I was delighted to find Mary Russell Mitford’s little-known collection of essays, Our Village, at a used bookstore. Even if I had not heard of it, I might have purchased this cheap Everyman’s Library edition, with its charming pink cover, decorated with an illustration of Mary and her intelligent greyhound, May.
Mitford’s simple, humorous sketches of village life originally appeared in Lady’s Magazine in the 19th century. She describes country walks, the change of seasons, dogs, cricket matches, the first primroses, nutting, and eccentric neighbors.
Mitford (1787-1855), a middlebrow English writer, was the daughter of a dissipated doctor who squandered her fortune and that of her mother. As a child, Mary won him the lottery by picking a number, but he gambled away that fortune, too. Finally, they moved to a cottage, living on the reserve of her mother’s dowry and Mary’s scanty earnings.
Perhaps she became so balanced and tolerant because of her father’s unreliability. Life in a city might have disturbed her hard-earned tranquility. In Chapter 1, “Our Village,” Mitford lays out the advantages of village life, saying she prefers Jane Austen’s novels to hectic travels. She writes,
Nothing is so tiresome as to be whirled half over Europe at the chariot-wheels of a hero, to go to sleep at Vienna and awaken in Madrid; it produces real fatigue, a weariness of spirit. On the other hand, nothing is so delightful as to sit down in a country village in one of Jan Austen’s delicious novels, quite sure before we leave it to become intimate with every spot and every person it contains…
Mitford is not in the canon: her writing entertains but is occasionally awkward. Yet her observations are sharp, perceptive and wise. Her constant companion, and my favorite character, is her greyhound, May, who “answers in a pretty voice when spoken to (sad pity that the language should be unknown), and has greatly the advantage of us in conversation, inasmuch as our meaning is certainly clear to her…”
My husband asked if Mary Mitford is an ancestor of Nancy Mitford – not to my knowledge! But her point-of-view as a spinster-writer makes this an essential commentary on the lives of women in rural England in the 19th century.
4 thoughts on “Sketches from Lady’s Magazine: Mary Russell Mitford’s “Our Village””
I have a facsimile of the book, expensively produced by the Folio Society. I found it very inexpensive online. What I have read of it, I love. I read it because of Woolf’s Flush who says in this only partially fictionalized biography of a dog (dogs don’t talk or think in English) that Mitford gave Flush to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Mitford and EBB were friends. Mitford did give EBB the spaniel; Woolf had been given a spaniel by Vita Sackville-West, thus prompting Flush the book. I so feel for Mitford; she lived a near destitute life as a spinster, but she was genteel. Only possible for her class in her era. I agree with her about travel, though am thinking this Monday I will at long last tell Road Scholar I’ll go this summer on the trip to Ireland I reserved a space for 3 years ago — if the space is still there. Thank you for this blog.
Ellen, this book is a find. I am fascinated by the lives of spinsters, and love her record of daily life. She is so attuned to nature!
Thank you for the informaion about Flush. It is an excellent dog story: I was very anxious when Flush went missing! And I look forward to hearing about the Road Scholar program if you do go to Ireland. I would think they’d save the space.
Interesting that her lifetime overlaps with that of Jane Austen. I’m always interested in women writing in that period. I’ve heard the name, possibly in an Austen biog? Stupidly I must have confused it with Nancy who wasn’t born until 1904. Good review, Kat, I would like to read this.
I, too, thought of Nancy when I heard of her! Thank you, Nicola. I do enjoy these sketches.