By Mary Russell Mitford
1893 Macmillan and Co. edition.
INTRODUCTION COUNTRY PICTURES WALKS IN THE COUNTRY THE FIRST PRIMROSE VIOLETING THE COPSE THE WOOD THE DELL THE COWSLIP-BALL THE OLD HOUSE AT ABERLEIGH THE HARD SUMMER THE SHAW NUTTING THE VISIT HANNAH BINT THE FALL OF THE LEAF
Introduction by Anne Thackeray Ritchie
There is a great deal of admirable literature concerning Miss Mitford, so much of it indeed, that the writer of this little notice feels as if she almost owed an apology to those who remember, for having ventured to write, on hearsay only, and without having ever known or ever seen the author of 'Our Village.' And yet, so vivid is the homely friendly presence, so clear the sound of that voice 'like a chime of bells,' with its hospitable cheery greeting, that she can scarcely realise that this acquaintance exists only in the world of the might-have-beens.
For people who are beginning to remember, rather than looking forward any more, there certainly exists no more delightful reading than the memoirs and stories of heroes and heroines, many of whom we ourselves may have seen, and to whom we may have spoken. As we read on we are led into some happy bygone region,—such as that one described by Mr. du Maurier in 'Peter Ibbetson,'—a region in which we ourselves, together with all our friends and acquaintances, grow young again;—very young, very brisk, very hopeful. The people we love are there, along with the people we remember. Music begins to play, we are dancing, laughing, scampering over the country once more; our parents too are young and laughing cheerily. Every now and then perhaps some old friend, also vigorous and hopeful, bursts into the book, and begins to talk or to write a letter; early sights and sounds return to us, we have NOW, and we have THEN, in a pleasant harmony. To those of a certain literary generation who read Miss Mitford's memoirs, how many such familiar presences and names must appear and reappear. Not least among them that of her biographer, Mr. Harness himself, who was so valued by his friends. Mrs. Kemble, Mrs. Sartoris, Charles Allston Collins, always talked of him with a great respect and tenderness. I used to think they had a special voice with which to speak his name. He was never among our intimate friends, but how familiar to my recollection are the two figures, that of Mr. Harness and Miss Harness, his sister and housekeeper, coming together along the busy Kensington roadway. The brother and sister were like characters out of some book, with their kind faces, their simple spiritual ways; in touch with so much that was interesting and romantic, and in heart with so much that suffered. I remember him with grey hair and a smile. He was not tall; he walked rather lame; Miss Harness too was little, looking up at all the rest of the world with a kind round face and sparkling eyes fringed with thick lashes. Mary Mitford was indeed happy in her friends, as happy as she was unfortunate in her nearer relations.
With much that is sad, there is a great deal of beauty and enjoyment in Miss Mitford's life. For her the absence of material happiness was made up for by the presence of warm-hearted sensibility, of enthusiasm, by her devotion to her parents. Her long endurance and filial piety are very remarkable, her loving heart carried her safely to the end, and she found comfort in her unreasoning life's devotion. She had none of the restlessness which is so apt to spoil much that might be harmonious; all the charm of a certain unity and simplicity of motive is hers, 'the single eye,' of which Charles Kingsley wrote so sweetly. She loved her home, her trees, her surrounding lanes and commons. She loved her friends. Her books and flowers are real and important events in her life, soothing and distracting her from the contemplation of its constant anxieties. 'I may truly say,' she once writes to Miss Barrett, 'that ever since I was a very young girl, I have never (although for some years living apparently in affluence) been without pecuniary care,—the care that pressed upon my thoughts the last thing at night, and woke in the morning with a dreary sense of pain and pressure, of something which weighed me to the earth.'
Mary Russell Mitford was born on the 16th of December 1787. She was the only child of her parents, who were well connected; her mother was an heiress. Her father belonged to the Mitfords of the North. She describes herself as 'a puny child, with an affluence of curls which made her look as if she were twin sister to her own great doll.' She could read at three years old; she learnt the Percy ballads by heart almost before she could read. Long after, she used to describe how she first studied her beloved ballads in the breakfast-room lined with books, warmly spread with its Turkey carpet, with its bright fire, easy chairs, and the windows opening to a garden full of flowers,—stocks, honeysuckles, and pinks. It is touching to note how, all through her difficult life, her path was (literally) lined with flowers, and how the love of them comforted and cheered her from the first to the very last. In her saddest hours, the passing fragrance and beauty of her favourite geraniums cheered and revived her. Even when her mother died she found comfort in the plants they had tended together, and at the very last breaks into delighted descriptions of them.
She was sent to school in the year 1798 to No. 22 Hans Place, to a Mrs. St. Quintin's. It seems to have been an excellent establishment. Mary learnt the harp and astronomy; her taste for literature was encouraged. The young ladies, attired as shepherdesses, were also taught to skip through many mazy movements, but she never distinguished herself as a shepherdess. She had greater success in her literary efforts, and her composition 'on balloons' was much applauded. She returned to her home in 1802. 'Plain in figure and in face, she was never common-looking,' says Mr. Harness. He gives a pretty description of her as 'no ordinary child, her sweet smiles, her animated conversation, her keen enjoyment of life, and her gentle voice won the love and admiration of her friends, whether young or old.' Mr. Harness has chiefly told Miss Mitford's story in her own words by quotations from her letters, and, as one reads, one can almost follow her moods as they succeed each other, and these moods are her real history. The assiduity of childhood, the bright enthusiasm and gaiety of her early days, the growing anxiety of her later life, the maturer judgments, the occasional despairing terrors which came to try her bright nature, but along with it all, that innocent and enduring hopefulness which never really deserted her. Her elastic spirit she owed to her father, that incorrigible old Skimpole. 'I am generally happy everywhere,' she writes in her youth—and then later on: 'It is a great pleasure to me to love and to admire, this is a faculty which has survived many frosts and storms.' It is true that she adds a query somewhere else, 'Did you ever remark how superior old gaiety is to new?' she asks.
Her handsome father, her plain and long-enduring mother, are both unconsciously described in her correspondence. 'The Doctor's manners were easy, natural, cordial, and apparently extremely frank,' says Mr. Harness, 'but he nevertheless met the world on its own terms, and was prepared to allow himself any insincerity which seemed expedient. He was not only recklessly extravagant, but addicted to high play. His wife's large fortune, his daughter's, his own patrimony, all passed through his hands in an incredibly short space of time, but his wife and daughter were never heard to complain of his conduct, nor appeared to admire him less.'
The story of Miss Mitford's 20,000 pounds is unique among the adventures of authoresses. Dr. Mitford, having spent all his wife's fortune, and having brought his family from a comfortable home, with flowers and a Turkey carpet, to a small lodging near Blackfriars Bridge, determined to present his daughter with an expensive lottery ticket on the occasion of her tenth birthday. She had a fancy for No. 2224, of which the added numbers came to 10. This number actually came out the first prize of 20,000 pounds, which money started the family once more in comparative affluence. Dr. Mitford immediately built a new square house, which he calls Bertram House, on the site of a pretty old farmhouse which he causes to be pulled down. He also orders a dessert-service painted with the Mitford arms; Mrs. Mitford is supplied with a carriage, and she subscribes to a circulating library.
A list still exists of the books taken out by her for her daughter's use; some fifty-five volumes a month, chiefly trash: 'Vicenza,' 'A Sailor's Friendship and Soldier's Love,' 'Clarentina,' 'Robert and Adela,' 'The Count de Valmont,' 'The Three Spaniards,' 'De Clifford' (in four volumes) and so on.
The next two or three years were brilliant enough; for the family must have lived at the rate of three or four thousand a year. Their hospitality was profuse, they had servants, carriages, they bought pictures and furniture, they entertained. Cobbett was among their intimate friends. The Doctor naturally enough invested in a good many more lottery tickets, but without any further return.
The ladies seem to take it as a matter of course that he should speculate and gamble at cards, and indeed do anything and everything he fancied, but they beg him at least to keep to respectable clubs. He is constantly away. His daughter tries to tempt him home with the bloom of her hyacinths. 'How they long to see him again!' she says, 'how greatly have they been disappointed, when, every day, the journey to Reading has been fruitless. The driver of the Reading coach is quite accustomed to being waylaid by their carriage.' Then she tells him about the primroses, but neither hyacinths nor primroses bring the Doctor away from his cards. Finally, the rhododendrons and the azaleas are in bloom, but these also fail to attract him.
Miss Mitford herself as she grows up is sent to London more than once, to the St. Quintin's and elsewhere. She goes to the play and to Westminster Hall, she sees her hero, Charles James Fox, and has the happiness of watching him helped on to his horse. Mr. Romilly delights her, but her greatest favourite of all is Mr. Whitbread. 'You know I am always an enthusiast,' she writes, 'but at present it is impossible to describe the admiration I feel for this exalted character.' She speaks of his voice 'which she could listen to with transport even if he spoke in an unknown language!' she writes a sonnet to him, 'an impromptu, on hearing Mr. Whitbread declare in Westminster Hall that he fondly trusted his name would descend to posterity.'
'The hope of Fame thy noble bosom fires, Nor vain the hope thy ardent mind inspires; In British breasts whilst Purity remains, Whilst Liberty her blessed abode retains, Still shall the muse of History proclaim To future ages thy immortal name!'
There are many references to the celebrities of the time in her letters home,—every one agrees as to the extreme folly of Sheridan's entertainments, Mrs. Opie is spoken of as a rising authoress, etc. etc. etc.
Miss Austen used to go to 23 Hans Place, and Miss Mitford used to stay at No. 22, but not at the same time. Mrs. Mitford had known Miss Austen as a child. She may perhaps be forgiven for some prejudice and maternal jealousy, in her later impressions, but Mary Mitford admired Jane Austen always with warmest enthusiasm. She writes to her mother at length from London, describing everything, all the people and books and experiences that she comes across,—the elegant suppers at Brompton, the Grecian lamps, Mr. Barker's beauty, Mr. Plummer's plainness, and the destruction of her purple gown.
Mrs. Mitford writes back in return describing Reading festivities, 'an agreeable dinner at Doctor Valpy's, where Mrs. Women and Miss Peacock are present and Mr. J. Simpson, M.P.; the dinner very good, two full courses and one remove, the soup giving place to one quarter of lamb.' Mrs. Mitford sends a menu of every dinner she goes to.
In 1806 Dr. Mitford takes his daughter, who was then about nineteen, to the North to visit his relations; they are entertained by the grandparents of the Trevelyans and the Swinburnes, the Ogles and the Mitfords of the present day. They fish in Sir John Swinburne's lake, they visit at Alnwick Castle. Miss Mitford kept her front hair in papers till she reached Alnwick, nor was her dress discomposed though she had travelled thirty miles. They sat down, sixty-five to dinner, which was 'of course' (she somewhat magnificently says) entirely served on plate. Poor Mary's pleasure is very much dashed by the sudden disappearance of her father,—Dr. Mitford was in the habit of doing anything he felt inclined to do at once and on the spot, quite irrespectively of the convenience of others,—and although a party had been arranged on purpose to meet him in the North, and his daughter was counting on his escort to return home, (people posted in those days, they did not take their tickets direct from Newcastle to London), Dr. Mitford one morning leaves word that he has gone off to attend the Reading election, where his presence was not in the least required. For the first and apparently for the only time in her life his daughter protests. 'Mr. Ogle is extremely offended; nothing but your immediate return can ever excuse you to him! I IMPLORE you to return, I call upon Mamma's sense of propriety to send you here directly. Little did I suspect that my father, my beloved father, would desert me at this distance from home! Every one is surprised.' Dr. Mitford was finally persuaded to travel back to Northumberland to fetch his daughter.
The constant companionship of Dr. Mitford must have given a curious colour to his good and upright daughter's views of life. Adoring her father as she did, she must have soon accustomed herself to take his fine speeches for fine actions, to accept his self-complacency in the place of a conscience. She was a woman of warm impressions, with a strong sense of right. But it was not within her daily experience, poor soul, that people who did not make grand professions were ready to do their duty all the same; nor did she always depend upon the uprightness, the courage, the self-denial of those who made no protestations. At that time loud talking was still the fashion, and loud living was considered romantic. They both exist among us, but they are less admired, and there is a different language spoken now to that of Dr. Mitford and his school. * This must account for some of Miss Mitford's judgments of what she calls a 'cynical' generation, to which she did little justice.
*People nowadays are more ready to laugh than to admire when they hear the lions bray; for mewing and bleating, the taste, I fear, is on the increase.
There is one penalty people pay for being authors, which is that from cultivating vivid impressions and mental pictures they are apt to take fancies too seriously and to mistake them for reality. In story-telling this is well enough, and it interferes with nobody; but in real history, and in one's own history most of all, this faculty is apt to raise up bogies and nightmares along one's path; and while one is fighting imaginary demons, the good things and true are passed by unnoticed, the best realities of life are sometimes overlooked....
But after all, Mary Russell Mitford, who spent most of her time gathering figs off thistles and making the best of her difficult circumstances, suffered less than many people do from the influence of imaginary things.
She was twenty-three years old when her first book of poems was published; so we read in her letters, in which she entreats her father not to curtail ANY of the verses addressed to him; there is no reason, she says, except his EXTREME MODESTY why the verses should be suppressed,—she speaks not only with the fondness of a daughter but with the sensibility of a poet. Our young authoress is modest, although in print; she compares herself to Crabbe (as Jane Austen might have done), and feels 'what she supposes a farthing candle would experience when the sun rises in all its glory.' Then comes the Publisher's bill for 59 pounds; she is quite shocked at the bill, which is really exorbitant! In her next letter Miss Mitford reminds her father that the taxes are still unpaid, and a correspondence follows with somebody asking for a choice of the Doctor's pictures in payment for the taxes. The Doctor is in London all the time, dining out and generally amusing himself. Everybody is speculating whether Sir Francis Burdett will go to the Tower.* 'Oh, my darling, how I envy you at the fountain-head of intelligence in these interesting times! How I envy Lady Burdett for the fine opportunity she has to show the heroism of our sex!' writes the daughter, who is only encountering angry tax-gatherers at home.... Somehow or other the bills are paid for the time, and the family arrangements go on as before.
*Here, in our little suburban garden at Wimbledon, are the remains of an old hedgerow which used to grow in the kitchen garden of the Grange where Sir Francis Burdett then lived. The tradition is that he was walking in the lane in his own kitchen garden when he was taken up and carried off to honourable captivity.—A.T.R.
Besides writing to the members of her own home, Miss Mitford started another correspondent very early in life; this was Sir William Elford, to whom she describes her outings and adventures, her visits to Tavistock House, where her kind friends the Perrys receive her. Mr. Perry was the editor of the Morning Chronicle; he and his beautiful wife were the friends of all the most interesting people of the day. Here again the present writer's own experiences can interpret the printed page, for her own first sight of London people and of London society came to her in a little house in Chesham Place, where her father's old friends, Mrs. Frederick Elliot and Miss Perry, the daughters of Miss Mitford's friends, lived with a very notable and interesting set of people, making a social centre, by that kindly unconscious art which cannot be defined; that quick apprehension, that benevolent fastidiousness (I have to use rather far-fetched words) which are so essential to good hosts and hostesses. A different standard is looked for now, by the rising generations knocking at the doors, behind which the dignified past is lying as stark as King Duncan himself!
Among other entertainments Miss Mitford went to the fetes which celebrated the battle of Vittoria; she had also the happiness of getting a good sight of Mme. de Stael, who was a great friend of the Perrys. 'She is almost as much followed in the gardens as the Princess,' she says, pouring out her wonders, her pleasures, her raptures. She begins to read Burns with youthful delight, dilates upon his exhaustless imagination, his versatility, and then she suggests a very just criticism. 'Does it not appear' she says, 'that versatility is the true and rare characteristic of that rare thing called genius—versatility and playfulness;' then she goes on to speak of two highly-reputed novels just come out and ascribed to Lady Morley, 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Sense and Sensibility.'
She is still writing from Bertram House, but her pleasant gossip continually alternates with more urgent and less agreeable letters addressed to her father. Lawyers' clerks are again calling with notices and warnings, tax-gatherers are troubling. Dr. Mitford has, as usual, left no address, so that she can only write to the 'Star Office,' and trust to chance. 'Mamma joins in tenderest love,' so the letters invariably conclude.
Notwithstanding the adoration bestowed by the ladies of the family and their endearing adjectives, Mr. Harness is very outspoken on the subject of the handsome Doctor! He disliked his manners, his morals, his self-sufficiency, his loud talk. 'The old brute never informed his friends of anything; all they knew of him or his affairs, or whatever false or true he intended them to believe, came out carelessly in his loose, disjointed talk.'
In 1814 Miss Mitford is living on still with her parents at Bertram House, but a change has come over their home; the servants are gone, the gravel turned to moss, the turf into pasture, the shrubberies to thickets, the house a sort of new 'ruin half inhabited, and a Chancery suit is hanging over their heads.' Meantime some news comes to cheer her from America. Two editions of her poems have been printed and sold. 'Narrative Poems on the Female Character' proved a real success. 'All who have hearts to feel and understandings to discriminate, must wish you health and leisure to complete your plan,' so write publishers in those golden days, with complimentary copies of the work....
Great things are happening all this time; battles are being fought and won, Napoleon is on his way to St. Helena; London is in a frenzy of rejoicings, entertainings, illuminations. To Mary Mitford the appearance of 'Waverley' seems as great an event as the return of the Bourbons; she is certain that 'Waverley' is written by Sir Walter Scott, but 'Guy Mannering,' she thinks, is by another hand: her mind is full of a genuine romantic devotion to books and belles lettres, and she is also rejoicing, even more, in the spring-time of 1816. Dr. Mitford may be impecunious and their affairs may be threadbare, but the lovely seasons come out ever in fresh beauty and abundance. The coppices are carpeted with primroses, with pansies and wild strawberry blossom,—the woods are spangled with the delicate flowers of the woodsorrel and wood anemone, the meadows enamelled with cowslips.... Certainly few human beings were ever created more fit for this present world, and more capable of admiring and enjoying its beauties, than Miss Mitford, who only desired to be beautiful herself, she somewhere says, to be perfectly contented.
Most people's lives are divided into first, second and third volumes; and as we read Miss Mitford's history it forms no exception to the rule. The early enthusiastic volume is there, with its hopes and wild judgments, its quaint old-fashioned dress and phraseology; then comes the second volume, full of actual work and serious responsibility, with those childish parents to provide for, whose lives, though so protracted, never seem to reach beyond their nurseries. Miss Mitford's third volume is retrospective; her growing infirmities are courageously endured, there is the certainty of success well earned and well deserved; we realise her legitimate hold upon the outer world of readers and writers, besides the reputation which she won upon the stage by her tragedies.
The literary ladies of the early part of the century in some ways had a very good time of it. A copy of verses, a small volume of travels, a few tea-parties, a harp in one corner of the room, and a hat and feathers worn rather on one side, seemed to be all that was wanted to establish a claim to fashion and inspiration. They had footstools to rest their satin shoes upon, they had admirers and panegyrists to their heart's content, and above all they possessed that peculiar complacency in which (with a few notable exceptions) our age is singularly deficient. We are earnest, we are audacious, we are original, but we are not complacent. THEY were dolls perhaps, and lived in dolls' houses; WE are ghosts without houses at all; we come and go wrapped in sheets of newspaper, holding flickering lights in our hands, paraffin lamps, by the light of which we are seeking our proper sphere. Poor vexed spirits! We do not belong to the old world any more! The new world is not yet ready for us. Even Mr. Gladstone will not let us into the House of Commons; the Geographical Society rejects us, so does the Royal Academy; and yet who could say that any of their standards rise too high! Some one or two are happily safe, carried by the angels of the Press to little altars and pinnacles all their own; but the majority of hard-working, intelligent women, 'contented with little, yet ready for more,' may they not in moments of depression be allowed to picture to themselves what their chances might have been had they only been born half a century earlier?
Miss Mitford, notwithstanding all her troubles (she has been known to say she had rather be a washerwoman than a literary lady), had opportunities such as few women can now obtain. One is lost in admiration at the solidity of one's grandparents' taste, when one attempts to read the tragedies they delighted in, and yet 'Rienzi' sold four thousand copies and was acted forty-five times; and at one time Miss Mitford had two tragedies rehearsed upon the boards together; one at Covent Garden and one at Drury Lane, with Charles Kemble and Macready disputing for her work. Has not one also read similar descriptions of the triumphs of Hannah More, or of Johanna Baillie; cheered by enthusiastic audiences, while men shed tears.*
*Mem. Hannah More, v.i. p.124.
'Julian' was the first of Miss Mitford's acted plays. It was brought out at Covent Garden in 1823, when she was thirty-six years old; Macready played the principal part. 'If the play do reach the ninth night,' Miss Mitford writes to Macready, 'it will be a very complete refutation of Mr. Kemble's axiom that no single performer can fill the theatre; for except our pretty Alfonso (Miss Foote) there is only Julian, one and only one. Let him imagine how deeply we feel his exertions and his kindness.*...'
*In Macready's diary we find an entry which is not over gracious. '"Julian" acted March the 15th. Had but moderate success. The C. G. company was no longer equal to the support of plays containing moral characters. The authoress in her dedication to me was profuse in her acknowledgments and compliments, but the performance made little impression, and was soon forgotten.'
'Julian' was stopped on the eighth night, to her great disappointment, but she is already engaged on another—on several more—-tragedies; she wants the money badly; for the editor of her magazine has absconded, owing her 50 pounds. Some trying and bewildering quarrel then ensues between Charles Kemble and Macready, which puts off her tragedies, and sadly affects poor Miss Mitford's nerves and profits. She has one solace. Her father, partly instigated, she says, by the effect which the terrible feeling of responsibility and want of power has had upon her health and spirits, at last resolves to try if he can HIMSELF obtain any employment that may lighten the burthen of the home. It is a good thing that Dr. Mitford has braced himself to this heroic determination. 'The addition of two or even one hundred a year to our little income, joined to what I am, in a manner, sure of gaining by mere industry, would take a load from my heart of which I can scarcely give you an idea... even "Julian" was written under a pressure of anxiety which left me not a moment's rest....' So she fondly dwells upon the delightful prospects. Then comes the next letter to Sir William Elford, and we read that her dear father, 'relying with a blessed sanguineness on my poor endeavours, has not, I believe, even inquired for a situation, and I do not press the matter, though I anxiously wish it; being willing to give one more trial to the theatre.'
On one of the many occasions when Miss Mitford writes to her trustee imploring him to sell out the small remaining fragment of her fortune, she says, 'My dear father has, years ago, been improvident, is still irritable and difficult to live with, but he is a person of a thousand virtues... there are very few half so good in this mixed world; it is my fault that this money is needed, entirely my fault, and if it be withheld, my dear father will be overthrown, mind and body, and I shall never know another happy hour.'
No wonder Mr. Harness, who was behind the scenes, remonstrated against the filial infatuation which sacrificed health, sleep, peace of mind, to gratify every passing whim of the Doctor's. At a time when she was sitting up at night and slaving, hour after hour, to earn the necessary means of living, Dr. Mitford must needs have a cow, a stable, and dairy implements procured for his amusement, and when he died he left 1,000 pounds of debts for the scrupulous woman to pay off. She is determined to pay, if she sells her clothes to do so. Meanwhile, the Doctor is still alive, and Miss Mitford is straining every nerve to keep him so. She is engaged (in strict confidence) on a grand historical subject, Charles and Cromwell, the finest episode in English history, she says. Here, too, fresh obstacles arise. This time it is the theatrical censor who interferes. It would be dangerous for the country to touch upon such topics; Mr. George Colman dwells upon this theme, although he gives the lady full credit for no evil intentions; but for the present all her work is again thrown away. While Miss Mitford is struggling on as best she can against this confusion of worries and difficulty (she eventually received 200 pounds for 'Julian' from a Surrey theatre), a new firm 'Whittaker' undertakes to republish the 'village sketches' which had been written for the absconding editor. The book is to be published under the title of 'Our Village.'
'Are your characters and descriptions true?' somebody once asked our authoress. 'Yes, yes, yes, as true, as true as is well possible,' she answers. 'You, as a great landscape painter, know that in painting a favourite scene you do a little embellish and can't help it; you avail yourself of happy accidents of atmosphere; if anything be ugly you strike it out, or if anything be wanting, you put it in. But still the picture is a likeness.'
So wrote Miss Mitford, but with all due respect for her and for Sir William Elford, the great landscape painter, I cannot help thinking that what is admirable in her book, are not her actual descriptions and pictures of intelligent villagers and greyhounds, but the more imaginative things; the sense of space and nature and progress which she knows how to convey; the sweet and emotional chord she strikes with so true a touch. Take at hazard her description of the sunset. How simple and yet how finely felt it is. Her genuine delight reaches us and carries us along; it is not any embellishing of effects, or exaggeration of facts, but the reality of a true and very present feeling... 'The narrow line of clouds which a few minutes ago lay like long vapouring streaks along the horizon, now lighted with a golden splendour, that the eye can scarcely endure; those still softer clouds which floated above, wreathing and curling into a thousand fantastic forms as thin and changeful as summer smoke, defined and deepened into grandeur, and hedged with ineffable, insufferable light. Another minute and the brilliant orb totally disappears and the sky above grows, every moment, more varied and more beautiful, as the dazzling golden lines are mixed with glowing red and gorgeous purple, dappled with small dark specks, and mingled with such a blue as the egg of the hedge-sparrow.... To look up at that glorious sky, and then to see that magnificent picture reflected in the clear and lovely Loddon water, is a pleasure never to be described, and never to be forgotten. My heart swells, and my eyes fill as I write of it, and think of the immeasurable majesty of nature and the unspeakable goodness of God, who has spread an enjoyment so pure, so peaceful, and so intense before the meanest and lowliest of His creatures.'
But it is needless now to go on praising 'Our Village,' or to recount what a success was in store for the little book. Certain books hold their own by individual right and might; they are part of everybody's life as a matter of course. They are not always read, but they tacitly take their place among us. The editions succeeded editions here and in America; artists came down to illustrate the scenes. Miss Mitford, who was so delighted with the drawings by Mr. Baxter, should have lived to see the charming glimpses of rural life we owe to Mr. Thomson. 'I don't mind 'em,' says Lizzy to the cows, as they stand with spirited bovine grace behind the stable door. 'Don't mind them indeed!'
I think the author would assuredly have enjoyed the picture of the baker, the wheelwright and the shoemaker, each following his special Alderney along the road to the village, or of the farmer driving his old wife in the gig.... One design, that of the lady in her pattens, comes home to the writer of these notes, who has perhaps the distinction of being the only authoress now alive who has ever walked out in pattens. At the age of seven years she was provided with a pair by a great-great-aunt, a kind old lady living at Fareham, in Hampshire, where they were still in use. How interesting the little circles looked stamped upon the muddy road, and how nearly down upon one's nose one was at every other step!
But even with all her success, Miss Mitford was not out of her troubles. She writes to Mr. Harness saying: 'You cannot imagine how perplexed I am. There are points in my domestic situation too long and too painful to write about; the terrible improvidence of one dear parent, the failure of memory and decay of faculty in that other who is still dearer, cast on me a weight of care and fear that I can hardly bear up against.' Her difficulties were unending. The new publisher now stopped payment, so that even 'Our Village' brought in no return for the moment; Charles Kemble was unable to make any offer for 'Foscari.' She went up to town in the greatest hurry to try and collect some of the money owing to her from her various publishers, but, as Mr. Harness says, received little from her debtors beyond invitations and compliments. She meditates a novel, she plans an opera, 'Cupid and Psyche.'
At last, better times began to dawn, and she receives 150 pounds down for a new novel and ten guineas from Blackwood as a retaining fee. Then comes a letter from Charles Kemble giving her new hope, for her tragedy, which was soon afterwards produced at Covent Garden.
The tragedies are in tragic English, of course that language of the boards, but not without a simplicity and music of their own. In the introduction to them, in some volumes published by Hurst and Blacket in 1854, Miss Mitford describes 'the scene of indescribable chaos preceding the performance, the vague sense of obscurity and confusion; tragedians, hatted and coated, skipping about, chatting and joking; the only very grave person being Liston himself. Ballet-girls walking through their quadrilles to the sound of a solitary fiddle, striking up as if of its own accord, from amid the tall stools and music-desks of the orchestra, and piercing, one hardly knew how, through the din that was going on incessantly. Oh, that din! Voices from every part; above, below, around, and in every key. Heavy weights rolling here and falling there. Bells ringing, one could not tell why, and the ubiquitous call-boy everywhere.'
She describes her astonishment when the play succeeds. 'Not that I had nerve enough to attend the first representation of my tragedies. I sat still and trembling in some quiet apartment near, and thither some friend flew to set my heart at ease. Generally the messenger of good tidings was poor Haydon, whose quick and ardent spirit lent him wings on such an occasion.'
We have the letter to her mother about 'Foscari,' from which I have quoted; and on the occasion of the production of 'Rienzi' at Drury Lane (two years later in October 1828), the letter to Sir William Elford when the poor old mother was no longer here to rejoice in her daughter's success.
Miss Mitford gratefully records the sympathy of her friends, the warm-hearted muses of the day. Mrs. Trollope, Miss Landon, Miss Edgeworth, Miss Porden, Mrs. Hofland, Mrs. Opie, who all appear with their congratulations.
Miss Mitford says that Haydon, above all, sympathised with her love for a large canvas. The Classics, Spain, Italy, Mediaeval Rome, these are her favourite scenes and periods. Dukes and tribunes were her heroes; daggers, dungeons, and executioners her means of effects.
She moralises very sensibly upon Dramatic success. 'It is not,' she says, 'so delicious, so glorious, so complete a gratification as, in our secret longings, we all expect. It does not fill the heart,—it is an intoxication followed by a dismal reaction.' She tells a friend that never in all her life was she so depressed and out of spirits as after 'Rienzi,' her first really successful venture. But there is also a passing allusion to her father's state of mind, to his mingled irritation and sulkiness, which partly explains things. Could it be that the Doctor added petty jealousy and envy to his other inconvenient qualities? His intolerance for any author or actor, in short, for any one not belonging to a county family, his violent annoyance at any acquaintances such as those which she now necessarily made, would naturally account for some want of spirits on the daughter's part; overwrought, over-taxed, for ever on the strain, her work was exhausting indeed. The small pension she afterwards obtained from the Civil List must have been an unspeakable boon to the poor harassed woman.
Tragedy seems to have resulted in a substantial pony and a basket carriage for Miss Mitford, and in various invitations (from the Talfourds, among the rest) during which she is lionised right and left. It must have been on this occasion that Serjeant Talfourd complained so bitterly of a review of 'Ion' which appeared about that time. His guest, to soothe him, unwarily said, 'she should not have minded such a review of HER Tragedy.'
'YOUR "Rienzi," indeed! I should think not,' says the serjeant. '"Ion" is very different.' The Talfourd household, as it is described by Mr. Lestrange, is a droll mixture of poetry and prose, of hospitality, of untidiness, of petulance, of most genuine kindness and most genuine human nature.
There are also many mentions of Miss Mitford in the 'Life of Macready' by Sir F. Pollock. The great tragedian seems not to have liked her with any cordiality; but he gives a pleasant account of a certain supper-party in honour of 'Ion' at which she is present, and during which she asks Macready if he will not now bring out her tragedy. The tragedian does not answer, but Wordsworth, sitting by, says, 'Ay, keep him to it.'
Besides the 'Life of Miss Mitford' by Messrs. Harness and Lestrange, there is also a book of the 'Friendships of Mary Russell Mitford,' consisting of the letters she received rather than of those which she wrote. It certainly occurs to one, as one looks through the printed correspondence of celebrated people, how different are written from printed letters. Your friend's voice sounds, your friend's eyes look out, of the written page, even its blots and erasures remind you of your human being. But the magnetism is gone out of these printer's lines with their even margins; in which everybody's handwriting is exactly alike; in which everybody uses the same type, the same expressions; in which the eye roams from page to page untouched, unconvinced. I can imagine the pleasure each one of these letters may have given to Miss Mitford to receive in turn. They come from well-known ladies, accustomed to be considered. Mrs. Trollope, Mrs. Hofland, Mrs. Howitt, Mrs. S. C. Hall, Miss Strickland, Mrs. Opie; there, too, are Miss Barrett and Mrs. Jamieson and Miss Sedgwick who writes from America; they are all interesting people, but it must be confessed that the correspondence is not very enlivening. Miss Barrett's is an exception, that is almost as good as handwriting to read. But there is no doubt that compliments to OTHER authoresses are much less amusing, than those one writes or receives oneself; apologies also for not writing sooner, CAN pall upon one in print, however soothing they may be to the justly offended recipient, or to the conscience-stricken correspondent.
'I must have seemed a thankless wretch, my dear Miss Mitford,' etc. etc. 'You, my dear friend, know too well what it is to have to finish a book, to blame my not attempting,' etc. etc. 'This is the thirty-ninth letter I have written since yesterday morning,' says Harriet Martineau. 'Oh, I can scarcely hold the pen! I will not allow my shame for not having written, to prevent me from writing now.' All these people seem to have been just as busy as people are now, as amusing, as tiresome. They had the additional difficulty of having to procure franks, and of having to cover four pages instead of a post-card. OUR letters may be dull, but at all events they are not nearly so long. We come sooner to the point and avoid elegant circumlocutions. But one is struck, among other things, by the keener literary zest of those days, and by the immense numbers of MSS. and tragedies in circulation, all of which their authors confidingly send from one to another. There are also whole flights of travelling poems flapping their wings and uttering their cries as they go.
An enthusiastic American critic who comes over to England emphasises the situation. Mr. Willis's 'superlative admiration' seems to give point to everything, and to all the enthusiasm. Miss Austen's Collins himself could not have been more appreciative, not even if Miss de Burgh had tried her hand at a MS.... Could he—Mr. Willis—choose, he would have tragedy once a year from Miss Mitford's pen. 'WHAT an intoxicating life it is,' he cries; 'I met Jane Porter and Miss Aikin and Tom Moore and a troop more beaux esprits at dinner yesterday! I never shall be content elsewhere.'
Miss Mitford's own letters speak in a much more natural voice.
'I never could understand what people could find to like in my letters,' Miss Mitford writes, 'unless it be that they have a ROOT to them.' The root was in her own kind heart. Miss Mitford may have been wanting a little in discrimination, but she was never wanting in sympathy. She seems to have loved people for kindness's sake indiscriminately as if they were creations of her own brain: but to friendliness or to trouble of any sort she responds with fullest measure. Who shall complain if some rosy veil coloured the aspects of life for her?
'Among the many blessings I enjoy,—my dear father, my admirable mother, my tried and excellent friends,—there is nothing for which I ought to thank God so earnestly as for the constitutional buoyancy of spirits, the aptness to hope, the will to be happy WHICH I INHERIT FROM MY FATHER,' she writes. Was ever filial piety so irritating as hers? It is difficult to bear, with any patience, her praises of Dr. Mitford. His illusions were no less a part of his nature than his daughter's, the one a self-centred absolutely selfish existence, the other generous, humble, beautiful. She is hardly ever really angry except when some reports get about concerning her marriage. There was an announcement that she was engaged to one of her own clan, and the news spread among her friends. The romantic Mrs. Hofland had conjured up the suggestion, to Miss Mitford's extreme annoyance. It is said Mrs. Hofland also married off Miss Edgeworth in the same manner.
Mary Mitford found her true romance in friendship, not in love. One day Mr. Kenyon came to see her while she was staying in London, and offered to show her the Zoological Gardens, and on the way he proposed calling in Gloucester Place to take up a young lady, a connection of his own, Miss Barrett by name. It was thus that Miss Mitford first made the acquaintance of Mrs. Browning, whose friendship was one of the happiest events of her whole life. A happy romance indeed, with that added reality which must have given it endurance. And indeed to make a new friend is like learning a new language. I myself have a friend who says that we have each one of us a chosen audience of our own to whom we turn instinctively, and before whom we rehearse that which is in our minds; whose opinion influences us, whose approval is our secret aim. All this Mrs. Browning seems to have been to Miss Mitford.
'I sit and think of you and of the poems that you will write, and of that strange rainbow crown called fame, until the vision is before me.... My pride and my hopes seem altogether merged in you. At my time of life and with so few to love, and with a tendency to body forth images of gladness, you cannot think what joy it is to anticipate....' So wrote the elder woman to the younger with romantic devotion. What Miss Mitford once said of herself was true, hers was the instinct of the bee sucking honey from the hedge flower. Whatever sweetness and happiness there was to find she turned to with unerring directness.
It is to Miss Barrett that she sometimes complains. 'It will help you to understand how impossible it is for me to earn money as I ought to do, when I tell you that this very day I received your dear letter and sixteen others; then my father brought into my room the newspaper to hear the ten or twelve columns of news from India; then I dined and breakfasted in one; then I got up, and by that time there were three parties of people in the garden; eight others arrived soon after.... I was forced to leave, being engaged to call on Lady Madeline Palmer. She took me some six miles on foot in Mr. Palmer's beautiful plantations, in search of that exquisite wild-flower the bog-bean, do you know it? most beautiful of flowers, either wild—or, as K. puts it,—"tame." After long search we found the plant not yet in bloom.'
Dr. Mitford weeps over his daughters exhaustion, telling everybody that she is killing herself by her walks and drives. He would like her never to go beyond the garden and beyond reach of the columns of his newspaper. She declares that it is only by getting out and afield that she can bear the strain and the constant alternation of enforced work and anxiety. Nature was, indeed, a second nature to her. Charles Kingsley himself could scarcely write better of the East wind....
'We have had nine weeks of drought and east wind, scarcely a flower to be seen, no verdure in the meadows, no leaves in the hedgerows; if a poor violet or primrose did make its appearance it was scentless. I have not once heard my aversion the cuckoo... and in this place, so evidently the rendezvous of swallows, that it takes its name from them, not a swallow has yet appeared. The only time that I have heard the nightingale, I drove, the one mild day we have had, to a wood where I used to find the woodsorrel in beds; only two blossoms of that could be found, but a whole chorus of nightingales saluted me the moment I drove into the wood.'
There is something of Madame de Sevigne in her vivid realisation of natural things.
She nursed her father through a long and trying illness, and when he died found herself alone in the world with impaired health and very little besides her pension from the Civil List to live upon. Dr. Mitford left 1000 pounds worth of debts, which this honourable woman then and there set to work to try and pay. So much courage and devotion touched the hearts of her many friends and readers, and this sum was actually subscribed by them. Queens, archbishops, dukes, and marquises subscribe to the testimonial, so do the literary ladies, Mesdames Bailey, Edgeworth, Trollope; Mrs. Opie is determined to collect twenty pounds at least, although she justly says she wishes it were for anything but to pay the Doctor's debts.
In 1844 it is delightful to read of a little ease at last in this harassed life; of a school-feast with buns and flags organised by the kind lady, the children riding in waggons decked with laurel, Miss Mitford leading the way, followed by eight or ten neighbouring carriages, and the whole party waiting in Swallowfield Lane to see the Queen and Prince Albert returning from their visit to the Duke of Wellington. 'Our Duke went to no great expense,' says Miss Mitford. (Dr. Mitford would have certainly disapproved had he been still alive.) One strip of carpet the Duke did buy, the rest of the furniture he hired in Reading for the week. The ringers, after being hard at work for four hours, sent a can to the house to ask for some beer, and the can was sent back empty.
It was towards the end of her life that Miss Mitford left Three Mile Cross and came to Swallowfield to stay altogether. 'The poor cottage was tumbling around us, and if we had stayed much longer we should have been buried in the ruins,' she says; 'there I had toiled and striven and tasted as bitterly of bitter anxiety, of fear and hope, as often falls to the lot of women.' Then comes a charming description of the three miles of straight and dusty road. 'I walked from one cottage to the other on an autumn evening when the vagrant birds, whose habit of assembling there for their annual departure, gives, I suppose, its name of Swallowfield to the village, were circling over my head, and I repeated to myself the pathetic lines of Hayley as he saw those same birds gathering upon his roof during his last illness:—
'"Ye gentle birds, that perch aloof, And smooth your pinions on my roof...
'"Prepare for your departure hence Ere winter's angry threats commence; Like you my soul would smooth her plume For longer flights beyond the tomb.
'"May God by whom is seen and heard Departing men and wandering bird, In mercy mark us for His own And guide us to the land unknown!"'
Thoughts soothing and tender came with those touching lines, and gayer images followed....
It is from Swallowfield that she writes: 'I have fell this blessing of being able to respond to new friendships very strongly lately, for I have lost many old and valued connections during this trying spring. I thank God far more earnestly for such blessings than for my daily bread, for friendship is the bread of the heart.'
It was late in life to make such warm new ties as those which followed her removal from Three Mile Cross; but some of the most cordial friendships of her life date from this time. Mr. James Payn and Mr. Fields she loved with some real motherly feeling, and Lady Russell who lived at the Hall became her tender and devoted friend.
We went down to Reading the other day, as so many of Miss Mitford's friends have done before, to look at 'our village' with our own eyes, and at the cottage in which she lived for so long. A phaeton with a fast-stepping horse met us at the station and whirled us through the busy town and along the straight dusty road beyond it. As we drove along in the soft clouded sunshine I looked over the hedges on either side, and I could see fields and hedgerows and red roofs clustering here and there, while the low background of blue hills spread towards the horizon. It was an unpretentious homely prospect intercepted each minute by the detestable advertisement hoardings recommending this or that rival pill. 'Tongues in trees' indeed, in a very different sense from the exiled duke's experience! Then we come within sight of the running brook, uncontaminated as yet; the river flowing cool and swift, without quack medicines stamped upon its waters: we reach Whitley presently, with its pretty gabled hostel (Mrs. Mitford used to drive to Whitley and back for her airing), the dust rises on the fresh keen wind, the scent of the ripe corn is in the air, the cows stoop under the elm trees, looking exactly as they do in Mr. Thomson's pretty pictures, dappled and brown, with delicate legs and horns. We pass very few people, a baby lugged along in its cart, and accompanied by its brothers and sisters; a fox-terrier comes barking at our wheels; at last the phaeton stops abruptly between two or three roadside houses, and the coachman, pointing with his whip, says, 'That is "The Mitford," ma'am.—That's where Miss Mitford used to live!'
Was that all? I saw two or three commonplace houses skirting the dusty road, I saw a comfortable public-house with an elm tree, and beside it another grey unpretentious little house, with a slate roof and square walls, and an inscription, 'The Mitford,' painted over the doorway....
I had been expecting I knew not what; a spire, a pump, a green, a winding street: my preconceived village in the air had immediately to be swept into space, and in its stead, behold the inn with its sign-post, and these half-dozen brick tenements, more or less cut to one square pattern! So this was all! this was 'our village' of which the author had written so charmingly! These were the sights the kind eyes had dwelt upon, seeing in them all, the soul of hidden things, rather than dull bricks and slates. Except for one memory, Three Mile Cross would seem to be one of the dullest and most uninteresting of country places....
But we have Miss Mitford's own description. 'The Cross is not a borough, thank Heaven, either rotten or independent. The inhabitants are quiet, peaceable people who would not think of visiting us, even if we had a knocker to knock at. Our residence is a cottage' (she is writing to her correspondent, Sir William Elford), 'no, not a cottage, it does not deserve the name—a messuage or tenement such as a little farmer who had made 1400 pounds might retire to when he left off business to live on his means. It consists of a series of closets, the largest of which may be about eight feet square, which they call parlours and kitchens and pantries, some of them minus a corner, which has been unnaturally filched for a chimney, others deficient in half a side, which has been truncated by a shelving roof. Behind is a garden about the size of a good drawing-room, with an arbour, which is a complete sentry-box of privet. On one side a public-house, on the other a village shop, and right opposite a cobbler's stall. Notwithstanding all this "the cabin," as Boabdil says, "is convenient." It is within reach of my dear old walks, the banks where I find my violets, the meadows full of cowslips, and the woods where the woodsorrel blows.... Papa has already had the satisfaction of setting the neighbourhood to rights and committing a disorderly person who was the pest of "The Cross" to Bridewell.... Mamma has furbished up an old dairy; I have lost my only key and stuffed the garden with flowers....' So writes the contented young woman.
How much more delightful is all this than any commonplace stagey effect of lattice and gable; and with what pleasant unconscious art the writer of this letter describes what is NOT there and brings in her banks of violets to perfume the dull rooms. The postscript to this letter is Miss Mitford all over. 'Pray excuse my blots and interlineations. They have been caused by my attention being distracted by a nightingale in full song who is pouring a world of music through my window.'
'Do you not like to meet with good company in your friends' hearts?' Miss Mitford says somewhere,—to no one better than to herself does this apply. Her heart was full of gracious things, and the best of company was ever hers, 'La fleur de la hotte,' as Madame de Sevigne says.
We walked into the small square hall where Dr. Mitford's bed was established after his illness, whilst visitors and all the rest of the household came and went through the kitchen door. In the parlour, once kept for his private use, now sat a party of homely friends from Reading, resting and drinking tea: we too were served with smoking cups, and poured our libation to her who once presided in the quiet place; and then the landlady took us round and about, showed us the kitchen with its comfortable corners and low window-frames—'I suppose this is scarcely changed at all?' said one of us.
'Oh yes, ma'am,' says the housekeeper—'WE uses a Kitchener, Miss Mitford always kept an open range.'
The garden, with its sentry-box of privet, exists no longer; an iron mission-room stands in its place, with the harmonium, the rows of straw chairs, the table and the candlesticks de circonstance. Miss Mitford's picture hangs on the wall, a hand-coloured copy of one of her portraits. The kindly homely features smile from the oils, in good humour and attentive intelligence. The sentiment of to-day is assuredly to be found in the spirit of things rather than in their outward signs.... Any one of us can feel the romance of a wayside shrine put up to the memory of some mediaeval well-dressed saint with a nimbus at the back of her head, and a trailing cloak and veil.... Here, after all, is the same sentiment, only translated into nineteenth-century language; uses corrogated iron sheds, and cups of tea, and oakum matting. 'Mr. Palmer, he bought the place,' says the landlady, 'he made it into a Temperance Hotel, and built the Temperance Hall in the garden.'....
No romantic marble shrine, but a square meeting-house of good intent, a tribute not less sincere because it is square, than if it were drawn into Gothic arch and curve. It speaks, not of a holy and mythical saint, but of a good and warm-hearted woman; of a life-long penance borne with charity and cheerfulness; of sweet fancies and blessings which have given innocent pleasure to many generations!
There is a note, written in a close and pretty writing, something between Sir Walter Scott's and Mrs. Browning's, which the present writer has possessed for years, fastened in a book among other early treasures:—
Thank you, dearest Miss Priscilla, for your great kindness. I return the ninth volume of [illegible], with the four succeeding ones, all that I have; probably all that are yet published. You shall have the rest when I get them. Tell dear Mr. George (I must not call him Vert-Vert) that I have recollected the name of the author of the clever novel 'Le Rouge et le Noir' (that is the right title of the book, which has nothing to do with the name); the author's name is Stendhal, or so he calls himself. I think that he was either a musician or a musical critic, and that he is dead.... My visitor has not yet arrived (6 o'clock, p.m.), frightened no doubt by the abruptness of the two notes which I wrote in reply to hers yesterday morning; and indeed nobody could fancy the hurry in which one is forced to write by this walking post....
Tell my visitors of yesterday with my kind love that they did me all the good in the world, as indeed everybody of your house does.
—Ever, dear Miss Priscilla, very affectionately yours,
M. R. MITFORD.
In the present writer's own early days, when the now owner of Swallowfield was a very young, younger son, she used to hear him and his sister, Mrs. Brackenbury (the Miss Priscilla of the note), speaking with affectionate remembrance of the old friend lately gone, who had dwelt at their very gates; through which friendly gates one is glad, indeed, to realise what delightful companionship and loving help came to cheer the end of that long and toilsome life; and when Messrs. Macmillan suggested this preface the writer looked for her old autograph-book, and at its suggestion wrote (wondering whether any links existed still) to ask for information concerning Miss Mitford, and so it happened that she found herself also kindly entertained at Swallowfield, and invited to visit the scenes of which the author of 'Our Village' had written with so much delight.
I think I should like to reverse the old proverb about letting those who run read, my own particular fancy being for reading first and running afterwards. There are few greater pleasures than to meet with an Individuality, to listen to it speaking from a printed page, recounting, suggesting, growing upon you every hour, gaining in life and presence, and then, while still under its influence, to find oneself suddenly transported into the very scene of that life, to stand among its familiar impressions and experiences, realising another distinct existence by some odd metempsychosis, and what may—or rather, what MUST have been. It is existing a book rather than reading it when this happens to one.
The house in Swallowfield Park is an old English country home, a fastness still piled up against time; whose stately walls and halls within, and beautiful century-old trees in the park without, record great times and striking figures. The manor was a part of the dowry of Henry the VIII.'s luckless queens. The modern house was built by Clarendon, and the old church among the elms dates from 1200, with carved signs and symbols and brasses of knights and burgesses, and names of strange sound and bygone fashion.
Lady Russell, who had sent the phaeton with the fast-stepping horse to meet us, was walking in the park as we drove up, and instead of taking us back to the house, she first led the way across the grass and by the stream to the old church, standing in its trim sweet garden, where Death itself seems smiling and fearless; where kind Mary Mitford's warm heart rests quiet, and 'her busy hand,' as she says herself, 'is lying in peace there, where the sun glances through the great elm trees in the beautiful churchyard of Swallowfield.'
The last baronet, Sir Charles, who fought in the Crimea, and who succeeded his father, Sir Henry, moved the dividing rail so that his old friend should be well within the shadow of these elm trees. Lady Russell showed us the tranquil green place, and told us its story, and how the old church had once been doomed to destruction when Kingsley came over by chance, and pleaded that it should be spared; and how, when rubbish and outward signs of decay had been cleared away, the restorers were rewarded for their piety, by coming upon noble beams of oak, untouched by time, upon some fine old buried monuments and brasses and inscriptions, among which the people still say their prayers in the shrine where their fathers knelt, and of which the tradition is not yet swept away. The present Lady of the Manor, who loves old traditions, has done her part to preserve the records for her children.
So Miss Mitford walked from Three Mile Cross to Swallowfield to end her days, with these kind friends to cheer and to comfort her. Sir Henry Russell was alive when she first established herself, but he was already suffering from some sudden seizure, which she, with her usual impetuosity, describes in her letters as a chronic state of things. After his death, his widow, the Lady Russell of those days, was her kindest friend and comforter.
The little Swallowfield cottage at the meeting of the three roads, to which Mary Mitford came when she left Three Mile Cross, has thrown out a room or two, as cottages do, but otherwise I think it can be little changed. It was here Miss Mitford was visited by so many interesting people, here she used to sit writing at her big table under the 'tassels of her acacia tree.' When the present Lady of the Manor brought us to the gate, the acacia flowers were over, but a balmy breath of summer was everywhere; a beautiful rose was hanging upon the wall beneath the window (it must have taken many years to grow to such a height), and beyond the palings of the garden spread the fields, ripening in the late July, and turning to gold. The farmer and his son were at work with their scythes; the birds were still flying, the sweet scents were in the air.
From a lady who had known her, 'my own Miss Anne' of the letters, we heard something more that day of the author of 'Our Village'; of her charming intellect, her gift of talk, her impulsiveness, her essential sociability, and rapid grace of mind. She had the faults of her qualities; she jumped too easily to conclusions; she was too much under the influence of those with whom she lived. She was born to be a victim,—even after her old tyrant father's death, she was more or less over-ridden by her servants. Neighbours looked somewhat doubtfully on K. and Ben, but they were good to her, on the whole, and tended her carefully. Miss Russell said that when she and her brother took refuge in the cottage, one morning from a storm, while they dried themselves by the fire, they saw the careful meal carried up to the old lady, the kidneys, the custard, for her dejeuner a la fourchette.
When Miss Mitford died, she left everything she had to her beloved K. and to Ben, except that she said she wished that one book from her well-stocked library should be given to each of her friends. The old Doctor, with all his faults, had loved books, and bought handsome and valuable first editions of good authors. K. and Ben also seem to have loved books and first editions. To the Russells, who had nursed Miss Mitford, comforted her, by whose gates she dwelt, in whose arms she died, Ben brought, as a token of remembrance, an old shilling volume of one of G. P. R. James's novels, which was all he could bear to part with. A prettier incident was told me by Miss Russell, who once went to visit Miss Mitford's grave. She found a young man standing there whom she did not know. 'Don't you know me?' said he; 'I am Henry, ma'am. I have just come back from Australia.' He was one of the children of the couple who had lived in the cottage, and his first visit on his return from abroad had been to the tomb of his old protectress.
I also heard a friend who knew Miss Mitford in her latest days, describe going to see her within a very few months of her death; she was still bright and responding as ever, though very ill. The young visitor had herself been laid up and absent from the invalid's bedside for some time. They talked over many things,—an authoress among the rest, concerning whose power of writing a book Miss Mitford seems to have been very doubtful. After her visitor was gone, the sick woman wrote one of her delicate pretty little notes and despatched it with its tiny seal (there it is still unbroken, with its M. R. M. just as she stamped it), and this is the little letter:—
Thank you, dearest Miss... for once again showing me your fair face by the side of the dear, dear friend [Lady Russell] for whose goodness I have neither thanks nor words. To the end of my life I shall go on sinning and repenting. Heartily sorry have I been ever since you went away to have spoken so unkindly to Mrs.... Heaven forgive me for it, and send her a happier conclusion to her life than the beginning might warrant. If you have an idle lover, my dear, present over to him my sermon, for those were words of worth.
God bless you all! Ever, most faithfully and affectionately yours,
M. R. MITFORD.
When one turns from Miss Mitford's works to the notices in the biographical dictionary (in which Miss Mitford and Mithridates occupy the same page), one finds how firmly her reputation is established. 'Dame auteur,' says my faithful mentor, the Biographic Generale, 'consideree comme le peintre le plus fidele de la vie rurale en Angleterre.' 'Author of a remarkable tragedy, "Julian," in which Macready played a principal part, followed by "Foscari," "Rienzi," and others,' says the English Biographical Dictionary.
'I am charmed with my new cottage,' she writes soon after her last installation; 'the neighbours are most kind.' Kingsley was one of the first to call upon her. 'He took me quite by surprise in his extraordinary fascination,' says the old lady.
Mr. Fields, the American publisher, also went to see Miss Mitford at Swallowfield, and immediately became a very great ally of hers. It was to him that she gave her own portrait, by Lucas. Mr. Fields has left an interesting account of her in his 'Yesterdays with Authors'—'Her dogs and her geraniums,' he says, 'were her great glories! She used to write me long letters about Fanchon, a dog whose personal acquaintance I had made some time before, while on a visit to her cottage. Every virtue under heaven she attributed to that canine individual; and I was obliged to allow in my return letters that since our planet began to spin, nothing comparable to Fanchon had ever run on four legs. I had also known Flush, the ancestor of Fanchon, intimately, and had been accustomed to hear wonderful things of that dog, but Fanchon had graces and genius unique. Miss Mitford would have joined with Hamerton, when he says, 'I humbly thank Divine Providence for having invented dogs, and I regard that man with wondering pity who can lead a dogless life.'
Another of Miss Mitford's great friends was John Ruskin,* and one can well imagine how much they must have had in common. Of Miss Mitford's writings Ruskin says, 'They have the playfulness and purity of the "Vicar of Wakefield" without the naughtiness of its occasional wit, or the dust of the world's great road on the other side of the hedge.... '
*It is Mr. Harness who says, writing of Ruskin and Miss Mitford, 'His kindness cheered her closing days. He sent her every book that would interest, every delicacy that would strengthen her.'
Neither the dust nor the ethics of the world of men quite belonged to Miss Mitford's genius. It is always a sort of relief to turn from her criticism of people, her praise of Louis Napoleon, her facts about Mr. Dickens, whom she describes as a dull companion, or about my father, whom she looked upon as an utter heartless worldling, to the natural spontaneous sweet flow of nature in which she lived and moved instinctively.
Mr. James Payn gives, perhaps, the most charming of all the descriptions of the author of 'Our Village.' He has many letters from her to quote from. 'The paper is all odds and ends,' he says, 'and not a scrap of it but is covered and crossed. The very flaps of the envelopes and the outsides of them have their message.'
Mr. Payn went to see her at Swallowfield, and describes the small apartment lined with books from floor to ceiling and fragrant with flowers. 'Its tenant rose from her arm-chair with difficulty, but with a sunny smile and a charming manner bade me welcome. My father had been an old friend of hers, and she spoke of my home and belongings as only a woman can speak of such things, then we plunged into medea res, into men and books. She seemed to me to have known everybody worth knowing from the Duke of Wellington to the last new verse-maker. And she talked like an angel, but her views upon poetry as a calling in life, shocked me not a little. She said she preferred a mariage de convenance to a love match, because it generally turned out better. "This surprises you," she said, smiling, "but then I suppose I am the least romantic person that ever wrote plays." She was much more proud of her plays, even then well-nigh forgotten, than of the works by which she was well known, and which at that time brought people from the ends of the earth to see her....
'Nothing ever destroyed her faith in those she loved. If I had not known all about him from my own folk I should have thought her father had been a patriot and a martyr. She spoke of him as if there had never been such a father—which in a sense was true.'
Mr. Payn quotes Miss Mitford's charming description of K., 'for whom she had the highest admiration.' 'K. is a great curiosity, by far the cleverest woman in these parts, not in a literary way [this was not to disappoint me], but in everything that is useful. She could make a Court dress for a duchess or cook a dinner for a Lord Mayor, but her principal talent is shown in managing everybody whom she comes near. Especially her husband and myself; she keeps the money of both and never allows either of us to spend sixpence without her knowledge.... You should see the manner in which she makes Ben reckon with her, and her contempt for all women who do not manage their husbands.'
Another delightful quotation is from one of Charles Kingsley's letters to Mr. Payn. It brings the past before us from another point of view.
'I can never forget the little figure rolled up in two chairs in the little Swallowfield room, packed round with books up to the ceiling—the little figure with clothes on of no recognised or recognisable pattern; and somewhere, out of the upper end of the heap, gleaming under a great deep globular brow, two such eyes as I never perhaps saw in any other Englishwoman—though I believe she must have had French blood in her veins to breed such eyes and such a tongue, the beautiful speech which came out of that ugly (it was that) face, and the glitter and depth too of the eyes, like live coals—perfectly honest the while....' One would like to go on quoting and copying, but here my preface must cease, for it is but a preface after all, one of those many prefaces written out of the past and when everything is over.
Of all situations for a constant residence, that which appears to me most delightful is a little village far in the country; a small neighbourhood, not of fine mansions finely peopled, but of cottages and cottage-like houses, 'messuages or tenements,' as a friend of mine calls such ignoble and nondescript dwellings, with inhabitants whose faces are as familiar to us as the flowers in our garden; a little world of our own, close-packed and insulated like ants in an ant-hill, or bees in a hive, or sheep in a fold, or nuns in a convent, or sailors in a ship; where we know every one, are known to every one, interested in every one, and authorised to hope that every one feels an interest in us. How pleasant it is to slide into these true-hearted feelings from the kindly and unconscious influence of habit, and to learn to know and to love the people about us, with all their peculiarities, just as we learn to know and to love the nooks and turns of the shady lanes and sunny commons that we pass every day. Even in books I like a confined locality, and so do the critics when they talk of the unities. 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 at Madrid; it produces a 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 Miss Austen's delicious novels, quite sure before we leave it to become intimate with every spot and every person it contains; or to ramble with Mr. White* over his own parish of Selborne, and form a friendship with the fields and coppices, as well as with the birds, mice, and squirrels, who inhabit them; or to sail with Robinson Crusoe to his island, and live there with him and his goats and his man Friday;—how much we dread any new comers, any fresh importation of savage or sailor! we never sympathise for a moment in our hero's want of company, and are quite grieved when he gets away;—or to be shipwrecked with Ferdinand on that other lovelier island—the island of Prospero, and Miranda, and Caliban, and Ariel, and nobody else, none of Dryden's exotic inventions:—that is best of all. And a small neighbourhood is as good in sober waking reality as in poetry or prose; a village neighbourhood, such as this Berkshire hamlet in which I write, a long, straggling, winding street at the bottom of a fine eminence, with a road through it, always abounding in carts, horsemen, and carriages, and lately enlivened by a stage-coach from B—— to S——, which passed through about ten days ago, and will I suppose return some time or other. There are coaches of all varieties nowadays; perhaps this may be intended for a monthly diligence, or a fortnight fly. Will you walk with me through our village, courteous reader? The journey is not long. We will begin at the lower end, and proceed up the hill.
*White's 'Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne;' one of the most fascinating books ever written. I wonder that no naturalist has adopted the same plan.
The tidy, square, red cottage on the right hand, with the long well-stocked garden by the side of the road, belongs to a retired publican from a neighbouring town; a substantial person with a comely wife; one who piques himself on independence and idleness, talks politics, reads newspapers, hates the minister, and cries out for reform. He introduced into our peaceful vicinage the rebellious innovation of an illumination on the Queen's acquittal. Remonstrance and persuasion were in vain; he talked of liberty and broken windows—so we all lighted up. Oh! how he shone that night with candles, and laurel, and white bows, and gold paper, and a transparency (originally designed for a pocket-handkerchief) with a flaming portrait of her Majesty, hatted and feathered, in red ochre. He had no rival in the village, that we all acknowledged; the very bonfire was less splendid; the little boys reserved their best crackers to be expended in his honour, and he gave them full sixpence more than any one else. He would like an illumination once a month; for it must not be concealed that, in spite of gardening, of newspaper reading, of jaunting about in his little cart, and frequenting both church and meeting, our worthy neighbour begins to feel the weariness of idleness. He hangs over his gate, and tries to entice passengers to stop and chat; he volunteers little jobs all round, smokes cherry trees to cure the blight, and traces and blows up all the wasps'-nests in the parish. I have seen a great many wasps in our garden to-day, and shall enchant him with the intelligence. He even assists his wife in her sweepings and dustings. Poor man! he is a very respectable person, and would be a very happy one, if he would add a little employment to his dignity. It would be the salt of life to him.
Next to his house, though parted from it by another long garden with a yew arbour at the end, is the pretty dwelling of the shoemaker, a pale, sickly-looking, black-haired man, the very model of sober industry. There he sits in his little shop from early morning till late at night. An earthquake would hardly stir him: the illumination did not. He stuck immovably to his last, from the first lighting up, through the long blaze and the slow decay, till his large solitary candle was the only light in the place. One cannot conceive anything more perfect than the contempt which the man of transparencies and the man of shoes must have felt for each other on that evening. There was at least as much vanity in the sturdy industry as in the strenuous idleness, for our shoemaker is a man of substance; he employs three journeymen, two lame, and one a dwarf, so that his shop looks like an hospital; he has purchased the lease of his commodious dwelling, some even say that he has bought it out and out; and he has only one pretty daughter, a light, delicate, fair-haired girl of fourteen, the champion, protectress, and playfellow of every brat under three years old, whom she jumps, dances, dandles, and feeds all day long. A very attractive person is that child-loving girl. I have never seen any one in her station who possessed so thoroughly that undefinable charm, the lady-look. See her on a Sunday in her simplicity and her white frock, and she might pass for an earl's daughter. She likes flowers too, and has a profusion of white stocks under her window, as pure and delicate as herself.
The first house on the opposite side of the way is the blacksmith's; a gloomy dwelling, where the sun never seems to shine; dark and smoky within and without, like a forge. The blacksmith is a high officer in our little state, nothing less than a constable; but, alas! alas! when tumults arise, and the constable is called for, he will commonly be found in the thickest of the fray. Lucky would it be for his wife and her eight children if there were no public-house in the land: an inveterate inclination to enter those bewitching doors is Mr. Constable's only fault.
Next to this official dwelling is a spruce brick tenement, red, high, and narrow, boasting, one above another, three sash-windows, the only sash-windows in the village, with a clematis on one side and a rose on the other, tall and narrow like itself. That slender mansion has a fine, genteel look. The little parlour seems made for Hogarth's old maid and her stunted footboy; for tea and card parties,—it would just hold one table; for the rustle of faded silks, and the splendour of old china; for the delight of four by honours, and a little snug, quiet scandal between the deals; for affected gentility and real starvation. This should have been its destiny; but fate has been unpropitious: it belongs to a plump, merry, bustling dame, with four fat, rosy, noisy children, the very essence of vulgarity and plenty.
Then comes the village shop, like other village shops, multifarious as a bazaar; a repository for bread, shoes, tea, cheese, tape, ribands, and bacon; for everything, in short, except the one particular thing which you happen to want at the moment, and will be sure not to find. The people are civil and thriving, and frugal withal; they have let the upper part of their house to two young women (one of them is a pretty blue-eyed girl) who teach little children their A B C, and make caps and gowns for their mammas,—parcel schoolmistress, parcel mantua-maker. I believe they find adorning the body a more profitable vocation than adorning the mind.
Divided from the shop by a narrow yard, and opposite the shoemaker's, is a habitation of whose inmates I shall say nothing. A cottage—no—a miniature house, with many additions, little odds and ends of places, pantries, and what not; all angles, and of a charming in-and-outness; a little bricked court before one half, and a little flower-yard before the other; the walls, old and weather-stained, covered with hollyhocks, roses, honeysuckles, and a great apricot-tree; the casements full of geraniums (ah! there is our superb white cat peeping out from among them); the closets (our landlord has the assurance to call them rooms) full of contrivances and corner-cupboards; and the little garden behind full of common flowers, tulips, pinks, larkspurs, peonies, stocks, and carnations, with an arbour of privet, not unlike a sentry-box, where one lives in a delicious green light, and looks out on the gayest of all gay flower-beds. That house was built on purpose to show in what an exceeding small compass comfort may be packed. Well, I will loiter there no longer.
The next tenement is a place of importance, the Rose Inn: a white-washed building, retired from the road behind its fine swinging sign, with a little bow-window room coming out on one side, and forming, with our stable on the other, a sort of open square, which is the constant resort of carts, waggons, and return chaises. There are two carts there now, and mine host is serving them with beer in his eternal red waistcoat. He is a thriving man and a portly, as his waistcoat attests, which has been twice let out within this twelvemonth. Our landlord has a stirring wife, a hopeful son, and a daughter, the belle of the village; not so pretty as the fair nymph of the shoe-shop, and far less elegant, but ten times as fine; all curl-papers in the morning, like a porcupine, all curls in the afternoon, like a poodle, with more flounces than curl-papers, and more lovers than curls. Miss Phoebe is fitter for town than country; and to do her justice, she has a consciousness of that fitness, and turns her steps townward as often as she can. She is gone to B—— to-day with her last and principal lover, a recruiting sergeant—a man as tall as Sergeant Kite, and as impudent. Some day or other he will carry off Miss Phoebe.
In a line with the bow-window room is a low garden-wall, belonging to a house under repair:—the white house opposite the collar-maker's shop, with four lime-trees before it, and a waggon-load of bricks at the door. That house is the plaything of a wealthy, well-meaning, whimsical person who lives about a mile off. He has a passion for brick and mortar, and, being too wise to meddle with his own residence, diverts himself with altering and re-altering, improving and re-improving, doing and undoing here. It is a perfect Penelope's web. Carpenters and bricklayers have been at work for these eighteen months, and yet I sometimes stand and wonder whether anything has really been done. One exploit in last June was, however, by no means equivocal. Our good neighbour fancied that the limes shaded the rooms, and made them dark (there was not a creature in the house but the workmen), so he had all the leaves stripped from every tree. There they stood, poor miserable skeletons, as bare as Christmas under the glowing midsummer sun. Nature revenged herself, in her own sweet and gracious manner; fresh leaves sprang out, and at nearly Christmas the foliage was as brilliant as when the outrage was committed.
Next door lives a carpenter, 'famed ten miles round, and worthy all his fame,'—few cabinet-makers surpass him, with his excellent wife, and their little daughter Lizzy, the plaything and queen of the village, a child three years old according to the register, but six in size and strength and intellect, in power and in self-will. She manages everybody in the place, her schoolmistress included; turns the wheeler's children out of their own little cart, and makes them draw her; seduces cakes and lollypops from the very shop window; makes the lazy carry her, the silent talk to her, the grave romp with her; does anything she pleases; is absolutely irresistible. Her chief attraction lies in her exceeding power of loving, and her firm reliance on the love and indulgence of others. How impossible it would be to disappoint the dear little girl when she runs to meet you, slides her pretty hand into yours, looks up gladly in your face, and says 'Come!' You must go: you cannot help it. Another part of her charm is her singular beauty. Together with a good deal of the character of Napoleon, she has something of his square, sturdy, upright form, with the finest limbs in the world, a complexion purely English, a round laughing face, sunburnt and rosy, large merry blue eyes, curling brown hair, and a wonderful play of countenance. She has the imperial attitudes too, and loves to stand with her hands behind her, or folded over her bosom; and sometimes, when she has a little touch of shyness, she clasps them together on the top of her head, pressing down her shining curls, and looking so exquisitely pretty! Yes, Lizzy is queen of the village! She has but one rival in her dominions, a certain white greyhound called Mayflower, much her friend, who resembles her in beauty and strength, in playfulness, and almost in sagacity, and reigns over the animal world as she over the human. They are both coming with me, Lizzy and Lizzy's 'pretty May.' We are now at the end of the street; a cross-lane, a rope-walk shaded with limes and oaks, and a cool clear pond overhung with elms, lead us to the bottom of the hill. There is still one house round the corner, ending in a picturesque wheeler's shop. The dwelling-house is more ambitious. Look at the fine flowered window-blinds, the green door with the brass knocker, and the somewhat prim but very civil person, who is sending off a labouring man with sirs and curtsies enough for a prince of the blood. Those are the curate's lodgings—apartments his landlady would call them; he lives with his own family four miles off, but once or twice a week he comes to his neat little parlour to write sermons, to marry, or to bury, as the case may require. Never were better or kinder people than his host and hostess; and there is a reflection of clerical importance about them since their connection with the Church, which is quite edifying—a decorum, a gravity, a solemn politeness. Oh, to see the worthy wheeler carry the gown after his lodger on a Sunday, nicely pinned up in his wife's best handkerchief!—or to hear him rebuke a squalling child or a squabbling woman! The curate is nothing to him. He is fit to be perpetual churchwarden.
We must now cross the lane into the shady rope-walk. That pretty white cottage opposite, which stands straggling at the end of the village in a garden full of flowers, belongs to our mason, the shortest of men, and his handsome, tall wife: he, a dwarf, with the voice of a giant; one starts when he begins to talk as if he were shouting through a speaking trumpet; she, the sister, daughter, and grand-daughter, of a long line of gardeners, and no contemptible one herself. It is very magnanimous in me not to hate her; for she beats me in my own way, in chrysanthemums, and dahlias, and the like gauds. Her plants are sure to live; mine have a sad trick of dying, perhaps because I love them, 'not wisely, but too well,' and kill them with over-kindness. Half-way up the hill is another detached cottage, the residence of an officer, and his beautiful family. That eldest boy, who is hanging over the gate, and looking with such intense childish admiration at my Lizzy, might be a model for a Cupid.