« ZurückWeiter »
ONE of the books that is always pleasing to pick up at odd times to prattle to you enjoyably for half an hour or so is Miss Mitford’s “Recollections of a Literary Life.” It is not an autobiography particularly, though she gives, glimpses of herself and her surroundings and of some of her writings, but the staple of the volume is about the books she read and the authors she most delighted in. It is charmingly written—Professor Saintsbury ranks her second only to Charles Lamb as a writer of light and graceful English— and she exhibits the most catholic tastes in her love of books. It is pleasant to find an English writer in the early fifties of the last century praising Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes, as well as Wordsworth, Southey and Savage Landor. She has a chapter on Oliver Wendell Holmes, written long before “The Autocrat" appeared, Pors him highly.
Miss Mitford was always a favorite with American readers, and the simple cottage at Swallowfield was one of the literary Meccas of American tourists. George Ticknor visited her in 1835, and gives this description of her in his journal :
He found Miss Mitford living literally in a cottage, neither ornée nor poetical—except inasmuch as it had a small garden crowded with the richest and most beautiful profusion of flowers—where she lives with her father, a fresh, stout old man who is in his seventy-fifth year. She herself seemed about fifty, short and fat, with very gray hair, perfectly visible under her cap and nicely arranged in front. She has the simplest and kindest manners, and entertained us for two hours with the most animated conversation and a great variety of anecdote, without any of the pretensions of an author by profession and without any of the stiffness that generally belongs to single ladies of her age and reputation.
By the testimony of all who ever met her she was one of the most lovable of women.
Miss Mitford wrote poems, plays, novels, essays, and sketches, many of them possessing high literary value. Her plays were produced on the stage with success by such distinguished actors and actresses as Frederick Young, Charles Kemble, Macready, Helen Faucit, and Miss Foote. Her greatest and best-remembered play is “Rienzi,” founded upon a passage in Gibbon's
history descriptive of the warring factions of Rome in the fourteenth century. Extracts from it were favorites with American schoolboys fifty years ago, particularly Rienzi's address to the Romans, beginning: I come not here to talk. Ye know too well The story of our thraldom.
One of the finest passages is the following :
For Liberty go seek
This is poetry of a high order.
Besides her poems and plays she wrote a gossiping and chatty series of essays entitled “Our Village,” which appeared in the London Magazine, the periodical that had the honor of first publishing the essays of Elia.
Miss Mitford's essays have a lightness of touch, a spontaneous humor, and occasional bits of pathos that make them very charming and insures her a place in English literature. Mrs.
Browning, who long before her marriage was a correspondent of Miss Mitford, says of “Our Village”: “If read by snatches it comes on the mind as the summer air and the sweet hum of rural sounds floating upon the senses through an open window in the country, leaving with you for the whole day a tradition of fragrance and dew.”
Mary Russell Mitford was born in Hampshire, England, December 16, 1786, the daughter of Dr. George Mitford, a gambler and spendthrift, who, after squandering his wife's fortune, also spent his daughter's and then lived on her earnings for the remainder of his long and useless life.
The sensational passage in Miss Mitford's life relates to her fortune. When ten years of age her father took her into a lottery office— lotteries at that time being under the government control as a means of raising revenue—and with the gambler's superstition asked the child to choose a number. With much persistence she asked for a certain number and would have no other. After much searching it was found and given to the little girl. When the drawing came off that number drew the twenty thousand pounds prize. That seems to be all the good it ever did her. By the time she was grown up the fortune was gone, and thenceforth she was compelled to earn her living by her pen.
In his “Reminiscences” the late James Payn says of her :
Nothing ever destroyed her faith in those she loved. She spoke of her father as if there had never been such a father (and this, in a sense, was true, for he had spent his wife's fortune and the lottery fortune as well), and when he died she deemed it an irreparable loss. To my mind he seemed like a Mr. Turveydrop, but he really had been a most accomplished and agreeable person, though with nothing sublime about him except his selfishness.
From 1820 until 1855 Miss Mitford lived in the quiet English village she has made famous, a cheerful and sunny life, full of good works and good words. We do not hear that she ever had any love affairs or was inclined to marry. Her conversation was delightful and quite equaled the best of her writings. She was ever helpful to young authors, and died in 1855 beloved by all who knew her.