"Our Miss Austen": Jane Austen and Mary Russell Mitford--A New Appraisal.
Today, Mitford's name is familiar to most readers of Austen through two, now infamous, quotations: her mother's description of the young Jane Austen as "the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers" and a friend's more contemporary image of her as a "perpendicular, precise, taciturn ... poker of whom every one is afraid" (L'Estrange 1: 305-06). Examining Mitford's life and works, however, reveals a very different picture, one that not only exposes numerous links between the two authors but also shows that throughout her life Mitford had a deep and sincere respect and admiration for Austen and her work. This point was made as long ago as 1990 by E. E. Duncan-Jones: "Miss Mitford's writings, private or printed, constantly bear witness to her admiration of Jane Austen's, evidently based on a minute knowledge of the novels" (180). Yet many admirers of Austen know little of Mitford, except perhaps the notion that she had a hostile view of Austen. Mitford deserves our attention for two reasons: not only did she acknowledge Austen's genius at an early stage, but she was also connected to Austen in a number of ways, as we can see when we investigate her life.
THE BIOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT
As noted above, Mitford's relationship to Austen has been defined by two, now notorious statements that have appeared many times in the biographical literature on Austen and have caused particular offence. Those statements actually come from the same letter to Sir William Elford, dated April 3, 1815, and deserve to be quoted in full:
A propos to novels, I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman; that mamma knew all her family very intimately; and that she herself is an old maid (I beg her pardon---I mean a young lady) with whom mamma before her marriage was acquainted. Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers; and a friend of mine, who visits her now, says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of "single blessedness" that ever existed, and that, till 'Pride and Prejudice' showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quietness. The case is very different now; she is still a poker--but a poker of whom every one is afraid... . After all, I do not know that I can quite vouch for this account, though the friend from whom I received it is truth itself; but her family connections must render her disagreeable to Miss Austen, since she is the sister-in-law of a gentleman who is at law with Miss A.'s brother for the greater part of his fortune. (L'Estrange 1: 305-06)
When Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh saw this description of Jane Austen as "the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers," shortly before the publication of his own work, he could not let it pass without comment. In a note to the first edition, he wrote what R. W. Chapman defines as a dignified postscript (omitted, however, from the second edition), describing his "astonishment" at "the strange misrepresentation of my aunt's manners given by Miss Mitford in a letter which appears in her lately-published life." Austen-Leigh states that Mrs. Mitford left the area in 1783, when Austen would have been seven, triumphantly concluding that Mitford's mother "could not possibly have known what she was supposed to have reported" (134).
Yet as long ago as 1950, Madeleine Dodds pointed out that Austen's first surviving letter makes reference to her flirtatious behavior with Tom Lefroy: "we are to have a dance at Ashe after all." Austen continues: "he [Lefroy] is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon" (9-10 January 1796). (Ashe, in fact, was Mrs. Mitford's childhood home.) Dodds concludes that "Jane Austen at twenty-one was evidently defying the gossips, and they took their revenge on her" (189). (1) Bearing in mind the evident vivacity these letters display, it seems at least possible that Mrs. Mitford's comment may have contained an element of truth.
A number of Austen's biographers have therefore questioned Austen-Leigh's confident dismissal by pointing out that Mrs. Mitford did not move far away and, having grown up in the area, may well have had friends there who passed on local news and gossip (Le Faye, Family Record 46-47). Mitford's letter to Elford suggests that such a local network provided her mother with considerable information about Austen, some of which may well have been accurate. As Deirdre Le Faye has pointed out, Mrs. Mitford "saw Jane at some time between 1792 and 1795, probably at a Basingstoke assembly ball, and jealously thought her 'the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembered'" (Family Record 81). We may be less confident in summarily dismissing this account than Austen-Leigh was.
The second reference dates to the Chawton period of Austen's life and again is a second-hand relation. Mitford's informant was a Miss Hinton (220-21), and Austen-Leigh highlights the fact that Mitford herself expresses some doubt about the accuracy of this second account. Modern biographers, however, have again suggested that, despite Miss Hinton's position, the remark may have had some truth in it regarding Austen's interaction with those outside her family (Tomalin 314).
Although there may well be mitigating factors for both these comments, these two statements have encouraged Austen's biographers to take a dim view of Mitford and her estimation of Austen. As early as 1913, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters. A Family Record stated: "Miss Mitford was a convinced--but apparently a reluctant--admirer of her genius" (W. and R. Austen-Leigh 300). (2) In 1927, R. Brimley Johnson, in connection with the butterfly description, which he rejected, referred to Mitford's "thoughtless character of the artist" (15, 26); just over ten years later, Elizabeth Jenkins made mention of "Miss Mitford's spite" (249). Perhaps building on these references, R. W. Chapman would subsequently go as far as to call Mitford "the first of the detractors" (119). This trend continued in the post-war biographical literature, with David Cecil's stating that Mitford was "suspiciously ready to believe any hard words about the private character of her distinguished fellow author" (136); Claire Tomalin quoted the two passages from Mitford's letter, adding that "the tone is patently malicious"--although she too accepts that it may contain elements of truth (314).
The butterfly reference as well as an 1814 letter by Mitford criticizing Pride and Prejudice and characterizing Elizabeth Bennet as "pert and worldly" were "to fix [Mitford] in the minds of many as an enemy to Jane Austen" (Duncan-Jones 181). Even the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Mitford states that she is "infamous for relaying a malicious observation about Austen" (Garrett)--in fact, two malicious observations. The butterfly reference in particular deserves closer attention as it highlights the fact that Mitford's immediate forebears were known to the Austen family, as indeed Mitford herself indicated. Mitford's grandfather was the Rev. Dr. Richard Russell. Russell attended Westminster School as a King's Scholar and matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in June 1716 at the age of about twenty. He went on to become Vicar of Overton in north Hampshire (Horn 86-88). (This appointment provides a link with James Austen, Austen's eldest brother, who toward the end of the century would be curate of Overton.) In November 1729 Russell became incumbent of the nearby rectory of Ashe, where he was to remain for over fifty years, until his death in January 1783, aged 87 (Le Faye, Family Records). His third wife was Mitford's grandmother, their daughter being Mary Russell, Mitford's mother, who was born on June 4, 1750. After Dr. Russell's death, Mary Russell moved to Alresford, not far from Winchester, and about fifteen miles south of Steventon, Austen's home.
Those familiar with Austen's life will remember that Ashe holds a significant place in Austen's biography. Ashe was a parish about two miles away from Steventon, where the Rev. George Austen took up residence from the summer of 1768 (Le Faye, Family Record 20). Austen's father and Mitford's grandfather were thus near neighbors for just under fifteen years, seven of which were during Austen's childhood and during which period Mitford's mother would have been between eighteen and thirty-two. Indeed, Austen-Leigh himself makes this point in the Memoir. "About this time, the grandfather of Mary Russell Mitford, Dr. Russell, was Rector of the adjoining parish of Ashe; so that the parents of two popular female writers must have been intimately acquainted with each other" (13). Austen-Leigh also mentions that after the Mitfords' departure from Ashe, their place was taken by the Rev. I. P. G. Lefroy and his wife, Anne. Lefroy was instituted to the living of Ashe on May 3, 1783, and in the following years Madam Lefroy, as she was known locally, became a close friend and ally of the young Jane Austen. Later still, the rector of Ashe would be Benjamin Lefroy, Madam Lefroy's youngest son, who would marry Austen's niece Anna Austen in 1814.
The lives of Mitford's parents suggest more about Mitford and elicit further connections with the Austen family. In March 1785, two years after she had left Ashe, Mitford's grandmother died at Alresford, leaving her daughter a wealthy heiress. Predictably enough, just over six months later, on October 17, Miss Russell was married at Alresford (Horn 88-89). Her husband was a George Mitford, or Midford, as he was also known, from Northumberland. Mitford was the son of a surgeon and was ten years his wife's junior. He had pursued his father's profession and passed himself off as Dr. Mitford without actually having any right to such a title. The marriage was recorded in The Hampshire Chronicle on October 24, 1785, where the bride's fortune was given as 20,000 [pounds sterling], although the figure of 28,000 [pounds sterling] has also been quoted (L'Estrange 1: 5). The Hampshire Chronicle also stated that the marriage was performed by the Dean of Exeter, at that time Dr. William Buller, who would become Bishop of Exeter and whose son Richard would be one of George Austen's pupils from around 1790 to 1795 (Le Faye, Family Record 12-73). Unfortunately, George Mitford was a wastrel and a gambler, and in a short period he had run through his wife's large fortune and, indeed, his daughter's. On her tenth birthday Mary Russell Mitford chose a lottery ticket, which, astonishingly, was a winner, bringing in a prize of 20,000 [pounds sterling]. Rather predictably, she saw little of the money as it was promptly squandered by her father (Watson 29-31). By her own account, her father got through over 60,000 [pounds sterling] during his life. (3) Dr. Mitford's spendthrift ways cast a long shadow over practically the whole of his daughter's life. Like Austen, Mitford would live the life of a penurious genteel spinster, striving to keep up appearances.
The Mitfords' only surviving child, Mary Russell Mitford, was born in Alresford on December 16, 1787, Jane Austen's twelfth birthday, a fact of which probably neither author was aware. Alresford was a small community, with the 1801 census putting the population at 1,132 inhabitants (Horn 86). Mitford was born at 27 Broad Street, which still bears a plaque recording this fact. Due to Dr. Mitford's erratic finances, Mitford had a rather peripatetic childhood. In October 1792, when she was approaching her fifth birthday, one of many crisis points had been reached, and the family goods and, indeed, the family home were advertised for auction in The Hampshire Chronicle on the 15, 22, and 29 of October. Among the items sold were five hundred volumes, which had probably belonged to Dr. Russell, the number of books curiously mirroring that of his neighbor George Austen's library when those were auctioned in 1801. The Mitfords moved to Reading and then again to Lyme Regis, where they remained for about a year from mid-1796. (Mitford's time in Lyme Regis and its later associations with Austen would long stay with her.) The Mitfords then moved again, this time to London. From 1798 to 1802 Mitford attended M. de St. Quentins school in Chelsea. Again, those familiar with Austen's biography will recognize this establishment as the London successor to the Reading Ladies Boarding School, which Austen had attended along with her sister, Cassandra, and cousin Jane Cooper, from July 1785 to December 1786. When Austen and her sister arrived at the school, the headmistress was a Mrs. La Tournelle, who was assisted by her younger partner, Miss Ann Pitts (Le Faye, Family Record 51).
This school provides a number of links between the two authors, despite the fact that they were there at different times. Two years after the Austen sisters' departure, Dominique de St. Quentin, a former diplomat in the French embassy in London, arrived in Reading. An inveterate gambler, St. Quentin was now reduced to becoming a schoolmaster. He married Ann Pitts, whom Austen very possibly would have remembered from her eighteen months at the school. Unfortunately, he persisted in his old habits, and in 1794 the school had to be sold to pay his debts. A former pupil, Mary Butt, came to the rescue. Butt had joined the school in around 1790, only a few years after the Austen sisters had left. Born in 1775, like Austen, Butt, as Mrs. Sherwood, became a prolific author in her own right, and her contribution to alleviating the plight of the St. Quentins was her first novel, The Traditions, a Legendary Tale. The subscription fees were made over to the St. Quentins, and the proceeds allowed St. Quentin to establish a new school in London, where Mitford was educated between 1798 and 1802. The novel was published anonymously in London in 1795, and the subscription list itself is worth further attention: 738 people subscribed for 928 copies at 7s. each. Both Dr. and Mrs. Mitford subscribed, as did their daughter. Among the other subscriber names is a "Miss Austen of Steventon," evidence perhaps of Butt drawing on an old girls' network (Corley 98). Although a small number of critics have suggested this subscriber is Jane Austen, the general consensus appears to be that it is her sister, Cassandra.
St. Quentin set up his new school in 1795 at No. 22 Hans Place, Chelsea, an address familiar to students of Austen's biography. From around late June 1814 to January 1816 Austen's banker brother, Henry, lived at No. 23 Hans Place (Le Faye, Chronology), just next door to the school but separated by a lane. The school was still there when Austen stayed with her brother at various periods from 1814. Henry Austen had moved to Hans Place in the summer of 1814; Mitford herself dated letters from June of that year from No. 33 Hans Place (L'Estrange 1: 271-85). Although Austen stayed with Henry towards the end of the summer, as we see from a letter dated 23--24 August, by this time Mitford had left. This near miss might be the closest the two authors ever got to each other, but the above examples show us that they moved in similar circles, coming as they did from the same locality and sharing similar family backgrounds.
THE CRITICAL CONTEXT
By 1814 both Austen and Mitford were published authors. Although there is no evidence that Austen was aware of Mitford's work, there is a considerable amount of Mitford's criticism on Austen, from the initial appearance of the novels to shortly before Mitford's own death in 1855. These responses constitute a rich trove of early Austen criticism that proves beyond all doubt that, far from being a detractor of Austen, Mitford was one of her earliest and most consistent champions.
Mitford outlived Austen by almost forty years, and an important, and indeed neglected, aspect of her legacy is her appreciation of Austen. We will begin by looking at Mitford's published work and move to her correspondence, which contains more detailed references and spans a longer period, giving us the opportunity to survey Mitford's views on Austen over the decades following Austen's death.
Mitford's career as an author began at around the same time as Austen's. Her first work, Poems, was published in 1810, with an enlarged edition appearing in 1811, the same year as Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Although Mitford continued to write poetry in the years that followed, her best-known work was written after Austen's death. In 1820, following yet another financial crisis, the Mitfords moved to Three Mile Cross, south of Reading, where Mitford would live until 1851, just a few years before her death. Mitford used Three Mile Cross as the inspiration for her village stories, which first appeared in the Lady's Magazine between 1822 and 1824 and were subsequently reprinted in the first volume of Our Village: Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery (1824). This critical and commercial success rapidly went to a second edition. Four further volumes followed between 1826 and 1832.
It is easy to see why comparisons have been made between Our Village and Austen's novels, both dealing as they do with English country life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mitford's correspondence reveals that she quite consciously took Austen as a guide. In a letter to Sir William Elford, dated February 19, 1825, she writes: "If you can think of a pretty story, do send it me; for that is my want. Of course I shall copy as closely as I can Nature and Miss Austen--keeping, like her, to genteel country life" (L'Estrange 2: 198). In another letter that year, written to Mrs. Hofland, and dated May 25, she describes a novel she's considering: "It will be common English life in the country, as playful, and as true, as I can make it, in other words, as like Miss Austen" (Chorley 1: 129). It is worth noting that, despite setting a number of significant scenes in various novels in urban locations, at this early period, as now, Austen is identified as essentially a novelist of the English countryside.
Our Village contains a number of references to Austen, both direct and indirect, an example appearing in the very opening of the book, which deserves to be quoted at length:
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 non-descript 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 authorized 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. (1-2)
The reference to Gilbert White here is telling, Selborne being another Hampshire location, and White being another author who excelled in expertly detailing a specific aspect of country life. What this paragraph best captures, however, is one of the strongest links between the two authors and that aspect of Austen that Mitford admired the most. Here, Mitford speaks of her delight in a carefully crafted locality with its own history, inhabitants, and topography.
This emphasis naturally, and almost inevitably, leads to a direct reference to Emma, which the passage could easily be describing. This reference appears in the story "Nutting," where Mitford continues, "and look at that still younger imp, who, as grave as a judge, is creeping on hands and knees under the tree, picking up the apples as they fall so deedily." An explanatory note adds: "I am not quite sure that this word is good English; but it is genuine Hampshire, and is used by the most correct of female writers, Miss Austen" (Our Village 47). Mitford's reference, of course, is to the narrator's use of the word in Emma, as she describes the heroine's entrance into a sitting-room occupied by Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and the sleeping Mrs. Bates: "The appearance of the little sitting-room as they entered, was tranquillity itself; Mrs. Bates, deprived of her usual employment, slumbering on one side of the fire, Frank Churchill, at a table near her, most deedily occupied about her spectacles, and Jane Fairfax, standing with her back to them, intent on her pianoforte" (259). Indeed, Austen herself used the word in a letter of 11 October 1813 referring to two of her nephews: "They amuse themselves very comfortably in the Even8--by netting; they are each about a rabbit net, & sit as deedily to it, side by side, as any two Uncle Franks could do."
This reference is not the only allusion to Austen in Mitford's published output. Other such verbal echoes, whether conscious or not, suggest that Austen was never far from Mitford's thoughts as a writer. As Duncan-Jones has pointed out (180), Mitford also paraphrases Frank Churchill's phrase '"all the worlds one ever has to give'" referring to his wish to have more time to dance with Jane Fairfax (E 261). The story "Aunt Martha" contains the words "for all the worlds that one ever has to give" (Our Village 228) and, similarly, in "My Schoolfellows," "all the worlds that people ever have to give" (278). Significantly, this phrase occurs directly after the reference to the term deedily, suggesting that this chapter in Emma, or even Emma itself, was a work with which Mitford was especially familiar. References to Austen appear also in Belford Regis, a work published in 1835, which has a similar theme to Our Village but set in Reading. Mitford again refers directly to Austen in her statement: "The manners immortalised by Miss Austen are rapidly passing away" (71). Further on, in a passage that discusses the definition of a gentleman, after a passage from Camilla is quoted on the subject, reference is made to Mr. Suckling's snobbery (289-90), yet another reference to Emma. Even if the manners associated with Austen were vanishing, Mitford's references ensured that Austen's name and characters would not.
Mitford's references to Austen were not limited to her published output. Mitford's correspondence abounds with references to both Austen herself and her work during Austen's own lifetime and beyond. These references, most of them appearing in letters to Sir William Elford, provide a valuable insight into how Austen and her work were viewed by a contemporary, indeed a contemporary who was also an author in her own right. One of the earliest references dates from November 10, 1813: "Pray, is not your neighbour, Lady Boringdon, an authoress? I have heard of two novels in high repute (but which I have not read), 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Pride and Prejudice,' ascribed to her" (L'Estrange 1: 241). (3) By October 31 the following year Mitford had repaired at least one omission, as she was able to mention to Elford that she thought Pride and Prejudice "extremely good" (293). A letter in December contains a longer reference, which, again, despite the earlier praise, has been taken as proof that Mitford did not appreciate the novel:
The want of elegance is almost the only want in Miss Austen. I have not read her 'Mansfield Park'; but it is impossible not to feel in every line of 'Pride and Prejudice,' in every word of 'Elizabeth,' the entire want of taste which could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy. Wickham is equally bad. Oh! they were just fit for each other, and I cannot forgive that delightful Darcy for parting them. Darcy should have married Jane. He is of all the admirable characters the best designed and the best sustained, (1: 300)
The passage continues, however, on a more positive note: "I quite agree with you in preferring Miss Austen to Miss Edgeworth." Unfortunately, the above excerpt is the only example of Mitford's criticism on Austen provided in the main body of Brian Southam's Critical Heritage volumes, thus reinforcing the impression given in the biographies that Mitford had a low opinion of Austen. Mitford did in fact deeply admire the novel. In another letter to Elford dated June 8, 1819, Mitford states: Next to reading with an undivided and enthusiastic admiration (such as I feel for the 'Faerie Queen,' you for 'Tom Jones,' and both of us for 'Pride and Prejudice')--next to that absorbing delight, the greatest pleasure in reading is to be critical and fastidious, and laugh at and pull to pieces" (2: 60). Similarly, in a letter of February 7, 1821, Mitford wrote to Mrs. Hofland of "my ever dear 'Pride and Prejudice"' (Chorley 1: 102-03).
It is curious that between her letters of November 1813 and December 1814, Mitford had discovered that Austen was the author of the novel, possibly through local gossip, apparently the source of so much information. Perhaps the same mechanism was responsible for revealing further information about Austen, as Mitford wrote in the previously quoted letter of April 3, 1815: "I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman" (l: 305-06). At this point, only three of Austen's novels had appeared, but already Mitford refers to her in high terms.
Towards the end of this year, Emma appeared, and by July 2, 1816, Mitford had read it. "By-the-way, how delightful is her 'Emma'! the best, I think, of all her charming works" (l: 331). News of Austen's death the following year took time to reach Mitford, but her shock on learning the news is palpable, as can be seen from a letter dated September 13, 1817: "I had not heard of Miss Austen's death. What a terrible loss! Are you quite sure that it is our Miss Austen?" (2: 13). The possessive tone of Mitford's "our Miss Austen" is a feature found repeatedly in her correspondence, one which would become all too familiar among Austen's admirers as the century progressed. Just over a year after Austen's death, on September 10, 1818, Mitford writes about a letter that she had received from an odd acquaintance: "I value it almost as much as Mr. Bennett (our dear Miss Austen's Mr. Bennett) valued the letters of Mr. Collins--a person whom, I think, my correspondent rather resembles" (2: 39). Austen's characters had become fixed entities within Mitford's mind.
A valuable source for Mitford's reading in the immediate years after Austen's death is her unpublished diary, which runs from January 1, 1819, to March 11, 1823. (5) As well as her day-to-day activities and concerns, this small volume also noted Mitford's reading. On February 18, 1819, she begins to reread Emma. Astonishingly, the very next day she writes: "finished Emma." Similarly, on November 28, 1819, she notes: "Read Sense & Sensibility--very good." The diary is the only source confirming that Mitford read Sense and Sensibility, as her letter to Elford from November 1813 indicated that at that time she had not. The reference to Emma is also significant. Some years later, in Our Village, Mitford made direct reference to Austen's use of the term "deedily" and avowed that Emma was Austen's best work. Here, we see Mitford rereading it literally in a day. Given how closely Mitford's opening description in Our Village matched the tone and setting of Emma, it seems entirely to be expected that the novel should occupy a special place in Mitford's regard.
In her correspondence with Sir William Elford, Mitford engages critically with Austen's texts. Intending to write an essay on the novels, partly to encourage a reevaluation of their worth, she writes to Elford on March 22, 1821:
Well, I am now going to make a strange request. Will you, my dear friend, have the goodness to lend me those letters of mine which you have taken the trouble to keep. I am not going to publish them; of that you may be sure. But I want to write an essay on Miss Austen's novels, which are by no means valued as they deserve; and I am sure I should find better materials in my letters to you, written just after I read them, than I should be able to compound from my own recollection. Of course, I am not going to print them in the form of letters, or to have any allusions to names or persons. All that I intend is, to select any happy expressions (if I chance to find any), or any vivid descriptions--to steal from myself, as it were. (2: 127)
Unfortunately, this essay, if ever written, has not survived. During this period, there was little critical material regarding Austen, with some notable exceptions. Mitford's essay would have been a welcome addition to the early critical literature on Austen.
Mitford's admiration seems to have grown as the years passed, her comments on Austen becoming increasingly fulsome. In 1832 she wrote to Frances Trollope, mother of the novelist: "I have not a doubt that that [the writing of novels] is by far the most profitable branch of the literary profession. If ever I be bold enough to try that arduous path, I shall endeavour to come as near as I can to Miss Austen, my idol" (Trollope 2: 340--41). Just over a decade later, on December 3, 1842, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to Mitford urging her to read The Neighbours, a novel by a Swedish novelist, Frederica Bremer, which had been translated into English by Mary Howitt. As an incitement to read the novel, Barrett Browning wrote: "Read it my dearest friend, & agree with me that it is delightful. 'Like Miss Austen' says Mrs Howitt--& 'like Miss Austen' being the best introduction to you possible, 'I echo her'" (2: 99). (6) In her response, dated December 5, Mitford wrote:
You know what Coleridge says of Genevieve,
"Few sorrows had she of her own." Now I have always had many, and therefore I love things that make me gay--therefore, amongst other reasons, I love Miss Austen. I shall be sure to read the Swedish book, and sure to like it; but Mary Howitt's English will be one take-off; and is there not some strange morbid tale woven in with it, for another? Oh! if it were indeed Miss Austen, that would be discovering a mine of diamonds. (L'Estrange 3: 165-66)
Mitford may have failed to persuade Barrett Browning of Austen's worth, but their exchange is valuable in having prompted her spirited and eager defense of Austen.
But Mitford appears to have gone beyond mere admiration of Austen and her work. In the Memoir, Austen-Leigh states, "I remember Miss Mitford's saying to me: 'I would almost cut off one of my hands, if it would enable me to write like your aunt with the other'" (110). Le Faye dates this meeting to around June 30, 1828 (Chronology 634). It seems, however, that Mitford used this phrase more than once, as on December 7, 1842, Barrett Browning writes, "I wdnt have one of your dear hands 'cut off that you shd 'write one page like her's with the other,'--because, really & earnestly, your Village & Belford Regis are more charming to me than her pages in congregation" (2: 109). If anything, the wish is made more emphatic in Barrett Browning's "write one page" as opposed to Austen-Leigh's "write like," although either Barrett Browning or Austen-Leigh may have garbled the original. Furthermore, less than two months later, on January 20, 1843, Barrett Browning wrote:
I congratulate you on your new acquaintance with your Miss Austen's relatives--& on the prospect (oh I see it plainly, for all your distrustings!) of holding the precious MSS in your two hands. And that reminds me that you certainly do, as you appear conscious, care a little wee bit for literary power or fame; or the dear right hand wdnt"' care to be cut off for the particular purpose you wot of.... Tell me if the MSS are sent to you & whether your remonstrance in favor of publication has changed the resolution against it--which unless founded upon some just perception of the inadequacy of the new works to the established reputation, appears to me both unnatural and inexcusable. (2: 167)
It would therefore seem at this point that Mitford had made contact with members of the Austen family, possibly James Edward Austen-Leigh, and that the question of unpublished manuscripts came up, with Mitford being in favor of publication. The manuscripts referred to were possibly Lady Susan or The Watsons or Sanditon, although Austen's Juvenilia in three volumes was also extant. Unfortunately, it is unclear which manuscripts were being referred to, whether Mitford ever did see them, or what she thought of them if she did.
Due to her father's excesses, Mitford was forced to turn out a large output. In 1837, however, she was granted a civil list pension, largely through the efforts of her friends, and five years later, in 1842, Dr. Mitford finally died, thus freeing his daughter. One of the products of Mitford's later period is her Recollections of a Literary Life, which appeared in 1852. In the preface, Mitford stated that her intention was "an attempt to make others relish a few favourite writers as heartily as I have relished them myself" (l: vii). Mitford refers to Austen a number of times in this work, the best-known reference perhaps the following:
Her exquisite story of "Persuasion" absolutely haunted me. Whenever it rained,... I thought of Anne Elliott meeting Captain Wentworth, when driven by a shower to take refuge in a shoe-shop. Whenever I got out of breath in climbing up-hill, ... I thought of that same charming Anne Elliott, and of that ascent from the lower town to the upper, during which all her tribulations ceased. And when at last, by dint of trotting up one street and down another, I incurred the unromantic calamity of a blister on the heel, even that grievance became classical by the recollection of the similar catastrophe, which, in consequence of her peregrinations with the Admiral, had befallen dear Mrs. Croft. I doubt if any one, even Scott himself, have left such perfect impressions of character and place as Jane Austen. (2: 197).
Here is further proof that, at this late stage in her life, Austen's characters had become fixed features of Mitford's mental life. Although her admiration of Austen at the expense of Scott seems perfectly normal to us, it may well have surprised contemporary readers.
During Mitford's final years, she is still ready to praise Austen, often at the expense of contemporary novelists. In a letter to a Mrs. Hoare in Ireland from the autumn of 1852, she writes: "Your admiration of Jane Austen is so far from being a heresy, that I never met any high literary people in my life who did not prefer her to any female prose writer... . For my own part, I delight in her and really cannot read the present race of novel-writers" (L'Estrange 3: 241). Shortly afterwards, in November of that year, Mitford wrote to William Harness, making perceptive comparisons between Austen and novelists of a later generation, especially their depiction of female characters:
Look at the great novelists of the day, Dickens and Thackeray... . [L]ook at their books, so thoroughly false and unhealthy in different ways; Thackeray's so world-stained and so cynical, Dickens's so meretricious in sentiment and so full of caricature. Compare them with Scott, and Miss Austen, and then say if they can live. Neither of them can produce an intelligent, right-minded, straightforward woman, such as one sees every day (3: 245-46)
Mitford wrote in a similar vein to William Cox Bennett just two years earlier. In an unpublished letter from 1850 she states:
Of course I have read both David Copperfield and Pendennis--Dickens seems to me essentially exaggerated and false.... Thackeray is most painfully fine but hard and heartless. The Manchester Authoress is a great writer and a great woman, but then her books are so painful that it is like a nervous fever to read them. Dear me when will people learn to be cheerful and hopeful and write healthily like dear Miss Austen and Sir Walter? (7)
Even at the end of her long life, Mitford remained a keen, critical, and engaged reader. Although she saw merit in a later generation of novelists, it is clear that, in her view, none matched Austen. The admiration that Mitford expressed during Austen's lifetime is clearly present so many years later.
It is more than unfortunate that perhaps the only reason that most admirers of Austen have heard of Mitford today is due to her relaying two unfortunate pieces of gossip. But to remember Mitford for these reasons alone is to do her memory a disservice. Those two stories were not representative of Mitford's considered view, even at the time. They seem to have been simply unguarded, throwaway statements made in a private communication, the like of which many of us make in modern telephone, instant message, and email communications. An examination of Mitford's life and work reveals a consistent respect, admiration, and indeed championing of Austen as a novelist. As is evident from Mitford's enthusiastic reception of Austen's novels, as they appeared, to her spirited praise towards the end of her life, Austen's presence in Mitford's life and work was pervasive and long standing. It is time we acknowledge Mitford as one of the few who recognized Austen's genius from the very beginning and had no doubts about her merit throughout the ensuing forty years. As Mitford stated just a few years before own death in 1855 in a letter to the American publisher J. T. Fields: "The greatest fictions of the world are the truest. Look at the 'Vicar of Wakefield,' look at the 'Simple Story,' look at Scott, look at Jane Austen, greater because truer than all" (Fields 305).
(1.) Actually, Austen had just turned twenty.
(2.) A footnote on the next page, however, states, "We ought to add that Miss Mitford's admiration increased with time" and quotes a number of laudatory remarks (300).
(3.) Sixty Letters, etc. of Mary Russell Mitford (British Library, MS Egerton 3774 A), 18 November 1853.
(4.) Mitford was not alone in thinking that Lady Boringdon might be the author. Lord Broughton recorded having just received Lady Boringdon in October 1814, stating that she was suspected of having authored the two novels (Gilson 469).
(5.) The Literary Pocket-Book; or Companion for the Lover of Nature and Art (ed. Leigh Hunt) with manuscript notes by Mary Russell Mitford (British Library C.60.b.7).
(6.) Mary Howitt wrote in the introduction "Frederika Bremer is, indeed, the Miss Austin of Sweden" (3).
(7.) Sixty Letters, etc., 16 April 1850.
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Azar Hussain is an independent researcher based in London, England. His research interests include Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and Jane Austen. A number of his articles have appeared in Notes & Queries.
Caption: The Author of "Our Village," &c. (1837), after F. R. Say. [C] Trustees of the British Museum.
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|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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