‘The most charming person I have ever known’

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John Ruskin
by George Richmond
black and white chalk, circa 1857
NPG 1058
© National Portrait Gallery, London

One of the remarkable aspects of Mitford’s life was the range of people with whom she corresponded. In other posts I’ve discussed MRM’s acquaintance with Elizabeth Barrett, Thomas De Quincey,  Samuel Taylor Coleridge and J. T. Fields. In January 1847 a young John Ruskin (1819-1900) arrived at the cottage in Three Mile Cross, marking the start of a long friendship, despite the 32-year age difference. In 1848 Mitford wrote to Charles Boner: ‘Have you ever read and Oxford Graduate’s Letters on Art? The author, Mr Ruskin, was here last week, and is certainly the most charming person that I have ever known. The books are very beautiful, although I do not agree in all the opinions; but the young man himself is just what if one had a son one should have dreamt of his turning out, in mind, manner, conversation, everything.’*

MRM delighted in Ruskin’s poetry and prose, writing to his father (John James Ruskin) in July 1852: ‘If your son had never written a line of verse in his life he would still have been among the greatest of English poets – for that eloquent prose with its glorious rhythm and its descriptions which we see is poetry of the very highest class – poetry that will last as long as the language and continue fresh through its changes, or rather help preserve it from change like the kindred pages of Jeremy Taylor.’** In another letter to John James Ruskin in 1853 she praised the younger Ruskin again: ‘Genius is a great gift, my dear Mr Ruskin, a great trust – and it would be difficult to find a writer who has so worthily exercised his noble powers. One of the best symptoms of the age is the recognition of the works so high in aim and so perfect in execution. It is a privilege to be honoured by the friendship of John Ruskin!’***

The Ruskins’ frequent letters and gifts of books, food and wine sustained Mitford in her frail final years and brought her much joy. In August 1854, just 5 months before her death, MRM wrote to John Ruskin:

The sight of your writing does me good. I even think that when your letters and those of your dear father come I have a bright hour. – I am now sitting at the open window inhaling the sweet summer air – a jar of roses inside the window-sill – a perfect sheaf of fresh gathered meadow-sweet sending its almondy fragrance from without – and although too deeply sunken in my chair to look down on the flower beds in my little court yet with the blue sky and the green trees, and a bit of road and the distant harvest-fields for a prospect. God is very merciful to me thus to the last the enjoyments of His works – and such a friend with whom to talk (for we are talking) of that enjoyment. How good you are to me in every way! I have such a delight in the drama that I have not for a long while looked forward to any book with so much pleasure as that which you promise me [Octave Feuillet’s Scènes et Proverbes] […]

Thirty years ago, after [before?] many volumes of “Our Village” had been published, I was far better known as a dramatist than a prose writer. All the four Tragedies that have been acted had a real success – three of them far beyond the average […] My only reason for leaving a mode of composition I loved so well was the necessity of earning a fixed income – and the terrible uncertainty between managers, actors and licensers of all earnings on the stage […]

Forgive this egotism. “Since the three or four hot days and a thunderstorm” which Horace Walpole says constitute an English summer and which nearly killed me, I am somewhat revived – that is I am kept up by nourishment every two to three hours – beef-tea, blancmange, sole, whiting, champagne and water (at the rate of a tablespoonful to a dose) as often as they can pour it down my throat.***

One of Mitford’s final letters, written on the 26th December 1854, was written to Ruskin, commending his work and his writing on the painter Giotto: ‘What a book! You thinking all the time only of the painter, never for a moment of the pen which was painting him!’ She finishes the letter: ‘Once again, beloved friends, I send you the old-fashioned hearty wishes belonging to this season. Such wishes are prayers. May God bless you, the kind and the dear!’***

*Vera Watson, Mary Russell Mitford (London: Evans Brothers Ltd, c.1950)
**Elizabeth Lee (ed.), Mary Russell Mitford: Correspondence with Charles Boner & John Ruskin (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1914), 215.
***Correspondence with Charles Boner & John Ruskin, 248/ 279-80/314-5.
Image use through Creative Commons Licence.
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The Cowslip Ball

ImageMay 16th.There are moments in life when, without any visible or immediate cause, the spirits sink and fail, as it were, under the mere pressure of existence: moments of unaccountable depression, when one is weary of one’s very thoughts, haunted by images that will not depart—images many and various, but all painful; friends lost, or changed, or dead; hopes disappointed even in their accomplishment; fruitless regrets, powerless wishes, doubt and fear, and self-distrust, and self-disapprobation. They who have known these feelings (and who is there so happy as not to have known some of them?) will understand why Alfieri became powerless, and Froissart dull; and why even needle-work, the most effectual sedative, that grand soother and composer of woman’s distress, fails to comfort me to-day. I will go out into the air this cool, pleasant afternoon, and try what that will do. I fancy that exercise or exertion of any kind, is the true specific for nervousness. ‘Fling but a stone, the giant dies.’ I will go to the meadows, the beautiful meadows! and I will have my materials of happiness, Lizzy and May, and a basket for flowers, and we will make a cowslip-ball. ‘Did you ever see a cowslip-ball, my Lizzy?’—’No.’—’Come away, then; make haste! run, Lizzy!’

 […] And here we are in the meadows, and out of the world. Robinson Crusoe, in his lonely island, had scarcely a more complete, or a more beautiful solitude.

These meadows consist of a double row of small enclosures of rich grass-land, a mile or two in length, sloping down from high arable grounds on either side, to a little nameless brook that winds between them with a course which, in its infinite variety, clearness, and rapidity, seems to emulate the bold rivers of the north, of whom, far more than of our lazy southern streams, our rivulet presents a miniature likeness. Never was water more exquisitely tricksy:—now darting over the bright pebbles, sparkling and flashing in the light with a bubbling music, as sweet and wild as the song of the woodlark; now stretching quietly along, giving back the rich tufts of the golden marsh-marigolds which grow on its margin; now sweeping round a fine reach of green grass, rising steeply into a high mound, a mimic promontory, whilst the other side sinks softly away, like some tiny bay, and the water flows between, so clear, so wide, so shallow, that Lizzy, longing for adventure, is sure she could cross unwetted; now dashing through two sand-banks, a torrent deep and narrow, which May clears at a bound; now sleeping, half hidden, beneath the alders, and hawthorns, and wild roses, with which the banks are so profusely and variously fringed, whilst flags, lilies, and other aquatic plants, almost cover the surface of the stream […] We ourselves possess one of the most beautiful; so that the strange pleasure of property, that instinct which makes Lizzy delight in her broken doll, and May in the bare bone which she has pilfered from the kennel of her recreant admirer of Newfoundland, is added to the other charms of this enchanting scenery; a strange pleasure it is, when one so poor as I can feel it! Perhaps it is felt most by the poor, with the rich it may be less intense—too much diffused and spread out, becoming thin by expansion, like leaf-gold; the little of the poor may be not only more precious, but more pleasant to them: certain that bit of grassy and blossomy earth, with its green knolls and tufted bushes, its old pollards wreathed with ivy, and its bright and babbling waters, is very dear to me. But I must always have loved these meadows, so fresh, and cool, and delicious to the eye and to the tread, full of cowslips, and of all vernal flowers: Shakspeare’s ‘Song of Spring’ bursts irrepressibly from our lips as we step on them.

Image‘Cuckoo! cuckoo!’ cried Lizzy, breaking in with her clear childish voice; and immediately, as if at her call, the real bird, from a neighbouring tree (for these meadows are dotted with timber like a park), began to echo my lovely little girl, ‘cuckoo! cuckoo!’ I have a prejudice very unpastoral and unpoetical (but I cannot help it, I have many such) against this ‘harbinger of spring.’ [To] escape that noise I determined to excite another, and challenged Lizzy to a cowslip-gathering; a trial of skill and speed, to see which should soonest fill her basket. My stratagem succeeded completely. What scrambling, what shouting, what glee from Lizzy! twenty cuckoos might have sung unheard whilst she was pulling her own flowers, and stealing mine, and laughing, screaming, and talking through all […]

In the meanwhile I sat listening, not to my enemy the cuckoo, but to a whole concert of nightingales, scarcely interrupted by any meaner bird, answering and vying with each other in those short delicious strains which are to the ear as roses to the eye: those snatches of lovely sound which come across us as airs from heaven. Pleasant thoughts, delightful associations, awoke as I listened; and almost unconsciously I repeated to myself the beautiful story of the Lutist and the Nightingale, from Ford’s ‘Lover’s Melancholy[…]

When I had finished the recitation of this exquisite passage, the sky, which had been all the afternoon dull and heavy, began to look more and more threatening; darker clouds, like wreaths of black smoke, flew across the dead leaden tint; a cooler, damper air blew over the meadows, and a few large heavy drops splashed in the water. ‘We shall have a storm. Lizzy! May! where are ye? Quick, quick, my Lizzy! run, run! faster, faster!’

ImageAnd off we ran; Lizzy not at all displeased at the thoughts of a wetting, to which indeed she is almost as familiar as a duck; May, on the other hand, peering up at the weather, and shaking her pretty ears with manifest dismay. Of all animals, next to a cat, a greyhound dreads rain. She might have escaped it; her light feet would have borne her home long before the shower; but May is too faithful for that, too true a comrade, understands too well the laws of good-fellowship; so she waited for us. She did, to be sure, gallop on before, and then stop and look back, and beckon, as it were, with some scorn in her black eyes at the slowness of our progress. We in the meanwhile got on as fast as we could, encouraging and reproaching each other […]

By this time we were thoroughly soaked, all three. It was a pelting shower, that drove through our thin summer clothing and poor May’s short glossy coat in a moment. And then, when we were wet to the skin, the sun came out, actually the sun, as if to laugh at our plight; and then, more provoking still, when the sun was shining, and the shower over, came a maid and a boy to look after us, loaded with cloaks and umbrellas enough to fence us against a whole day’s rain. Never mind! on we go, faster and faster; Lizzy obliged to be most ignobly carried, having had the misfortune to lose a shoe in the mud, which we left the boy to look after.

Here we are at home—dripping; but glowing and laughing, and bearing our calamity most manfully. May, a dog of excellent sense, went instantly to bed in the stable, and is at this moment over head and ears in straw; Lizzy is gone to bed too, coaxed into that wise measure by a promise of tea and toast, and of not going home till to-morrow, and the story of Little Red Riding Hood; and I am enjoying the luxury of dry clothing by a good fire. Really getting wet through now and then is no bad thing, finery apart; for one should not like spoiling a new pelisse, or a handsome plume; but when there is nothing in question but a white gown and a straw bonnet, as was the case to-day, it is rather pleasant than not. The little chill refreshes, and our enjoyment of the subsequent warmth and dryness is positive and absolute. Besides, the stimulus and exertion do good to the mind as well as body. How melancholy I was all the morning! how cheerful I am now! Nothing like a shower-bath—a real shower-bath, such as Lizzy and May and I have undergone, to cure low spirits. Try it, my dear readers, if ever ye be nervous—I will answer for its success.

Illustration by C.E. Brock from Our Village (London: J.M. Dent & Co, 1904)
Cowslip photo via.
Other image courtesy of Reading Central Library.
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‘I want to know what Mr. Coleridge thinks’

ImageAlthough the main literary focus of this project has been on Our Village, Mitford wrote many poems and plays, as well as her longer works Belford Regis (1835) and Atherton (1854). As a young woman she devoted much of her efforts to writing poetry, publishing Poems in 1810, Christina, The Maid of the South Seas in 1811, Watlington Hill; a poem in 1812 and Narrative Poems on the Female Character in 1813.

ImageMitford’s early poetry has been accused of being largely derivative and of imitating one of her favourite writers, Walter Scott. In 1819, for example, Byron commented: ‘Scott found peculiar favour and imitation among the fair sex: there was Miss Holford, and Miss Mitford, and Miss Francis; but, with the greatest respect be it spoken, none of his imitators did much honour to the original, except Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd’. MRM also admired the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and it was he who corrected the proofs of Christina when they came from the publishers in early 1811. In a letter to her father in February 1811, Mitford writes in the final, cramped line: ‘I want to know what Mr. Coleridge thinks of the 3rd Canto which he has not yet seen I suppose. This sounds like a Bull.’ When she received the proofs in March 1811, she wrote again to Dr Mitford: ‘Mr. Coleridge has only taken out what could be spared from my poem. I wish he had taken more, for what remains is really detestable, – always excepting your own beautiful lines.Image

Mitford claims in Recollections of a Literary Life that her father earned Coleridge’s gratitude by helping him obtain a discharge from the army (Coleridge’s regiment was based in Reading at the time), and apparently it was because of this that the poet assisted MRM with her work:

ImageEverybody has heard the often-told story of Coleridge’s enlisting in a cavalry regiment under a feigned name,* and being detected as a Cambridge scholar[...] It has not been stated that the arrangement for [Coleridge’s discharge] took place at my father’s house at Reading. Such, however, was the case. 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 [Dr and Mrs Mitford, MRM’s parents]. 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 Reading, 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 learned recruit. It was at the beginning of the great war with France; men were procured with difficulty, and if one of the servants waiting at table had not been induced to enlist in his place, there might have been some hesitation in procuring a discharge. Mr. Coleridge never forgot my father’s zeal in the cause […] Such was Mr. Coleridge’s kind recognition of my father’s exertions, that he had the infinite goodness and condescension to look over the proof sheets of two girlish efforts “Christina” and “Blanch,” and to encourage the young writer by gentle strictures and stimulating praise. Ah! I wish she had better deserved this honouring notice!

Recollections of a Literary Life II (1853), 144-45.

* Silas Tomkyn Comberbache

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All images reproduced with the kind permission of Reading Central Library. 
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‘Mr. Wordsworth, whom I love’

DSC_2606Mary Russell Mitford was long an admirer of the works of William Wordsworth. On a visit to London in May 1836, MRM met the poet at a dinner party and she recounted her impressions of him in a letter to her father the next morning:

26th May 1836, Russell Square

Mr. Wordsworth, Mr. Landon 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. Mr. Landon is a most very striking looking person, & exceedingly clever – also we had a Mr. Browning a young poet (author of Paracelsus) & Mr. Proctor & Mr. Chorley & quantities more of poets &c.

Image Two days later they met again and, according to Mitford, the admiration was mutual:

May 28-29 1836, Russell Square

Our dinner at Mr. Kenyon’s (to which I went with the Harnesses) was magnificent – Mr. Wordsworth, whom I love – he is an adorable old man – Mr. Landon who is as splendid in person as Mr. Kenyon but not so full of sweetnes and sympathy – the charming Miss Barrett – Mr Courtenay […] and his daughter, a Mrs Raymond […] and three or four more to dinner – the most magnificent dinner I ever saw – a much finer house and finer style than while Mrs Kenyon lived – after dinner half the world came […] Miss Barrett is the sweetest creature that ever lived has translated the most difficult of the Greek plays (the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus) and written most exquisite poems in almost every style – she is so sweet & gentle & so pretty that one looks at her as if she is some bright flower – & she says it is like a dream that she should be talking to me whose works she knows by heart. You cannot imagine how very very very kindly Mr. Wordsworth speaks of my poor works. You who know what I think of him can imagine how much I was gratified by his praise. I find that half the literary world is invited to meet me at Lady Dacres.

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All images reproduced with the kind permission of Reading Central Library.

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‘But for the fiend Procrastination’: Mary Russell Mitford and Thomas De Quincey

As an important and well-known literary figure in the early nineteenth century, Mitford became acquainted with many of the most famous writers, artists and thinkers of the period. In the next few posts I will concentrate on MRM’s connections with what can loosely be described as the ‘Lake District writers’, Thomas De Quincey (and his family), William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Ruskin.

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859)

It is uncertain whether Mitford ever met De Quincey in person, although Vera Watson mentions that the two writers may have met when they were both contributing to the London Magazine in 1821.* In 1853 MRM wrote that De Quincey’s conversation was ‘the finest of the world’.** The De Quincey family and MRM kept up a correspondence that lasted from the early 1820s until Mitford’s death in 1855.

Thomas De Quincey, most well-known for his work Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) (and for his addiction to opium), was born in Manchester in 1785. He took up a place at Worcester College, Oxford, in 1803, but never managed to complete his degree (according to Grevel Lindop, De Quincey ‘performed brilliantly in the first day [of his finals]’ but ‘suffered a loss of nerve and failed to present himself for the second and final day’ and fled to London.)***

De Quincey was a great admirer of William Wordsworth, having been impressed with Lyrical Ballads (1798) as a young man, and he eventually met the Wordsworths, Coleridges and Robert Southey in 1807. In 1809 he took over the lease of the cottage at Town End, Grasmere, in which the Wordsworths had lived between 1799 and 1808; at the top of the stairs in the cottage is a burn mark, reputed to have been caused by an absent-minded Mrs De Quincey leaving a bucket of hot coals on the wooden floorboards. De Quincey had married Margaret Simpson, the daughter of a local farmer, in 1817 and they had eight children. After the death of Mrs De Quincey in 1837, the family (who had moved to Edinburgh in 1830), took up residence in Lasswade, just outside Edinburgh. Under the supervision of De Quincey’s eldest daughter, also named Margaret, the family finally managed to stay out of debt, something with which De Quincey had been plagued since his student days.***

The following letters are written not by Thomas De Quincey, but by his daughter Margaret; there is, however, a very strong sense of De Quincey’s presence throughout the letters, which gives an idea of the intimacy of the friendship (as well as the somewhat shambolic but well-meaning character of De Quincey).

Mavis Bush, Lasswade, October 13, 1852

My dear Madam,

When your kind and most flattering letter arrived, my second sister and I, who generally act as my father’s amanuenses, were paying a visit in Edinburgh, consequently, as my youngest sister is not yet broken in to this duty, it has gone thus long unanswered; and, if we were to give in to my father’s desire, the chance is it would go totally so – not because he undervalues the honour you have done him, but because he rates it so highly that he determines to do it, not by proxy, but personally, and has already written something, I believe, little short of a good-sized pamphlet. But, as experience teaches us that delays, if not hindrances, undreamed of by all by De Quincey philosophy, will occur before the time when it can be ‘signed, sealed, and delivered’ to the post, we have begged that we may be allowed to send a sort of harbinger to explain why the answer is so long in making its appearance. I am therefore commissioned to say, with his most respectful regards, with what infinite pleasure he will avail himself of your and Mr. Pearson’s courteous and hospitable invitation to visit you, should be ever be within a possible distance of doing so, but, as there is no immediate prospect of such being the case on his part, he and we join in hoping that, should you or Mr. Pearson be in our neighbourhood, you will let us all have the happiness of making your acquaintance.

 Few things for many years have given my father such unmingled gratification as your letter. I don’t pretend to say why, as among his correspondents – if those can be called correspondents where the correspondence is all on one side – there are many who strike us as being as truly kind and gracious in their expression of goodwill towards himself as yourself, but such is the case […]

 With kindest regards, in which my sisters beg to join (papa having already sent his both to you and Mr. Pearson), I beg to remain, my dear madam, with much respect,

Very faithfully,

M. De Quincey 

****** 

Mavis Bush, Lasswade, March 14, 1853

 My dear Miss Mitford,

A few days ago I had a letter from Mr. Fields [J. T. Fields, who published a collection of De Quincey’s work for the American market], in which he mentions some accident you have met with; but, taking it for granted that we have heard of it, he does not say of what nature, but merely expresses his sympathy with us in what he justly supposes will be our feelings about it, having heard it. Papa wished me at the time to write directly and learn what it was, but I was on the eve of leaving home for a day only, as I then supposed, in such a hurry that I could not do so; and, having been from home more than a week, a longer time has elapsed than I expected, as I could not write from home, not having your address.

Papa tells me to say he heartily agrees with you in your admiration of Louis Napoleon (what if you have arrived at your admiration of him by the most opposite roads, and for the most opposite reasons!), and he has been so disgusted by the senseless attacks made by the Times and other papers upon him that, but for the fiend Procrastination holding him back and causing him to become merely a great pavior in the way of good intentions, he would have done his part in exposing their folly in so totally forgetting how England had benefited by Louis Nap’s conduct. This latter part is a true addition of my own to papa’s message. I was also to tell you that he agreed with you too in your detestation of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ but I told him you had not said you detested it, but that it was painful to read, upon which he withdrew his message but cherishes a hope that, if ever you do read it, you will detest it…

Papa does, and my sisters would – but they are from home at present – join me in kindest regards, and hopes to hear a good report of you, and believe me to remain, dear Miss Mitford,

Your sincere friend,

M. De Quincey

 

 *Mary Russell Mitford (London: Evans Brothers, c. 1950), 297. The first letter quoted above (October 13, 1852), suggests that MRM and De Quincey have never met in person.
**Elizabeth Lee, ed., Mary Russell Mitford: Correspondence with Charles Boner & John Ruskin (London; Leipzig: T. Fisher Unwin, 1914), 261.
*** ‘Quincey, Thomas Penson De (1785–1859)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/7524]
Letters taken from: A. G. L’Estrange, ed., The Friendships of Mary Russell Mitford: As recorded in letters from her literary correspondents, 2 volumes, II (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1882), 104-7. L’Estrange’s edition of Mitford’s letters must be read cautiously – a comparison between the published letter and its original reveals that the editor has taken many liberties with his material, including merging letters from different dates into one; the De Quincey letters quoted above are to be taken as evidence more of the spirit of the originals than an exact transcription.
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‘The immeasurable majesty of nature’

Walks in the Country: The Dell

May 2nd. A delicious evening; bright sunshine; light summer air; a sky almost cloudless; and a fresh yet delicate verdure on the hedges and in the fields; an evening that seems made for a visit to my newly-discovered haunt, the mossy dell, one of the most beautiful spots in the neighbourhood […]

The DellHere we are at the entrance of the cornfield which leads to the dell, and which commands so fine a view of the Loddon, the mill, the great farm, with its picturesque outbuildings, and the range of woody hills beyond. It is impossible not to pause a moment at that gate, the landscape, always beautiful, is so suited to the season and the hour – so bright, and gay, and spring-like […] The dell itself is an irregular piece of broken ground, in some parts very deep, intersected by two or three high banks of equal irregularity, now abrupt and bare, and rocklike, now crowned with tufts of the feathery willow or magnificent old thorns. Everywhere the earth is covered by short, fine turf, mixed with mosses, soft, beautiful, and various, and embossed with the speckled leaves and lilac flowers of the arum, the paler blossoms of the common orchis, the enamelled blue of the wild hyacinth, so splendid in this evening light, and large tufts of oxslips and cowslips rising like nosegays from the short turf[…]

Round this corner, where on ledges like fairy terraces the orchises and arums grow, and we emerge suddenly on a new side of the dell, just fronting the small homestead of our good neighbour Farmer Allen.

This rustic dwelling belongs to what used to be called in this part of the country ‘a little bargain’: thirty or forty acres, perhaps, of arable land, which the owner and his sons cultivated themselves, whilst the wife and daughters assisted in the husbandry, and eked out the slender earnings by the produce of the dairy, the poultry yard, and the orchard – an order of cultivators now passing rapidly away, but in which much of the best part of the English character, its industry, its frugality, its sound sense, and its kindness might be found. Farmer Allen himself is an excellent specimen, the cheerful venerable old man with his long white hair, and his bright grey eye, and his wife is a still finer. They have had a hard struggle to win through the world and keep their little property undivided; but good management and good principles, and the assistance afforded them by an admirable son, who left our village a poor ‘prentice boy, and is now a partner in a great house in London have enabled them to overcome all the difficulties of these trying times, and they are now enjoying the peaceful evenings of a well-spent life as free from care and anxiety as their best friends could desire.

Ah! there is Mr Allen in the orchard, the beautiful orchard, with its glorious gardens of pink and white, its pearly pear-blossoms and coral apple-buds. What a flush of bloom it is! How brightly delicate it appears, thrown into strong relief by the dark house and the weather-stained barn, in this soft evening light! The very grass is strewed with the snowy petals of the pear and the cherry. And there sits Mrs Allen, feeding her poultry, with her three little grand-daughters from London, pretty fairies from three years old to five (only two-and-twenty months elapsed between the birth of the eldest and the youngest) playing round her feet.

Mrs Allen, my dear Mrs Allen, has been that rare thing a beauty, and although she be now an old woman I had almost said that she is so still. Why should I not say so? Nobleness of feature and sweetness of expression are surely as delightful in age as in youth. Her face and figure are much like those which are stamped indelibly on the memory of every one who ever saw that grand specimen of woman – Mrs Siddons. The outline of Mrs Allen’s face is exactly the same; but there is more softness, more gentleness, a more feminine composure in the eye and in the smile. Mrs Allen never played Lady Macbeth. Her hair, almost as black as at twenty, is parted on her large fair forehead, and combed under her exquisitely neat and snowy cap; a muslin neckerchief, a grey stuff gown and a white apron complete the picture.

There she sits under an old elder-tree which flings its branches over her like a canopy, whilst the setting sun illumines her venerable figure and touches the leaves with an emerald light; there she sits, placid and smiling, with her spectacles in her hand and a measure of barley on her lap, into which the little girls are dipping their chubby hands and scattering the corn amongst the ducks and chickens with unspeakable glee […] The setting sun gives us [a warning to go home]; and in the moment we are through the dell, the field and the gate, past the farm and the mill, and hanging over the bridge that crosses the Loddon river.

What a sunset! how golden! how beautiful! The sun just disappearing, and the narrow liny clouds, which a few minutes ago lay like soft vapoury streaks along the horizon, lighted 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 dazzling 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[.]

Letter from Felicia Hemans to MRM, 6th June 1827, Memorials of Mrs Hemans ed. Chorley (1837), I. 151-52. (Found online here).

I can hardly feel that I am addressing an entire stranger in the author of Our Village, and yet I know not it is right and proper, that I should apologize for the liberty I am taking. But, really, after having accompanied you again, and again, as I have done, in “violetting” and seeking for wood-sorrel: after having been with you to call upon Mrs. Allen in “the dell,” and becoming thoroughly acquainted with “May and Lizzy,” I cannot but hope, that you will kindly pardon my intrusion, and that my name may be sufficiently known to you to plead my cause. There are some writers whose works we cannot read without feeling as if we really had looked with them upon the scenes they bring before us, and as if such communion had almost given us a claim to something more than the mere intercourse between author and “gentle reader.” Will you allow me to say that your writings have this effect upon me, and that you have taught me in making me know and love your “Village” so well, to wish for further knowledge, also, of her who has so vividly impressed its dingles and copses upon my imagination, and peopled them so cheerily with healthful and happy beings? I believe, if I could be personally introduced to you, that I should in less than five minutes begin to inquire about Lucy, and the lilies of the valley, and whether you had succeeded in peopling that “shady border” in your own territories with those shy flowers. (Emphasis mine).

For more responses to Mitford see the Open University’s Reading Experience Database here.

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‘My dear little friend’

ImageMitford’s love of animals and gardening is evident throughout her writing, but she was also extremely fond of children. Tales of the exploits of Lizzy and the other village children abound in the volumes of Our Village. These stories about the children were popular and a separate volume entitled Children of the Village, was first published posthumously in 1879.  Mitford also edited American Stories for Little Boys and Girls: Intended for those above Ten Years of Age (London: Whittaker Treacher & Co., 1831), and contributed to annuals for children, including The Juvenile Keepsake and The Juvenile Forget-Me-Not. So widespread was the readership of these journals that, as Lynne Vallon records, ‘[Mitford’s] works for children were among Princess Victoria’s books’.* In January 1845, Queen Victoria visited the Duke of Wellington at Stratfield Saye and Mitford organised a party of local children to watch the Royal procession go past. Vera Watson, one of MRM’s biographers, notes:

Mary Mitford took two hundred and ninety [children], in waggons lent by the local farmers, to the corner of Swallowfield Lane to watch the royal visitor. They called at [MRM’s] home at nine o’clock in the morning, were each presented with a flag, and then, accompanied by their teachers, went in procession to the appointed place.**

According to Watson, after the Queen had passed Mitford invited everyone to her cottage for sandwiches, cake and wine (given the minute size of the cottage it is remarkable that it could accommodate as many as 290 children, but we will allow for some artistic licence); Mitford apparently forbade anyone from curbing the children’s exuberance and they were allowed to play loudly all afternoon. Perhaps a little overcome with the sentimentality of the picture, but touching nonetheless, Watson writes: ‘No wonder that [MRM] was beloved in the village; no wonder that the children, as they passed her window, dropped curtsies or bowed, for actions such as these must have endeared her to all’.

A letter among the miscellaneous papers in The Mitford Collection stands as another witness to Mitford’s generosity and love of children. The short, undated note from Mitford to Patty Lovejoy, daughter of the Reading bookseller George Lovejoy, readsImage:

My dear little friend

I have the great pleasure of sending you for your own self a pretty little Poney, upon which I hope you will have many happy rides with your Dear Papa, & that these rides will often terminate at Three Mile Cross – you can go nowhere where you will be more joyfully received.

We do not know the name of the Poney, so you must give her one after your own fancy. I do hope that you will like her.

Ever dearest Patty 

Very affectionately yours

MR Mitford

Three Mile Cross Monday Night

 

*Becoming Victoria (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 213 n.21.
**Mary Russell Mitford (London: Evans Brothers Limited, c.1950), 264-5. Watson wrongly states that the visit took place in late-1844.
All images reproduced with the kind permission of Reading Central Library.
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