*Mitford, Mary Russell
Mitford, Mary Russell
Mary Russell Mitford’s contribution to the genre of the essay was the “sketch” of rural life. Through it she created a vision of rural England that had enormous influence through the 19th century and up to the present. These essays were originally published serially in the early 1820s in a magazine for “ladies” and then collected in five volumes under the title Our Village (1824–32). Complete editions and selections were reprinted throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, often with deliberately quaint illustrations by well-known illustrators. This form of the essay continues to be almost ubiquitous throughout the English-speaking world, and beyond, as the “country life” column in newspapers and magazines.
The ideological and cultural influence of Our Village in its time and since was in creating an image of rural England as predominantly middle-class, virtually free of both the landed gentry and the rural laboring class who in fact formed most of rural society.
Mitford also makes her rural England seem socially and culturally essential, central, and authentic in ways that urban England is not. This representation of rural life enabled Mitford to accomplish two important ideological and cultural tasks for her predominantly urban, middle-class readership. First, it contributed significantly to a broad movement to expropriate or redefine in middle-class terms the spaces historically dominated by the middle class’ social rivals—the landed gentry and the laboring classes. Second, it enabled generations of readers to ignore responsibility for the actual misery and injustice of both rural and urban life under agrarian and industrial capitalism.
Mitford’s form of the essay as rural sketch was a response to the cultural, social, and political conflicts of her time. There were movements among many local gentry and middle-class professionals in various parts of Britain and its colonies to celebrate domestic and local life. These movements were designed partly to resist the cultural, social, economic, and political hegemony of the metropolis. They were also designed to give cultural expression and validation to economic revolutions and accompanying cultural renaissances in the Midlands, East Anglia, and the North of Britain, and in Scotland, Ireland, and some overseas colonies. Mitford’s essaysketches were, however, written against the cultures and associated class interests of both the metropolis and the regions. Her semi-fictionalized village is clearly situated in the southern “home counties,” somewhere between the metropolis of London and its provincial or regional rivals. If the metropolis is identified with courtly aristocratic culture and vulgar middleclass commercialism and the provinces with pushing and pretentious middle-class enterprise, then “our village” is left to occupy a gentrified middle-class space.
It is also a feminine, or feminized space. “Our village” is a place of domestic and local action, relationships, and knowledges, which were conventionally gendered “feminine.”
It is a politicized place, too. Celebration of the domestic and local, in literature and such newly popular amateur middle-class arts as watercolor and the graphic sketch, was designed to contrast with the public and political sphere. The latter was still represented as occupied by a decadent and incompetent ruling upper class and dangerously rebellious lower classes, as a scene of social, cultural, and political conflict inimical to “authentic”
subjectivity and the “domestic affections.” In the aftermath of the French Revolution and similar upheavals elsewhere in Europe and its colonies, from Ireland to the West Indies, the domestic and local were increasingly represented as the nursery of authentic subjectivity and the domestic affections, and a refuge from the apparently unresolvable conflicts of the public sphere.
Mitford represents the feminine yet politicized middle-class world of “our village” through domestic settings, description of local topography, flora and fauna, characters, daily life, and community activities, and narratives of domestic and local relationships.
She uses a pictorial form of representation, often invoking the analogy of the graphic sketch and framing her representations as if they were pictures. Like her contemporary essayist, Charles Lamb, she uses an insistently personal and even idiosyncratic narrative mode, conversational style, and intimate tone. Such writing would have been read at the time as feminine, despite the fact that the voice in Mitford’s essays seems to be that of a man. Equally important is what is marginalized in her essays. The metropolis remains,
somewhat menacingly, over the horizon. Rural economic and political protest, such as the Luddite violence of the 1810s, is virtually excluded. The historic hierarchical class relations and increasing class alienation of the revolutionary aftermath are minimalized, treated with light humor, or shown to be overcome by love, domestic affection, and community feeling. In short, “our village” is a fantasy, but Mitford authenticates it by treating it with techniques that would then have been considered realistic.
Mitford discloses two important sources for her invention of this rural England in the essay-sketch. The first of these is the Rev. Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1788), an anecdotal and personal description of the countryside and flora and fauna of his rural parish in Hampshire. Like Mitford’s fictionalized village, White’s Selborne is a space for the exercise of a particular kind of middle-class culture, though a masculine one—the local scientific, archaeological, and antiquarian researches of a man in one of the elite “learned professions.” White’s Selborne, like Mitford’s village, is also virtually free of both the landed gentry and the rural poor. The other source named in Our Village is Jane Austen, represented by Mitford as a realistic portrayer of village life similar to herself. The publication history and influence of White’s book and Austen’s novels were similar to Mitford’s essay-sketches. Together,
Our Village, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, and Austen’s novels comprise the canonical texts of an embourgeoisement of rural England with considerable and continuing cultural and political influence, for better and for worse.
Born 16 December 1787 in Alresford, Hampshire. Family moved to Lyme Regis for a year, mid-1890s, then London; lived in Reading, Berkshire, 1797–1820. Won £20,000 in the lottery when she was ten. Studied at the Abbey School, London, 1798–1802. Lived in Three Mile Cross, Hampshire, 1820–51, and Swallowfield, Berkshire, 1851–55.
Contributor to journals, from 1821. Friends with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Granted Civil List pension, 1837. Died in Swallowfield, 9 (some sources say 10) January 1855.
Essays and Related Prose
Our Village: Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery, 5 vols., 1824–32; edited by John Squire, 1936, and Anne Scott-Thomas, 1987
Belford Regis; or, Sketches of a Country Town, 3 vols., 1835
Recollections of a Literary Life; or, Books, Places, and People, 3 vols., 1852; as Recollections and Selections from My Favourite Poets and Prose Writers, 1883
Other writings: poetry, plays, fiction, and many letters, including to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Hart, R.J., Mary Russell Mitford, 16 December 1787–9 January 1855: A Bibliography (dissertation), Chicago: American Library Association, 1981
Astin, Marjorie, Mary Rtissell Mitford: Her Circle and Her Books, London: Douglas, 1930
Coles, W.A., “Magazine and Other Contributions by Mary Russell Mitford and T.N.Talfourd,” in Studies in Bibliography: Papers of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Bibliographical Society,
Croker, Thomas Crofton, My Village, Versus “Our Village”, London: Fisher Fisher and Jackson, 1833
Horn, Pamela, “Alresford and Mary Russell Mitford,” Hatcher Review 3, no. 22 (Autumn 1986): 86–94
Owen, J.C., “Utopia in Little: Mary Russell Mitford and Our Village,” Studies in Short Fiction 5 (Spring 1968): 245–56
Pigrome, Stella, “Mary Russell Mitford,” Charles Lamb Bulletin 66 (April 1989): 53–62
Roberts, W.J., Mary Russell Mitford: The Tragedy of a Blue Stocking, London: Melrose, 1913
Watson, Vera, Mary Russell Mitford, London: Evan, 1949
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