Mary Russell Mitford was a novelist and dramatist, born at Airesford, Hampshire, on 16 Dec. 1787. She was the only child of George Mitford or Midford, descended from an ancient Northumberlandshire family, and of Mary Russell, an heiress, the only surviving child of Dr. Richard Russell, a richly beneficed clergyman, who held the livings of Overton and Ash, both in Hampshire, for more than sixty years. George Mitford, who was ten years his wife's junior, had been educated for the medical profession, and was a graduate of Edinburgh University. He was clever, selfish, unprincipled, and extravagant, with an unhappy love of speculation, and an equally unfortunate skill at whist. He squandered altogether in his life about 70,000l, and finally became entirely dependent on his daughter's literary earnings. William Harness, who knew the family well, and was Miss Mitford's lifelong friend, heartily disliked him, and called him 'a detestable old humbug,' but his many failings never succeeded in alienating the affections of his wife and daughter.
Mary was a very precocious child, and could read before she was three years old. In 1797 she drew a prize in a lottery worth 20,000l. The child herself insisted on choosing the number, 2224, because its digits made up the sum of her age. On the strength of it Dr. Mitford built a house at Reading. Between 1798 and 1802 the girl was at a good school at 22 Hans Place, London, kept by Mrs. St. Quintin, a French refugee, where Lady Caroline Lamb had been an earlier pupil, and 'L. E. L.' was later educated. In 1802 Mary settled at home with her parents, and her literary taste began to develope. She read enormously. In 1806 she mastered fifty-five volumes in thirty-one days, and in 1810 appeared her first published work, Miscellaneous Poems. The volume, dedicated to the Hon. William Herbert, is a collection of fugitive pieces, written at an earlier period. Some were in honour of her father's friends, others recorded her own tastes and pursuits, and illustrate her love of nature and the country. In the spring of the same year she made the acquaintance of Sir William Elford, a dilettante painter, and in 1812 began a long correspondence with him . Through him she came to know Haydon, who subsequently painted her portrait. Meanwhile she continued publishing poetry. Christina, or the Maid of the South Seas, appeared in 1811; Blanch of Castile, which had been submitted in manuscript to Coleridge, in 1812; and Poems on the Female Character, dedicated to the third Lord Holland, in 1813. Her poems were severely criticised in the Quarterly, but the volume of 1810 passed into a second edition (1811), and all the volumes met with much success in America. At this period Miss Mitford paid frequent visits to London, and stayed at the house of James Perry, editor of the Morning Chronicle; there she met, among others, Lord Erskine, Sir Samuel Romilly. Dr. Parr, Lord Brougham, and Moore.
By March 1820 Dr. Mitford's irregularities had reduced his family to the utmost poverty, and it was necessary for Mary to turn to literature for the means of livelihood. The household removed to Three Mile Cross, a village on the turnpike road between Reading and Basingstoke, and lived there in 'an insufficient and meanly furnished labourer's cottage' (Chorley, Autob.) The largest room was about 'eight feet square' (Our Village). Miss Mitford resided there for more than thirty years, allowing herself only one luxury—a flower garden. She wrote much for the magazines, but soon grew convinced that her talent lay in tragedy, a view in which Coleridge, on reading Blanch of Castile, had encouraged her. Her earliest dramatic efforts were rejected, but Macready, to whom Talfourd gave her an introduction, accepted Julian, and with the great actor in the title-role it was performed at Covent Garden, 15 March 1823. Acted eight times, it brought her 200l. Macready, in his Reminiscences, states that the performance made little impression, and was soon forgotten. Neither prologue nor epilogue was introduced into the performance, and that innovation, which soon became the rule, is ascribed to Miss Mitford's influence. A second piece by Miss Mitford, Foscari, with Charles Kemble as the hero, was produced at Covent Garden, 4 Nov. 1826, and was played fifteen times. According to her own statement, it was completed and presented to Covent Garden Theatre before the publication in 1821 of Byron's drama on the same subject. The best of her plays was Rienzi, a poetical tragedy of merit, which was produced at Drury Lane, 9 Oct. 1828. Young played the hero, and Stanfield painted the scenery. It was acted thirty-four times, and Miss Mitford received 400l. from the theatre, besides selling eight thousand copies of the printed play. Its success caused a temporary coolness between Miss Mitford and her friend Talfourd, who fancied that his Ion, which was being performed at the same time, was unduly neglected through Rienzi's popularity. The piece became popular in America, where Miss Charlotte Cushman assumed the part of Claudia. Another of Miss Mitford's tragedies, Charles I, was rejected by Colman because the lord chamberlain refused it his license, but in 1834, when urgently in need of money, Miss Mitford disposed of it on liberal terms to the manager of the Victoria Theatre, on the Surrey side of the Thames, and beyond the lord chamberlain's jurisdiction. Miss Mitford also wrote Mary Queen of Scots, a scena in English verse, 1831, and an opera libretto, Sadak and Kalascade, produced in 1835, and she contributed several dramatic scenes to the London Magazine and other periodicals. Genest (Hist. of the Stage, ix. 201-2, 384-5, 454-5) finds her plays meritorious, but dull. They met with the approval of Miss Edgeworth, Joanna Baillie, and Mrs. Hemans. After passing separately through several editions, they were published collectively in 1854 in two volumes, with a valuable autobiographical introduction describing the influences under which they were written, and their adventures among the theatrical managers.
Happily, the pressing necessity of earning money led Miss Mitford to turn, as she says herself, 'from the lofty steep of tragic poetry to the every-day path of village stories.' Her inimitable series of country sketches, drawn from her own experiences at Three Mile Cross, entitled Our Village, began to appear in 1819 in the Lady's Magazine, a little-known periodical, whose sale was thereby increased from 250 to 2,000. She had previously offered them to Thomas Campbell for the New Monthly Magazine, but he rejected them as unsuitable to the dignity of his pages. The sketches had an enormous success, and were collected in five volumes, published respectively in 1824, 1826, 1828, 1830, and 1832. Editions of the whole came out in 1843, 1848, 1852, and 1856, and selections appeared in 1870, 1879,1883,1884, 1886, 1891, and 1893.
The book may be said to have laid the foundation of a branch of literature hitherto untried. The sketches resemble Dutch paintings in their fidelity of detail, and in the brightness and quaint humour of their style. Chorley (Authors of England) calls Mitford the Claude of English village life. The tales at once made Miss Mitford famous. Charles Lamb declared that nothing so fresh and characteristic had appeared for a long time; Christopher North spoke of their 'genuine rural spirit;' Mrs. Hemans was cheered by them in sickness; Mrs. S. C. Hall acknowledges that they suggested her own 'Sketches of Irish Character;' Mrs. Browning called Miss Mitford 'a sort of prose Crabbe in the sun;' while Harriet Martineau looked upon her as the originator of the new style of 'graphic description.' Distinguished visitors crowded to her cottage. Passing coachmen and post-boys pointed out to travellers the localities in the village described in the book, and children were named after Miss Mitford's village urchins and pet greyhounds. She was feted on her visits to the metropolis. In 1836 Mr. Kenyon introduced her to Elizabeth Barrett, afterwards Mrs. Browning, and the acquaintance speedily ripened into friendship.
Miss Mitford's popularity enabled her to command high prices for her work. Writing to Miss Mitford in 1832, Mrs. Trollope says that 'Whittaker (the publisher) told me some time ago that your name would sell anything.' In 1835 Miss Mitford remarked: 'It is one of the signs of the times that a periodical selling for three halfpence [Chambers's Edinburgh Journal] should engage so high-priced a writer as myself.' But her mother died on 1 Jan. 1830, and her father's increasing extravagances kept her poor. She confessed to Miss Barrett that 'although want, actual want has not come, yet fear and anxiety have never been absent.' Miss Mitford still wrote with energy, but the strain injured her style. A novel, Belford Regis, or Sketches of a Country Town, viz. Reading, appeared in 1835, and, although Mrs. Browning ranked it with Miss Mitford's best work, it plainly lacks the spontaneity and charm of Our Village. A second and third edition appeared respectively in 1846 and 1849. In 1837 she received a civil list pension of 100l. a year, and on 11 Dec. 1842 her father died. His heavy liabilities were met by a public subscription, which left a surplus to be added to the daughter's narrow income. 'I have not bought a bonnet, a cloak, a gown, hardly a pair of gloves, for four years' (10 Jan. 1842). In 1851 Miss Mitford removed to her last residence, a little cottage at Swallowfield, near Reading, 'placed where three roads meet' (Payn). Though her cheerfulness and industry were unabated, her health was broken by her earlier anxieties, and she was crippled with rheumatism. In 1852 she published Recollections of a Literary Life, or Books Places, and People, three volumes of delightful gossip, much of it autobiographical. Other editions came out in 1853, 1857, and 1859 Her last production, Atherton, and other Tales, published in 1854, won high praise from Mr. Ruskin. Her death, hastened by a carriage accident, took place at Swallowfield on 10 Jan. 1855. On the 18th she was buried in the village churchyard. A few months before her death Walter Savage Landor addressed to her some eloquent verses in praise of her 'pleasant tales.'
Nor could, he concluded, any tell
The country's purer charms so well
As Mary Mitford.
In childhood Mr. Harness remarks the 'sedateness and gravity of her face;' Miss Sedgwick describes her in 1839 as 'truly a little body.… She has a pale gray soul-lit eye, and hair as white as snow;' Mr. Hablot Browne spoke of that wonderful wall of forehead;' and both Mr. Horne and Miss Gushman mention the wonderful animation of her face. Charles Kingsley asserts that 'the glitter and depth' of her eyes gave a Trench or rather Gallic ' character to her countenance. The best portrait of her was that painted by Lucas in 1852, now in the National Portrait Gallery. It was engraved by S. Freeman. There is a drawing in crayon also executed by Lucas in 1852. Haydon's portrait is exaggerated and unsatisfactory. Her figure appears in outline by D. Maclise in Fraser's Magazine, May 1831, with a notice by Maginn.
Miss Mitford was an admirable talker; both Mrs. Browning and Mr. Home preferred her conversation to her books. Mr, Fields called her voice 'a beautiful chime of silver bells.' About her friends she was always enthusiastic, and to the last respected her father's memory. She was very widely read in English literature, and was catholic and unconventional in her literary judgment. Her familiarity with French writers is traceable in her clear English style. She was an inveterate letter writer, and corresponded with scores of persons whom she never met. Her letters, scribbled on innumerable small scraps of paper, are fully as attractive as her books. The most interesting are those written to Sir William Elford and Miss Barrett. But her correspondents also included Macready, Mrs. Hemans, Mrs. Trollope, Dyce, Charles Boner, Allan Cunningham, Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall, Haydon, Douglas Jerrold, Mary Howitt, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Jameson, and Barry Cornwall. Vexatious difficulties were placed by her servants, her residuary legatees, in the way of the publication of the letters, but they were finally overcome by Mr. L'Estrange, and her correspondence was issued in 1870. In addition to the works already mentioned, Miss Mitford published, Dramatic Scenes, Sonnets, and other Poems, 1827, Stories of American Life, 1830 and American Stories for Children, 1832.
She contributed to Mrs. Johnstone's Edinburgh Tales, the London Magazine, the Reading Mercury, Mr. S. C. Hall's Amulet, a religious annual (1826-36), Mrs. S. C. Hall's Juvenile Forget-me-not, and others. She edited Finden's Tableaux, a fashionable annual, from 1838 to 1841, and a selection from Dumas for the young, 1846.