1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mitford, Mary Russell

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MITFORD, MARY RUSSELL (1787-1855), English novelist and dramatist, only daughter of Dr George Mitford, or Midford, was born at Alresford, Hampshire, on the 16th of December 1787. She retains an honourable place in English literature as the authoress of Our Village, a series of sketches of village scenes and characters unsurpassed in their kind, and as fresh as if they had been written yesterday. Her father was a curious character. He first spent his wife's fortune in a few years; then he spent the greater part of £20,000, which in 1797 his daughter, then at the age of ten, drew as a prize in a lottery; then he lived on a small remnant of his fortune and the proceeds of his daughter's literary industry. The father kept fresh in his daughter the keen delight in incongruities, the lively sympathy with self-willed vigorous individuality, and the woxnanly tolerance of its excess, which inspire so many of her sketches of character. Miss Mitford lived in close attendance on him, refused all holiday invitations because he could not live without her, and worked incessantly for him except when she broke off her work to read him the sporting newspapers. Her writing has all the charm of perfectly unaffected spontaneous humour, combined with quick wit and exquisite literary skill. Miss Mitford met Elizabeth Barrett (Mrs Browning) in 1836, and the acquaintance ripened into a warm friendship. The strain of poverty began to tell on her work, for although her books sold at high prices, her income did not keep pace with her father's extravagances. In 1837, however, she received a civil list pension, and five years later her father died. A subscription was raised to pay his debts, and the surplus increased the daughter's income. Miss Mitford eventually removed to a cottage at Swallowfield, near Reading, where she died on the 10th of January 1855.

Miss Mitford's youthful ambition had been to be “the greatest English poetess,” and her first publications were poems in the manner of Coleridge and Scott (Miscellaneous Verses, 1810, reviewed by Scott in the Quarterly; Christine, a metrical tale, 1811; Blanche, 1813). Her play Julian was produced at Covent Garden, with Macready in the title-rôle, in 1823; The Foscari was performed at Covent Garden, with Charles Kemble as the hero, in 1826; Rienzi, 1828, the best of her plays, had a run of thirty-four nights, and Miss Mitford's friend, Talfourd, imagined that its vogue militated against the success of his own play Ion. Charles the First was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, but was played at the Surrey Theatre in 1834. But the prose, to which she was driven by domestic necessities, has rarer qualities than her verse. The first series of Our Village sketches appeared in 1824, a second in 1826, a third in 1828, a fourth in 1830, a fifth in 1832. Our Village was several times reprinted; Belford Regis, a novel in which the neighbourhood and society of Reading were idealized, was published in 1835.

Her Recollections of a Literary Life (1852) is a series of causeries about her favourite books. Her talk was said by her friends, Mrs Browning and Hengist Horne, to have been even more amusing than her books, and five volumes of her Life and Letters, published in 1870 and 1872, show her to have been a delightful letter-writer.