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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE BEST description of Miss Mitford is given by Mrs. Browning in a letter to Mr. Horne, where she speaks of her as “our friend of Three Mile Cross, who ‘wears her heart upon her sleeve’ and shakes out its perfume at every moment.” And indeed, like the sun, Miss Mitford shone upon the just and the unjust: her flowers, her dogs, her servants, neighbors and friends, her devoted mother, and her handsome, graceless father, all shared alike her sunny sweet-heartedness.  1
  Mary Russell Mitford was born at Alresford, in the town of Wither, England, December 16th, 1787, and began her career as a writer in 1810, publishing then her first volume, ‘Miscellaneous Poems.’ In reading the account of her life given in her own letters, edited by Mr. L’Estrange, it is impossible not to be touched by the revelation of her pathetically cheerful struggle to support her parents, as well as provoked by her unfailing devotion to her good-for-nothing father. Indeed, so deeply does her love for him impress the reader, that at last it comes near to protecting him from criticism. Squandering first his own fortune, Dr. Mitford married Miss Russell, a devoted woman, ten years his senior, whose friends he proceeded to offend, and whose fortune he promptly dissipated. At the first touch of pecuniary embarrassment he moved from Alresford to Lynn Regis, where for one year they lived in the greatest luxury. In ‘Recollections of a Literary Life’ Miss Mitford says: “In that old historical town [Lynn Regis] I spent the eventful year when the careless happiness of childhood vanished, and the troubles of the world first dawned upon my heart…. Nobody told me, but I felt,… I knew, I can’t tell how, but I did know that everything was to be parted with, and everybody paid.” Then follows a description of chests being carried away in the night by faithful servants, and of a dreary journey for herself and her mother, and of the first touch of dreadful poverty. Settled in lodgings in London, this incredible father took his little daughter to buy a lottery ticket; she selected one whose added numbers made her age—ten years—and would have none other. This ticket was bought, and drew for Dr. Mitford twenty thousand pounds. Once more with a fortune, he bought a place near Reading,—Bertram House,—and sent his daughter, of whom he was excessively proud, to school in London. It was while at Bertram House that Miss Mitford published her first volume, following it in 1811 by ‘Christine,’ and other smaller things. In 1820 they move from Bertram House into a tiny cottage at Three Mile Cross, and from this time on it is one long struggle for money. From this place are written Miss Mitford’s most charming letters, in which we read of her difficulties about her tragedies, and how, because of these difficulties, she took up another line of work as less harassing, and began to write short sketches of the life about her: sketches which Campbell refused as too light,—which the world put next to Lamb’s Essays,—and which, collected, made ‘Our Village.’  2
  Between 1823 and 1828 three of her plays, ‘Julien,’ ‘Foscari,’ and ‘Rienzi,’ were put upon the stage by Macready and Kemble; ‘Our Village’ had an enormous success, and Miss Mitford was toasted and made much of by all the world of London. But as her father “played a very fine hand at whist,” she could never be very long away from Three Mile Cross and her writing-table; and she goes back quite cheerfully to a daily task of from seven to twelve hours writing. Her work is most voluminous: including plays, poems, ‘Dramatic Scenes,’ ‘Stories of American Life,’—of which she could not have known very much,—‘Stories for Children,’ and in 1835 another collection of sketches, called ‘Belford Regis.’ Besides all this, she contributed to newspapers, magazines, ‘Amulets’ and ‘Forget-me-nots,’ and edited from 1838 to 1841 Finden’s Tableaux; finishing her work in 1852–4 with ‘Recollections of a Literary Life,’ and ‘Atherton and Other Tales.’ Driven by want and harassed by debt, she could not produce much that would live; but the careful reader of Miss Mitford’s letters will never criticize Miss Mitford’s failures. At Three Mile Cross, after much ill health, her mother died, and later her “beloved father”; and here she lived until in 1850 the little house began to fall to pieces; and she moved to Swallowfield, not very far away, there to finish her life.  3
  Miss Mitford tells us that she “delighted in that sort of detail which permits so intimate a familiarity with the subject of which it treats,”—and she gives it to us in her work. She describes a cowslip ball so accurately that one smells the cowslips and helps her to tie it; she makes us intimately acquainted with the “spreading hawthorn”; the shower pelts us in wetting her, and we change our clothes too—or we long to do so—in order to sit down with her near the fire. She loses her walking-stick, and we go back with her over the whole expedition to find it; it is a personal loss, and we are much relieved when the children bring it home again. Frost comes; and we are out under the solemn white avenue, looking at the “landscape of snow,” at the frozen weeds, and becoming friendly with the little bird tamed by the cold,—“perched in the middle of the hedge, nestling as it were among the cold bare boughs, seeking, poor pretty thing, for the warmth it will not find.” Then the description of the thaw, not much more than a paragraph,—a dismal thaw, the dreariness of which she fights against quite palpably, stopping so abruptly that one is sure that she found it too forlorn to dwell upon safely.  4
  But through all the sunny charm of her work, she is conscious of the shadow of the hopeless struggle she is making; one knows that she did not dare to tread too heavily on the thin ice of her happiness, and one steps lightly along with her, and makes a conscious effort to forget the father and his endless folly. When at last she is alone in the world, and has to move from Three Mile Cross, she says: “It was a great grief to go. I had associations with those old walls which endeared them to me more than I can tell. There I had toiled and striven, and tasted of as bitter anxiety, of fear and of hope, as often falls to the lot of women. There in the fullness of age I had lost those whose love had made my home sweet and precious.” And one longs to step back fifty years and maul that delinquent father; not so much, perhaps, because he was selfish, as because she loved him so. But in the next paragraph her invincible cheerfulness again comes to the front, and we begin to like Swallowfield almost as much as Three Mile Cross. A brave soul was Miss Mitford; and a strange contrast to her “beloved young friend” Elizabeth Barrett, who in the depth of ease and luxury nursed the one grief of her life, as if it were the only specimen of sorrow in the world. A brave and sturdy soul; and her reward is immortality for the flower that sprang from her heroic self-abnegation—immortality for her humble home, ‘Our Village.’  5
 
 
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