saw her frequently.
After the first meeting, they
promised with mutual determination and understanding to
keep their friendship warm by correspondence, and Fields
vowed never to go to England without going to see Miss
Mitford, a promise which he kept.
On his visits they dis­
cussed books, authors, public affairs, and went for drives
through the English countryside.
Mr. Fields has given
interesting accounts of lovely drives about England with
Miss Mitford as his companion and guide, one of which is
quoted here:
Perhaps we had made our plans to visit Upton Court,
a charming old house where Pope*s Arabella Fermor had
passed many years of her married life. On the way
thither we would talk over "The Rape of the Lock" and
the heroine, Belinda, who was no other than Arabella
herself. Arriving on the lawn in front of the decay­
ing mansion, we would stop in the shade of a gigantic
oak, and gossip about the times of Queen Elizabeth,
for it was then the old house was built, ..
Once Miss Mitford took him on a trip
to a grand old
village church with a tower half covered with ivy.
They
had to pass through magnificent laurel hedges and by a
majestic cedar of Lebanon.
The church was rich in painted
glass windows and carved oak ornaments.
There Miss Mitford
ordered her man to stop, and, turning to Mr. Fields with
102 Ibid., p. 275.
58
much enthusiasm, said, "This is Shiplake Church, where
Alfred Tennyson was
m
a
r
r
i e
d
!
"-^3
One of the characteristics which was particularly
noticeable about Miss Mitford was her eagerness to help
struggling young authors, says Mr. Fields.
This quality
particularly endeared her to him, and he wrote concerning
it:
She began her correspondence with me before I left
England after making her acquaintance, and, true to the
instincts of her kind heart, the object of her first
letter was to press upon my notice the poems of a young
friend of hers, and she was constantly saying good
words for unfledged authors who were struggling forward
to gain recognition. No one ever lent such a helping
hand as she did to the young writers of her country.-*-0"^
Mrs. James T. Fields, also known as Annie Fields,
wrote a short article on Miss Mitford for The Critic in
1 9 0 0 . It shows a sympathetic understanding of Miss
Mitford and is accompanied by a portrait of the authoress
by Lucas.
Like her husband, Mrs. Fields admired and re­
spected the quaint little English lady and paid tribute to
her in these words:
There never was a kinder nor a larger heart, and
although the largest room of her cottage, as she says,
was only eight feet square, it proved to be more than
103 Ibid., p. 274.
104 Ibid.. p. 275.
105 Annie Fields, The Critic.
37:512.
59
most palaces in its ability to harbor and nourish
human sympathies .106
The portrait of Miss Mitford by John Lucas was her
favorite picture of herself.
She said that "It is looking
better, I suppose, than I ever do look; but not better than
under certain circumstances— listening to a favorite friend,
107
for example— I perhaps might look."*
As proof of her
devotion to Mr. Fields, she offered him this picture:
. . . and, if you like, you shall, when I am dead, have
the portrait he has just taken of me.
I make the re­
serve, instead of giving it to you now, because it is
possible that he might wish (I know he does) to paint
one for himself, and if I be dead before sitting to
him again, the present one will serve him to copy.
Mr. Bentley wanted to purchase it, and may have wanted
it, but it shall be for you .108
Richard Gobden.
Among the interesting persons whom
Miss Mitford met in 1849 were Richard Cobden and his wife.
Cobden was a prominent nineteenth century English statesman
and economist.
His pamphlet, England. Ireland. and America
published in 1835, revealed a new force in the political
world.
He was active in forming the Anti-Corn-Law league
in 1839, and in 1841 was elected to Parliament.
Cobden
sacrificed his fortune to repeal the Corn laws, an act which
1 Hfi
fields, l o c . cit.
107 Fields, o£. cit., p. 297.
108 Ibid.. p. 301.
60
was carried out in 1846.
He constantly advocated a peace
policy, the reduction of armaments, and international ar­
bitration.
His most important work, however, was that done
for the purpose of free trade.
Although Miss Mitford has
nowhere made a confession of her political creed, her
letters indicate clearly that she upheld liberal principles,
supported religious tolerance, and advocated the education
of the people.
She was an admirer of Cobden, his views and
great work long before she made his acquaintance.
She was
greatly impressed with him and was charmed with his wife.
Quoting Miss Mitford,
I was delighted with him Ci.e., CobdenJ, and to say
truth a little surprised, having expected an older,
rougher man; what astonished me was his simplicity and
playfulness, his elegance and refinement. His wife, too,
is sweetly pretty .109
In a letter to Charles Boner in 1849 there is an
amusing account of a day spent at Whiteknights with "Baron
Goldsmid and his charming family, and Mr. and Mrs. Cobden—
they and I, out of thirty persons, the only Christians.""^®
At the dinner she sat next to him, and afterwards walked
about those beautiful grounds side by side with him.
So far as is known she did not meet the Cobdens again, ’
but she followed his career, and usually was in agreement
^®9 Henry Chorley, Letters of Mary Russell Mitford
(London:
Bentley, 1872).I I , 102.
110
Lee, o£. cit.. p. 137.
with, his actions.
She felt that had be been more discrim­
inating in his peace policies, he might have risen to
greater power than Lord Palmerston.
Henry Pothergill Ohorley.
Miss Mitford first made
the acquaintance of Henry Chorley, editor and author, in
1836, when she met Wordsworth and Landor.
They became
close friends, and Chorley frequently was a guest in Miss
Mitford’s house.
There was a small misunderstanding be­
tween them, for, although Miss Mitford failed to relate the
precise nature of it, she referred to him in a letter to
Miss Barrett as ” a presumptuous coxcomb."HI
Their disagreement was not of long standing, and
Miss Mitford and Chorley planned a visit to Paris in the
spring of 1849, but eventually the expedition was abandoned*
She wrote with enthusiasm to her friends about their pro­
posed trip, and referred to Chorley as her ’’clever, crotch­
ety, and good” companion.
Eegarding their friendship, Miss Mitford wrote in
a letter to Mr. Fields in 1850:
X don’t know if you know Henry Chorley. He . . .
has always been a sort of adopted nephew of mine.
Poor Mrs. Hemans loved him well; so did a very different
111 L ’Estrange,
0£.
cit., II, 104.
62
person, Lady Blessington,— so that altogether you may
fancy him a very likeable person; but he is much more,—
generous, unselfish, loyal, and as true as steel, worth
all his writings a thousand times over. 13
In 1836, Chorley wrote of Miss Mitford:
It is long since I have been so pleased with anyone,
whether for sweetness of voice, kindness and cheerful­
ness of countenance (with one look which reminds me of
a look I shall meet no more), or highbred plainness of
manner.
I was fascinated .114
Chorley took over the editorship of the Lady1s
Companion, a weekly journal belonging to Bradbury and Evans,
in the summer of 1850.
Its circulation had fallen off
dangerously, and Chorley asked Miss Mitford to write a
series of articles for it, hoping by the use of her name to
enlarge its circulation.
She came to his rescue, and her
articles, entitled Readings of Poetry, Old and H e w , were
very well received.
These articles, with additions, were
published in book form in 1852, in three volumes, entitled
Recollections of a Literary Life.
Recollections of a Literary Life was dedicated to
Henry Chorley; the dedication read:
M y dear Friend,
But for you this book would never have existed. It
has been to me throughout a source of great gratification.
113
114
I, 200.
Fields, 0£. cit., p. 284.
H. F. Chorley, Autobiography. Memoirs and Letters,
63
As I wrote line after line of our fine old Poets, many
a cherished scene and a happy hour seemed to live again
in my memory and my heart. But no higher pleasure can
it afford me, than -the opportunity of expressing to you
my sincere respect and admiration for talent, especially
dramatic talent not even yet sufficiently known, and
for innumerable personal qualities worth all the talent
in the world.
MARY RUSSELL MITFORD
Swallowfield, near Reading,
December, 1851.115
In 1872 Henry Chorley edited some of the letters of
Mary Russell Mitford.
He had frequently mentioned her in
magazine articles and in English annuals before this, and
his edition of her letters in 1872 was the last work which
he devoted to Miss Mitford.
B. R. Haydon.
The most sustained friendship in the
life of the painter, B. R. Haydon, was with Mary Russell
Mitford.
They were introduced by Sir William Elford in
1817 when she visited his studio to see Solomon.
They be­
came friends immediately, and at one time wrote as many as
three or four letters to each other every week.
Haydon
seemed to derive a stimulating effect from her kindliness,
her cheerful, vigorous, downright opinions on men, manners,
and art, however for a time she was somewhat perfervid in
her judgments of his art.
115
When needing advice and sympathy,
Mitford, o£. cit., Dedication.
64
Haydon turned to Miss Mitford, who considered, herself his
best,friend.
The most descriptive sketches of Haydon have
come from Miss Mitford*s pen.
Her opinion of his person­
ality was vividly expressed in a letter to Sir William
Elforddin 1818:
After all, I cannot help admiring with all my heart
and soul the manly, noble, independent spirit of Mr.
Haydon.
Don*t you? He is quite like one of the old
heroes come to life again— one of Shakespeare*s men—
full of spirit and:.endurance and moral courage.
Haydon* s life was filled:with indiscretions and
hasty Judgments.
In 1821, he married Mary Hyman, a widow:
with two halffgrown sons, for whose education Haydon sac­
rificed much.
Although the marriage was indiscreet, con­
sidering his circumstances, his devotion to his wife and
her children brought him much happiness.
It was Haydon who brought Miss Mitford, a guest of
Mrs. Hofland’s, the news of the success of her play Rienzi.
Miss Mitford corresponded:with him from 1818 to 1831
and again from 1831 until his death in 1846.
She felt: that
since her letters to him were written with such complete?,
abandonment, they, along with other letters of the same
type, would form a better autobiography than any she could
write.
Her letters were cheerful, kind, and encouraging, and
were a source of"great Joy to Haydon.
l^L*Estrange, op. cit., II, 15-
It is interesting
-
65
to note that some of her letters to him took the form of
short essays, such as the one written on August 24, 1823,
which deals entirely with a discussion of a cricket game,
and closes with "And now God bless you!
and best wishes from all.
Kindest regards
Ever yours, M. R. Mitford."I -*-7
There is a period of ten years, 1831-1841, during
which Miss Mitford and Haydon did not correspond.
A mi s ­
understanding had arisen between the authoress and the
painter over a portrait which he had made of her.
Most
certainly the picture did not do her justice, and was re­
garded by all who saw it as a poor piece of work.
Miss
Mitford felt that the portrait was not what it might have
been, and Haydon became enraged.
After ten years they
became reconciled, and again assumed correspondence.
It was through Miss Mitford that Haydon and Elizabeth
Barrett formed an acquaintance, although they never saw
each other face to face.
She interpreted poet and painter
to each other with such success that she gave their acquaint­
ance a certain momentum, at the first, which dispensed with
the usual conventional beginnings, and set them up on terms
of friendship and understanding.
Miss Mitford wrote to Miss
Barrett on October 17, 1836:
117
Johnson, o£. cit., pp. 172-174.
66
. . . I enclose a note to Mr. Haydon. Miss Arabel will
like his vivacity and high spirits.
Those high animal
spirits are a gift from heaven, and frequently pass for
genius; or rather make talent pass for genius— silver
gilded .118
Haydon was by nature a melancholy man, meeting fail­
ure and disappointment at almost every turn.
In April of
1846, at considerable expense he arranged an exhibition of ,
his work in Egyptian Hall, but it proved a disastrous fail­
ure.
His humiliation was combined with anxiety over the
loss of the money borrowed for the exhibition and worry over
his physical condition and poor eyesight caused by pitiless
overuse.
On June 18, 1846, he sent several portraits to
Miss Barrett for safe keeping.
Among them was the portrait
of Miss Mitford which he asked Miss Barrett to keep as a
remembrance, but by the next mail he had changed his mind
and wrote her that he could not make up his mind to part
with it, but that he would lend it to her for a while.
Two days later, he shot himself through the head in
his studio.
Miss Mitford was very upset over the news, and
wrote of it to Charles Boner in July, 1846:
Poor, poor Haydon! He was my old and intimate friend
and correspondent. . . .
At one time he used to write
to me three or four times a week, . . . This event quite
upset me, and I have hardly recovered it yet.11^
118 L*Estrange, 0£. cit., 1 1 ,
119
Lee, o£. cit.t pp. 5B-53.
141.
67
The portrait of Miss Mitford which Haydon treasured
hut which Miss Mitford did not care for has been reprinted
in W. J. Roberts*s Life and Friendships of Mary Russell
, ISO
Mitford.
Leigh H u n t .
There is no evidence of Miss Mitford
ever having met Leigh Hunt, and he is mentioned in her
letters only as the author of certain literary works.
How­
ever, about the time she was enjoying the success of the
first editions of Our Village, Miss Mitford wrote to Hunt
and praised' his poetry and prose.
Hunt ignored the letter.
Over a year later he wrote to Elizabeth Kent, mentioning
the incident,
You must know I have great horror about hearing
about Miss Mitford, for she once wrote me a letter
in which she called me a delightful poet, and no less
delightful proser; which I did not know whether to
take for a panegyric, or a satire; so I never answered
the letter, which was horribly unpolite; and I have
ever since, when I hear her name mentioned, not known
whether to feel remorse or satisfaction.
So far as is known, this is the closest the poet and
poetess ever came to knowing each other.
John Bayne Collier.
Miss Mitford knew this great
scholar who was unfortunately also a great forger and
W. <T. Roberts, Life and Friendships of Mary
Mitford (London: Andrew Melrose, 1913).
121 Leigh Hunt, Correspondence (London:
Elder, and Company, 1862), I, 235. ”
Smith,
68
exchanged several letters of professional character with
him.
These letters,
ed.
so far as is known, were never publish­
They were not friends, rather acquaintances, and her
references to him in her other correspondence is extremely
limited.
She became acquainted with him through the Duke
of Devonshire, by whom Collier was employed.
The following'
quotation about Collier, written in one of Miss Mitford*s
letters to Charles Boner in 1853, will serve to throw some
light upon the type of relationship that existed between
them:
You see the "Athenaeum," I think, and will have
doubtless been interested by Mr. Collier’s curious
annotated folio copy of Shakespeare, which he has al­
most traced to the old library at Upton Court.
I
wrote to him about a week ago to tell him that my
friend Miss Ellen Cowslede, whose aunt, Mrs. Selwin
(Christopher Sm a r t ’s daughter), was so much with the
old priest who. lingered in the deserted mansion after
everybody else had abandoned it, was the most likely
person to tell him of the fate of the book.
In his
answer, which was most gracious, he told me that he had
just lost one daughter by consumption* and' another was
given over with the same complaint .122
William Harness.
Reverend Harness was a celebrated
London preacher and still more celebrated talker.
He was
friend to most of the important English people during the
first half of the. nineteenth century.
Ever since he was
ai boy at Harrow, Lord Byron had been devoted to him, writing
122 Lee, op. cit., p. 253.
69
him encouraging letters, and it was to him that Byron dedi­
cated Childe Harold.
Miss Mitford regarded this distin­
guished London clergyman as her oldest and best friend.
1 piz
He becamelisr executor
edited many of the
^ and after her death collected and
noted authoress’s letters.
124
A few
months before Miss Mitford’s death, Mr. Harness planned
her funeral and wrote her of his preparations.
12*5
A strong
understanding and feeling of devotion existed between the
two, and in 1858 during one of Miss Mitford’s serious ill­
nesses, Mr. Harness moved to Swallowfield in order to be
near the invalid.
Miss Mitford’s account of his kindness
to her demonstrates the strong attachment between the two
friends:
Well, about six weeks ago he heard how ill I had
been and still continued, and came to see me; and
finding me even more changed than he expected, he re­
solved to establish himself close by and take care of
me. Accordingly, in a few days, he left Deepdene and
Mr. H o p e ’s delightful conversation, came to Swallow­
field, hunted up a lodging, and spent three weeks with
no other purpose or employment. Nothing eould be more
judicious than his way of going on. He never made
his appearance at my cottage till two o ’clock when we
drove out together.
Then he went to his lodgings to
dinner, partly not to give trouble, but chiefly to
give me two or three hours of perfect rest. At eight
Q m l ’Estrange, The Literary Life of the Rever­
end Harness (London: R. Bentley), 1871.
p. 204.
124 William Harness, Life of Mary Russell Mitford
(London: R. Bentley fn.d.j).
125 Ibid., p. 219.
70
he and the Russells oame to tea, and he read Shake­
speare till bedtime. He is by far the finest reader
I ever heard, and no pleasure can be higher than hear­
ing that greatest of poets so rendered.i 26
Miss Mitford1s letters to Mr. Harness were friendly
and affectionate; in them she discussed literary topics of
interest to both of them and personal plans and ambitions.
At no time was there any misunderstanding between them,
and their friendship was a long and enduring relationship
of rare quality.
Thomas Noon Talfourd (afterwards Serjeant Talfourd
and Mr. Justice Talfourd).
There is no record of the first
time Mary Mitford met Mr. Talfourd, a literary amateur who
enjoyed wide celebrity in his day, but it is assumed that
their meeting took place some time during the summer of
1817.
Her first mention of him occurs in a letter to Sir
William Elford, dated September 13, 1817:
One of the circle, a Reading gentleman of the name
of Talfourd— of whom, by the way, when he has completed
his studies for the bar, the world will one day hear a
good deal— talked to me about Mr. Wordsworth1s genius
till I began to be a little ashamed of not admiring him
myself. . . .127
They became very good friends and frequently visited
in each other’s home.
IS6
In 1836 Miss Mitford was a guest in
Lee, o£. cit., pp. 222-223.
Johnson, ojd. cit., p. 143.
71
the Talfourd's home when she met Elizabeth Barrett.
The
little authoress enjoyed the "delightful gaiety of his
brilliant youth ."^28
In 1828 Miss MitfordTs best tragedy, Rienzi, was
produced at Drury Lane, with Young as the hero, and was
received with wide approval by the audiences.
Its success
roused the jealousy of Talfourd, whose Ion was being per­
formed at the time.
Many years later, in 1854, Miss Mitford
remarked about I o n ;
"Nothing (except Racine) can be so
unlike Euripides as Mr. Justice Talfourdfs *Ion,f and that
play will assuredly not live.
It wants toughness of fibre."
In 1870 an article in The Nation ^-29 accused Miss Mitford of
being jealous of the man who had been her peculiar protegi
and bosom friend.
This is possible, but not likely, for
Miss Mitford was well known for her kindness and assistance
to promising young authors.
She predicted his success and
return to apparent obscurity unusually well, for in the
present generation Mr. Talfourd*s plays are remembered only
by the theatrical antiquarian.
She was willing to give him
credit where she thought it due, and remarked about his
play, The Castilian, which he sent to her;
128 Harness, 0£. cit., III, 171.
129 The Nation.
248;211, March 31, 1870.
72
I have just been looking over . . . M r . Justice
Talfourd*s new tragedy, "The Castilian," printed, but
not published; although as Moxon’s name is in the titlepage, and the "not published" merely written with a pen,
I presume he means to bring it out some time or other.
At present, to quote a very affectionate letter which
accompanied it, "it is a very private sin," having only
been given to eight or ten people in London, and nobody
except myself in Berkshire; indeed he waited till he
got to Oxford before he sent it to me.
The subject is
historical— a revolt of the Castilians of Toledo, under
John de Padilla, in the early part of the reign of
Charles V.
It is very like "Ion," much more so than
the other tragedies; but as the character is, like his,
full of scruples and sentiment, it bears little mark
of the Castilian of the age between Cortes and Alva.
Nevertheless it has much beauty. 30
So far as Miss Mitford*s published correspondence
reveals, she and Talfourd remained good friends except for
a short period around 1828, when their relationship seemed
somewhat strained; there was never an open break and their
rivalry, if it was rivalry, was soon forgotten.
130
Lee,
0£.
jcit., pp. 241-242
CHAPTER III
MARY MITFORD AS CORRESPONDENT AND CRITIC
Mary Mitford!s literary creations may toe divided into
three types:
(1 ) prose— sketches, criticisms, and correspond­
ence; (2) verse; and (3) drama.
Of these, her prose works,
particularly her letters and criticisms, are most valuable to
later generations for their pictures of Victorian life and
manners.
Her literary criticisms have been quoted in almost
all critical surveys of the literature written during the first
half of the nineteenth century; her correspondence is considered
one of the best representations of the great epistolary art
of the early Victorian period, and it is an excellent auto­
biography of the author.
This chapter will be devoted to a discussion of Miss
Mitford*s letters and critical remarks.
The first section
will deal with the author*s personal correspondence:
her
theory of letter writing, her views of the age, her auto­
biography. - The next division will present Miss Mltford’s
opinions of the books she read and of their authors.
The
only sources of her criticisms are her large number of per­
sonal letters and her Recollections of a Literary Life.
I.
THEORY.
CORRESPONDENCE
During the five years elapsing between 1797 and
1802, while Mary was in school at London, she had occasion
74
to write many letters which show that she had formed theories
of personal correspondence.
By the time she was twenty-four
she had developed definite ideas concerning this art, “though,
like most theorists," she wrote to Sir William in 1811, "my
practice differs most unhappily from my principles."^
A
brief discussion of these loosely held theories 'Should be
helpful to an understanding and appreciation of Miss Mitford1s
correspondence.
According to her theory,
. . . letters should assimilate to the higher style of
conversation, without the snip-snap of fashionable dia­
logue, and with more of the simple transcripts of natural
feeling than the usage of good society would authorize.
Playfulness is preferable to wit, and grace infinitely
more desirable than precision. A little egotism, too,
must be admitted: without it, a letter would stiffen into
a treatise, and a billet assume "the form and pressure"
of an essay .2
As a motto she adopted the French expression, "Rien
n*est beau que le vrai; le vrai seul est aimable."
She pre­
ferred, however, to translate "le vrai" according to the
spirit, as "the natural" rather than "the true."
This nat­
ural effect was always obvious in Miss Mitford*s letters.
Its
presence was the result, perhaps, of a conscious effort on
her part and to the fact that her letters were never re­
written or polished, but hurriedly dashed off when she was
able to spend a few minutes away from her irresponsible father.
1
■Johnson, o£. cit., p. 52
^ Ibid., p. 53*
75
Miss Mitford did not always practice all that she advocated:
to have done so would have been contradictory to her theory,
for spontaneity is one of the most important essentials
to
a natural style in letter writing.
Also as essential to the ideal letter, Miss Mitford
included "a little character, a little description, a little
narrative, a little criticism, a very little sentiment, and
a great deal of
playfulness."^
Most of Miss Mitford*s letters cover a multitude of
subjects, treated with a glinting, quaint irrelevancy and
lack of depth.
This was probably a result of the habit form­
ed while in school at London, for she wrote to her father dur
ing her residence at Miss Howden's institution:
Mamma says the great art of letter-writing is to
construct an epistle without one possible subject. And
truly, if such be the fact, no two people have a better
opportunity of improving in this way than those who have
the honour of sending you a sheet full of nothings.
In­
deed, my dearest love, upon a careful revision of our
letters, I do not suppose that upon an average they
would be found to contain one piece of intelligence a
w e e k .^
By instinct she possessed the nature and qualities
which enabled her to express herself in the manner which
she theoretically approved.
She may have filled her letters
with "nothings," but in the artistic sense she "improved
the occasion" with a playful familiar grace.
3 Ibid., p. 2.
4
Ibid., p. 1.
There is in
76
her egotism an art, but it is so subtle that seldom would
the reader call it egotism.
Generally she wrote a good
letter, in which, however subconsciously on her part, style
had a great part in its charm, life was made a little dra­
matic, and consideration was given to the interests and
thoughts of the person addressed.
Letter writing is one of
the ways by which character is revealed to posterity.
In
reading and judging letters some allowance must always be
made for "the passing mood of the writer.
When the letter is
received, that mood may have ceased,"5 and thus, everything
that is found in familiar letters should not be considered
as representative of the permanent character of the writer.
Miss Mitford believed that one’s personal correspondence
revealed much information about the writer’s character.
She
explained this not very profound but undoubtedly true idea in
the following notable passages
Such is the reality and identity belonging to letters
written at the moment and intended only for the eye of a
favourite friend, that- it is probable that any genuine
series of epistles, were the writer ever so distinguished,
would, provided they were truthful and spontaneous,
possess the invaluable quality of individuality which so
often causes us to linger before an old portrait of which
we know no more than it is a Burgomaster by Rembrandt, or
a Venetian Senator by Titian.
The least skilful pen when
flowing from the fullness of the heart, and untroubled by
any misgivings of after publication, shall often paint
with as faithful and life-like touch as either of those
great masters.®
5
Lee, ojd. cit., p. 32
6 Ibid., p. 33.
77
The frankness with which Miss Mitford expressed her­
self creates infinite personality and charm in her letters,
and gives life and spontaneity to trivial matters.
Fortunate­
ly, Miss Mitford has something casually intimate to reveal
about many of the great men and women in whom everyone had
great Interest.
Her own views and opinions are definitely
original with her; her impressions are decided, independent,
and therefore more interesting to us, whether or not they are
critically sound in every respect*
She was one of the inter­
preters of her period, and reflects its characteristic out­
look and atmosphere with great vividness.
That Miss Mitford was accustomed to the "higher style
of conversation" in her correspondence, despite the lightness
of her familiar manner, is evidenced by her published letters.
Most of them were addressed to artists, writers of consequence,
and persons whose love and appreciation of books were engraved
deep in their souls.
Even Dr. Mitford, with all his faults,
was a Cultured man and perfectly at home among the most im- portant people.
Miss Mitford*s correspondents were never
honored by carefully written letters:
her written communi­
cations have no pretension to the character of works of art—
they are mere medleys, such as one scrawls off in an odd halfhour to an uncritical friend, but always possessing a natural,
spontaneous style.
These messages were written, perhaps, more
because something had to be said than because she had some-
78
thing to. say.
“If interesting matter is wanting, the form
will not atone for its absence,"^ wrote one of her critics.
But always her letters were charming, cheerful, and conver­
sational in style.
VIEWS OP THE AGE.
The latter part of the nineteenth
century and that portion of the twentieth century which has
elapsed give indication that after Miss Mitford*s time letter
writing was to become one of the lost arts.
become "too fast" for it.
The world has
The reign of Victoria sawva.great
change in the whole outlook of western civilization; Miss
Mitford died Just as the old order was about to be thrown into
turmoil by the new science, preaching such disturbing gospels
as the evolutionary hypothesis.
Marx had already reached and
stated his conclusions in relation to economic growth or change
as the real basis of political change.
Buckle had made his
brilliant but abortive attempt to discover the laws of his­
torical causation— the laws which govern the changes .in the
social and political life of society; in philosophy Herbert
Spencer had explained the theory of evolution; but most im­
portant of all, in the field of biology Wallace and Darwin
had pointed out the progressive change in living forms— the
origin of the species which linked man to the whole of organic
life and made him a part of rather than apart from nature.
^ "Mary Russell Mitford," The Nation. 248*211,
March 31, 1870.
The art of photography was perfected.
The years following
her death also saw a great advance in communication and in
transportation:
the huilding of great railroads, communication
by telephone, telegraph, and the wireless, and the beginning
of the automobile and of transportation by air.
With these
remarkable developments in material progress, the individual’s
day was filled to the limit, and time for long, friendly
letters was no longer available— nor were long letters neces­
sary; they were replaced by the telephone and telegraph, and
faster means of travel enabled persons to visit at frequent
intervals, thus making long, written messages no longer needed.
These changes were only beginning to take place during
Miss Mitford*s lifetime.
To the rank and file of her gener­
ation, the world was settled, the order final.
And so far as
Mary Mitford*s correspondence and literary efforts disclosed,
it was so accepted by her.
The society around her provided
a framework of rules into which her life was adjusted without
a murmur; there was about her nothing of the revolutionary.
Perhaps, because of her nature there was no cause for her to
cry out; perhaps, in the order about her the fealty to her
family threw no restraining fetters about her urgencies.
Her
letters reflect these qualities, typical of the first half of
the nineteenth century; they are also representative of the
social restraints and taboos so reminiscent in this respeet
of the Puritan period.
The Napoleonic Wars continued through the first dec­
ade and a half of the nineteenth century, and disturbed the
life of Englishmen until the famous Battle of Waterloo closed
an epoch in 1815.
With the reign of Victoria came the reform
bills, Chartism, the Oxford Movement, the rebellion in Canada,
the Corn-Law discussions, questions concerning the Jews hold­
ing public office, the Crimean War (1854-), and the rise to
power of certain important men among whom were Sir Robert Peel,
John Bright, Richard Cobden,- Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart
Gladstone, Earl Grey, Vieeount William Melbourne, and Lord
John Russell.
A careful study of Miss Mitford*s life will
reveal how much her life was influenced by these events.
Let us consider categorically certain personalities
and events that became abiding concerns and preoccupations of
Miss Mitfordt
Emperor Napoleon and Napoleon III, the Crimean
War, Queen Victoria, the Jewish question, her political in­
terests, the Church, spiritualism, mesmerism, and meteors and
prophecies.
Emperor Napoleon and Napoleon III.
By the time Miss
Mitford was twenty-eight years of age, in 1815, Emperor
Napoleon, after having been dictator of most of Europe, lost
everything in the famous Battle of Waterloo.
Her letters
before 1815 make no mention of the conqueror, but reflect her
interest In books and In her own literary creations.
Her
later letters, however, reveal the interest with which she
81
had followed their careers, and the hero worship which she
felt for the emperor and for Louis Napoleon, the son of Hortense and Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland.
One of the
many incidents which indicate the deep interest Miss Mitford
had in the emperor was in 1847 when the young wife of a
clergyman wrote to her saying that she could find no list
of secular books for lending libraries for the poor.
Miss
Mitford and Mr. Lovejoy set to work to compile such, a list.
Cdneerning their plans she wrote to Mr. Boner on December 16,
184? (this was Miss Mitford1s birthday):
We mean to set down the very best books (which are
luckily the cheapest), upon the plan of Napoleon, who
you remember in throwing open the theatres of Paris
after a victory or a marriage, always chose a play of
Corneille, or of Moliere, and always found his choice
justified by the gratification and intelligence of the
audience.8
By 1849 her enthusiasm had become increasingly greater?
by this time, also, Napoleon III had been elected President
of the Republic of France.
She wrote to Mr. Fields in May
of 1849:
I have always been a great admirer of the great
Emperor, and to see the heir of Napoleon at the Elysee
seems to me a real piece of poetical justice.
I know
many of his friends in England who speak of him most
highly; one of them says, “He is the very impersonation
of calm and simple honesty.” I hope the nation will be
true to him, but as Mirabeau says, ’’there are no such
words as ‘jamais* or *toujours’ with the French public.9
8
9
Johnson, oja. cit., p. 208.
Fields, o
cit.. p. 279.
82
The great Napoleon, she felt, was of all time and all
countries;
he was a m a n .
She had just completed reading Les
Confidences of Lamartine, and enjoyed contrasting her “hero"
with Lamartine, merely a man of words.
She felt his book
was filled with falsehoods and that it gave one the worst pos­
sible idea of the writer.
Miss Mitford continued;
This pleased me most; next to the having an enthusi­
asm justified, one likes to find oneself borne out in a
prejudice.
He LLamartineJ is jealous of Napoleon's fame,
as all vain men are— as Lord Byron was.
But just fancy
what Napoleon would have done in his (i.e., Lamartine's)
position last February--or Mlrabeau.
They were men of
thought and action, Lamartine is merely a man of words.
The quaint little old maid's adoration for a man whose
great desire had been to crush England is strange.
Her pro­
found veneration for the emperor and his nephew was the one
passion of her life, which, instead of diminishing as the years
went by and as her health became tragically worse, became one
of the most potent forces in her life.
Quoting from Miss
Mitford*s letter to Charles Boner, dated April 7, 1850;
Oh, how I should have liked to see that mask of
Napoleon! His face is the very ideal of beauty in all
the prints and paintings; the upper part all power, the
lower all sweetness.
The greatest sin ever committed
by a nation was ours in letting that great man perish
at St. H e l e n a . ^
Yet her loyalty, of course, was with the English in
spite of her great admiration for the two emperors.
^
Lee, o p . cit., p. 132.
11 Ibid.. p. 155.
She
83
wrote to Mr. Fields, January-5, 1 8 5 2 :
She (Mrs. Browning) is a Bonapartiste; so am I. I
always adored the Etaperor, and I think his nephew is a
great man, full of ability, energy, and courage,.who put
an end to an untenable situation and got quit of a set of
unrepresenting representatives.
The Times newspaper,
right as it seems to be about Kossuth, is dangerously
wrong about Louis Napoleon, since it is trying.to stimu­
late the nation to a war for. which France is more than
prepared, Is ready, and England is not. London might
be taken with far. less trouble and fewer men than It took
to accomplish the coup d 1etat
When considering her prediction about the ease
with
which London might be captured In the light of the present
war, one wonders just how accurate her prophecy may prove to
be.
"Can you send me anything giving a lengthy account of
the Emperor’s life at St. Helena?
What a pity that this
nation allowed him to perish thereI
facts of his d e a t h , w r o t e
I should like to read the
Miss Mitford to Mr. Bentley, who
was her publisher at this time, 1852.
She also requested a
recent life of Louis Napoleon, “truly a man of genius."
The little old lady read everything she could find on
the two Napoleons.
On December 14, 1852, she had just com­
pleted reading Hazlitt’s Life of Napoleon, and wrote to Mr.
Fields:
. . . his life of Napoleon is capital, that is, capital
12Fields, op. cit.. p. 294.
13 ,
L'Estrange, o p . cit., 3:191
84
for an English life;
the only way really to know the
great man is to read him in the memoires of his own min­
isters, lieutenants, and servants; for he was a hero to
' his valet de chambre, the greatness was so real that it
would bear close looking into.1^During a trip to Europe in 1852, Mr. Fields went to
Paris after a visit in England, where he had seen Miss Mitford.
She wrote to him while he was in Paris:
Do pick up for me all you can about Louis
one real abiding enthusiasm,— the enthusiasm
life,— for it began with the Emperor and has
undiminished to the present great, bold, and
France.
Napoleon, my
of my whole
passed quite
able ruler of
. . . assuredly Louis Napoleon is a great man, a man of
genius, which includes in my mind both sensibility and
charm. . . . If I could trust you to perform a commission
for me, and let me pay you the money you spent upon it, I
would ask you to bring me a cheap but comprehensive life
of him, with his works and speeches, and a portrait as
like him as possible.
I asked an English friend to do
this for me, and fancy his sending me a book dated on the
outside 18471 i I.*15
Miss Mitford*s enthusiasm for Napoleon III so complete­
ly took possession of her that she went so far as to say' that
the nephew was a greater man than his uncle.
Quoting Miss
Mitford*s letter to Charles Boner, July 20, 1854:
TS me this Napoleon Is even a greater man than his
uncle. He has not the terrible deduction of the coarser
and vulgarer fame belonging to the soldier and the con­
queror, and has done what was so difficult, won a second
great name in spite of the tremendous rivalry of his
14
Fields, op,, cit.. pp. 318-19*
15
Ibid*, PP* 298-9.
85
predecessor's renown. Moreover, happier than the first
Napoleon, he learnt in adversity to command himself.
Her preference for Napoleon III for the reason that his
reputation is less coarse and vulgar than that of the conqueror
demonstrates the typical Victorian way of thinking; mid-Vic­
torian morality would, of course, prefer refinement to strength
and ability when the latter was accompanied by a certain type
of vulgarity, and Miss Mitford fits perfectly into this mode
of thought.
On March 7, 1854, the author wrote to Charles Boner
who was then in Paris:
proud of.
“Yes, my. Emperor is indeed a man to be
Tell me anything you hear of him, or his sweet wife."1^
And she continued from afar to worship and adore this man of
her dreams— her Emperor.
Many of her last letters are filled
with stories and anecdotes praising her great ruler of France.
Her last message to Mr. Fields was written on December 25,
1854, and she expressed-her hope that England might recover
from the Crimean War through Napoleon III.
..Quoting from Miss
Mitford*s letter, "Whether we shall recover from it, Cod only
knows.
My hope is in Louis Napoleon;
Crimean W a r .
16
The Crimean War, which began in 1854,
Lee, ojd. cit.. p. 276 .
17 I M d .. p. 266.
^
. . .,,AO
Fields, 032.. cit., p. 351*
86
was seldom mentioned in her last letters.
competence of the English government.
She felt the in­
It seems that the few
times she referred to the war, it was done rather because she
felt it her duty to do so than because she had anything to say
about it.
For example, she concludes a letter to Reverend
Harness in this manner:
What a grievous thing this war is! And how wretchedly
incompetent our miserable government! God bless you,
dearest friend!
Love to dear Mary.
Every yours,
Shortly after the Battle of Alma, Miss Mitford wrote
to Charles Boner in a letter dated November 20, 1854-:
Poor Lady Russell is ten years older since the battle
of Alma, from suspense and anxiety.
Nothing can exceed
the mismanagement of the English Government or their
folly.
The only hope is in the French.
The English mis­
calculated everything, and had not a notion of the power
of the enemy.
Then look at that idiotism of sending fine
ladles to a military hospital!
The great surgeons are
all indignant.20
Her last letter to Mr. Fields would indicate that Miss
Mitford hoped that America would go to England*s assistance.
Quoting from this letter,
Here, from what I can gather, and from the sure sign of
all works of Importance being postponed, the trade is in a
similar state of depression, caused, they say, by this war,
which but for the wretched imbecility of our ministers
could never have assumed so alarming an appearance.
A e t h e r we shall recover from It, God only knows.
My hope
Is in Louis Napoleon; but that America will rally seems
^
20
Johnson, op. cit., p. 236.
Lee, op. cit.. p. 300.
87'
certain enough.
She has elbow room, and moreover, she is
not unused to rapid transitions from high prosperity to
temporary difficulty, and so back again.2!
Had Miss Mitford not died while the Crimean War was in
its first stages, her interest in it would have become more
evident in her correspondence.
The foregoing quotations, how­
ever, are her only published remarks upon it.
Qheen Victoria.
On June 20, 1837# the girl of eighteen,
whose name was to become a byword for uncompromising propriety,
became queen of England because her two royal predecessors22
were more devoted to their mistresses than to their wives2^
and did not leave any legitimate children to succeed them.
She
was queen for almost sixty-four years and made herself a truly
great sovereign.
Her simple manner, her housewifely domestic­
ity, and her devotion to her husband and their nine children
endeared her to every cottager in the British Isles.
Shortly
after Victoria became queen, Miss Mitford wrote to Miss Jephson,
a friend who lived in Ireland:
"If I had time and room I could
tell you fifty pretty stories of our young Queen.“24
Although Victoria was well versed in constitutional
history, according to Miss Mitford she showed little interest
21
Fields, o n . cit., p. 351*
22 George IV and William IV.
23
Caroline Amelia Elizabeth and Adelaide Saxe-
Meiningen.
^
Johnson, op. cit., p. 194.
88
in books written by her talented subjects.
An intelligent
and excellent language scholar, referred to by Miss Mitford
as "the Queen*s Miss Skerrett" had much to do in recommending
books which were read throughout the royal palaces.
Miss
Marianne Skerrett seems to have been an acquaintance of Miss
Mitford*s, and Miss Skerrett*s relationship to Victoria is
mentioned by Miss Mitford in a letter to Charles Boner on
August 9s 184?:
I wrote the other day to Miss Skerrett . . . who . . .
would be a good judge of the beauty of'your versions,
begging if the Danish stories were not in the royal nursery
that she would place them there, which she says she will
do. She tells me that, in addition to her multifarious
occupations, she has been much tormented this year by the
necessity of officiating as interpreter between a German
maid and a French maid, belonging to the Queen, neither
of whom knows a word of any language but her own. As Miss
Skerrett is not going to Scotland with Her Majesty, the
poor foreigners must get on how they cah.^5
Miss Mitford*s chief interest in Her Majesty seems to
have been in the books she read.
There is no mention of the
author ever having seen or met the Queen.
If a correspondence
existed between Miss Mitford and Miss Skerrett, it is unfor­
tunate that it was not preserved, for it would doubtlessly tell
many engaging facts concerning the literary lady’s interest in
Her Majesty’s reading.
The following excerpt is a pleasant bit
of gossip concerning Queen Victoria's interest in books; it is
25
lee, o£. cit., pp. 74-5.
89
fdund in a letter to Mr. Boner, dated October 11, 1847:
Lamartine’s book r~Histoire des Glrondinsl is very strik­
ing indeed: all the people at the Palace, Lady Lyttelton*
the sub-governess, Miss Skerrett, the Queen herself, who
reads so little, having been devouring it. Her Majesty
had also written to Miss Skerrett from Scotland desiring
her to procure Andersen’s Memoirs in German.
I have sent
your translations, with the Irish poems and Motherweel, to
the Palace this very week; so that I am sure yours will be
the first English translation of Andersen that Her Majesty
and the governesses will see, and I have no doubt but it
will be followed by the purchase of the volumes.
I wrote
______ all about you if the Queen should be c u r i o u s . 26
Miss Mitford wrote to Mrs. Browning a few days after
this and commented on the Queen’s interest in German books:
______ wrote to me the other day that Her Majesty is
very anxious to procure German books for the royal nursery.
I know little of German, and, to say the truth, take small
interest in it. *
The little author’s opinion regarding the Queen’s powers
of discrimination in literature was not flattering.
She wrote
to Mr. Fields on March 17, 1853:
Well 1 no offence to Mrs. ______ . ' I had rather in a
literary question agree with Thomas De Quincey than with
her and Queen Victoria, who, always fond of strong, not
to say coarse, excitements, is amongst ______ ’s warm
admirers.?®
The Jewish question.
Although statements concerning
Miss Mitford’s religious and political creeds are nowhere to
be found in any of her writings, it seems safe to say that she
26 Ihid.. pp. 78-9 .
^ L*Estrange, 0]c. cit., Ill, 110.
28
Fields, op. cit.. p. 326.
90
was democratic in ideas and principles.
She felt that Jews
should be allowed the privilege of holding public office like
other British citizens.
Her comments on the Jews are extremely ■
rare and are made only to Charles Boner, to whom she wrote as.
a sort of foreign correspondent since he spent most of his time
in Germany.
Disraeli had been a guest in the.house of Mrs. Hemans,
the poet, during an 1847 election.
Her account of the incident
is interesting:
Mr. D*Israeli was staying at their house for his election.
His clinging to his own people is curious. His old con­
stituents at Shrewsbury desired, him to send down a candidate,
and he did send the master of an old curiosity shop, a rich
Jew broker, whom they have elected,-, together with my friend,
Mr. ______ . My maid says that fifteen years ago, when
standing for High Wycombe, he had one hundred Jewvboys from
London to carry his flags.2^
Another letter to Charles Boner, dated September 10, 1849,
presents Miss Mitford's attitude toward the Jews so vividly that
since such expressions from Kiss Mitford's .pen are rare, it
should be quoted at length:
Do you know much of the Jews?
I have always been in­
terested in the whole race, and my friend, Miss Goldsmid,
has taken pains to make me acquainted with them.
She
has given me a whole volume of sermons translated, and very
finely translated, by herself, from the German, of one of
their priests named Salomon.
They are full of charity and
brotherly love, and deserve to be put on the same shelf with
the "Lettres spirituelles" of Fenelon, and the works of Ghanning and Arnold, which they resemble in largeness of heart
and in indulgence to human error.
Except Josephus,
29
Lee, op. cit., p. 81.
91
I never read any work of a Jewish author before out of the
Bible, and unluckily I am not likely to read many, the
greater number being, she tells me, in Hebrew, some in
Latin, many in Spanish at the times when the Moors were in
Spain, and art and science almost in the exclusive hands
of the Jews— and now almost all the Jewish publications are
in German.
1 tell you this because they would interest you.
I am sure Salomon's sermons would. He is still alive and
working in that great work
of brotherly love. Miss Goldsmid is a noble woman.30
In 1853 a bill enabling Jews to sit in Parliament was
being discussed by that body.
1858.
The act was not passed until
She wrote of the proposed bill on January 6 , 1853:
I heard yesterday from Miss Goldsmid that, the Jew Bill
is sure to be carried now. Many circumstances have helped—
the Duke's death, the coalition ministry.
The prospect has
revived her father, who was dying of heart complaint.
I
trust he will live to see the measure carried.
It has been
the labour of his life, for he was the real working man of
the movement.
Every citizen has a claim to the civil rights,
were he-Mahomaden or Hindoo.31
Political -interests.
Mary Mitford was an ardent poli­
tician very early in life, and hung a picture of Charles Jamess
Fox, a sort of patron saint to her at this time, at the head of
her bed; but a. trip to London dispelled this cherished illusion.
She wrote to her mother from London in 1805:
I had the happiness (?) of seeing Mr. Fox mount his
horse on Saturday.
I shall never again contend for his
beauty. He was obliged to lean on. two people, and looked
so sallow in face and so unwieldly in person that I am
obliged to yield one long disputed point.. . . . To make
amends my new favourite (Whitbread) is what even you would
call exquisitely handsome; a most elegant figure, and a
voice which I could listen to with transport even if he
spoke in an unknown l a n g u a g e . 3 2
Ibid., pp. 137-8.
31 Ibid.,
32
p.
233.
L'Estrange, op. pit., I, 34-.
92
At this point it would be interesting to review briefly
the career of Fox, which should throw some light on Miss Mit­
ford* s political beliefs, since she had been an admirer of Fox
for reasons other than his manly appeal.
Fox was born in 174-9,
entered Parliament at nineteen and received considerable rec­
ognition as a debater.
In 1772 he became lord of the treasury,
and In 1782 he was made foreign secretary under Lord Rockingham.
He was a strenuous opponent of the war with France and advo­
cated non-intervention, which Miss Mitford probably favored,
and was the great rival of William Pitt in policy and principle.
Upon Pitt's death in 1806, Fox became foreign secretary in
Grenville's ministry, but his life had nearly run its course
and death prevented his realizing the high expectations of his
followers.
His last act in Parliament was to abolish slave
trade, but he died shortly before the measure became a law.
He was the greatest orator of his time, and a man of wide read­
ing and fine literary tastes; his sacrifices to his beliefs
were such as few statesmen would have cared to make.
At the
time Miss Mitford saw him In London, she was eighteen years of
age and Fox was fifty-six.
In 1806 George III was upon the throne of England, and
the Prince of Wales, who four: years later was to become Regent
for the Insane king, and in 1820 was to be George IV, was
prominent in parliamentary affairs.
He is the prince to whom
Miss Mitford referred in the quotation below.
Since she rarely
93
mentioned politics or political events in her letters, this
passage should be quoted in full in order to demonstrate this
young girl's familiarity with such matters; quoting from a
letter to her father,. April 10, 180?:
A thousand thanks, my beloved, for your very kind and
entertaining letter. We rejoiced to find you had relin­
quished all thoughts of mobbing it to the House, which
would have been a most fatiguing and tiresome exertion;
and, since the great speakers are gone, it would most like­
ly have met with an inadequate reward. What Grattan may
be when speaking upon so interesting a subject as places
and pensions, I know not; but when he was brought in last
Parliament to display his powers upon the Catholic question
(which is, 1 admit, to party men a subject of inferior im­
portance), the House was extremely disappointed.
If I
remember rightly, he was characterized as a "little, awk­
ward, fidgety, petulant speaker";
and the really great
man who then led the Opposition easily dispensed with his
assistance.
Pray, whom do you include in the Prince's
party? But many would-be placemen will, I dare say, be
sufficiently ready to court the rising sun.
It used to be
by no means a numerous one; mamma insists that Charles Pox
used to belong to it. This I dispute in t o t o : but I shall
be much obliged to you to settle our debate.
It is true
that the Prince inclined much more to Fox than Pitt, and
his people generally voted with the former; but Mr. Fox
never was in his secrets, and he would have disclaimed with
indignation the crooked policy of the heir apparent.33
In her next letter to her father on April 15, 1807, she
again discussed the events taking place in Parliament.
She
felt that lord Erskine's very eloquent speech possessed great
merit and that since he was against the Catholic question, his
opinions would have more weight with the country than those of
any other of the ex-ministers.
She considered Lord Sidmouth a
very bad speaker, and hoped that his sun was set, never to rise
7*2
Johnson, op,, cit., p. 42
94
again.
She said that "Mr. S. Lefevre's speech Is worthy of
attention, as being to the full as incomprehensible as that of
his worthy colleague upon a late occasion."54-
In fact, she
would defy the most"expert solver of enigmas to resolve the
question of which side he meant to support."55
An amusing com­
ment was made by Miss Mitford concerning a visit which Mr.
Lefevre, a small politician, had made to Bertram House that week
to see Dr. Mitford.
Quoting from Miss Mitford*s letter to her
father in April, 1807,
. . . In short, I believe that he has no inclination to
meet you, and was glad to find you were in town.
Little
minds always wish to avoid those to whom they are under
obligations; and his present "trimming" in politics must
conspire to render him still more desirous not to meet
you, till he has found which party is strongest.
will, I am of opinion, decide which he will espouse.
That something of her girlish admiration for Fox remained
with Miss Mitford even with old age and much Illness is evi­
denced by a remark made forty-three years after F o x ’s death in
a letter to Charles Boner regarding his verses on the nightin­
gale :
Those nightingale verses are very beautiful, especially
the last stanza.
Do you think the song melancholy? I do
not.
It is too full of energy and spirit, has too much
verve.
I remember a charming letter of poor Charles Fox
vindicating the cheerfulness of the song.57
34 I M d . , p. 44.
Johnson, o£. cit., p. 44.
L Estrange, o p . cit.. I, 43.
37
Lee, op. cit., p. 139*
95
Miss Mitford first mentioned Sir Robert Peel and Lady
Peel in regard to their kindnesses to the family of poor Hay-'
don.
Lady Peel granted the widow a pension of twenty-five
pounds -a year, and Sir Robert’s conduct toward her was most
noble, for he gave one of her three children an appointment.
Sir Robert Peel had been Prime Minister from 1835 to
1834, and in 1841 he again brought the Conservatives to power
as a result of the victory of his party's protectionist policy
over free trade.
But in 1845 the seriousness of the famine in
Ireland became extremely severe, and popular pressure, encour­
aged by Cobden’s Ant1-Corn-Law League, favored free admission
of grain.
Realizing the precariousness of the situation, Peel
repealed the C o m Laws in 1845 and was termed traitor by his
party followers, since the free trade policy had been advo­
cated by the Liberal Party.
Regarding this famine in Ireland, Miss Mitford. wrote to
Charles Boner in 1848:
In Ireland the sufferings are terrible. The worst cases
are wisely kept out of the papers, but a most enlightened
friend of mine Just returned thence, says that they have
been driven into such a strait by famine, as men in a boat
at sea; that parents have been found over a pot where their
own child was the food, and that a relation of his own, an
assistant barrister, tried two boys for putting their
younger sisters in a bog-hole, to seize themselves on the
little portion of meal doled out to them !I Fancy such fact
as these in a Christian land!
Nobody seems to see a
remedy. The real one would be for all great proprietors,
whig, tory, or radical, to lay aside politics, to live upon
their estates, cultivate the waste lands, and educate
these poor misguided people Into faith in their f e l l o w s . 58
Ibid.. p. 95.
96
In 1850 Sir Robert Peel was killed as a result of a fall
from his horse.
Although Miss Mitford never met the great
statesman, one of her servants had been in charge of the horse
who threw Sir Robert, and she had acquired interesting facts
about the incident:
The horse that threw Sir Robert (Peel) was a Berkshire
horse, called Repealer.
My man had the care of him before
he came to me two years ago. He played no tricks then,
but afterwards, when sold to another neighbour of mine, he
used to throw the stable-boys who mounted him for exercise,
and was altogether unfit for a bad rider like poor Sir
Robert Peel to mount.39
Lord Palmerston, foreign secretary in the administrations
of Earl G-rey, Viscount Melbourne, and Lord John Russell, re­
signed In 1851 because of a disagreement regarding the
d ’etat of Louis Napoleon.
coup
In 1852 he became home secretary
under the earl of Aberdeen, and in 1855 he became first lord of
the treasury.
Later he was Prime Minister for eight years.
Miss Mitford mentioned Lord Palmerston only once in her many
letters, and, although her remark is of no particular importance,
it serves, perhaps, as an opinion representative of a number of
English artists; quoting from a letter of I85I,
No doubt you are right about Lord Palmerston.
I know
that to many eminent artists he has been exceedingly inso­
lent, which is more the way of a little man than a great
one.
I hope the Peel party may come in with some of the
Liberals.
Sir William Molesworth, for instance, and Mr.
Grote: to get rid of the Greys., Elliotts, and Russells
seems to be everybody’s wish.^O
59 Ibid.. p. 162.
^
Ibid.. p. 162.
97
Regarding education and conventions, Miss Mitford re­
marked in 1812 that she hated to have deductions and morals
forced down her throat.
She observed that in that "educating
age everything is taught to women except that which is perhaps
. .worth all the rest— the power and the habit of thinking."^-1*
She- did not wish, however, to turn women into statesmen or phi­
losophers, for she considered it "the privilege of man to govern,
and the happiness of women to obey.
She also wished that
. . . while everything is invented and inculcated that can
serve to amuse, to occupy, or adorn youth— youth which
needs so little amusement or ornament I— something should
be instilled that may add pleasure and respectability
to age.
Such were Mary Russell Mitford*s ideas when she was
twenty-five years of age; at the age of sixty, she was writing
to__Charles Bonert
Just as we were thinking of this subject William Chambers,
of Edinburgh, came to pay me a visit, and has assisted us
by a good deal of information and advice, such as getting
parishes to agree and interchange their libraries. He says
that the obstacles to all education in England and Scot­
land are the clergy.
I am quite of that mind from my own
experience, but I did not expect to hear him say so. He
is a very superior p e r s o n . ^
Church.
church at all.
41
42
The quaint little author seldom mentioned any
She mentioned going to church once when she
Johnson, op. cit., p. 67*
L o c . elt.
^ I/Estrange, o p . cit.. I, 67-8*
44
Lee, op. cit., p. 84»
98
was a child, but there was never any indication as to which
denomination she belonged or preferred.
She has been referred
to as a Quaker,^, but such could scarcely be true after consider­
ing her remark concerning Quakers in a letter to Sir William
Elford, dated September 18, 1815:
I was very much entertained with your admirable Quaker
story; but I still c a n ’t help having a sneaking kindness
for the sect; not perhaps for its religious tenets, but
for its peaceableness, its industry, its simplicity, and
its frankness.
I do not dislike their singularity either.
In our present high state of civilisation, people are so
much alike, that anything at all odd comes on one with the
freshness and character of an antique coin among smooth
shillings.
I must confess, however, that I do not know
many Quakers, which may be one reason of my partiality;
since of the few I have met with, the men have been shrewd
and honest, and the women have had minds as fair, as pure,
and as delicate as their dove-eyed beauty or their spot­
less dress . ^
Miss Mitford also had a warm feeling for the Catholics,
for in I85I she wrote to Charles Boner that she had always had
a "weakness for the ancient church with its art and its poetry,
as compared with our establishment, which, disregarding all its
beauty, retained only the bigotry and the intolerance."^
A s has already been mentioned in this chapter, Miss Mit­
ford liked the Jews, and remarked that at a Jewish party at
which she was a guest that she and Mr. and Mrs. Cobden were the
only Christians present.
Her religious views were extremely
45
Mary Astin, "Mary Russell Mitford, Her Circle and
Friends," Times Literary Supplement (London: London Times
Press)., October 9, 1931.
^ Johnson, o|>. cit*, pp. 133-4.
^
Lee,
0 £.
cit., p. 185.
99
tolerant, and she had more respect for a person with no church
affiliation whose deeds and thoughts were sincere and honest
than for a person whose actions were hypocritical.
Spiritualism.
During "the fifties" spiritualism, the
belief that departed spirits hold communication with mortals
by means of physical phenomena— with all the paraphrenalia of
slates, mediums, and trances— drew the attention of many of the
best minds of the period.
Mrs. Browning, whose temperament
predisposed her to believe in communications between the mortal
world and that of the spirits, was of a decidedly mystical
vein.
She was not guilty of the absurdities which marked many
of the devotees of spiritualism, and she recognized that many
of the supposed revelations of the spirits were trivial, and
sometimes false, but she constantly adhered to the fact that
communications did exist.
It was Mrs. Browning who first
Introduced Miss Mitford to the ethics or metaphysics of "rap­
ping spirits."
So far as this writer has been able to dis­
cover, Mrs. Browning first mentioned spiritualism to Miss,Mit­
ford sometime during the early part of 1853.
It will be re­
membered that Miss Mitford was seriously ill during,most of
the last two years of her life and was not physically able to
investigate for herself the accounts of mediums, communications
with the spirits, and table-turnings which filled her ears.
_
Kenyon, op. cit.. II, 92.
100
She wrote to Mrs. Browning that she had heard very little
ahout spiritualism, and in turn Mrs. Browning gave her long
and detailed accounts of all she knew and
It
is doubtful that Miss
manifestations.
heard about the spirits.
Mitford had much
faith in spiritualistic
She was much concerned with Mrs. Browning's in­
terest in it, and wrote to Mr. Fields on February 1, 1853:
Mrs. Browning is most curious about rappings,— of which
I suppose you believe as much as I do of the Cock Lane
Ghost, whose doings, by the way,
they much r e s e m b l e . ^
On March 19, 1853, Miss Mitford wrote to Mrs. Browning
that "almost everybody is turning tables.
they tell me, set them spinning in ten
m
i n
The young Russells,
u
t
e
s
.
"50
Mrs.
Browning, Miss Mitford refrained from making any disrespectful
remarks concerning the rappings and table turnings.
Since Mr. Fields was not a believer in spiritualism,
the little old maid felt that she could speak to him on the
subject without restraint.
She wrote to him on May 3, 1853:
Amongst your bounties I was much amused with the New
York magazines, the curious turning up of a new claimant
to the Louis-the-Seventeenth pretension amongst the Red
Indians, and the rappings and pencil-writings of the new .
Spiritualists.
One should wonder most at the believers in
these two branches of faith, if that particular class did
not always seem to be provided most abundantly whenever a
demand occurs.
Only think of Mrs. Browning giving the
most unlimited credence to every "rapping" story which
anybody can tell her!5l
^
(London:
Fields, op. cit.., p. 325.
Henry F. Chorley, Letters of Mary Russell Mitford
R. Bentley and Son, 1872), p. 2 3 3 .
Fields, oj>. cit., p. 329.
On June 4, 1953, in a letter to Mr. Fields, Miss Mit­
ford gives an account of a table spinning phenomena in which,
so it seems, she believed:
. . . Also Mrs. Browning believes in spirit-rapping stories,
all,— and tells me that Robert Owen has been converted by
them to a belief in a future state. Everybody everywhere is
turning tables.
The young Russells, who are surcharged
with electricity, set them spinning in ten minutes.
In
general, you know, it is usual to take off all articles of
metal.
They, the other night, took a fancy to remove their
rings and bracelets, and having done so, the table, which
had paused for a moment, began whirling again as fast as
ever the contrary way.
This is a fact, and a curious o n e . 52
And later in the year she wrote to Mr. Fields:
Mrs. Browning is positively crazy about the spiritrappings.
She believes every story, European or American,
and says our Emperor consults the mediums, which I
disbelieve.55
Miss Mitford’s last letter to Mr. Fields contains the
following comment on Judge Edmonds* Spiritualism:
My friend, William Harness, got me to employ our kind
little friend, Mr.
. to procure for him Judge Edmonds*
"Spiritualism.** What an odious book it is! there is
neither respect for the dead nor the living. Mrs. Brown­
ing believes it all; so does Bulwer, who is surrounded by
mediums who summon his dead daughter.
It is too frightful
to talk about. Mr. May and Mr. Pearson both asked me to
send it away, for fear of its seizing upon my nerves.54
Mesmerism.
Although Miss Mitford did not believe in
spiritualism, she found evidence on which to base her faith in
hypnotism.
The help which Harriet Martineau claimed to have
52 ifcia-. PP- 332-3.
53 Ifcia.. P* 338.
54 Ibid.. p. 352.
102
received from it is widely known.
According to Elizabeth
Barrett, Miss Martineau was "thrown into the magnetic trance
twice a day; and the progress is manifest; and the hope for the
future clear.
affection;
. . . N o case of a weakmlnded woman and a nervous
. . ."55
3*3^
fr iend of both Miss Barrett and Miss
Mitford, Mr. Kenyon professed his belief in mesmerism, but not
in mesmerists.
wrote:
Regarding her faith in it, Elizabeth Barrett
"I seriously wish that I could disbelieve in the
reality of the power, which is in every way most repulsive to
m e .«56
Mary Mitford expressed her faith in hypnotism in a
letter to Elizabeth Barrett in 1844:
"Be sure it is all true.
X see it every day in my Jane."577 Miss Mitford*s maid, Jane,
was mesmerised for deafness, but not with great success curatively.
According to the little author, sleep was produced, and at
the third seance, the girl was able to see behind her.
Al­
though little is said in her letters, it is certain that Miss
Mitford had some faith In mesmerism, but to what extent, it is
difficult to say.
Meteors and prophecies.
In showing how Miss Mitford*s
letters are representative of the beliefs and events of her
age, one should not pass on without mentioning facts regarding
predictions from the astrologists and through celestial signs
55 Kenyon,
. cit.,
ojd
I, 196.
56 Ibid.. p. 219.
57
Chorley, op. cit., p. 220.
105
too obvious to be ignored.
In I8l6 Miss Mitford related a story to Sir William
Elford regarding a young Oxfordshire lady, whose character
exactly resembled "Miss Austen’s ’Harriet Smith,* with the same
prettiness, the same good-humour, the same simplicity, and the
same knack of falling into love."5®
A conjuror told her many
facts about her family which were well known to all the neigh­
borhood.
He warned her to beware of fire in her thirtieth year.
She heard it with horror— a horror that shocked and
alarmed the whole family.
It was some time before she could .
be prevailed upon to reveal the cause, and when discovered
she took to her bed for a fortnight.
Ought not this man
to be punished?59
Another Interesting comment regarding beliefs and proph­
ecies current in her lifetime is the following quotation from
a letter to Mr. Boner, dated 1848:
I do
not know whether the papers remarked what a friend
who keeps a meteorological journal (Is that long word spelt
rightly?) told me the other day, that the two very remark­
able displays of the northern lights that have been seen
here In
this century, took place on the two nights pre­
ceding the flight of Louis Philippe and the Pope. Yo u
remember the remarkable meteors that preceded the battle
of Irvy. My friend had written this account of those lights
(I saw it myself, and it was magnificent) before hearing of
either event.
Then there is Mr. Fleming’s book on the
Papacy printed in 1701 (I have seen one of the old edition),
foretelling its downfall in 1794, In 1848, and in 2000.
These things are curious.60
Johnson, ojd. cit., p. 139.
59
^
Loc. cit.
Lee, op. cit., p. 110.
104
Concerning the same subject she wrote to Mr. Fields,
June 10, 1849:
Apropos of public events, all London is talking of the
prediction of an old theological writer of the name of
Fleming, who in or about the year 1700 prophesied a
revolution in France in 1794 (only one year wrong), and
the fall of the papacy in 1848 at all events.61
AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
Miss Mitford and Mrs. Browning believed
that the letters of the quaint little spinster would form a
better and far more complete biography than anything, that Mary,
herself, could do in- the way of an autobiography.62
This is
true not only in their content but in the mood and spirit with
which they were written.
Her earliest letters demonstrate a
lightness and sprightliness of manner closely akin to the
enthusiastic spirit with which she regarded the literary life
upon which she had so recently embarked.
Their spontaneity,
vivacity, and elegance, combined with exquisite descriptions,
a variety of allusions and anecdotes make the reading of her
life story considerably more colorful and entertaining than a
commonplace biography.
The style of her correspondence, being
conversational, makes the reader feel that he is listening to
the little Victorian author as she sits wrapped in a shawl and
wearing a curious little white cap over her honey-colored curls
as she comments on her neighbors, her garden, and the books
that she has just completed reading.
^
Fields, opl cit. , p. 280.
Lee, op. cit., p. 11.
One can almost feel the
105
pressure of her little, fat hands as she extends them to greet
her guests, and as she proceeds to describe the visit, her
enthusiasm is so expertly presented by her letters that a
vision of her little round face, with its big blue eyes, both
soft and bright, its pink cheeks and pretty, rosy mouth dimpled
with smiles that were always sweet and friendly, is clearly
invoked in the mind of the reader.
Once, after Miss Barrett praised Miss Mitford*s letters,
she replied:
yours:
“They come from my heart, and therefore go to
but that is all their merit— merit only to us— to the
lover and the loved.”63
At the time of writing, Miss Mitford
meant everything she said in her written messages, although
there were occasions when she changed her opinions about cer­
tain things.
However, her despondency over her own affairs
and over her literary career in general remained unchanged.
She accepted her lot with cheer and courage, but never liked it.
Commenting on the death of the poetess, L. E. Landon, she
remarked:
‘’Nothing seems to me so melancholy as the lives of
authors.“64
Shortly afterwards, referring to Scott, she said:
’’All literary people die over-wrought— it is the destiny of
the c l a s s . " ^
63
And on Southey, she commented:
L*Estrange, o p . cit. . IX, 64.
64 Ibid.. II, 78.
65
Ibid., II, 91.
wHis fate is
106
equally or even more deplorable.**^
While she was writing
Foscari. she wrote to Sir William Elfordt
f,I am now chained
to a desk eight, ten, twelve hours a day, at mere drudgeiy;
all my thoughts of writing are for hard
m o n e y .
"^7
• In young womanhood Miss Mitford was no beauty;
f,yet
there was a meaning in her eyes, a flash in her smile, a mir­
acle of sympathy, and a feeling in her changeful cheek, her
mobile mouth, and earnest brow which more than mere regular­
ity of outline attracted to her every e y e . " ^
She was short
in stature, but had a brisk, light way of moving about which
was not ungraceful; her merry, childish prattle had developed
into a bright stream of conversation in which glistened many
a spark of wit.
Her head was stored with quite enough knowl­
edge to make her seem something to wonder at in days when a
well educated woman was a rare creation in society.
Although
not pretty, she possessed all the attractions which a spright­
ly intelligence, sweet temper, and an amiable disposition
could give.
Yet there is not a ghost of a romance which can
be attached to her in any way.
If Mary ever loved or was
loved, it must have been done in strictest secrecy.
According
to an English journalist, whose article entitled "Miss Austen
and Miss Mitford" appeared in the Quarterly Review in 1870,
66
Ibid., II, 72.
67 ifria.• I, no.
68 Lit tell *s Living A g e . LX, 678.
107
. . . Miss Austen and Miss Mitford were surrounded with
other affections and occupations— their lives were full
and showed no lack; and it would be hard to find any
trace of that (let our readers pardon us the horrible word)
sexual unrest and discontent which, at a later period
found a startling revelation in the works of Charlotte
Bront£, and have since been repeated ad nauseam in many
inferior pages in the production of either.
A careful search through all of Mary Mitford* s voluminous
correspondence, and through introductions, even through the
reminiscences recorded for the public in her Recollections of
Si
Literary Life, in which she set forth that which she wished
the public to know concerning her and her life, reveals not a
word that even suggests a sweetheart.
There were no recollections,
no soft sighs, in which there was more pleasure than pain, no
tears of regret, no moments of sorrow over a lost love, no
tender smile of etherealized vanity from an old lady’s lips
when a pressed flower, a name, or an allusion brought before
her something that might have been.
In all of the quaint little spinster's writings and
correspondence, there is nothing which conveys even the suggestion
that anything could ever have been, except her undying devotion
and loyalty to her parents, particularly to her father, the
doctor.
She cared for them as if she had been the parent and
they the children.
It may have been that this peculiar trans­
position, which seemed to make her the head of the little
family, together with her work and a combination of cireum69
Ibid.. CIV, 43-.
108
stances entirely unfavorable to love-making made anything
other than a platonic relationship with a man impossible.
There is no indication that Miss Mitford ever looked
forward to marriage.
Gossips had discussed a possible union
of the little poetess and Sir William Elford, a distinguished
gentleman of sixty-four years.
This was merely idle talk, how­
ever, for their correspondence reveals only a pleasant friend­
ship, such as two girls might have enjoyed.
That she had no
idea of ever becoming a bride was mentioned in a letter to Sir
William as early as 1812, while Mary was only twenty-five.
Quoting from Miss Mitford:
I
MFor as I intend to die an old maid,
shall make her Ci.e., her cousin Mary 3 heiress to all my
property, i.
e., my MSS."70
Three years later Sir William
suggested that she might be planning to marry*
She was twenty-
seven years of age at this time, and her reply confirms the
statement that she never loved romantically or was loved:
Alas! my dear friend, you are mistaken— quite mistaken,
I assure you.
I am not going to be married.
No such good
luck, as papa says.
I have not been courted, and I am not
in love.
So much for this question.
IT I ever should
happen to be going to be married (elegant construction
this!) I will then not fall to let you into the secret;
but alas!
alas!
alas!
"In such a then I write a n e v e r . "71
Although Miss Mitford was never concerned with romantic
love, there is one instance in her correspondence where she
presents her ideas on love.
She wrote to Sir William in 1813:
Love never flourishes so luxuriantly as when distance
Johnson, oj). cit., p. 76.
71 Ibid.. p. 125.
109
and difference of fortune or station give fine scope to
the imagination. A castle*or a cottage;
a prince or a
peasant; a Swede or an Italian, may all give full play to
the poetry of the heart.
But to fall in love with a stupid
man who lives in the next town, in a brick house, with a
walled garden— whose father and mother, grandfather and
grandmother, aunts and brothers you have been tired of all
your life— to fall in love with such a man as that is
really more than Impossible.72
There was, however, one circumstance under which the
little author would have contemplated matrimony.
Dr. Mitford
had run through with the money Mary won in the lottery, and
with steadily diminishing funds and increasing debts, the
threatened parting from Bertram House became imminent, and in
1819, she wrote to Miss Hofland;
Our Mr. Elliott has been here, and this long affair, this
Chancery suit of eight years, was settled in eight minutes.
But for the ill luck of Mr. Elliott's having a wife, I need
not move at all, since but for that misfortune he says he
would have had me himself.
I wish you could have seen him
when he made this declaration.
Imagine a littl^ mean-look­
ing Bond Street shopkeeper of sixty-five, with a Methodist
face, all bile and wrinkles, and sadness, and a spruce wig
in fine curls, shining like a horse chestnut!
I would
Certainly have married him, though, but for the aforesaid
impediment.
I would take anybody that would marry me to
these walls and trees.73
Had Mary been of -a different disposition, it might be
hoped that somewhere in her life she had experienced romantic
love, though furtive and recondite in expression.
But unfor­
tunately for her this type of love could never exist.
However,
she could not accurately be referred to as an inhibited oid
maid unless an adult with the immaturity of a child is such.
7 2 L'Estrange, op. cit. . I, 113*
73
Chorley, 0£. cit., p. 209.
110
Posterity was thus denied a love story in Miss Mitford*s life*
If love is woman's chief occupation, then here was a very sweet
and charming woman who had no share in it.
It is to be regret­
ted that somewhere there is not a faded bunch of violets or a
bouquet of dead forget-me-nots— memorials of a love affair
which died before it blossomed— to be thrown with the myrtle
and the bay of her country's appreciation upon a maiden grave
in Swallowfield*
Instead of the romance so natural to youth, Miss Mit­
ford slaved for her father, humoured him, even babied the old
doctor, read all of the newest books, and wrote as many as
sixteen letters a day, which, together with her literary work,
made her day seem very full.
So much has already been written concerning Dr. Mitford,
who for so many years was the tyrant and intolerable burden of
his daughter's existence, that to write more here is unnecessary.
He was selfish, cruel, and apparently devoid of any natural
justice or compassion, yet he was certain of adoring love all
of his life, and, according to his daughter, "heaven at the
end."
He died in 1842.
Once, and once only did Miss Mitford
temporarily rebel against her paternal tyrant.
He could waste
her money and drive her to earn more, crush her spirits,
dominate her time, and by his endless demands impair her
health, yet she still regarded him as the dearest, sweetest,
grandest, most handsome of mankind.
However, when he poured
Ill
seorn on her friends, she mustered up enough spirit to describe
the incident vividly and without prejudice in a letter to a
friend:
. . . He hates and despises them and all their professors,
and is constantly taunting me with.“my friends” and ”my
people,” as he calls them, reproaching me if I-hold the
slightest intercourse with author, editor, artist, or
actor, and treating with frank contempt every one not of a
certain statue in the country
Now he ought to remember
that it is from a sense of duty that I have been thrown in
the way of these persons, and he should allow for the
natural sympathy of similar pursuits, and the natural wish
to do the little one can to bring merit into notice.
It
is one of the few alleviations of a destiny that is wear­
ing my health and mind and spirits and strength— a life
spent in efforts above my powers. He ought to feel this
but he does not.
I beg your pardon for vexing you with
this detail.*^
Her last letters are remarkable for their demonstration
of the triumph of mind over matter.
During her last two years
she was so ill that if guests remained with her over thirty
minutes, her condition became immediately worse and on several
occasions death seemed imminent.
Her interest in people and
books was never diminished by suffering.
Occasionally, Miss
Mitford mentioned her illness when writing to her friends.
She
did not eomplain, but merely stated the facts and hoped that,
perhaps, with the approach of summer she would improve.
During
the winter of 1853-54 she was not outside of her room, "getting
with exceeding difficulty from the bed to the fireside, quite
unable to stir either in the chair or in the bed, but much less
74
Chorley, op. cit.. p. 209-
112
miserable up than when in bed."75
It was at this time, too,
while in the midst of the terrible cough, which did not allow
her to lie down in bed, and while extremely weak, that she
finished Atherton.76 There was about her now "a very pathetic
expression about her mouth and in her large, slowly moving sad,
grey eyes, though they lighted up every now and then with a
glancing gleam of the drollest h u m o u r . H e r
absolute in­
ability to dress suitably, or even neatly, must have added .
considerably to the pathetic'appearance of the lonely old lady;
"perhaps more so from her being quite unconscious of the quaint
figure she so often
presented
."78
Mr. Fields was unable to comprehend the nature of her
illness, for she never complained, never asked for sympathy,
and whenever she mentioned her condition it was always sub­
ordinated to the remainder of the letter.
In many of her
letters she did not even mention her sickness, remaining cheer­
ful to the very end, although she knew that each day might be
her last.
On December 23, 1854, Miss Mitford wrote her last
letter to Mr. Fields.
After writing at length on books, people,
and current events, she concluded:
75
76
77
78
Fields, op,, cit., p. 341.
Loc. cit.
Johnson, op. cit., p. 30.
Loc. cit.
"I get weaker and weaker,
113
and atm become a mere skeleton.
Ah, dear friend, come when
you may, you will find only a grave 'at
Swallowf
ield."79
Her
last published letter was dated January 8, 1855, and was
addressed to Rev. Hugh Pearson, and concludes:
better;
"To-day I am
but if you wish for another cheerful evening, with
your old friend, there is no time to be lost.’1^
Mary Mitford
died two days later.
From the point of view of human interest, at least, one
of the most valuable things in Miss Mitford*s published corre­
spondence is the enduring portrait they give of a certain type
of Victorian lady who bids fair to become extinct in the future.
A woman of letters by profession, she never permitted the
author to override the woman.
Her letters in general are full
of life and spirit, clear, close, and to the point*
born letter-writer, vigorous and enthusiastic.
She was a
For half a
century she poured out her rash and sudden judgments, opinions
which were sometimes sound and sometimes superficial, and out­
bursts of affection and fondness which often appeared a bit
exaggerated.
Her letters are frequently amusing and charming,
and they are the kind of reading in which large numbers of
people take great pleasure.
Miss Mitford wrote much about her
own life in the most pleasant way— the autobiographical para­
graphs of her letters.
79
^
One of the main points of interest about
Fields, op. cit., p. 352.
Chorley, op. cit., p. 315*
114
communications is the further revelation they make of her
domestic life.
In other respects they are not particularly
remarkable.
A large part of her letters are gossip, social, per­
sonal, literary, of a pleasant and readable kind.
Most
literary men and women--particularly those who make their
living by their pen— save their best thoughts and sentences
for their books, but some of the most charming of Miss Mit­
ford1s letters are made so by prose equal to any found in Our
Village.
They are passages in which she exhibited her graphics
appreciation of the beauties in nature both in the country
and in country life.
Two passages from different letters,
one describing the gentleman's cricket m a t c h , ^ the other
the peasant's,82 form as pleasant and as amusing a pair of
vignettes as anything in her professional creations.
It is noticeable that in the composition of her
published works, she was elaborate and wrote and rewrote,
polished and repolished each page, sentence, and phrase, but
in epistolary confidence she seems never to have taken thought,
never to have corrected or reread, never to have been able to
reach an end.
The style is in no way debased by vulgarisms or
lewd or cant allusions.
"Written, as we now know her letters
to have been written, they are a remarkable monument to their
0*1
Johnson.-op. c i t .. pp. 172-4.
82
L ’Estrange, ojc>. cit., Iv 192-3*
115
writer*s worth and truth, goodness of heart, elasticity of
”8'3
spirits, and sweetness of temper.
II. CRITICISMS
It is the purpose of this section to review Mary Russell
Mitford*s capability and powers of discernment as a critice of
other authors and their works.
Since her opinions have been the
subject of so many comments, both favorable and adverse, it is
only Just that what she has to say of the writings of others
should be presented.
of a Literary Life
84
Her personal letters and her Recollections
are the only primary sources.
Although most of Miss Mitford*s opinions, which were
presented in vigorous, concise, and appropriate phraseology,
were the very essence of sincerity on her part, many of her
Judgments were hasty,
ill-considered, or prejudiced because
they were made with a heart full of affection for the author
of the work criticized.
Mary Mitford read such large quantities
of books and wrote such an enormous number of letters, that in
her correspondence expressions of opinion regarding books and
authors were inevitable.
M a r y ’s ideas and judgments regarding that which was good
and worthwhile in literature began to be expressed very early.
83
84
Littell’s Living A g e . CIV, 563, 1870.
Mary Russell Mitford, Recollections of a Literary
Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1852).
1161
In a letter to her father,‘85 written at the age of fourteen,
she preferred the Iliad to the AEneid and recommended to her
parents Goldsmith’s Animated Nature "because it was "free from
technical terms and is written in a clear and understandable
style, containing factseinteresting to all
ages.
"86
The literary criticisms which.are particularly interest­
ing to us today are those .which M i s s .Mitford passed upon her
contemporaries.
This section will deal with her most important
comments on books and authors.
English
William Shakespeare.
Authors
Mary Mitford was a sincere, and
appreciative admirer of Shakespeare*
She felt that he pos­
sessed versatility and playfulness, "the true and rare character­
istics of that rare thing called
genius."®?
She considered
Shakespeare the greatest literary genius of all times;
to him, she worshipped Homer and loved his Odyssey best.
next
Her
favorite play was the first part of King Henry the Fourth,
about which she said in 1816:
All the whining, crying, canting heroes that ever
lived have less hold.upon my affections— less power of in­
teresting me--of carrying me off my legs (as a lady said
of BurnsJ, than the most delightful and most natural
creature, the “Gunpowder Percy," the "Hotspur of the North."
I am always a rebel when I see that play, and could never
be reconciled to the catastrophe, were not Falstaff on the
Ghorley, loc. cit.
8?
Johnson, R. B., op. cit., p. 101.
117
other side. Pray do you "believe that Falstaff was a
coward, a liar, a flatterer, and.a-glutton? Are you not
sure that all this is calumny, and that.the humorous
knight was a most valiant and gentlemanly, as well as a
most delightful, person?
I am quite convinced of it, and
cannot forgive Henry the Fifth for his shabby treatment
of him after his father*s death. a
Next to the first part of King Henry the Fourth, she
liked, in the order named, The Merry Wives-of Windsor, Romeo
and Juliet, Macbeth, The Tempest, The Midsummer Night *Si-Pream,
Richard the Third, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing.
Concerning the characters of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado
About Nothing, she remarked in 1816:
The Beatrice of this last play is indeed my standard of,
female wit' and almost of female character; nothing so live­
ly, so clever, so unaffected, and so warmhearted, ever trod
this work-a-day world.
Benedick is not quite equal to her;
but his in female eyes is no great sin. Shakespeare saw
through nature, and knew which sex to make the cleverest.”9
She appreciated his comedies more than his tragedies,
and even went so far as to think his comedies and those parts
of his tragedies which resemble comedy the great and unrivalled
distinction of Shakespeare.
She felt that many of his immedi­
ate successors approached him very nearly in. tragic powers.
Quoting Miss Mitford:
"Massinger equals him in declamation;
Ford in sublimity; Fletcher in pathos:
him in wit.
but no one comes near
Ben.Jonson'a best play is at a thousand league's
distance."90
88 Ibid.. p. 135.
89
Johnson, ,pp. pit., p. 135.
90 Ibid., p. 136.
118
The only "bearable hunchback of her acquaintance wass
"Richard the Third.
Shakespeare's Richard.the
John Milton.
Third.
"91
Miss-Mitford felt that Milton, like
Shakespeare, possessed that versatility and playfulness called
genius;
this quality, according to the little author, was
particularly noticeable in Oomus.
In her Recollections of. a Literary Life Miss Mitford
quoted "some noble passages from his 'Appeal for the Liberty
of Unlicensed
P r i n t i n g .
*"92
she expressed her opinion of
Milton in.the following excerpt;
In John Milton's grand and holy fame there is no alloy.
The man was as great and pure as the author.
I am-not
sure whether (always excepting the minor poems) I do not
prefer the .-stately and weighty march of his prose, even
to his lofty and resounding v e r s e . 93
D r . Samuel Johnson.
Miss Mitford considered Johnson
not only a good man but a great man.
She agreed with Dr.
Channing in saying that
. . . Johnson was great in his own sphere. . . . His state­
ly march, his pomp and power of language, his strength of
thought, his reverence for virtue and religion, his vig­
orous logic, his practical wisdom, his insight into the
springs of human action, and the solemn pathos which
occasionally pervades his descriptions of life and his
references to his own history command our willing admi­
rable .94
91
92
93
Ibid.-. p. 104
Mitford,
o p . cit., p. 548.
Loc. c i t .
94 Ibid., pp. 158-9.
119
They also agreed In,treating the faults of Johnson with a
tenderness approaching respect.
Miss Mitford felt that Johnson’s poem, On the Death of
Robert Levett« contained much of the homely pathos and the
graphic truth of Crabbe, and that it was so free from manner,
that "it might rather pass for his than for Dr.
J o h n s o n ’s . " ^
Mary believed that Johnson*s arrangement of words em­
bodied as. much of the writer’s disposition as the thoughts.
His style was possessed of a majestic cast, of strength and
sublimity.
After reading Madame D ’Arblay's Diary. she wrote to
Elizabeth Barrett:
"Dr. Johnson appears to the greatest possi­
ble advantage— gentle, tender, hind, and true."96
Alexander Pope and John Dryden. , At the age of fourteen,
Mary found Dryden careless and considerably heavier reading
than Pope, for among other defects, Dryden was too fond of
triplets and Alexandrines.
For a girl of that age, this was
a very penetrating observation.
Eleven years later her opinion
seems to have altered somewhat, for she said then that "to my
unfashionable organs the exquisite variety of Dryden is more
agreeable than the uniform sweetness of Pope."97
By 1813 Miss Mitford had developed a strong, dislike for
95
Ibid.. p. 140.
96
Johnson,
ojd.
cit., p. 195*
97 lbid** P* 83.
120
deformed men and this increased her aversion to Pope, for she
said:
I have known many charming deformed women, hut I never
knew a_man of the sort good for anything in my life. Pope,
for instance, what an animal was he I Always abusing lords,,
en masse,- and courting them individually; always talking
like generosity and acting like avarice; a flattery-hunter,
a legacy-hunter, a detractor, and a dupe.
"He’s Knight of
the Shire, and represents them all."98
Miss Mitford felt that Dryden, like Shakespeare and
Milton, possessed those qualities of genius, versatility and
playfulness, so essential to greatness.
She considered Dryden
one of the great masters of English prose and English
Samuel Richardson.,
v e r s e . 99
At the age of twenty-five Mary
recognized Richardson-as her master.
Mary exchanged lettersa
•with Sir William in his defense, and'said that she skipped a
good part of Clarissa when reading, it.
The fact that it con­
tains over a million words is reason enough to skip a great
deal of the hook:
one can still be familiar with the story
without reading all this.
She considered it one of those books
impossible to forget because it stamps itself, not on the
memory, but on the heart.
That Richardson possessed genius
was unquestioned in her mind.
Mary gave her comments on
Richardson in these words;
With every fault of style, of plot, of subject, "which a
98 Ibid.. p. 103.
99 Lee, og. c j t ., p. 12?.
121
writer could have— with the most wearying repetitions,
the most distressing coarseness of painting— with char­
acters the most abhorrent to our feelings, and scenes the
most repugnant to our delicacy— he has yet contrived to
enchain our every thought and passion: and this he has
affected by his angelic heroine, and by her alone.
Clarissa was from first to last the sole object which in­
spired me with, any, the smallest degree, of interest and
affection; and I am not sure (so malicious am I) whether
I was not almost as much pleased with the earthly punish­
ment of the Harlowes— that detestable raceI— as with the
beatification of their sainted daughter. You see that I
do not agree with those critics who object to the char­
acter of Lovelace as too agreeable. Agreeable, truly!
I am not sure that Solmes is not the more bearable animal
of the two. The fault in my opinion issvice versa. Love­
lace is now so degraded by his vices that Clarissa could
not have loved him.without degradation; and, accordingly,
we see plainly that she does not love him. She is not
led by affection, but drived by fear into his toils.
Miss Mitford did not believe that Richardson had por­
trayed one interesting and excellent man in any of his books
which she had read.
Regarding his character portrayals, she
remarked:
If Richardson could have drawn an amiable man (which
he took care to show that he could not by writing Sir
Charles GrandIson), it would much have added both to the
moral and pathetic effect*, to have represented her affeer
tions as deeply engaged to Lovelace. Tell me, my dear
friend,,why Is it so much easier to draw a fine female
character than an interesting and excellent man?. Richard­
son himself has Clarissa;? Clementina, Emily (I don't
reckon Harriet Byron, because I don't llfef her), and not
one producible man to set against them.1 1
Sir William had replied by referring unfavorably to
Richardson's Clarissa and apparently changed, the young writer's
opinion slightly, for in her next letter to him are penned
Johnson, op. cit.. pp. 88-9.
101 Ibid., p. 89.
122
her final remarks on the novelist:
I quite agree with you as to the Harlowes, young and •
old; the vile and improbable plot; the disgusting means by
which it is brought about; and the abominable folly, or
worse than folly, of supposing chastity anything extraor­
dinary ; and I am not quite sure that I do not partly agree
with you as to Clarissa*s character.
If she had been as
prosperous as Sir Charles Grandison she would have been as
insupportable; as it is, her piety, her resignation, her
mental chastity throw a veil over all but her virtues.102
Miss Mitford’s opinions on Hichardon and his novels
demonstrate her refined taste and her feminine point of view.
She said that Sir Charles Grandison was a man of marble, or
rather a man of snow.
To her he was like the companions of
Laila in Mr. Southey’s Thalaba— "snowpeople, who walk and talk,
and eat and drink,, and do everything but feel; and yet this
composition of frost is always deploring his unfortunate
sensibility Ih1°3
with horror.
Mary regarded the character of Sir Charles
She considered Emily Jervois in Sir Charless
Grandison
the character "most approaching to nature in all
Richardson.
"1^4
She liked Emily better than Clementina, who
was so unnecessarily degraded by following that bewitching
snowr-man to England and then by promising to marry "that other
stick of Italian growth, the Count of Belvedere."
Miss Mit-
ford believed that the only proper place of refuge for little
Clementina was a nunnery.
102 Ibid., pp. 91-2.
103
Ibid., p . 92.
104 _ ,
Johnson, loc. c i t .
123
William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles,Dickens.
The
little author was delighted with Dickens* Pickwick Papers,
and her remarks on them are so feminine and so charming that
they should be quoted:
It is fun— London life— but without anything unpleasant:
a lady might read it all aloud; and it is so graphic, so
individual, and so true, that you could courtsey to all
the people as you met them in the streets.
I did not
think there had been a place where English was spoken to
which 11Bos” had not penetrated. All the boys and girls
talk his fun--the boys in the streets; and yet they who
are of the highest taste like it the most. . . . He takes
a . . . cheerful view, a Shakespearean view of humanity.105
Miss Mitford regarded Dickens and Thackeray as. the great
novelists of the day, but considered it an Injustice to Mr.
Thackeray to class them together, because Thackeray could write
good English when he chose and could produce a striking and
persistent character; "but look at their books, so thoroughly
false and unhealthy in different ways; Thackeray's so worldstained and so cynical, Dickens's so meretricious in senti­
ment and- so full
of
caricature.
"106
Neither of these novel­
ists, according to Mary Mitford, could produce an intelligent,
right-minded woman, such as one sees every day; and a love
story from Thackeray could hardly fail to be an abomination.
Mary, now nearing sixty-five, read Esmond by Thackeray,
and wrote of it scathingly to her friend Miss Jephson:
105 Ibid.. pp. 192-3.
106 Ibid..
p.
229.
124
.Have you ever read Esmond? William Harness says, "I
hate.it.
James Payn says, "I took it with me into the
Theological Halls, and listened to the professor by pref­
erence."
I dislike all the love parts exceedingly, and
I feel it tiresomely long, and X dissent from much of the
criticism, but bits.are good, especially the mock Spec­
tator .107
Sir Walter Scott.
At the age of twenty-three Mary had
read considerably in the writings of Scott.
So well did she
like him that she named her prize-winning race-dog after one
of his characters— Marmion.
In 1810 she was corresponding
with Sir William Elford on the merits and defects of Scott.
Since her first opinions on The Lady of the Lake, Marmion,
and The Lay of the Last Minstrel demonstrate considerable abil­
ity and observation, some of her remarks should be quoted
here; Sir William had written a letter to Mary praising Scott's
Lady of the Lake; she replied:
I completely agree in the justice and discrimination
of your critique on. The Lady of the Lake. The singular
want of invention in the similarity of the two surprises
had quite escaped me, though I have read the whole poem
aloud three several times; so careless a reader am II
But I have since recollected a still more extraordinary
circumstance.
The denouement of Marmion and that of The
Lay of the Last Minstrel both turn on the same discovery.
This repetition Is wonderful in a man of so much genius,
and the more so as the.incident is in itself so stale, so
like the foolish trick of a pantomime, that to have used
it once was once too often.108
The Lady of the Lake was published In 1810, several
years after Marmion (1808) and The Lay of the Last Minstrel
Amy Cruse, Victorian Readings (London:
Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1935), P» 269.
1oft
Johnson, op. clt., p. 45.
George
125
(1805).
In 1812 these metrical romances were swept aside by
the appearance of Byron*s.Childe Harold.
Miss Mitford. explain­
ed the apathy toward Scott when she remarked that it was not,
according to "all the gentle damsels of my acquaintance,
we like Scott less, only we like Byron better.*“3.09
‘that
Miss Mit­
ford *s opinion did not conform with that of those gentle dam­
sels, for she liked Scott less* truly, but Lord Byron still
less.
She found The Lord of the Isles a thousand times better
and more pleasing than Rokeby, and yet it did not please her
as Scott*s poems used to to.
Quoting Miss Mitford:
I am afraid that I once admired him a great deal too
much; and now am in some danger of liking him a great deal
too little. Nothing is so violent as a rebound, either
of the head or the h e a r t . Once extinguished, enthusiasm
and all the fire in Vesuvius will never light it again.
I fancy that the world is something of my mind in this
respect, and begins to tire of its idol.
Only the world
is not half so honest, and Instead of knocking down one
piece of wood,, contents itself with sticking up another
right before it.1^0
Don Roderick did not make a favorable impression on
Mary, for she considered it more careless and incorrect than
his former poems; "And they, Heaven-knowsi" said Miss Mitford,
"were careless enough."
She regarded the metre as defective
in sweetness, and sometimes in dignity, and said that the
whole poem wanted the glow, the spirit, the power over the
imagination and the heart, which, with all his faults, Scott
Amy Gruse, The Englishman and his Books.(London:
G-eorge G-. Harrap, 1930), p. 277.
no
Johnson, op. pit., pp. 125-6.
126
certainly possessed in an eminent.degree.
In 1814 Waverley was published, and Mary Mitford was
among the first who read it.
It was published without Scott*sc
name, but Mary recognized the similarity in style and referred
to it as Walter Scott's Waverle.y.
She discussed -it at some
length in a letter to Sir William, giving reasons for her be­
lief that it was Scott's work.
Since it is a detailed crit­
icism which demonstrates her ability, her powers of observa­
tion, and cleverness, the passage should be quoted at length:
. . . I have ventured to say "Walter Scott's," though I
hear he denies it, just as a young girl denies the impu­
tation of a lover; but if there be any belief in internal
evidence it must be his.
It is his by a thousand indica­
tions— by all the faults and all the beauties— by the un­
speakable and unrecollectable names— by the vile pedantry
of French, Latin, Gaelic, and Italian— by the hanging the
clever hero, and marrying the stupid one— by the praise
(well deserved, certainly, for when had Scotland ever such
a friend! but thrust in by the head a n d .shoulders) of the
late Lord Melville— by the sweet lyric poetry— by the per­
fect costume— by the excellent keeping of the picture— by
the liveliness and gaiety of the dialogues— and last but
not least, by the entire and admirable individuality of
every character in the book, high as well as low— the life
and soul which animates them all with a distinct exist­
ence, and brings them before our eyes like the portraits
of Fielding and Cervantes.
Upon the reading of this sen­
tence over (backward, by-the-way, \tflth the view of finding
.where it began), I am struck with the manner in which I
have contrived without story-telling to convey to you a
higher idea of the work than I entertain myself.
There is
nothing that I would unsay, and yet you would infallibly
think that I like it better than I really do; though I do
like it very much indeed. The character which I prefer is
the Baron of Bradwardine; and yet his Is perhaps the least
original of any; a mere compound— but a most entertaining
compound— of Shakespeare's Fluellen and Smollett's Lismahago.
The character that I like least is Flora McTvor, whom
the author (who ought to be the best judge) likes best.3- ^
111
Ibid., pp. 113-4.
12?
Scott persisted in denying that he had ha,d anything to
do with the writing.of Waverley.
However, Mary Mitford was
not to he deceived; two months later she still insisted that
Walter Scott had some share in Waverley for she could find no
evidence that would induce her to believe ..that Dugald Stewart,
who was regarded by some as the author, had anything to do
with it.
She firmly announced to Sir William that there was
absolutely no Indication that Stewart had written any of that
-’’hotch-potch of languages--that movable Babel called Waverley!11112
There was not in the whole book, according to Miss Mitford,
one single page of pure and. vernacular English.;
“there is
not one single period, of which you.forget the sense in ad­
miration of the sound.
Mary was twenty-seven years old at this time and took
pride in her fine literary taste; and, indeed, her judgment
was surprisingly good considering that it. had been nourished
largely on the Minerva novels, which she had read in large
quantities for the past eight years of her life.
She was;
living in the family's large and beautiful home, called Ber­
tram House, and took great pleasure in reading her novels in
the comfortable morning-room, with its crimson carpet and cur­
tains, which overlooked M a r y ’s garden of violets and geraniums.
Ibid.. p. 121
113
^ Johnson, l o c . cit.
Waverley, it seems, won back for Scott the admiration which
Miss Mitford almost withdrew as a result of the unfavorable
impressions created by his metrical romances.
Wben Guy Mannering appeared in 1815 most people believed
that it was written by the author of Waverley,
Mary read it
with great pleasure, but erred in her judgment of its author.
Before she had finished reading it she declared:
"I do not
think that V/alter Scott did write Guy Mannering: it is not
nearly so like him as Waverley was, and the motto is from The
Lay.”114
In December,
1819, Ivanhoe was published.
ommended it to her friend, Mrs. Hofland.
Mary reca-
Later when her friend
wrote to her and related the pleasure the book gave her, Mary
replied:
"I was sure you would like ivanhoe, Rebecca issdi- .
vine." H 5
Miss-Mitford was not impressed by The Monastery and
declared that she thought Scott was capable of better things.
Maria Edgeworth.
Mary Mitford possessed a deep and
intense admiration for Miss Edgeworth, and considered her,
Miss Baillie, and-Mrs. Opie "three such women as, have seldom
adorned one age and one country."116
in Mary's opinion, and
this was in 1810, Miss Edgeworth had done more good to the
114 Ibid., p. 128.
115
Cruse, The Englishman and his Books, p. 232.:
Johnson, op. c i t ., p. 45*
129
higher and lower world than any writer since the days of
Addison.
The young critic asserted that Miss Edgeworth shot
at "folly as it flies" with the strong bolt of ridicule, and
seldom missed her aim.
She anticipated with delight every
book, of Miss Edgeworth *s, and found her books particularly
absorbing and interesting because of her "exquisite distinction
of. character."
She was convinced that at least nine-tenths
of her readers admired and read her books solely for the humor
of her dialogue and the liveliness of her illustrations-— "the
mere costume and drapery of her enchanting pictures."
And yet,
about her writing, Mary seemed to notice a certain hardness
and cold selfishness.
In 184? William Chambers of Edinburgh persuaded Miss
Edgeworth to write a book for young people.
Miss Mitford
felt that this was most unusual for a woman of her age, and
wrote of the incident to Charles Boner:
He has persuaded Miss Edgeworth to write a book for
young people— remarkable considering her age, for she
must be turned of eighty, but still one that justifies
my theory of not writing too long, inasmuch .as it readss
just like an imitation of her own better works.
It is
called Orlandino, and is a story of a lad reformed from
drinking by a younger lad.14?
Jane Austen.
Jane Austen’s books-impressed Mary very
favorably and she thought Pride and Prejudice extremely good.
She declared that the want of elegance was probably the only
117
Lee, op. cit., p. 86.
130
defect in.Miss Austen's works.
On Pride and Prejudice, Mary
made .some very interesting comments, and these remarks together
with Mary Mitford*s comparison of Miss Austen and Miss Edgeworth are quoted here:
. . . it is impossible not to feel in every line of Pride
and Prejudice, 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. He is of all the admirable
characters the best designed and the best sustained. I
quite agree with you Cthis is a letter to Sir William! in
preferring Miss Austen to Miss Edgeworth. If the former
had a little more taste, a little more perception of the
graceful, as well as of the humorous, I know not indeed any
one to whom I should prefer her. There is none of the
hardness, the cold selfishness, of Miss Edgeworth about
her writings; she is in a much better humour with the
world; she preaches no sermons; she wants nothing but the
beau ideal of the female character to be a perfect novelwriter; . .
In 1815 Miss Mitford was informed that Jane Austen was
her countrywoman and was told other bits of gossip, which she
related to Sir William in such an entertaining manner that her
own words should be presented:
N
A propos to novels, I have discovered that our great
favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman; that mama 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 hus­
band-hunting butterfly she ever remembers; and a friend of
mine, who visits her now, says that she has stiffened into
the $ost perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of "singleblessedness" that ever existed, and that, till Pride and
Prejudice showed what a precious gem was hidden in that un­
bending case, she was no more regarded in society than a
11® Johnson, op. cit., pp. 121-2.
131
poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin upright piece of
wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and q u i e t n e s s . - 1'*^
Miss Mitford added that she did not know that she could
vouch for this account, although the friend from whom she re­
ceived it was truth itself.
Mary may have felt that her friend
was a little prejudiced since Mher family connections must ren­
der her disagreeable to Miss Austen, since she is the sisterin-law of a gentleman who is at law with Miss A.*s brother for
the greater part of his
f o r t u n e . ,,- * - 2 0
'In 1817 Jane Austen died and Sir William was the first
one to relate the news to Miss Mitford.
She replied:
"I had
not heard of Miss Austen*s death.
What a terrible loss!
you quite sure that it is our Miss
A u s t e n ? * * 121
Elizabeth Barrett Browning;.
Are
Much has been written con­
cerning the friendship between Mrs. Browning and Miss Mitford,
and since literary criticisms by the little criticjof Mrs.
Browning's works are almost non-existent, very little can be
said here to supplement the earlier pages.-*-22
Miss Mitford ad­
mired portions of Elizabeth's Casa G-ulda Windows, but. feared
that Mrs. Browning would surely be expelled from Italy as a
result of infusing into her poem.certain political ideas.
119 Ibid.. p. 127.
.120
Ibid., p; 128.
121 Ibid.. p. 146.
122
II, 43-52.
•
13£:
In Miss Mitford*s opinion,, probably Mrs. Browning's finest
poem was The Lad.y Gerladine *s Courtship, which was written in
twelve hours while Elizabeth was ill.
Regarding Mrs. Browning's The Dead Pan, Miss Mitford
eulogized:
It were mere pedantry to compare Shiller’s “Gods of
Greece” to this glorious gallery of classical.statues,
fresh and life-like, as if just struck into beauty by the
chisel of Phidias.^23
Mrss Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese were among
the finest, according to her friend.
the sonnets should be added: " . . .
ing with tenderness.
Mary's own words praising
glowing with passion,
True love was never more fitly
s
u
n
melt­
g
.
"^24
She also liked The Seamew because Mrs. Browning had
sent her the original in her own handwriting.
Robert Browning.
Miss Mitford had seen Robert Browning
twice, the last time she was introduced to him by Mrs. Brown­
ing.
She felt that he possessed ability and. was.the one who
first called Elizabeth Barrett's attention to Paracelsus be­
fore Elizabeth had met the man who was to be her husband.
Miss Mitford liked The Blot on the Skutcheon, and declared
that Colombe*s Birthday and Lucia were also well done.
She
expressed the wish that.his future might hold much in store
for him as a dramatist.
Mary's criticism of My; Last Duchess
Mitford, Recollections of a Literary Life, p. 174.
124
Ibid.. p. 175.
133
is superficial and does not tell the reader anything which he
has not already discovered hy reading the poem:
Poor dead Duchess!
and poor living one too!
for that
complaisant embassador who listened so silently would hard­
ly give warning, even if the father were likely to take it;
and we feel as they walk down the palace stairs that anoth­
er victim c o m e s . l25
John Ruskin.
Miss Mitford_*s remarks about John Ruskin
were rarely criticisms of his work, rather remarks such as one
friend i s .likely to make about another.
She was very impressed
by his messages on art and ethics, and her admiration for him
together with the few critical opinions on his work demonstrates,
her appreciation for the aesthetic in literature and art.
His.
letters on art, according to Miss Mitford*s own statement, were
very striking.
and said:
She was highly pleased with Stones of Venice,
wThe Stones of Venice has a great success.
The
Illustrations by the author are exquisite, and the writing, as
always, is good, with his characteristic faults, which people
almost accept for beauties."126
Ruskin*s Modern Painters,
preaching the function of art in life— linking art with ethics,
charmed Miss Mitford, and she wrote to Charles Boner that
Ruskin talked more beautifully than he wrote, but that he \n?ote
well.
Edward Bulwer Lytton.
125
Miss Mitford recognized Bulwer
Ibid.. p. 182.
126 _
.x
Lee, op. c i t ., p. 226.
134
as a writer of some importance and genuinely admired some of
his hooks.
She considered Harold, the Last Saxon King; "very
dull as a tale, hut good as history, doing justice to Harold
and on William.11^ 7
Charles Kingsley.
Miss Mitford's admiration for Kingsley
has been related in the second c h a p t e r . Alton Locke, Miss.
Mitford believed, was a "very curious hit of Church of England
socialism," hut was surely worth reading.
Concerning this
novel, she wrote to Mr. Fields:
No novel has made so much noise for a long time; hut it
is, like "The Saint's Tragedy," inconclusive.
Between our­
selves, I-suspect that the latter part was written with the
fear of the Bishop before his eyes, which makes the one
volume almost a contradiction of the others.-1-2 ^
Regarding Alton Locke, Yeast, and The Saint's Tragedy,
she declared:
"All these hooks are full of world-wide truths,
and yet, taken as a whole, they are unsatisfactory and incon­
clusive, knocking down without building up."130
Matthew Arnold.
The poems of Matthew Arnold, found
great favor with Miss Mitford.
She felt that Dr. Arnold's son
demonstrated considerable ability and declared that his poems
were fine bits.
127
128
Ibid., p. 210.
_
IX, 40—42.
129
Fields, op. c i t .. p. 28?.
130
Ibid., p. 289.
135
Alfred Tennyson., Although Mary Mitford and Alfred
Tennyson never met, they exchanged several letters which were
never published.
She did not'believe that Tennyson talked well,
but considered him a kindly and amiable man;— "only that smoking."
She read most of his poems and commented on In Memorlam,and .The
Lady of Shalott:
"In Memoriam" Is honey sweet and full of beauty.
It
will.be a pet book from this hour— although I suspect that
I love action better than reflection and would rather have
written that vivid bit of "The Lady of Shalott" where
Lancelot gleams suddenly across the magic mirror, than any­
thing in this thoughtful volume. Still both are charming
_ and it is a book to keep at o n e ’s side and I hope to be
the better for it. ^
George Gordon, Lord Byron.,
Miss Mitford did not like
Byron’s poems; but then it would hardly have been expected for
her to have admired them, for Byron’s life was conflict, con­
fusion, and a struggle for liberty; at heart he was a rebel.
Miss Mitford*s nature was exactly the opposite, and it is not
surprising to find that she considered Lara and Manfred both
disagreeable and despicable.
In 1820 Mary read a poem which she judged to be by Byron,
for, in her opinion,
ing.
it possessed characteristics of his writ­
Since she did not analyze any of Byron’s own poems so
completely, her remarks on this poem will serve to illustrate
her regard for the young nobleman:
131
Lee, op. clt., p. 295*
136
. . . I should from internal evidence have attributed it
at once to that prince of wickedness and poetry, Lord Byron.
It's altogether Greecian; is not that like Lord Byron?
I t ’s
exceedingly sceptical; is not that like Lord Byron? It com­
plains of a jealous wife; is not that like Lord Byr-on? It is
full of fine and gloomy poetry (in prose), which is of- the
very same style with Lord Byron's.
It is still fuller of
the light derisive mockery— the.tossing about of all good
feeling, so gibing and so Voltaire-ish, which no one could
or would do but Lord Byron.
It is a most uncomfortable
book--is not that like Lord Byron? And lastly, it is all
full of the sneering misanthropic wretched author; is not
that Lord Byron?
If not written by him, it is certainly in
his character; and a very powerful work it is for good and
for evil— a sort of Eastern Gil Blas--only bloodier, longer,
less attractive.
I shall remember it all my days; but I
shall never think of reading it again.^32
German Authors
Miss Mitford's only acquaintance with German authors was
through translations; even so, it is strange that she never
appreciated German literature.
With the exception of Schiller
and Goethe, she found all German authors "poor, bald, coarse,
without life or character or power" in their writings; even
Auerbach, who really originated the so-called "kailyard" school
of writers, she condemned, and said:
I have just been reading Auerbach's "Village Tales,"
translated by Meta Taylor, and they seem to me so utterly
worthless, that I cannot help begging you to be very sure
of the Maximiliam ballads before giving yourself the trouble
of translating them.
Write a nice prose book, dear friend,
as little German in its tone as possible, about the real
world, even if that real world be Germany, and avoid those
hideous nicknames of which these stories are full, as well
as-their incredible childishness.
I am quite sure., that
132 Johnson, op. cit., pp. 168-9-
137
this style of writing will never do in England— it has no
vitality. You are born for better things.133
Goethe and Schiller were men of genius and ability, and
Miss Mitford was willing to acknowledge their greatness.
How­
ever, she believed that G-erman.authors had been made sufficient­
ly known to English people to demolish any good reputation they
may have established*
It was a curious prejudice, yet one
which prevailed in many sections of England.
French Authors
Mme. de Sevigne.
Miss Mitford was a charmed reader of
this French writer’s letters, and said that one would be
tempted to adore "that enchanting Madame de Sevigne."
Lamartine.
Lamartine held a strong fascination for
Mary in spite of the fact that she did not always approve of
his ideas.
Regarding his Histoire des G-irondins, she offered
this criticism:
Lamartine is very striking and very interesting, and .
I did not think that it was in him to write so great a
book. He does injustice, crying injustice, to Napoleon,
and is so much too candid towards most of the Revolutionary
leaders, that reading of so many crimes and so many ex^.
cuses for all parties,- one is tempted to ask, who is to
blame? Nevertheless it is a very great book.1*34
In Miss Mitford*s opinion the French historians of her
^33 Lee, o p . c i t ., p. 105.
134
Ibid., p. 79.
138
time were very captivating writers, full of picture and color,
interesting one in France, but she doubted that they gave a
very correct idea of the people.
"I.amrespecially'thinking of
Lamartine now,” sheesaid; "Lamartine has a wonderful tendency to
make his people better, so that one wonders {the crimes having
certainly been committed) who, according to him, was to blame."3-35
In the eyes of the little English writer, Lamartine’s
had been a curious career.
She watched his rise as a sort of
sacred poet, but detected in it a mixture of cant- and finery;
she never expected him to come forth with a revolutionary book.
But with all considered, to Miss Mitford he was a remarkable
man; "to write so well and to speak so well is something rare."3-36
The English critic regarded Lamartine’s Raphael as a
silly love story, and his Trois Mofs au Pouvoir was "a curiosity
of self-glorification and national flattery, so made up of fine
phrases ’full of sound and.fury signifying nothing,* that one
would think it the publication of an enemy.”3-37
L e a .Confidences
impressed Miss Mitford as being one of the biggest pieces o f .
falsehood ever written;
ness to his falseness.
even the dates in the book bore wit­
Her remarks about it are amusing;
It is clear that the Raphael story is to dovetail in
with the end of “Les Confidences," which (in the edition
135 Ibid.. p. 85.
136 Ibid., p. 90.
137
Ibid., p. 111.
139
I have seen— is there any continuation?)leaves h i m on the
road to Aix*: and to another tragedy.
Only fancy a man of
sixty writing all this rubbish about girls dying for love
of him— -a man who is an historian and an orator, and who
pretends to be a statesman!138
And again:
What strange beings these Frenchmen are! Here is M.
de Lamartine at sixty, poet, orator, historian,, and states­
man, writing the stories of two ladies— one of them married—
who died for love of him! Think if Mr, Macaulay should
announce himself as a lady-killer, and put the details
not merely into a book, but into a feuilletonll39
Miss Mitford*s criticisms, based on the Victorian stand­
ards
of morality, seem quaint and amusing, yet charming to
those of later generations.
Such delightful comments as these
make her observations more readable and remove from the remark
the air of professional criticism.
In 1849 Mary read his Revolution of 1848 and declared
that it was f,curiously vain and egoistic, even.for him.
The
only interesting part v/as the account of the running away of
the Royal Family.”140
Mary’s interest
in Lamartine was entirely literary, but
she was concerned with
gossip about his personal life, and re­
peated part of it in a letter to a friend:
I have been hearing a great deal of him lately from an
English lady who has lived twenty years in France and is
138
Chorley, op. cit., p. 132.
Fields, op. cit., p. 282.
140 Lee, o p . c i t ., p. 143*
14©
just returned here.
She was intimate with his wife, and
speaks of him as a man of very distinguished appearance,
but cold and almost repulsive manners. He carries out his
fancies so far as to have two servants who had been con­
demned to death.' If for political offences that is&well,
but I should hardly sympathize with murderers'for butlers
and footmen— would you?-*-4-*
HonoreT de Balzac.
Mary Mitford ranked Balzac’s literary
creations among the finest, and followed the events of his life
with interest and curiosity.
to a friend:
Upon, his death in 1850 she wrote
"Only think of M. de Balzacibeing dead!
A great
writer with all-his faults, and still in middle life!"-*-^
After reading Une Instruction criminelle, Mary said that
Balzac was a wonderful writer.
She regarded his Un Gran Homme
de Province a Paris as his greatest novel.
She exchanged opin­
ions of him with Mrs. Browning, who also admired him.
Mrs. Brown­
ing related to her wretched accounts of him from an American
a u t h o r , w h i c h Miss Mitford was inclined to believe.
"With
all his great artistic power," Miss Mitford wrote to Mrs. Brown­
ing, "the man himself seems quite devoid of generous sentiment
and kind impulse.
Nevertheless he is a. great writer."144
She did not believe that Lea Pavsans was a true repre­
sentation because she could not believe that the mass of a great
141
142
143
144
Ibid., p. 92.
L ’Estrange, op. cit., Ill, 166.
The author was Margaret Fuller, Mine. Ossoli.
L ’Estrange, on. cit♦, p. 142.
141
nation could be so base and cunning.
The idiom used in the
book caused Miss Mitford to refer to Balzac as a "cockney
Parisian.”
Commenting on Les Paysans, she declared:
"The
boudoir or the opera are his proper scenes, and he has no love
for the people, which is not only a great fault, but a great
mistake in these days, when they are rising-:in importance
every hour."^ 5
George Sand.
A great and wise writer, whose reputation
would be one of long duration, was George Sand in the mind of
Mary Mitford.
Her writings ranked among the finest of French
literature, according to the little English author.
Mrs. Brown­
ing became acquainted with George Sand and wrote interesting
accounts of the dramatist to Miss Mitford who read them.eager­
ly.
She was particularly surprised to know that Madame Sand
lived a quiet, simple life, dressed quietly,
most unpretending manners,
and possessed the
"and not a cigarette to be seen."
Miss Mitford read Madame Sand’s Francois le Champi and
said that it was charming.
"She is at present the fashionable
foreign writer in England."1^
Miss Mitford cried her eyes
out over Claudle, and her last request before her death was
for Les Maltres Sonneurs of George Sand.
quisite her pastorals are," she xvrote,
145
146
Johnson, op. pit., p. 199.
Lee, op. cit.. p. 197-
"You know how ex­
142
. . ..so I ask you frankly for that little tale.
If I.
could get.it here at all it would be in English, and .
G-eorge Sand’s Pastorals in English areeflowers in a Hortus;
Siccus instead of flowers in a meadow.147
Eugene S u e .
In Miss Mitford’s opinion, Eugene Sue's
reputation would be one of long duration.
The old English
lady tried to keep uprwith each of his publications, as they
came out, and constantly looked forward to the work of "the
creator of Rigolette."
The little author was particularly
fond Rigolette, and referred to this character as the "fresh
and charming Rigolette of Eugene Sue." She compared Hawthorne’s
•Phoebe in the House of Seven Gables with S u e ’s Rigolette in
the following manner:
I know no modern heroine to compare with her, except
it be Eugdne Sue's Rigolette, who shines forth amidst the
iniquities of "Les Mysteres- de Paris" like some rich,
bright, fresh cottage rose thrown by -evil chance upon a
dunghill*
Miss Mitford first read S u e ’s The Mysteries of Paris
in a vile American translation, yet she could see there all
"the truth and beauty of Rigolette, that fresh bit of nature,
and the admirable management of details s'*-^9
Victor H u g o .
Miss Mitford regarded Victor Hugo as a
great dramatist and poet.
In 1851 she wrote to her friend,
147
1 Ibid.. p. 314.
148
Fields, o p . cit., p. 289.
149
Lee, op. cit.. p. 112.
143
Mr. Boner:
"I am just reading for the second time his Dramas
and his 'Poesies,' and certainly, allowing for some excess,
some extravagance, he is a great dramatist.
'Le Roi s'amuse* is
a great play; so is 'Lucrece Borgia;' so is 'Marion Delorme.'"150
Casimir Delavlgne.
Mary Mitford owned Delavigne's little
volume containing four pieces and entitled QEuvressConrpletea de
Casimir Delavigne--Poesies, and thought all of the poems eharming.
She remarked about him:
Dumas underrates him— he was not of the romantic school,
although his plays are worth Dumas' twenty times over, and
indeed worth every modern French dramatist except Victor
Hugo, who would have been a splendid tragiccwriter if he_
had not carried contrast and effect to such an e x c e s s . ■‘■51
American Authors
Miss Mitford read extensively in American literature,
and admired and loved many of her contemporaries in the "New
World."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
fellow and praised him highly.
Mary greatly admired Long­
It is said that Longfellow
acknowledged that Mary Mitford's approval of him greatly raised
his reputation.
"I have seen things of Longfellow's as fine as
anything in Campbell or Tennyson or Hood.
150
Ibid., p. 2 3 6 .
151
Fields, 0£. cit.. p. 281.
After all our great
144
lyrical poets are great only for half a volume,"152. wrote the
little author to Mr. Fields.
She'regarded his Golden ..Legend-
as his best poem, and remarked about it:
I have just now a very fine racy poem by Longfellow,
"The Golden Legend," breathing of Germany, and quaint old
tov/ers and grand cathedrals, and all the pageantry of the
Middle Ages, full of local color.
I d o n ’t know that it
will be popular, but in my mind it leaves all that he has
done a million of miles behind.
I know no living poet who
could have written it.***53
Miss Mitfordddevoted a chapter of her Recollections of
a Literary Life to the praise of Longfellow’s poems.
In her
preface to her quoted selections, she wrote;
The terseness of diction and force of thought delight
the old; the grace and melody enchant the young; the un­
affected and all-prevading piety satisfy the serious; and
a certain slight touch of mysticism carries the imaginative
reader fairly off his feet. For my own part, I confess,
not only to the being captivated by all these qualities
(mysticism excepted), but to the farther fact of yielding
to the charm of certain lines, . . .154
Ralph ¥aldo Emerson.
Miss Mitford admired Emerson but
felt that he resembled Carlyle too much.
She said:
"It seems
to me that he would have been a great writer and thinker,
Carlyle had not fallen in his way.
if
Now he appears a mere
copyist of the Scotchman. 11^55
152
Fields, loc. cit.
153 *
Lee, op. cit., p. 207.
154
Mitford, Recollections of a Literary Life, pp. 62-3*
Johnson, pp. cit., pp. 220-1.
145
Nathaniel Hawthorne.
A chapter of Recollections of a
Literary Life was given to a discussion of Hawthorne*s novels.
Her remarks concerning Hawthorne's works are among her best
criticisms.
She felt that the pledge of excellence given by
The Scarlet Letter was redeemed by The House of Seven Sables♦
Regarding the latter novel, she wrote:
Nothing can exceed the skill with which this part of
the book is managed.
The story is not told; we find it
out; we feel that there is a legend; that some strange
destiny has hovered over the old house, and hovers there
still. The slightness of the means by which this feeling
is excited is wonderful.
The misture of the grotesque and
the supernatural in Hoffman and the German School, seems
coarse and vulgar blundering in the comparison; even the
mighty magician of Udolpho, the Anne Radcliffe whom the
French quote with so much unction, was a bungler at her
trade, when compared with the vague, dim, vapory, impalMr. Hawthorne has contrived
■ftl n n
h i ff n n w a +. i v
a
- -LDU
Mary Mitford regarded Twice Told Tales as inferior to
his other works, but enjoyed reading The Blithedale Romance
immensely.
Her remarks concerning it are interesting;
she
remarked:
. . . I have been reading Mr. Hawthorne's new romance (not,
I believe, even yet published).
I read it in the actual
copy, that when I had done it want to the author, and was.
the first sight he had of his own thoughts in print.
It
is called uthe Blithedale Romance,H and is a book of the
present state of New England; full.of beautiful writing,
with, a grand tragic construction, and one or two scenes
of great power and passion; nevertheless, to me there is
a want of reality; the characters are too exceptional, and
an honest farmer, who has nothing to do with the story, and
is not mentioned half a- dozen times, is the only person I
like, simply because he is flesh' and blood.
Mitford, Recollections of a Literary Life, p. 549
157
Lee, op. cit., pp. 218-9*
146
This is an excellent criticism of the book and one which will
be recognized as such by worthy critics of the present day.
The English author felt that Hawthorne was mistaken in
his belief that fiction should be based upon, or rather seen
through, some ideal medium.
She continued:
. . . It is precisely the want of reality in his smaller
stories which has .delayed Mr. Hawthorne’s fame so long, and
will prevent its extension if he do n o t .resolutely throw
himself into truth, which is as great a thing in my mind in
art as In morals, the foundation of all excellence in
both.158
In the spring of 1853 Hawthorne was planning a trip to
England and Mr. Fields arranged for the. two literary figures
to meet.
Miss Mitford’s letters do not mention the meeting,
and there is no reference to such an occasion in Hawthorne’s
letters or journals.
In anticipation of this event, Miss Mit-
ford wrote to Mr. Fields:
. . . how glad I shall.be to see Mr. Hawthorne' He will
find all the best judges of English writing admiring him
to his heart's content, warmly and discriminatingly; and
a consulship-in a bustling town will give him the cheer­
ful reality, the healthy air of every-day life, which is
his only want.-*-59
Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Mary Mitford's remarks concern­
ing the much discussed Uncle Tom's Cabin demonstrate her fair­
ness in judging.
She recognized that there were always two
sides to a question.
158
159
Quoting Miss Mitford:
Fields, o p . c i t ., p. 305*
Ibid.. pp. 326-7.
14?
The people are crazy about Uncle Tones' Cabin. I read a
hundred pages, and found the booh so painful, that I put
it down, and certainly am not likely to take it up again.
It is one-sided, exaggerated, false— with s.ome cleverness,
but of a very disagreeable kind. My belief is, that the
de-merits of the book have more to do with its popularity
than any sort of excellence;
the cant about slavery being
a good cry--sueh as we English love to get up on certain
subjects— against the Emperors, for instance, uncle and
nephew, or against the Pope. After all, how little has
this sort of^immediate popularity to do with lasting
re put at i on !
Miss Mitford also wrote to another friend:
Uncle Tom*s Cabin too painful to finish.
"I found
I am sure that there
must be two sides to this question."-^!
Oliver Wendell Holmes.
It is safe to say that of all
of her contemporaries Dr. Holmes was her favorite poet.
Her
admiration for him was increased almost to hero worship be­
cause of his being a physician.
She had more respect for the
medical profession than for any other:
But I was delighted with Dr. Holmeses poems for their
individuality. How charming a person he must be! . . .
Another charming thing in Dr. Holmes is, that every
succeeding poem is better than the last. . . . At all
events, he is a true poet, and I like him all the better
for being a physician,— the one...truly noble profession.
There are noble men in all professions, but in medicine
only are the great mass, almost the whole, generous,
liberal, self-denying, living to advance science and to
help m a n k i n d .
If I had been a man .1 should certainly have
followed that p r o f e s s i o n . ^62
She placed Holmes far above Whittier and Longfellow as
iuu
Johnson, op. cit., pp. 228-9*
161
.
L Estrange, pp. cit., Ill, 210.
Fields, op, pit., p. 28?.
148
a poet, and wrote of him to Charles Boner:
You will delight in Dr. Holmes, for a doctor he is, be­
ing, although still quite a young man, one of the most
eminent physicians in Boston.
If you see the "Lady’s Com-,
panlon" you will find two extracts from his' works in the
next edition of the most extraordinary point and beauty.
We have nothing that approaches him for the polish and
felicity of his diction. He is quite as remarkable for
largeness and justness of thought. .‘ . . H e sent me his
own poems himself the other day, and his handwriting is
most clear and beautiful, and his. face such.as could be­
long to nobody else, with lofty thoughts on the brow and
a sparkle of humour in the eye.
Depend upon it, neither
Longfellow nor Whittier are to be compared with him.
I
have written to him just as I think, and we shall probably
be friends.16^
A chapter of Miss Mitford’s Recollections of a Literary
Life expressed the high esteem with which Holmes was regarded
by the little English author and by all of England.
"And of
all this flight of genuine poets, I hardly know any one so
original as Dr. Holmes.
For him we can find no living proto-
type,1,164 wrote Mary Mitford in her introduction to Dr. Holmes.
Regarding Astrea, Mary wrote:
"it speaks much for the
man whose affluence of Intellect could afford such an outpour­
ing for a single occasion, the recitation of one solitary evening
arid hardly less.for the audience that prompted and welcomed
such an effort."165
Mary admired On Lending a Punch-Bowl immensely and
163
164
165
^
Lee, op. cit., pp. 181-2.
Mitford, Recollections of a. Literary Life, p. 399*
Ibid., p. 406.
149
quoted it in her anthology.
Her introduction reads as follows-;
"I conclude with the following genial stanzas, worth all the
temperance songs in the world, as inculcating temperance.
They really form a compendium of the History of New England.
Daniel Webster.
"One of the greatest, if not the very
greatest, of the living orators of America,
is, beyond all
manner of doubt, Daniel Webster," wrote Miss Mitford in her
introduction to a chapter on Daniel Webster in her Recollections
of a Literary L i f e .
Mr. Webster paid Miss Mitf.ord a visit when
he was in England, and upon his return to the United States
thrilled Miss Mitford by sending her seeds of two plants— the
scarlet lily of New York and the Canadian woods and the fringed
gentian of Niagara— about which she had expressed some curiosity.
This little gift gave her endless pleasure.
She included in her anthology part of. Webster's "argu­
ment on.the trial of John F. Knapp, for the murder of Joseph
White, Esq., of Salem, in the county of Essex, Massachusetts,
on the 6th of April, 1830.“^67
she introduces this "magnif­
icent speech" in this manner;
I choose this thrilling story of a great crime, not
merely on account of the fine picture which it presents
of an old man murdered in his sleep, and the state of
mind of the murderer, but because, as a subject of uni­
versal interest, the eloquence bestowed on such.a theme
166 I£id*»
P*
408•
167 Ibid., p. 232.
150
will be better appreciated in England, than those speeches
which, referring to national policy, demand of the reader
a certain acquaintance not only with the internal govern­
ment, but with the position of conflicting parties in the
United States. . . . ^ 8
168
Mitford, loc. cit.
CHAPTER. IV
WORKS..AHD LITERERY REPUTATION
"There are some names which Providence seems to have
gifted with the perpetual attribute of youth," and so it xvill
be with Mary Russell Mitford's name whenever the hearts of
people are gladdened by the stories of those sweet, kindly
English villages and circles of good neighbors of which Mary
Mitford was the parent and creator.
Our Village-*- was con­
sidered the beginning of a new trend of writing and is by far
the most significant of her writings.
Her verse--poetry would
hardly be an appropriate name— is little known, and,
investIgator*s opinion,
in this
Justly so, for even the best stanzas
are imitations of verses which have been written and copied
hundreds of times before.
She does not have anything new to
say, does not present any unique approaches to life or different
Interpretations of nature.
Like her verse, her dramas were
doomed to oblivion, but they will be discussed in this chapter
for the part they play in representing, the drama of the age.
This chapter will be. devoted to a discussion of Miss
Mitford*s writings and to the reputation of her works during
her lifetime and' afterwards.
The first section will be a
treatment of the more important tragedies frpm the pen of
Mary Russell Mitford, a. review and estimate of her verse, and
^ Mary Russell Mitford, Our' Village.
152
asdiscussion of
The
her prose with emphasis upon Our Village.
second unit will be areview of Miss Mitford's literary
reputation during her lifetime and afterwards.
I.
Dramas.
MARY MITFORD'S LITERARY CREATIONS
The first half of the nineteenth century was
a period barren of great plays;
it was a half century of
general dramatic debility.
The great mass of nineteenth century
dramas are of three types:
(1) the melodramas,
and (3) the spectacles and extravaganzas.
(2) the farces,
Besides these, there
were the tragedies, the tragi-comedies, and the comedies.
There were also the "poetic plays" written by the romantic
poets.
The failure of the drama of this period may have been
due, in part, to the strong cleavage between the poets and the
theatre, but these poets--with the possible exception of Byron—
were tinged with the brush of
p r i g g i s h n e s s .2
"This lyric mood
may exist alongside the dramatic, as Shakespeare and Webster
testify, but the dramatic mood depends ultimately upon a sense
of
h u m o u r . A
sense of humor springs from the power of see­
ing two sides to a question, or, in other words, from the
power of seeing beyond oneself.
Another reason for unsuccess-
2 Allardyce Nicoll, A History of Early Nineteenth Century
Drama. 1800-50 (Cambridge University Press, 1930 ), p. 60.
5Ibid., p. 61.
153
ful dramaticoattempts during this period is that in spite of
the fact that each of the dramatists possessed in his own way
something of a talent for the theatre, beyond this tone of
superiority, the plays possess absolutely no inventive char­
acter.
The great literary writers as well as Miss Mitford
found other phases of literary writing more remunerative than
the drama, and the poverty of the theatres and difficulties of
dramatic production did not encourage the author to make con­
tributions.
"The trouble with the legitimate drama was not
that it was legitimate but that it was too conscious and proud
of its legitimacy,
wrote Allardyce Nicoll.
It resembled some
scions of present-day aristocracy who trust too much to theirr
ancestry with too little regard for individual worth and ef­
fort.
The spirit of the age with its peculiar characteristics
and qualities seems to have prevented the appearance of true
dramat ic genius.
It was in such conditions as these that Mary Russell
Mitford attempted to write great tragedies.
Although some
of Miss Mitford1s plays received considerable acclaim at the
time of their production, they were forgotten shortly after
the curtain fell, perhaps, because of their extreme artificial­
ity of scene, language, and emotion.
No one will deny that her
efforts were sincere enough, but sincerity does not always
produce artistry or even a right way of thinking.
4 Ibid., p. 155-
Miss Mit-
ford, with all of her strong love for the theatre and her
determination to write tragedies which would live for centuries
failed to produce even one play worthy of remembering when
the next drama, opened.
It was difficult for Mary Mitford to
pass beyond herself and her environment to which she was so
closely tied to see the world and men objectively.
To write
great drama, one must treat it objectively, and Miss Mitford,
although she worked diligently and seriously, failed to do
this.
She was too preoccupied with themes ill-calculated to
express the spirit of the age; she looked back to past times
rather than forward.
There was absolutely no attempt to
interpret the temper of her time in any of her plays.
Her
dramas possess a sameness, an untheatrlcal quality, lack
strength and vitality, and were written in verse of a highly
ornamental and artificial style— a style, which,
of present-day standards,
in the light
seems absurd.and ridiculous.
Only the outstanding author then could command a fair
price for his play, and even that fair price was below that
which had once been paid .for similar efforts.
Apparently
fifty pounds was considered good compensation in 1 8 2 9 Miss
Mitford received only two hundred pounds for her Julian^ when
it was presented at Covent Garden in 1823.
If Julian was not the first play to be written without
a prologue,
it was certainly one of the first.
There is some
5 Ibid.. p. 53.
s
Mitford, Julian (London: J. Cumberland, fn.d.^ ).
155
question concerning the dramatist to whom should he given the
credit for first creating an unprologued p l a y .
Saxe Wyndham
in his records of Covent Garden gives the credit to Miss Mit­
ford for
J u l i a n .7
pianehe, however, claimed that it was his
own play A Woman never Vext (Covent Garden, 1824) which deserved
the distinction.
The dates of their appearance favor Miss Mit­
ford .
Julian was performed eight nights with Macready in the
leading role.
Miss Foote and Miss Lacy portrayed other im­
portant parts.
The play opens with the account of an event near Messina:
the Duke of Melfi is about to slay Alfonso, the King of Sicily,
when-Julian, the Duke's son, hears Alfonso's shouts and rushes
to assist him.
Unaware that his father is the would-be murder­
er, Julian plunges his sword into the villain's side.
The
Duke recovers, and cleverly pretending that Alfonso died a
natural death, claims the throne of Sicily.
Meanwhile Alfonso
recovers also, and Julian presents him to the barons who are
assembled.
He is careful not to say anything that might in­
jure his father and even endeavors to protect him as much as^
possible by assuming part of the guilt of the intended murder.
Both father and son are banished; a reconciliation takes place,
and the Duke dies shortly afterwards.
woven into the story;
7
A sub-plot is also
Count D'Alba had long been enamored of
Nicoll, op. cit., p. 30.
Annabel, Julian's sweetheart.
D'Alba finally imprisons her
in an old tower and seduces her.
When Julian hears of this,
he hurries to the tower and breaks in through a window.
He
Is seen by guards, who rush in to kill him; Annabel runs in
front of her lover and is slain in his stead.
two-of. the assasins, but the third escapes.
Julian slayss
He then covers
Annabel's body with his mantle, and wraps himself in one of
the assasin’s cloaks.
D'Alba enters, and Julian uncovers Anna­
bel's body, which D'Alba had supposed was that of his rival.
D'Alba is taken into custody and Julian dies.
The plot is confusing, and the diction.is frigid and
pathetic.
Julian and his companions are only mental images,
not real men.®
In Webster*_s age, when he dealt with a White
Devil, he was writing in an atmosphere when Englishmen were
familiar with that Italian fever-at first hand; he took many
of his characters from the life in the English taverns around
him; but in Miss Mitford*.s age, all of this was far away, and
the little English.author was not capable of handling heavy
tragedies.
She could not break' through her superficial ties
to a deep and thorough understanding of the human conflicts
and struggles which make life and tragedy.
the seduction is chilly and passionless.
Even her account of
Her characters do not
live; subtler characterizations come with that deeper knowledge
of life which Mary Mitford did not possess.
8 Ibid., p. 176.
However, Julian
157
proved fairly effective, and, with the exception of some in­
dividuality and a few fairly well handled scenes, the play
could
at hest receive only a mediocre place in a period
which
the best plays could not be drawn out of the general run
of mediocrity and incompetence.
in
Miss Mitford's love of the
classics gives it a certain dignity and perhaps a certain kind
of artificial grandeur, but the characters are chilly conceived,
and the language drags monotonously on, stilted and ornamental.
The Foscari,9 which was completed in 1826, after
years
three
of hard work, was produced in 1827 at the Theatre Royal
and was performed between fifteen and twenty times.
Mr. Young
and Mr. Kemble, the most popular and most capable players of
the age, sustained the characters of father and son with un­
usual a M l i t y .
Byron's drama on the same theme had been pub-
lised a few years before.
"Miss Mitford, not wanting in the
writer's self-esteem, saw fit to censure both Byron and his?
work,"-^ but her play, strong as it is in the crisis seenes*can never, for power of poetry or strength of characterization,
be compared with his.
' The plot is more complicated than that of Julian but is.
not so confusing:
Count Erizzo, a Venetian senator,
is jealous
of the popularity and power of the Doge Foscari and endeavors
by every crooked method conceivable to succeed to the throne.
^ Nicoll, op. c i t ♦, p. 176.
10 Mitford, The Foscari.
Act I, Sc. i, p. 3*
158
The chief instrument of his ambition is Donato, the head of an
old and powerful family, surpassed in nobility and wealth only
by that of the Foscarina.
Donato is described in the play as
follows:
He *s of a temper kind, and quick and warm;
A powerful partisan, but easily sway'd
By flattery or anger.
Of such tools.
Are faction's ranks composed, not offleered.1^Erizzo and Donato make an agreement in which Donato is to try
to secure from the Doge the post of procurator for Erizzo's
favorite follower, Celso.
Either way will be successful:
if
he accomplishes his task, Erizzo's party will be well establish­
ed in
Venice;
if he fails, Donato will still be won over to
their
cause.
it is
refused him in terms which do not please the old senator.
Donato asks that the post be given to Celso, and
Erizzo and his minion, Celso, find Donato, who is in a
susceptible mood; they dwell with profound acerbity upon the
scorn he has received.
Their conversation includes hints of the
old prince's increasing dotage, insinuations that the Doge
regrets his son's engagement to the beauteous and only daughter
of Donato, Camilla.
Hie discussions are made impressive, and
are reiterated with force in the senate, together with events
of still greater importance:
the father’s domestic tyranny,
the son's military ambition, and the curb which the just prince
had placed upon the aristocracy.
Still mindful of the rebuke
he has received. Donato agrees to the deposition of the Doge,
11
Mitford, The Foscari. Act I, Sc. i, p.
159
"but refuses the crown, which Erizzo had artfully suggested that
he take.
Francesco Foscari arrives upon the scene, and reproach­
es the false and plotting senate.
part in the plot.
He reprimands Donato for his
Donato is later slain by a hired assassin,
but the blame falls on Foscari.
His father is heart broken,
and Camilla is almost distracted by the loss of her father and
the apparent guilt of her sweetheart.
Francesco is banished and
Camilla wants to accompany him, but her brother Cosmo, who is_
also a friend to Francesco, forbids her to go.
A duel between
Cosmo and Foscari follows, and Foscari is slain.
Before he
dies, however, Erizzo and C£lso confess their guilt, and Frances­
co has the satisfaction of knowing that he dies an innocent man
in the eyes of the world.
Descriptive "poetic" passages are dragged in needlessly,
giving a tone unconsciously comic.
For example, Francesco Fos­
cari *s reproach to Donato for his part in the plot is absurd:
Shame!
Thou that d i d ’st call
Thyself his friend!
Shame! Shame
Such a reproof carries absolutely no dramatic ar emotional
qualities.
Doubtlessly,
it was partly due to such lines as
these that the play was doomed to obscurity.
It should be
pointed out that Miss Mitford*s method of rebuke for dogs and
for senators was the same.
In Our Village she reproached her
dog in the following manner:
12 Ibid.,
Act IV, Sc., ii., 11, 16-7
160
Shame, shame, Saladin, for shame.
13
Although Miss Mitford’s dramatic abilities were extreme­
ly limited, her play was not entirely devoid of merit; and
there are a number of passages which are well written and
deserving of praise.
Camilla’s dream of happiness is painted
exquisitely:
Camilla.
I think I dreamt
Of Heaven; for I was in a place where care
And, fear and sorrow come not, self-sustained
On wings such as the limner's cunning lends
To the seraphim, and singing like a bird,
From the deep gladness of a merry heart,
The whole night long. And when the morning came
And I awakened in this work-day world,
The spell was on me still; and still is on
The bouyancy, the joy, the certain hope
Of happiness.1^
The Doge's speech upon his entrance to the trial approach­
es real feeling more nearly than any other passage:
Francesco Foscari— Sir, is he there?
My eyes are old and dimJl5
Although decidedly feminine, Francesco's picturesque
speech on Camilla is handled with ability and deserves to be
quoted:
Foscari. Perhaps I love
To visit my heart's treasure by that light
"When misers seek their varied hoards; to steal
Upon the loved one, like a mermaid's song,
Unseen and floating between sea and sky;
Mitford, Our Village, p. 91lif Mitford,-- The Foscari. Act I, S c . iii, pi
15 Ibid.. Act IV, Sc. i, p. 21.
17 ..
161
To creep upon her In love's loveliest hour,
Not In her daylight beauty, with the glare
Of the bright sun around her, but thus pure
And white, and delicate, under the cool moon,
To think of thee Camilla; thus with flowers
About thee, and fresh air, and such a light,
And.such a stillness: thus I dream of thee,
Sleeping or waking.16
The characters are distinctly drawn:
the good Doge
Foscari, the firm supporter of his people's rights, their bene­
factor and ruler; Francesco, the brave soldier, the tender lover,
and devoted son of Doge Foscari; Donato, the proud senator, im­
patient and Irascible in council, yet a gentle and affectionate
father; Erizzo, cruel and without a conscience, and with no
other mptive for his crime than ambition; Cosmo, the devoted
friend and mislead tood of an arch traitor's vengeance; Camilla,
the almost perfect heroine.
Miss Mitford, as was characteristic
of her time, enjoyed the delineation of female excellence, and
Camilla is one of those rare examples of female loveliness and
virtue, inspired by lofty ideals and high moral courage; she is
deserving of our admiration and sympathy in all of her actions:
love, duty, constancy, and despair.
Camilla Is probably as near­
ly perfect as any heroine in the drama, and yet in 1819 Miss Mit­
ford had referred to the- perfect heroine as "that deadest of
dead weights."
She continued:
That Is the heaviest millstone of all. A book laden with
an impeccable heroine ought to be covered all over with
cork jackets, not to sink. Somebody has said that we
16 Ibid., Act III, Sc. i, p. 31.
162 .
never forgive perfection unless it be made thoroughly
wretched.*7
The dialogue is unnatural and. the general atmosphere of
the play is artificial.
The most effective scenes fail to
arouse any emotional response.
Mary MitfordVs life, in experi­
ence, had been a limited one; her environment had provided a
framework of standards into which her life was adjusted without
a murmur; and it was impossible for her to break through the
superficiality of her existence, and, by so doing, to create
a dynamic and powerful tragedy.
Rienzi,^
success.
published in 1828, was Miss Mitford’s, greatest
For her sources, she was inspired by the seventieth
chapter of G-ibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and
the interesting account of the eventful career of Rienzi con­
tained in the second volume of L*Ahbe de Sade's Memoires pour
Servlr a en VI1 de Fetrarque.
from the historical facts.
There is no material deviation
Unfortunately, the subject itself
involves no very high degree of tragic, interest.
It should be
noted that although Bulwer-Lytton wrote a novel by the same
name shortly after the appearance of Miss Mitford*srRienzi,
considering that they drew their materials from the same sources,
Lord Lytton did not trespass upon the ground which M i s s .Mitford
17
18
Johnson, op. cit., p. 158.
Mary Russell Mitford, Rienzi (London:
land C n • d .J ),
J. Cumber­
163
had previously covered.
The whole plot of Miss Mitford’s
tragedy is little more than an episode having slight effect
on the conduct and none on the fate, of the hero in Lytton's
novel.
Lord Lytton remarked in the preface to his Rienzi:
”1 am not aware of any resemblance between the two works.11^
Lytton very graciously added that it would have been almost
discreditable if he had had nothing that resembled "a perform­
ance so much it were an honour to
Imitate.
1120
since the
novelist treated Miss Mitford*s plot with such little emphasis
in his novel, it may be inferred that he did not consider it
of so much importance or of particular interest.
Lytton’s
Rienzi is not among his best works.
In Rienzi Miss Mitford has attempted to shadow forth in
her hero the Napoleon of the earlier years.
The contending
factions of aristocrats and populace have been dealt with
interestingly and capably, but it has been a failure, like all
her other dramas, because of the artificiality of scene and
language.
Somehow, these Italian stories, which were handled
with strength and dignity by the Elizabethan's, collapsed when
treated in this later age.
Nicoll explained that the reason
probably lay with the altered spirit of the time.2-*19
Roberts, The Life and Friendships of Mary Russell
Mitford. p. 285.
20
Ibid.. p. 286.
21 •
Nicoll, Nineteenth Century Drama, 1800-50, p. 176.
164
According to G-enest,22 Rienzi was produced at Drury
Lane, October 9» 1828, and was acted thirty-four times.
Mr.
Young portrayed the role of Rienzi; Stanfield painted the
scenery. .Miss Mitford was paid four hundred pounds by the
theatre, and eight thousand copies of the printed play were
sold.
The plot of Rienzi is worked out better than is that of
any of her other plays:
The plebeian band in control of the
city of Rome is struggling against and distracted by two haughty
and insolent factions, those of Ursini and Colonna.
They re­
gain it, becoming in turn the masters of their tyrants, using
their freedom as an instrument of cruelty and oppression— and,
with that fickleness and ingratitude which mark their character,
turn their vengeance on the very idol on whose head they would
have lavished the names of senator, king, or emperor:
Look, as I blow this feather from my face,
And as the air blows it to me again,
Obeying with my mind when I do blow,
And yielding to another when it blows,
Commanded always by the greater gust,
Such is the lightness of you common m e n . 2 3
Rienzi wishes to restore the Romans to their liberty.
Thus,
the oft told tale of aristocratic tyranny and popular retribu­
tion is again brought to view.
The proud defiance of nobility,
the spirit-stirring appeals of insulted patriotism, the. deafen_
_
John Genest, Some Accounts of the English Stage
(Bath: H..E. Carrington, I8 32), IX, 415.
23
* ■
Mitford, Rienzi, Act I, Sc. ii.
165
ing shouts of an angry mob hoping much, but understanding
little are heard.
However,
"the grandeur that was Rome" is abr-
sent; the lofty bearing of the ancient patriot who lived but for
the good of his country is somehow missing.
Although the scene
is laid in Rome, Rome is pictured in her most degenerate days
when she was torn and divided by contending factions.
Her race
of heroes was already extinct; she was. about to fall the prey
of fierce barbarians, and exhibit,
in the solemn desolation of.
seven hills— in her stately and majestic ruins,
"the most awful
spectacle of the instability of human greatness in the history
of m a n k i n d . " ^
Rienzi, who assumed the name of Tribune of the People,
or Deliverer of Rome, was the son of the lowest dregs of
humanity--the offspring of an innkeeper and a washerwoman.
He
had the benefit of a liberal education, and raised himself from
his obscure and mean condition to places both of honor and of
profit.
Under the mask of folly and the character of a clown,
he concealed a spirit that deeply deplored his country’s wrongs
and desired eagerly the- opportunity to set them aright and to
avenge them.
When this occasion arose, he seized it and was
elected Tribune of the People;
justice, clemency, and equal
laws were promised to all.
The humbled glories of the imperial
city seem about to revive.
The two factions unite against him.
24
Mitford, Rienzi,
Preface.
He betroths his daughter to Angelo, and invites the nobles to
a wedding banquet.
It is during this banquet that his enemies
intend to assassinate him, but their plot is discovered and they
are condemned to death.
However, Rienzi pardons them, but in
return exacts from them an oath of obedience to the state.
Rienzi*s nature changes with his fortune, and he becomes intox-.
icated by his power; his sudden greatness has made him vain, .
,
sensual, arrogant, and cruel, and he affects pomp and pageantry,
violates the most sacred rites of religion, and displays in a
still more odious degree all of the vices of the deposed faction.
He has offended the nobles by a series of provocations beyond
all hopes of forgiveness, and the people have turned upon him
because of his pride, intemperance, and pusillanimity.
He has
changed from their ideal and defender into their victim and
sacrifice.
A fight ensues between Rienzi*s party and the vassals
of the nobles.
Before his complete downfall, the nobles re­
ceive a partial defeat in the deaths of Ursini and Stephen
Colonna.
Angelo is taken prisoner by the forces of Rienzi.
Be­
cause of Angelo’s affection for his daughter, Rienzi is inclined
to spare Angelo, but Angelo refuses to' make the slightest sub^
mission to him.
Meanwhile Claudia, Rienzi*s daughter, and
Angelo have married.
Claudia pleads for her husband's life, and
finally Rienzi sends him a pardon.
The friends of the nobles
again take up arms, and Rienzi is deserted by the people; he
attempts to pacify them and presents himself to them alone and
167
and unarmed.
Mob violence is victorious, and Rienzi is slain.
Claudia throws herself upon his body.
The play, for Miss Mitford to have written it, is handled
well, yet there is something lacking in the drama as a whole.
Our main dissatisfaction probably arises from the pathetic:
sentimentalism which surrounds the play.
We do not hate the
hero, nor do we wonder at him or admire him; we simply pity him,
and the end seems expected since we are compelled to acknowl­
edge the justice of his downfall.
The female characters are typical of Miss Mitford; they
are entirely her own:
the cunning, arrogant Lady Colonna; the
delicate, impassioned Claudia.
The character of Claudia is
eminently beautiful and is in perfect harmony with the clean,
cold, and elegant mind in which it had its origin.
In the
character of Claudia are united the sweet simplicity, the charm,
the grace, and the courageous spirit which are manifested at
the climax of the play.
And yet none of her characters possess
life and vitality; they speak in a manner not suitable to their
situation.
As in most works of literature, there are peculiarities
of thought and expression which enable the reader to label that
particular selection as belonging to a certain author, so it is
with Mary Mitford's works.
The following expression describing
a domestic picture is in her best style and would be easily
recognized by anyone acquainted with Mary Mitford's works:
168
Claudlas Mine own dear home I
Father I love not this.new state; these halls,
Whose comfort dies in vastness; these trim maids,
Whose advice wearies me. Oh! mine old home!
My quiet, pleasant chamber with the myrtle
Woven round the casement; and the cedar by
Shading the sun; my garden overgrown
With flowers and herbs, thick set as grass in fields;
My pretty snow-white doves; my kindest nurse.
Dear old Camillo— oh! mine own dear home!2->
Rienzi was Miss Mitford's best and most successful play.
She wrote the type of play which satisfied the desire for a
certain kind of entertainment peculiar to that age, the
qualities of which were superficial and forever passing;
could not abide long.
they
Miss Mitford, in her plays.as in her
other works, aimed unconsciously at the particular rather than
at the universal, and as these little trivialities and fads of
her era, of any era, are doomed to oblivion,
so her works,
in
which these passing fancies were a part, must meet a similar
fate.
The unreality, the lack of vital qualities, take away
any value her dramas may have possessed.
Miss Mitford wrote three other plays,
Inez de Castro,
Charles the First, Otto of Wlttelsbach, and an opera, Sadak and
Kalasrade.
They were never produced and met with little success
in the printed form.
Inez ’de Castro was a complete failure.
The characters
are poorly drawn, the style is artificial and awkward, and the
plot is not only confusing, but so uninteresting that a reader
25
Ibid.. Act IV, Sc. ii, p. 33.
does not care to waste his time by attempting to unravel it.
Inez-is cold and lifeless, and even with the willingness:to be
deceived, we cannot under any stretch of the imagination, de­
ceive ourselves into believing that Inez is any more than a
mental and frozen image of Mary Russell Mitford.
Charles the First, an historical play dealing with the
conflict between the Royalists and the Puritans, has been
referred to as her Cromwellian play.
Miss Mitford wrote to a
friend that it was produced once outside of London, but this,
investigator is: unable to verify this statement.
It met with
slight success in the printed form.
Miss Mitford based her play, Otto of Wittelsbach, upon
.Thompson's translation of Babo*s German play of the same name.
In brief, the story deals with Philip of Suabia who was, elected
Emperor of Germany.
Chiefly through the assistance of Otto,
he was able' to maintain himself against his rival.
Disregard­
ing the friendship which has existed between them and the favors
which Otto has shown him, Philip treats Otto with ingratitude
and duplicity.
Otto reprimands him for his actions, and in a
fit of rage and passion’murders Philip.
Otto is then put under
the ban of the empire, his castle is demolished, and in the
last act, he is killed in a cowardly manner by a private
enemy.26
Mary Russell Mitford, Otto of Wittelsbach (Londons
J. Cumberland, £n. d .3 )•
170
The play was never produced and was unsuccessful in the
printed form.
The only contemporary references to Otto of
Wittelsbach merely mention that Miss Mitford wrote a play of
that name.
It is poorly written, the characters lack animation,
and the language and scenes are artificial.
—
The~opera, Sadak and Kalasrade, or the Waters of Oblivion
a very appropriate title for such an opera, Is a romantic opus
in two acts, and tells the story of the unhappy love affair of
Sadak and Kalasrade.
It wastcomposed In 1831 while Miss Mitford
was nimmersed in music.1'
It was published in 1835 and again
in 1836, but neither of the editions sold out.
Charles Parker
wrote the music for it, and concerning their work Miss Mitford
wrote:
Our opera will be most splendid:— a real opera— all
singing and recitative— blank verse of course, and rhyme
for the airs, with plenty of magic— an Eastern fairy
tale.2 *
It was performed once and was a miserable failure.
A
truthful critic wrote of it:
It was only once performed.
Wretchedly played and sung
as it was, it hardly deserved a better fate.
The music,
by a now forgotten pupil of our Academy of Music,, was
heavy and valueless, and the dramatist, though graceful
and fresh as a lyrist, had not the instinct, or had not
mastered the secret of writing for music.2°
All of her plays were written in blank verse which is
only mediocre.
27
28
There are rare occasions in which her blank
Roberts*: op. cit., p. 309.
Loc. cit.
171
verse united with poetic material deserves some praise, but
Miss Mitford was definitely not a dramatist and possessed very
little dramatic ability.
Verse.
Were it not for the fact that Miss Mitford was
called a poetess by many of her contemporaries, her verse would
hardly deserve mention here.
The subjects con which her talents
were exercised are of a very miscellaneous nature and are such
as would be peculiarly attractive to certain female minds.
They
are chiefly of an epainetic or commendatory nature, and praise
Dr. Mitford and Valpy, Mr. Wordle, a patriot, Maria, a prize
greyhound, Lord Polkstone, also a patriot, and other friends,
acquaintances, animals, and nature scenes.
In 1810 Mary published a volume of verse entitled Poems,
the first and longest of which is called "Sybill©,” a North­
umbrian tale, the catastrophe of which appears to have been
taken from Southey*s beautiful episode of Laila in Thalaba.
Her verses^resemble exercises in versifying more than anything
else;
a sample is quoted here:
Here she was want to go, and here, and there'
Just where those daisies, pinks and violets growl
The world may find the spring in following her,
For other print her airy steps ne*er left.
Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy b l o w - b a l l ^ 9 from its stalk. 3 0
29
Dandelion.
30
Mary Russell Mitford, Poems (London:
1810), p. 53.
-
[_ n. P*1 »
172
Her lines on the glow-worm are written in quatrains,
rhyming a b a b.
The first lines are exaggerated to the ex­
tent that no*reader could accept them; for example:
'Though forked lightning round thee play,.
*Though brilliant meteors wildly glare,
Still may thy pale and modest ray,-,.
Shed em'rald lustre through the airJ31
Miss Mitford's figures of speech are not poetic, and
simarly many of her thoughts are lacking in poetry and grace.
Ungrammatical lines are also frequently found.
In a review of
her poems, Sir Walter Scott accurately remarked:
It must be apparent, we think, to everyone, that Miss
Mitford's taste and judgment are not yet matured, that h e n
poems ought to have been kept back much longer, and revised
much oftener, before they were submitted to the public,
and above all, that she wanted some friend who, without
wounding her feelings, or dampening the fire of her
genius, would have led her to correcter models of taste,
and taught her more cautious habits of composition,
when
she attempts to describe the higher passions, as in
Sybille, she falls from want of strength.
But in the
description of natural scenery or the delineation of humbler
and calmer feelings, she is more s u c c e s s f u l . 52
Her longer narrative'poems, Blanche of Castile, Christina,
and. Watlington Hall, might well have been included in the above
criticism..
Each was printed, but had very few sales.
It has been said that Miss Mitford wrote verse in the
manner of Coleridge and Scott.
This dnlrestlgator has noticed
the resemblance between Coleridge's poem, This Lime-tree Bower
my Prison and her Liberation.
31
32
The following is Liberation:
Ibid., p. 61.
Quarterly Review (November, 1810), p. 517.
173
Nothing remains of tribulation nowI
Over the winter with its stilly streams
Hardened in ice, the bursting bough
Sings with color, its translucent gleams
Shaking the air and elements with wonder,
Lifting the drooped heart with praise. After
The black sky, broken with thunder
Does come again the old heart ease and laughter.
Oh pastoral gleam! The poor and sad of earth
Who follow thy pure airy light and know
The charm of simple things, of mirth,
Surcease of misery and sin and woe!
My senses reel as of thy strength I drink!
And my flesh drops-and leaves my body gone,
And I do see the closest link
Between the Presence and this sylvan lawn.^
There is a striking similarity between the above lines and the
34
following excerpt from This Lime-tree Bower my Prison:
Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven--and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and "the sea, . . .
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; arid of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
A delight
Come sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there!
The resemblance is more in thought than in form.
Al­
though there is no evidence to prove that she used Coleridge's_
poem as a model, the similarity should not go unnoticed.
33
34
De-
Mitford, Poems, p. 21.
C. H. Page and S. Thompson, British Poets of the
Nineteenth Century (New York: B. H. Sanborn, 1930), p. 83.
174
spite the fact that Liberation is written in rhyme (a b a b),
it, like all of her verse,
is extremely prosaic.
The author
was not skilled in the use of poetic devices or figures of
speech, and when they do occur, with the exception of rhyme,
they are quite likely accidental.
Alliteration is almost com­
pletely absent, and her attempt to express trite and obvious
ideas in an impressive way" was a failure.
Prose.
Miss Mitford wrote prosaic poetry, but was very
poetic in her pastoral prose.
Our Village, which Harriet
Martineau35 referred to as the beginning of a new style of
graphic description, was Miss Mitford's most successful literary
creation.
In 1819 in an obscure journal called the Ladles *
Magazine, this series of country sketches, .drawn from Mary's
own experiences, first made their appearance serially.
It is
chiefly to these sketches that Miss Mitford owes her fame.
With
the inclusion of these articles, the circulation of the little
magazine speedily increased from two hundred fifty to two
thousand.
In 1824 Miss Mitford turned her attention to gathering
together and polishing the Ladies1 Magazine articles with the
Intention of publishing them in volume form.
Little did the
author and publisher (Whittaker of Ave Maria Lane) know that
the modest little volume’then in progress was to be the be-
35 Harriet Martineau, Autobio^raphy (London:
and Company, 1869), I, 418.
Macmillan
175
ginning of a series destined to take the world- by storm and to
be the one creation, if any, by which the name of Mary Russell
Mitford was to be remembered.
Our Village was well received
from the moment of its release; its pages are full of the
pleasant fragrance of the country;
its imagery is true and
picturesque; it describes the simple things in life with the
faith and accuracy of Wordsworth; and it did for "Berkshire
what no other author had ever previously done for any
p l a c e . " 3 6
Our Village can. best be described in Miss Mitford’s own
words; quoting from her Preface:
The following pages contain an attempt to delineate
country scenery and country manners, as they exist in a
small village in the South of England.
The writer may at
least claim the merit of a hearty love of her subject, and
of that local and personal familiarity, which only a long
residence in one neighborhood could have enabled her to
attain. Her descriptions have always been written on the
spot, and at the moment, and in nearly every instance with
the closest and most resolute fidelity to the place and the
people.
If she be accused of having given a brighter as­
pect to her villagers than is usually met with in books,
she cannot help it, and would not if she could.
She has
painted, as they appeared to her, their little frailties
and their many virtues, under an intense and thankful con­
viction that in every condition of life goodness and
happiness may be found by those who seek them, and never
more surely than in the fresh air, .the shade., and the sun­
shine of nature.37
The descriptive sketches and essays which compile Our
Village play around with their subjects like the sunshine and
the shade which give variety and life to the scenes and to the
36 Roberts, op. cit., p. 238.
M. R. Mitford, Our Village (New York:
and Company, Inc., 1936), Preface, p. viii.
E. P. Dutton
176
figures occupying it.
Each essay is a unit in itself, and the
only relation between one sketch and another is that the setting
for each is the same locality and each was written by Miss Mit­
ford.
They are written in a style which is personal and pictur­
esque, animated and bright, ,and they contain sentences which
succeed each other with accelerating brilliance.
In the pic­
tures she paints of people, of manners, of the gay countryside,
she achieves a sparkling combination of sympathetic penetration,
a profound love of truth, and imaginative susceptibility.
Her
frolicsome humor and wistful appreciation of the beauty of life
and nature are impressively expressed.
The characters.In Our Village are actual human beings
and may be met with in any well-taught hamlet of the country;
but it must be observed that they always wear their Sunday
clothes and are constantly on their best behavior.
Miss Mit­
ford *s gentle heart and feminine hand could never have under­
stood or traced the coarser truths of rural life.
Our Village may be said to have laid the foundations'of
a branch of literature hitherto untried.
The sketches resemble
Dutch paintings in their fidelity of detail and in the bright­
ness and quaintness of their style.-^
Few of her readers
realized at what cost these pleasant stories were produced.
They seem to flow easily enough, and their gay, sportive style
Sidney Lee, “Mary Russell Mitford,” Dictionary of
National Biography (New York: Macmillan Co., 1909), XIII, 531*
177
makes not the slightest suggestion or hint of the toil andanxiety amidst which they were spun out.
Each story is as com­
plete and rounded as a sonnet, and contains a plot which would
serve as a novel if expanded.
Each is provided with a catas­
trophe, generally a surprise, skillfully wrought out in con­
cealment.
In Our Village one finds, among other things, a
religious enjoyment of the beauty of nature which, if one does.,
not mistake the general cast of Miss Mitford’s character, would
scarcely have been expected by her friends, but which has its
explanation and the warrant of its sincerity in the history of
her devoted life.
The following quotation from Our Village
will help to substantiate the above remarks:
¥hat a sunset! how golden! how beautiful!
The sun just
disappearing, and the narrow liny clouds, which a few min­
utes ago lay like soft vapoury streaks along the horizon,
lightened up with a golden splendour that the eye can
scarcely endure, and those still softer clouds which
floated above them wreathing and curling into a thousand
fantastic forms, as thin and changeful as summer smoke,
. now defined and deepened into grandeur, and edged with
ineffable, insufferable light! Another minute and the
brilliant orb totally disappears, and.the sky above grows
every moment more varied and more beautiful as the dazz­
ling golden lines are mixed-with glowing red and gorgeous
purple, dappled with small, dark.specks, and mingled with
such a blue as the ~egg of the hedge-sparrow.
To look up
at that glorious sky, and then to see that magnificent
picture reflected in the clear and lovely Loddon water, is
a pleasure never to be described and never forgotten. My
heart swells and my eyes fill as I write of it, and think
of the immeasurable majesty of nature, and the unspeakable
goodness of God, who has spread an enjoyment so pure, so
peaceful, and so intense before the meanest and the low­
liest of His creatures.39
39
Mitford, Our Village, p. 108.
178
Miss Mitford thought poetry while writing prose;, the
above excerpt reveals in poetie prose the inspiration the
author must have derived from the beauty of nature.
Nature,
whether it be due to a divine spark in her or to some physical
correlation, does not yield such gladness,
such cause for
thankfulness and appreciation, such throbbing of the heart or
filling of the eyes, to any but those who are pure in heart
and soul.
Although there are no existing sketches which are direct­
ly traceable to the influence of Mary Mitford,
it is believed
by some critics that "the modern short story was perhaps born
to the world straight from Miss Mitford’s heart,"40 for, with
the appearance of Our Village the reading world recognized
"a new note, a fresh sympathy, the beginning of a literary
epoch,
At any rate, it should
besafe to saythat Miss Mit­
ford's Our Village did influence the development of the modern
short story.
Mrs. G-askell's Cranford^2 is probably the closest ap­
proach to Our Village, yet this prose idyl stands half-way be­
tween the novel or short tale, which is provided with a definite
background
to produce the twofold
trast, and the descriptive sketch or
effect of harmony and con­
essay.
Our Village evokes
^ Annie Fields, "Mary Russell MitfordJ1 The Critic,
XXXVII, 512.
.
.
^
Soc,. elt.
Elizabeth G-askell, Cranford (London: J. Murray, 1920).
179
the spirit of place through its scene;
icate subtleness of characterization.
Cranford through del­
According to A. W. Ward
the derivation of Cranford is not traceable to Mary Mitford's
Our Village; quoting Mr. Ward;
. . . for the strength o f " O u r Village" (1824) lies in the
description of rural scenery and of the living ’figures
forming its staffage, rather than in' characterization
proper. Descriptions of nature as such were not specially
in Mrs. G-askell's way, though she was alive to the roman­
tic beauty of the Welsh mountains and valleys. . . . But
her "walks in the country" (to borrow Miss Mitford's phrase)
had for their starting point and goal the abodes of men
and women. Miss Mitford, no doubt*, helped to raise and
to vindicate an Interest in simple things and humble con­
ditions, and thus to carry on in prose the more notable
poetic work of C r a b b e . ^ 3
Some critics believe that Our Village is Mary Russell
Mitford.*s announcement to one and all, that "come what might,
whether of want, drudgery, or disillusionment,
she could still
carry her head high, look the world in the face and s m i l e . " ^
A strong case can be made in defense of this idea, for Our
Village was a deliberate glorification of the simple life which
she had been forced to live after the loss of the magnificent
Bertram House-with its retinue of servants.
The Mitfords had
been humbled to a village cottage with a store on one side and
a village inn on the other.
In Our Village Miss Mitford up­
holds the idea that home is still home and a glorious place
no matter what sort of house, shack, or tent it may be.
43
44
Ibid., pp. xiii-xiv.
Robert s, oic. cit., p . 242.
Mary Mitford's Bedford Regis.45 was intended to be the
companion piece to Our Village.
It was published in 1835 and
consists of a series of sketches on city life.
It lacks the
spontaneity and charm of the rural sketches and met with very
little success.
Recollections of a Literary Life was published in 1852
and is a collection of papers or essays originally written for
’k*ie Ladles * Companion of which Henry Chorley was e d i t o r . ^
Some of the articles describe a journey, or gossip pleasantly
on all the-great names and associations connected with the
locality; others criticize some poet with generous extracts
from the most popular and the least know authors alike.
The
extracts are usually well chosen and full of grace, bound to­
gether by a running commentary of genial praise, and alto­
gether forming a pleasant anthology of the type of reading
which Mary loved.
She is forward in pointing out the genius
and abilities of American writers, with some of whom she was
acquainted.
Stories and anecdotes not generally known about
famous people are related in Miss Mitford's quaint and cheer­
ful manner, and those of a more serious nature, such as the
tragedy in Elizabeth Barrett's life, are told with deep sym­
pathy and loving kindness.
45
1835).
. 46
Many of the critical opinions ex-
Mary R. Mitford, BeIford Re&ls (London:
Bentley,
pressed in her Recollections have "been included in the chapter
dealing with her
c r i t i c i s m s .^8
Other critical remarks expressed
in the Recollections are vague and often superficial, due, per­
haps, to the extremely feminine point of view of the author..
Although she was endowed with natural common sense, since there
is no evidence of any -love affair, not even a slight fascination
or mild flirtation, and since her personal activities:were ex­
tremely limited because of her close attendance upon her
father, her capacity for understanding was consequently also
limited.
Her knowledge of.life was derived solely from her
reading.
As a result, her criticisms are judgments based upon
second-hand experiences.
Her prose which accompanies the ex*
tracts:, is .well written, easy to understand, smooth, and rest­
ful in its smoothness.
She employed an almost conversational
style in which are included her personal opinions and recollec­
tions; these associations make the accounts of familiar places
and people more Interesting because of the additional human
touch.
She discusses her personal losses and disappointmentss
as an observer whose emotions and feelings had not been in­
volved, and expresses her regret and despair in words which
carry very little emotional appeal.
This same quality is one
of the most outstanding defects of her plays.
Her tastes were
always refined, and there is not a touch of the vulgar in
Recollections, nor in her other writings.
182
The title is somewhat misleading, for— while it does con­
tain many sunny hits of autobiography and pleasant recollections—
the reminiscences are so much more those of a reader than an
author that curiosity' is foiled and expectation disappointed.
Atherton, ^ published in 1854, was Miss Mitford’s only
attempt at"writing a novel and it was of small account.
The
story of Atherton, although confused as are the plots of most
of her plays, is more distinctly a story than Miss Mitford’s
sketches generally were.
There is the strange and sudden enrich­
ment of a sweet little country beauty;
there is a proposed match i
for money,.in which the fortune hunter, strange to the temper of
his kind, is as- unselfish and unmercenary as the most devoted
lover could be; there is a great house and family falling into
decay and ruin, which .nothing but this money can redeem; there
is an equal fortune, the other half of a miser's.collectings for
which it is impossible to find the rightful heir; lastly, there
is a governess, "a perfect woman nobly planned," self-denied,
refined, and delicate, as every poor gentlewoman was.
This
pensive, but by no means pining, Honor Clive has been in former
times deeply beloved by Major Delaney, the heiress’s compelled
suitor, and has rejected him, reason unknown,
lord Delaney, the
Major’s stately and kind father, is persecuted by a villian
who holds the mortgages over all his estates and lands and who
makes only one brief appearance in the story, remaining quite
49
Mary R. Mitford, Atherton (Boston:
Fields, 1854).
Ticknor and
183
as Indistinct a personage after it as before.
little heiress,
"a rosebud of
sixteen,
"50
ford 'sspeculiar and delightful heroines.
Katy Warner, the
one
0f
Miss Mit­
She does not seem
much displeased either to be courted or married until the very
last moment, but remains good-humoredly indifferent to Major
Delaney, whom, nevertheless, she likes better than any man she
knows.
It is bewildering to know whether anybody is in love at
all--whether Honor rejected the Major out of pure inclination
or whether the Major learned indifference to his first love.
At any rate, the Major proposes to Katy and she accepts, much
to the satisfaction of the various plotters concerned.
thing goes well until the wedding-day.
Every­
The moving spring of the
book and everybody's friend, Attorney Stephen Laughton, gave
orders to leave the names in the marriage license blank until
i
his arrival.
This same day is the last on which the mortgage
can be redeemed and is the climax in the story.
While waiting
for the lawyer to arrive, little Katy begins to experience the
reality and meaning of being married and leaving home; she
finds it by no means so easy a business as she expected.
She
observes the glances between her bridegroom and her governess
and chances upon a glorious idea--when Laughton arrives, Katy
springs into his friendly arms and begs him to endow Honor
forthwith with half her fortune and to leave her (Katy) at home,
while Honor married the Major in her stead.
50
Mitford, Atherton, p. 29.
Mr. Laughton doess
184
not consent to this; however, by some fairy chance, Honor Clive
is made the bride instead of Katy by an instant substitution,
and Atherton Hall is redeemed and established to the falling
house of Delaney, and "all lived happily ever after.11
The whole plot is extremely disconcerting and the char­
acters act according to Miss Mitford’s whims rather than be­
cause of any logical motive.
The people do not live, but move
across the pages as artificially'as puppets across a make-be­
lieve stage.
Jacob Stokes, Katy's favorite footboy, a mortal
Puck of good fortune and good humor, is always at hand when
Katy is in need of someone to assist her.
He appears as if by
intuition at the most necessary moment and in the most necessary
places all through the story.
With the exception of this pe­
culiarity, Jacob is probably the most natural characterization
Atherton.
This may be due, in part, to the fact that very
little superfluous information is given concerning him.
A few
of her nature descriptions are well written, but on the whole,
Atherton is very inferior reading.
It seems logical to say, then, that Mary Russell Mit­
ford's published works are in every way representative of her
life and characters
they reveal her ardent devotion to nature
and her superficial but charming interpretation of human nature.
Her writings, like their creator, might so easily have achieved
greatness, but for some queer quirk, or the lack of it, in her
life and understanding.
Knowing mankind chiefly through the
185
printed page, when she attempted to present real human "beings
in her plays and prose writings, those creatures of her imagi­
nation assumed the lifelike qualities of puppets:
artificial
and dry— creatures whose emotions were painted on rather than
springing from some inner depth of feeling.
As ;
.a result, her
graceful prose writings.and her tragic plays are now valuable
only as they represent one small aspect of the long, conven­
tional Victorian period.
II.
HER LITERARY REPUTATION
Contemporary reputation.
Mary Mitford's reputation was;.:
at its peak during her lifetime, and it is well that it was so
for no author could ever have appreciated praise more than
Mary Russell Mitford did.
In her letters she mentioned with
pride the favorable comments on her books--it is both interest­
ing and amusing to read her exaggerated reports on the large
sale of her works.
Our Village went through a number of editions
and was well received, but in general the first edition usually
satisfied all of the requests for her books.
Our Village was first published in 1824 and the sales.,
surpassed the wildest dreams of the author and her publisher.
It was well reviewed in all of the literary papers and journals,’
and "Where is Our Village?" was the question the people everywhere in England were asking each other.
When the secret finally
leaked out, there was a constant stream of traffic from here,
186
there, and everywhere to the quiet village of Three Mile Cross,
the inhabitants of which were the last of all to discover that
they had been ,rput into a book.”
Distinguished visitors made
pilgrimages to her cottage, and passing coachmen and post-boys
-
pointed out to travellers the localities in the village descri­
bed in the book; children were even named after Miss Mitford's
village urchins and pet greyhounds.
She was feted on her visits
to London, and in 1832 her fame was so widespread that in a
letter to Miss Mitford, Mrs. Trollope wrote:
"Whittaker (the
publisher) told me sometime ago that your name would sell any­
thing." 53Miss Mitford took great delight in the sweets of popu­
larity, and the pilgrimages to her home at Three Mile Cross—
they had become something of an institution— were a constant
Joy to her.
Concerning the five printings of Our Village which
appeared from time to time between 1824 and 1831» a number of
eulogistic reviews appeared.
One of the most amusing criticisms
prompted by Our Village was a mild attack upon the spinsterhood
of the little author by "Christopher North" in the Bootes Ambrosianae" of Blackwood's Magazine.
It is quoted here:
The young gentlemen-of England;should be ashamed o*
theirsells fo- lettin* her name be Mitford.
They should
marry her whether she.wull or no, for she would mak baith
a useful and agreeable wife.
That's the best creetishism
51 Lee, op. cit., p. 204.
18?
on her
warks.52
Considerable space was devoted to a review of Our Village
by
William Gifford in one of the most important critical maga­
zines of the day.
The following excerpt will indicate the
general trend of the article:
We have no passion for “breaking a butterfly upon the
wheel,“ and should not notice this little volume if we
were not on the whole pleased with its contents. The
sketches of country scenery, in which it abounds, have such
a convincing air of locality;
the human figures, inter­
spersed among them, are touched in such a laughter loving,
good-humoured spirit of caricature, innocent, and yet often
pungent withal, that we scarcely know a more agreeable
portfolio of trifles for the amusement of an idle hour^
. . . Miss Mitford is really capable of better things.-**'
To
be mentioned at all by the Quarterly Review was quite an
honor.
William Ellery Channing, the great friend and companion
of Henry David Thoreau, frequently read Our Village, and re­
marked about it in a letter to Miss Lucy Aikin oh December 15»
1841:
During my convalescence, I read a considerable part of
Miss Mitford's “Village," perhaps for the third time. Her
short sketches,-overflowing with life and beauty, refresh
me when I am too weak for long stories, and she has often
been a cheering friend in my, sick r o o m . 54
In 1854 Blackwood's Magazine carried the following trib­
ute to Our Village:
52
53
(London:
54
Roberts, o p . ci t ♦, p. 245*
William Gifford, “Our Village," Quarterly Review
J. Murray, 1824),,XXXI, 166-8.-
William E. Channing, Correspondence of W. E. Channing
and Lucy Aik In (Boston: Roberts" Brothers, IB737, p. 410.
188
Our Village established. Miss Mitford’s name and fame
above question— conferred on her a widespread and most
kindly popularity, and made every subsequent work welcome and honored which came from her pen.
Our Village is now a classic, and of an age enough to
hold its place unsupported in the ranks of modern litera­
ture. . . . What a revelation was Our Village, making real­
ity out of fancy, and truth from dreams.35
Another of Miss Mitford’s contemporaries, Frances Ann
Kemble, mentioned the refreshing effect of Our Village upon
its reader:
After dinner I read one of Miss Mitford's hawthorny
sketches out of “Our Village,” which was lying on the
table; they always carry one into the fresh air and green
fields, for which I a m very grateful to them.56
Harriet Martineau remarked about Our Village:
All the evidence of her career seems- to show that her
true line was that in which she obtained an early, decisive,
and permanent success— much humbler than the Dramatic, but
that in which she has given a great deal of pleasure to a
multitude of readers. Her descriptions of scenery, brutes,
and human beings-have such singular merit that she may be
regarded as the founder of a new style; and. if the fresh­
ness wore off with time, there was much more than a com­
pensation in the fine spirit of resignation and cheerful­
ness which breathed through everything she wrote, and en­
deared her as a suffering friend to thousands who former­
ly regarded her only as a most entertaining stranger.57
' Ahne Manning recalled her first acquaintance with Mary
Mitford’s works (in a style very similar to that of Miss Mit­
ford herself) in a magazine article:
“Our Village, " Blackwood1s Magazine (London: [~n. p.] ,
June, 1854), LXXV, 661..
Frances Ann Kemble, Records of a Girlhood (Hew York:
H. Holt and Company, 1879)» p.”"4l6.
^ Harriet Martineau, Biographical Sketches (London:
Macmillan and Go., 187Q), p. 355*
189
Nearly half a eentury ago the present writer was taken,
at a very early age, to a little tea-party at Chelsea,
where all were elderly except myself; and while, the seniors, ■
chiefly tired men of letters and their wives, were recreating
themselves with a game of whist, there was no happier per­
son, than the youngest, who in a sofa corner first made ac­
quaintance with "Our Village,** As long as I read,. 1 wass
enthralled.
I knew little, then, of real country life,
but I can truly say of Miss Mitford that then and there­
after
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
in fact, opened a gate into a path leading to pleasures
that have been prolonged throughout my life. Her style be­
came my ideal; it was never overweighted with allusion or
metaphor, but had a freshness peculiar to itself, and to
wilding thickets "such as Hobbima or Ruysdael might have
painted,11 full of violets and funguses, ringdoves and
squirrels, yet at some unexpected turn bringing one to a
crumbling vase or mouldly statue.58
Charles Lamb declared that nothing so fresh and char­
acteristic had appeared for a long time;59 Mrs. Browning re­
ferred to Miss Mitford, just after reading Our Village, as a
"sort of prose Crabbe in the sun;" Mrs. Hemans was cheered by
the sunny sketches during her illness; and Christopher North
spoke of their "genuine rural spirit.“6°
Her dramas were never regarded with the same high es­
teem as Our Village; Julian, for example, met with only mod­
erate success.
Macready wrote in January of 1823:
A tragedy by Miss Mitford, entitled ’Julian,1 acted
March 15th, had but moderate success: the Govent G-agden
company was no longer equal to the support of plays con­
taining several characters.
The authoress, in her dediAnne Manning, "Mary Russell Mitford," Macmillan*a
Magazine (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1870), XXI,
•
59
Charles Lamb,. "Mary Russell Mitford," London Maga­
zine, VIII, 269.
. --------^
Roberts, o p . c i t ., pp. 109-110.
190
cation of her play to me, was profuse in her acknowledg­
ments and compliments, hut the performance made little im­
pression and was soon f o r g o t t e n . 61
Harriet Martineau1s estimate of Miss Mitford's dramas
is one of the most
accurate, and is quoted here:
It does not appear that she had any insight into passion,
a n y .conception of the depths of human character, or the
scope of human experience. Ability of a certain sort there
is in her plays; but no depth, and no compass. Four trag^
edies and an opera of hers were acted at our first thea­
tres; and we hear no more of Julian, Foscari, Rienzri, or
Charles I . At first the difficulties were imputed to
dramatic censors, and the great actors, and injudicious
or lukewarm friends; but all that was over long a g o . The
tragedies were acted, and we hear no more of them. . . .
the plays have all appeared; and they do not keep the
stage, though Miss Mitford's friends were able and willing
to do all that interest, literary and dramatic, can do in
such a case.62
In 1854 Blackwood *s Magazine printed an article on the
works of Mary Russell Mitford.
The following quotation is an
excerpt:
Several of her plays were very successful, and attained!
a high degree of popularity in their day, and we under­
stand that it will not-be long possible to impute to them
the mingled slight and compliment of being "out of print"—
since a new edition is shortly p r o m i s e d . 63 of the plays.
themselves, besides the graceful and fluent writing which
is as remarkable in them as in the less ambitious of the
authors, and we may remark the animated and rapid action
so unusual to modern drama. Rlenzi, indeed, reads like a
sketch, so hurried and breathless is its story; and the
Two Foscari, if less -Impetuous, is singularly encumbered
with.the tedious and unnecessary dialogue which forms so
. * large a portion of ordinary dramatic writing— an air of
61
Sir F. Pollock, William Charles Macready's Reminis­
cences (New York: Macmillan and Co.,1&75), p. 211.
/fp
Mart ineau, Biographical Sketches? pp. 357-8.
63
Miss Mitford published her Dramatic Works in 1854,
but the edition met with little success.
191
haste and undignified speed makes Rienzirs course a race of
precipitate fate, and loses the greatness in the abruptness
.of the quick concluding tale. We recommend these dramas
heartily to all by whom they are unknown, vouching for it,
that without interest, without even a spark of a rarer
thing— excitement, no one will read them, and that without
entering upon.their claims to higher rank, a more graceful
addition could not be made to any collection of dramatic
works.
Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Mrs. Martin in 1837 concern­
ing M a r y ’s play, Otto of Wltteisbach:
. . . she says that her play will be quite opposed, in its
execution, to “ion," as unlike it “as a ruined castle over­
hanging the Rhine, to a G-reecian temple.-" And I do not
doubt that it will be full of ability; although my own
opinion is that she stands higher as the authoress of "Our
Village" than of "Rienzi," and writes prose better than
poetry,Tand transcends rather in Butch minuteness and high­
er finishing, than in Italian ideality and passion.65
Mrs. S. 0. Hall,
in her Memories^ gave an interesting
account of the events accompanying the production of Rienzi.
The date of its opening had been changed to a week earlier,
and Miss Mitford had gone to London to superintend the arrange­
ments, and was the houseguest of her friend Mrs. Hofland on
Newman Street.
"Mrs. Hofland invited us to meet her there oneo
morning," wrote Mrs. Hall; "all the world was talking about the
expected play, and all the world was paying court to its au­
thor ."66
Miss Mitford's friend, Haydon, was the first to
bring the little author the assurance of its success.
"It
^ Blackwood *a Magazine, LXXV, 660.
63
Kenyon,; op. c i t ., I, 47.
£if\
Mrs. S. C. Hall, "Memories of the Authors of the Age,"
Eclectic Ma&azine (London: -August, 1866), LXVII, 239.
192
achieved a triumph," Mrs. Hall continued,
"and deserved it.'*67
Macready told Mrs. Hall that Rienzi was "a wonderful
tragedy— -an extraordinary tragedy for a woman to have
w r i t t e n .
68
0ne69 of Miss Mitford*s contemporaries wrote a very
complimentary preface to Rienzi.
Part of it is quoted here:
It may startle certain petit-maltres:: in literature, who
are accustomed to an eternal round of affected phrases*
trite similes* flowery descriptions; who have wept and
slept over furnaces of sighs and rivulets of tears, and
. . . It may startle such witlings that the ingenious au­
thoress cof Rienz1 has disdained to minister to their sickly imaginations; that she has ambitiously aspired to the
highest honors of the drama, and . . . It may chagrin
others of a different cast who have neither soul for senti­
ment, eye for beauty, nor ear for poetry that a lady should
presume to write anything that is scientific, metaphysical
or profane; that she should shock neither sex by her indel­
icacy, degrade human nature by aggravated pictures.; of its
deformity, nor in the true spirit of an esprit forte
blaspheme her Maker by impiety.- Such critics reduce the
noblest concord of sweet sounds, to words— mere words; and
ask with a foolish face of wonder, if truth, beauty, and
harmony were ever discovered beyond the precincts of science,
metaphysics, and (for we must be careful of distinction,
lest we confound the spurious with the real) modern phi­
losophy .70
Henry Ghorley's review of Atherton gave Miss Mitford the
impression that his attitude was depreciatory and cold.
Mrs.
Browning agreed that his review was an inadequate notice of
the book, but explained It by saying that It evidently was
written in a hurried manner.
^
g
g
69
70
Chorley had written that the only
Hall, loc. cit.
T
Roberts, o p . c i t ., p. 278•
~
The writer's name is not known.
Mitford, Rienzi, Preface, pp.
193
fault of Atherton was its shortness,71 an extremely flatter­
ing remark, indeed, for a novel filling three volumes-,
Mrs.
Browning also wrote to Miss Mitford concerning this matter;
"You see your reputation is at the height; neither he nor an­
other could help you; such books as yours make their own w a y . " ^
John Ruskin praised Atherton highly, and the following comment
appeared in Blackwood *s Magazine in June, 1854;
. . .Atherton, MisssMitford's longest tale— a picture
drawn from memory of the woodland scenes and daylight
pleasures which the writer is no longer able to enjoy in
person--yet a picture as fresh and true as if every leaf
and lily-bell and sunbeam were copied from the direct and
present inspiration of this sweet spring.73
Recollect ions of a Literary Life received many good re­
views, most of them being of the same general nature;
the
title was misleading causing the reader much, disappointment
when he discovers that it is not an autobiography as its name
would indicate.
One critic remarked;
. . . "Memories of Much Reading11 is a title which would
better.express the character o f ,these volumes, which never­
theless are fascinating volumes, well worth a place in any
library.- Chronology does not much trouble our kind critic,
and she does not fear to skip in the length of a page from
Longfellow to Cowley, and to place Davis and Banim, the
Irishmen of today,.before old Herrick and Withers.
Kor
are her own personal descriptions more correctly classi­
fied, since the little girl of three comes a good way
later in the story than the old lady of sixty; and we are
71
Henry Chorley, "Mary Russell Mitford," Athenaeum
(London;
Ch. p.), 1854), p. 271.
72
'
Kenyon, op. cit., p. 173*
73 John Ruskin, Blackwood1s Magazine, LXXV, 668.
194
puzzled to hear a pretty little tale of school and child­
ish generosities after we have been present at the losing
of that ancient aristocratic, gold-headed cane which once
sustained a duchess and is now the favored companion of
Miss Mitford's walks. . . . A pleasanter plan could not be
than this personalizing of one's reading.(4
Reviews of Belford Regis are rare; it was definitely a
failure and few people took the trouble either to read or to
criticize it.
However, the following is a favorable notice
from an important magazine, although it was written about
twenty years after Belford Regis was published:
. . . a delightful supplement is BeIford Regis; its por­
traits clearer and more distinct, its little community
more fairly grouped, and holding closer to each other;
and its scenery as well portrayed, but less repeated and
lingered on, than are the sunny precincts of the village.75
This section should not be closed without a few general
remarks concerning the little author herself.
Appearing in a
current magazine a short while before her death were the
following remarks, which will contribute to our understanding
of her as a woman and as a writer:
Among the earliest in the throng of feminine writers
who animated the literary annals of the past half century,
Mary Russell Mitford, one of the most womanly and unpre­
tending of them all, holds a friendly footing in thousands
of homes, which her personal presence never approached,
nor herself had note of. She who neither dazzles by her
. genius, nor much enlightens by her philosophy, does what
neither wisdom nor genius always succeed in doing— comesc
in at the heart alike of her subject and her .hearer. . . .
She has too little skill in evil motives to render them
Blackwood's Magazine,
Loc. cit.
loc. cit.
195
cleverly, or search them out at all; and we must he con­
tent to like our neighbors better and not worse, to em­
brace our friends more heartily, to trust dependents with
a franker security, and Judge the universal world with a?
more kindly eye, if we would" receive the genial interpre­
tation of humanity which this sunshiny nature spreads be­
fore us. . . . .
So often quoted, and so universally known, it would be
useless to multiply examples of Miss Mitford's peculiar
power. There are few more successful landscape painters—
and with her minute pencil and fairy colours there is no
pre-Raphaelite brother that will "do" you a sunny bank of
flowers or bit of untangled foliage with equal truth or
observation as s k i l i e d . 7 6
Another contemporary review predicted that "Miss Mit­
ford will always hold her rank as one of the most pleasant
and elegant writers of a passing
Mrs. Browning
s c h o o l . '*77
believed that Miss Mitford "was stronger and wider in her con­
versation and letters than in her
b o o k s , "78
considered her books worthy of much
and John Ruskin
p r a i s e . 79
Catherine Sedg­
wick's comment upon Miss Mitford and her reputation will show
the wide variety of persons who were acquainted with the
little author:
Our coachman . . . professed an acquaintance of some
twenty years* standing with Miss Mitford, and assured us
that she was one of the "cleverest women in England," and
"the doctor an *earty old boy." And.when he reined his
horses up at her door, and she appeared to receive us, he
said, "now you would not take that little body there for
"Mary Russell Mitford," Blackwood *s Magaz, ine, LXXX, 450,.
77 "Mary Russell Mitford," Llttell's Living Age, LX, 678.
O
ry
Kenyon, op. cit.. II, 216.
79 Loc. cit.
196
a great author, would you?" And certainly we should have
taken her for nothing but a kindly gentlewoman who had
never gone "beyond the narrow sphere of the most refined
social life. . . . 0
Harriet Martineau's common sense in criticism and ob­
servation demonstrates itself again In her comment upon Miss.
Mitford's peculiar talent:
Though not gifted with lofty genius, or commanding
powers of any sort, Miss Mitford has been sufficiently an
expression of respect and regret on her leaving us. Her
talents and her character were essential womanly; and she
was fortunate in living in an age when womanly ability in
the department of Letters obtains respect and observance,
as sincerely and readily as womanly character commands
reverence and affection in every age.°^
And so, even during Mary*s lifetime she was regarded
with respect and as a woman of more than average talent, but
she was never numbered among the immortal gods?of literature.
Posthumous reputation.
With Miss Mitford's death In
1855, her popularity began to wane, and it has continued to
decline until at the present time she is seldom known except
by scholars, or enpassant, by readers of her more Important
contemporaries.
Her contribution to English literature was.
small, indeed, and when looked at from afar in the speed-erased
twentieth century, she is a negligible figure.
After her death
her fame rested upon Our Village and to some extent upon her
80
Catherine M. Sedgwick, Letters from Abroad to Kindred
at Home (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1891), I, 46.
8l_
Martineau, Biographical Sketches, p. 559*
197
correspondence, parts or which were collected and published
from time to time.
Unfortunately* her letters have never been
published in a manner that wfould do them justice.
Her prose
style is pleasant.to the reader, and the autobiographical
value and the pictures of her age reflected in the letters are
particularly interesting to those of later generations.
Our Village, although charming and pleasant, but never
particularly outstanding, may be placed high in the rank of
second class reading.
It cannot take its place by the side of
the essays of Lamb and Carlyle:, and, lacking a continuous
narrative,
Dickens.
it cannot be compared with the novels.of Scott and
However,
its grace and delicacy of thought and lang­
uage was probably responsible for its being included in the
Everyman's Library Series In 1936.
This speaks well for a
series of sketches written over a hundred years ago by a quaint
little Victorian lady who thought that of all her works, her
tragedies would surely take their place on the shelves with
the great.
A decade or so after Miss Mitford's death, Thomas B.
Shaw wrote admiringly of Our Village s
It would be a great injustice were we not to devote a
f e w .words of admiration to. the charming sketches of MIssc
Mitford, a lady who has. described the village life and
scenery of England with the grace and delicacy of1 Gold­
smith himself.
Our Village is one of the most delightful
books in the language; it is full of those home scenes
which form the most exquisite peculiarity, not only for
the external nature but also of the social life of the
country . . * Whether it is the pet greyhound Lily, or
198
the sunburnt, curly, ragged village child, the object glows^
before us with something of that daylight sunshine which we
find in its highest perfection in the rural and familiar
image of S h a k e s p e a r e
Samuel Stillman Gontant said that Our Village was a book
which Washington Irving might have been justly proud to claim
as his own.
He doubted whether any work of Irving*a could
exhibit a better insight into character, a more exquisite
appreciation of humor,
"more touching pathos, or a more delicate
perception of the beautiful in nature."83
The great George
Saintsbury referred to "the charming country sketches of Our
Village," and said that they ranked "not far below White's Selborne in accuracy, and surpass them in variety and o r n a m e n t . " ^
William Minto praised her works in his book dealing with
the literature written during the Georgian era:
. . . one^of the most delightful and natural and genially
humorous writers in the language. Her sketches of life in
Our Village, of the "Talking Lady," the "Talking Gentleman,"
of poachers, seamstresses, of domestic servants, young men and old of local note, remain after half a century of im­
itations, as fresh as if they had been written yesterday.
No human being every had a cheerier or more sympathetic
outlook on the world.
Her sympathies, with a certain way­
wardness, turned rather toward characters that the respect-?
able world frowns upon, with lawless goodhearted characters
and coquettish beauties. She liked to show the good side
of such beings to the w o r l d . °5
Thomas B. Shaw, Outlines of English Literature (New
Sheldon and Company” l867), p. 309.
83
Samuel S. Contant, "Mary Russell Mitford," Harper *s
Magazine (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1870), XL, 410.
York:
84 George Saintsbury, Specimens of English Prose Style
(Ghicago: Jansen, MeClung, 1886), p . 351.
„ .
York:
Wm. Mihto, The Literature of the Georgian Era (New
Harper and Br other s'," T8y4T,“ 'pT*289T ---- --------
199
As'Miss Mitford’s fame grew and her letters were grad­
ually collected by various friends and admirers, the appearance
of the little writer became a subject of general interest by
those who read her published letters.
Within the next decade
after her death, Bayard Taylor wrote one of the most accurate
descriptions ever written of Mary's appearance:
I think I should have recognized her anywhere.
The
short, plump body, the round, cheerful old face, with cheeks
still as rosy as a girl's, the kindly blue eye, the broad,
placid brow, and the bands of silver hair peeping from
beneath the quaint frilled cap, seemed to be all the fea­
tures of the picture which I had previously drawn in my
mind.
But for a gay touch in the ribbons, and the absence
of the book muslin handkerchief over the bosom, she might
have been taken for one of those dear old Quaker ladies,
whose presence in its cheerful serenity, is an atmosphere^
of contentment and peace. Her voice was sweet, round, and
racy, with a delicious archness at times.
Sitting in deep
arm chairs, on opposite sides of the warm grate, while the
rain lashed the panes and the autumn leaves drifted outside,
we passed the afternoon in genial talk.88
Our Village remained her best and most popular -literary
creation, and from 1856, the year,after her death, to 1936, it
was printed approximately ten times and distributed throughout
England and the United States.
In 1870 an American periodical copied the following
article from the Quarterly Review:
Our Village may be said without caricature to have be­
come a classic, and to have set the fashion in literature
of a series of sketches of home scenery and natural life—
akin to the woodcuts of Be**ick, or the etchings of Read of
Salisbury— will bear return and reprint, so long as the
taste for close observation and minature painting of
scenery and manners shall last.
It was probably, like many
Bayard Taylor, At Home and Abroad (New York:
Sons, 1891), pi 321.
Putnam's
200
other creations of the kind, begun by chance; it3 writer
led on from picture to picture . . . as her work proceeded.
One quality may be mentioned which recommended Miss Mit­
ford's village sketches from their appearance— the clear­
ness..and purity of the language in which they are written.
. . . They may be laid by, but they will not, we predict,
be forgotten.®*
In 1878 when Mr. J. T. Fields edited his yesterdays
With Authors he referred, in his introduction to Mary Mitford's
letters,rto the little English author as "the lady of Our
Village," for it was chiefly through this work that Miss Mitford was known in America.
America gave her a warm recognition
early in her career, and several of her later works received
considerable notice in American periodicals and journals.
In 1925 R. Brlmley Johnson remarked that the combination
of a "literary flavour and critical power, of a keen love for
animal or inanimate nature and certain forms of sport, with
shrewd sympathies and strong family affection, produces a rare
charm."®®
Regarding Our Village, he also wrote:
There can be no better description of this work than
the various comments and descriptions in her own letters,
printed below.
It is more sentimental than Jane Austen,
or than Cranford; but closely similar in direct simplicity
and truthfulness to domestic feeling.
The best of the
sketches, and many of them reach the "best," may be fairly
compared to such masterpieces; though.the achievement is
not so great, and will never be so popular, from their
lack of continued dramatic interest, full-length character­
ization, and story or plot. A collection of sketches,
however perfect, does not make a novel; and when Miss Mitford later attempted this higher form of fiction, she did
not— in any adequate? sense— succeed. Yet Our Village
87 Littell's Living A g e , CIV, 5 6 8 .
88
Johnson, op♦ cit., pp. 4-5»
201
remains unique. Nowhere else has the-tranquil atmosphere
of village life, with its joys and humours, its real
sorrows and unexpected romances, been so lovingly and
wisely portrayed. . . . Miss Mitford, of course, looked
down on her subject, "as became a gentlewoman";
but the
sympathy and understanding are real. Since, in ^those days*
her subjects, no less inevitably, looked up to her, she is
not far from actual truth.°9
Some twenty or thirty years after the turn of the
twentieth century, Elizabeth Lee paid tribute to Our Village
in the following expression of appreciation:
. . . But we who are the inheritors of her labours can
never forget that to this pressing need of earning money
we owe "Our Village," which ranks among the great "Country
Books" in English literature.
It is strange tOglearn
that Miss Mitford hated the act of composition.
WV R. Nicoll gave Miss Mitford's little historiettes the
credit for making the fortune of The L a d y 's Magazine,
1819-1820,
and also stated that they were the beginning of a new graphic
genre.91
Although' Miss Mitford published her collected dramatic
works in 1854, little was said of her dramas after her death.
One or two old timers who survived her a decade or so recalled
with satisfaction Miss Mitford's triumph over the other play­
wrights of the first half of the nineteenth century.
One of
these critics paid Miss Mitford the following tribute over her
contemporaries:
89 Ibid.. pp. 24-5.
90 Lee, o p . e i t ., p . 25.
91 W. R. Nicoll and Thomas Seccombe, A History of the
English Language (New York:. Dodd, Mead, and Co.,fn. d.l),
III, 999.
202
It would be hard to name one of the sisterhood who
planted her foot on the hoards so firmly as Miss Mitford
and who gained and maintained her success in a manner so
honourable to herself, and withal so creditable to woman­
hood.
None of the sisterhood seems to have held back from
cordial recognition of certainly the greatest and most
continuous success in serious drama won by any English
woman. Miss Mitford's four plays— the "Foscari,11 produced
under the disadvantage of what might have been thought
rivalry with Byron;
Julian," more successful; "Rienai,"
yet more clear, powerful, and sustained (as such grace­
fully complimented by Lord Lytton in the preface to his
best historical romance); "Charles the First," in spite
of the tremendous difficulties of its subject--all made
their mark at the time of their appearance.92
In 1890 Littell*s Living Age quoted~the following
article from Temple B a r :
Her plays are no longer acted, her stories no longer
read, but she still lives in her letters; rather, pre­
judiced, excessive in praise of those she loved, but
lively, observant, obviously sincere, and deriving a
pathetic interest from a life of self-sacrifice and hard
work, the sunny side of which they usually chronicle.93
Elizabeth Lee remarked about her dramas:
"Although
these plays, like her verse, are now forgotten, they made their
mark in their day, and Rienzi is a very fair example of
poetical tragedy."94
Allardyee Nicoll gave Miss Mitford credit
for individuality in her plays and felt that they were more
effective than the genera,l run of plays during that period,
92 Littell's Living Age, CIV, 569.
93 Ibid.. CLXXXVII, 579-
94
_
Lee, op. c i t ., p. 22
203
but again there was nothing outstanding about any of them.95
Regarding Foscari, Nicoll remarked:
creation and the hero, Francesco,
"Her Doge is a lifeless
is little more than a white­
washed puppet."96
Recollections of a Literary Life was seldom mentioned
after her death, but when it was discussed,
it was usually
criticized for having such a misleading title.
One reviewer
wrote:
Now, without pausing to insist very strongly on the fact
that we cannot exactly accept Miss Mitford's literary
categories as here stated--we must observe-that the matter
here offered is certainly not that of which her title page
suggests the presumption. We think Miss Mitford*sscountry
friends and admirers are likely to be misled, as-we were
ourselves, into expecting that a book professing to be
"Recollections of a Literary Life" should present some­
thing of the writer's biographical memoirs.
It being once
understood that the.book is principally compilation and
critical gossip— the matter is agreeable enough, and comes
pleasantly to diversify more serious reading at this
holiday time.
It .is hard work to use, but the publication
is scarcely free from the charge of b o o k - m a k i n g . 97
Her Recollections received more favorable mention in an
article appearing in the Spectator and reprinted by Littell*s
Living A g e :
These recollections of Miss Mitford are not a regular
autobiography; but something more varied, probably more
attractive. Books and authors are the real subjects of
the v/riter, around which she spun, a variety of personal
reminiscences, sketches of characters, and pictures of
landscapes or in-door scenes, interspersed here and there
9“* A. Nicoll, British Drama (New York: Crowell, 1925)» p.308.
96
,
A. Nicoll, Nineteenth Century Drama, I, 176.
97 Littell's Living A g e , LIV, 476.
204
with direct family or biographical information.98
The following reference to Miss Mitford appeared in a
recent literary magazine:
Several clients have reported to Old Q,. their own
methods of temporary relief from present disasters. W. C.
O. says after a hard day in the office she found Angela
Thirkell's Before Lunch good entertainment. . . . A
Conneticut reader fell back on the three volumes of Mary
Russell Mitford’s Recollections of a Literary Life.99
Atherton received very few reviews.
One of the most
accurate criticisms of the novel was made by Agnes Repplier,
one of America's most prominent essayists.
She wrote:
She wrote love stories by the score, always approaching
the subject from the outside, and treating it with easy
conventionality, the generous yet imperfect sympathy, of
a warm hearted woman, not prone to analyze motives.
They
are very pleasant Rories for the most part, sensible,
healthy, and happy; but they are not convincing.
The
reader feels that if Polly did not marry Joe she would be
just as well satisfied with William, and, that if Edwin
failed to win Angelina he would soon content himself with
Dorothy.
This is a comfortable state of affairs, . . .
but it is not precisely the element which makes a success­
ful love tale. The fact is that Miss Mitford described
things pretty much as she found them, not seeking to dive
below the surface, and always adding a little sunshine of
her own. 00
The Cambridge History of English Literature refers to
Atherton as Miss Mitford's only novel— and of very little
account, and Mrs. S. C. Hall, who knew Miss Mitford during the
latter part of her life, commented upon the serious illness of
98 Ibid., LX, 474,
^ P. E. G-. Quercus, "Trade Winds," The Saturday Review
of Literature (New York:
n. p. , June 22, 1940), XXII,"24.
100 Agnes Repplier, "Three Famous Old Maids," Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (Philadelphia: Lippincott, .l$9l),
XLVTI, 391.
the author of Atherton at the time of its writing:
"Here and
now it was that she produced Atherton, her last work; and those
who wish to see gleams of sunshine illuminating the home of
suffering cannot do better than turn to those sunny pages. "-^1
These remarks show that Miss Mitford's reputation as a
writer began to decline shortly after her death.
At the
present time she is respected by those who have read her works,
but she must take her place in the background of English
literature:
a literary lady who, no matter what the gods may
say of her own literary achievement, was the friend, adviser,
and eonfidant of greater authors than herself— and who held an
honored and respected place among the writers and the readers,;
of her own d a y .
Mrs. S. C. Hall,"Memories of the Authors of the Age,
Eclectie Magazine (Hew York:
n. p. , 1866), IV, 231*
CHAPTER V
CONCLUSION
The memory of Mary Russell Mitford may be compared to
that of a pressed rose, but with the fragrance of new-mown hay
in dewy meadows, the breath of the wild briar and hawthorn
from country hedgerows.
Her sunny disposition will always
cast a ray of cheer the way of those who read her prose.
Lack­
ing the worldliness and objectivity of Maria Edgeworth, or the
intuitive psychology of Jane Austen, she was perhaps the first
Englishwoman from whose graceful, sympathetic, and cheering
pen came studies of rural scenery equally faithful and charm­
ing, whose humor and h u m a n i n t e r e s t , spontaneous and natural,
are true alike to nature and to human nature.
No doubt she
has been passed on the same path by others, as Mrs. G-askell,
Miss Anne Thackeray, and Mrs. Walford in Dinglefleld, but it
would be ungrateful and disloyal to truth and to Miss Mitford
to forget that Miss Mitford led the way.^
Born into circumstances which made it possible for her
to become acquainted with the important literary figures of
her time, because of her father's inability to take care of
the little family, Mary Mitford soon found -it necessary to
support herself, her mother, and her irresponsible father.
twenty thousand pounds which Mary won at the age of ten as a
■*"Annie Fields, "Mary Russell Mitford," The Critic.
XXXVII, 512.
The
207
result of her father's interest in an Irish lottery supported
the small group in style until Mary was old enough to earn
money by writing.
Her first attempt at writing was in the form of poetry
or verse which was of a very inferior quality.
Scott said
that it was released too early and that some of her friends
should have "led her to correcter models of taste."
Her plays met with considerable success in their day,
but now they are seldom read.
The early nineteenth century
was one in which good plays were not written and anything
which resembled the classics was readily accepted.
While Miss
Mitford's plays were highly praised and well received by her
contemporary readers, her tragedies contained no depth of
emotional understanding and her characters moved automatically
and artificially, appealing to the superficial and passing
fancies of her generation.
Miss Mitford's prose was of a much superior quality,
as is demonstrated in Our Village.
The sweet and sunny per­
sonality of this fine, remarkable woman is reflected in her
realistic portrayal of the simple life around Three Mile Cross.
In these little sketches and essays Miss Mitford has pictured
English life as it will never be again.
She has photographed
for all times a type of English life in a setting which has
been blasted and bombed into mere memories of what once has
been--the happiness and contentment of the simple life, the
208
beauty of the English countryside before numerous factories,
railroads, and automobiles began, to change England into a
commercialized nation instead of the island of quaint villages,
picturesque gardens,.and winding lanes.
Her criticisms and correspondence were numerous, and it
is safe to say that Miss Mitford wrote on the average at least
sixteen letters a day.
The little author was acquainted with
almost everybody of any importance in England, and her letters
to and remarks about these people prominent in the literary
and political worlds are of particular interest to later gen­
erations.
Mary's criticisms were always straight from the
heart, but many of her judgments were hasty and ill-considered.
It is difficult, and probably impossible, to construct
a just or final evaluation of Miss Mitford.
There are, of
course, on the part of this investigator diverse narrowing
limitations of ability, of insight, of experience; and other
barriers intervene, perhaps more powerful and pervasive, even
if less obvious--such as those inherent in the present gen­
eration and culture.
These last provide an "intellectual
climate," a measurably opaque or refraeting medium for all
judgments made by persons of today, and make it difficult for
a writer to insert himself clearly and sympathetically into
either Miss Mitford's life or the cultural environment against
which her talent reacted to produce the monument of her liter­
ary work.
In other words, Miss Mitford's particular milieu
209
has sped into the past, has merged into the mysterious mosaic
of history and can, at best, be only partially recreated or
relived.
And to the extent that such recreation is impossible
of accomplishment, the placement of Miss Mitford in the back­
ground of her time will tend to be distorted and inaccurate.
But in any view, her life in experience was a limited
one.
She was a precocious child, a bright girl, who grew into
a talented woman, but she never experienced the complete life
presumably alloted to each woman.
In the three directions in which her literary talent
pushed out— in the fields of verse and drama, personal contacts
and correspondence,
and prose writings, •particularly Our
VillagLe--she remains the essential creature and wholly within
her generation.
At no time did she go beyond the apparent
things about her and the things she had gathered from books.
About her life was a nobility, a dedication to duty, an un­
wavering purpose that deserves a high meed of praise; she
described things as she saw them, but she could not dive below
the surface or rise very.far above the superficial.
To do
this seems reserved for the few great personalities born to
each age, and of such she was not— nor did she pretend to be.
Hence her reputation and her influence were confined to her
own generation.
To those who seek to know the superficial things that
went to make up the life of her generation, she offers a
showhouse of treasures.
To those who yearn to plow deeply
into the common mould of man, into things that abide though
a thousand years have flown away, she offers little of interest
or of value.
B I B L I 0 CTR A P H Y
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220
PERIODICAL ARTICLES
Askew, H . , “Mary Russell Mitford," Notes and Queries, CLXIV,
January-14, 1932, Oxford University Press.
As.tin, Marjorie, “Mary Russell Mitford, Her Circle and Her
Friends," Times Literary Supplement; London: London
Times Press, October 9> 1931.
Athenaeum (Detailed notice soliciting funds).
February 18, 1843, p. 146.
London:
Bickness, P. F., "Miss Mitford as a Letter-xyriter," Dial .
Chicago: May..27, 1915, 58: 415-17.
"Christina," EclecticcRevlew.
London:
13: 548
Chorley, H. F., "Miss Austen and Miss Mitford," Quarterly
Review. London: J. Murray, 1870, 128:205.
Chorley, H. F., "Atherton," Athenaeum,'.1854.
Contant, Samuel Stillman, "Mary Russell Mitford," Harper *s „
Magazine.
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1870, 40:409-16.
Eclectic Magazine, New York.
677229; 77:339.
27:145; 28:509; 6:513; 32:483;
Fields, Annie (Mrs. J. T.),"Mary Russell Mitford," The Criticw
New York:
1900, 37:512.
Gifford, William, "Mary Russell Mitford's Poems," Quarterly
Review. London: J. Murray, 1824,34:517.
. . . ., "Our Village," Quarterly Review.
1824,-31:166-8.
London:
J. Murray,
Green, R., "Heavy Fathers," Fortnightly Review, 92:86-8.
Littell*s Living Agefc Boston: E. Littell and Company,
32:474r~60:6 7 8 p l 0 4 :553; 105:38; 162:806; 187:579; 262:478.
Manning, Anne, "Mary Russell Mitford," Macmillan's Magazine.
London: Macmillan, 1870, 21:346..
Mary Russell Mitford (portrait), Overland Monthly.
Francisco, January, 1910, 55:92.
"Miss Mitford and Miss Austen" Blackwood's Magazine.
107:290.
San
London:
221
"Recollections,"
Blackwood's Magazine, 71:259; 75:658.
Repplier, Agnes, "Three Famous Old Maids," Lippincott *s Mag­
azine . Philadelphia:
J. P. -Lippincott,_ 47:390.
Ridley, H. M., "Great Friendships: Mary Mitford and Elizabeth
Barrett," Canadian Magazine. Toronto: April, 1923,,
60 :515,20 .
Roberts, W. J., "The Tragedy of a Blue Stocking," (a review),
Edinburgh Review. July, 1913, 218:186.
Smith, Goldwin, "Miss Mitford's Letters," The Nation.
York: J. H. .Richards and-Company, 1870, 10:215.
New
"Trade Winds by P. E. G-. Quercus," Saturday Review of Liter­
ature . New York: Saturday Review Company, Inc., June 22,
194-0, 22:24.
REFERENCE WORKS
Garvin, J. L., F. H. Harper, and W. E. Cox, editors, "Mary
Russell Mitford," Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th edition,
XW, New York and Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.,
1937.
Lee, Elizabeth, "Mary Russell Mitford," Dictionary of National
Biography, Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, editors. New
York: Macmillan Company, 1908-27.
24 v.
Saintsbury, George; Jack; and Peterhouse; "Mary Russell Mit­
ford,
Cambridge History of English Literature, A. W. Ward
and A. R. Waller, editors.
15 v., v .’8\ N e w ’Y o r k : G. P.
Putnam's Sons, 1917.
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