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.