A BOOK OF THE MOMENT
MISS MITFORD AND HER LETTERS
pNnaticuT IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BY THE New York Times.] The Letters of Mary Russell Mitford. Selected with an Introduction by R. Brimley Johnson. (John Lane. 6s. net.) MISS MrrFoRD was not only possessed of a charming personality and a delightful style in writing. She " happened " in a period of transition and had a long writing life. She was born in 1787 and died in 1855, began writing excellent letters in 1800 and maintained that humane and enlivening practice for fifty-five years. Through her letters flows the current of our social history at periods so notable as those of the Napoleonic War, of the Regency and the Dandies, of the railways, and of the early Victorian epoch. All their phenomena are reflected in her pages, and we see her mental attitude change before our eyes with her environment. She who had witnessed and, in a certain sense, shared the cynical worldliness of the contemporaries of Beau Brummell lived to take part in the industrial humanism of the Great Exhibition. She who, as a woman of thirty-five, had seen Byron flash through the skies like a meteor, had felt her pulses stirred by Lara and the Bride of Abydos, had watched the rise of Keats and Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth, had at the close of her life to decline upon the chaud-fraid sentiment of Coventry Patmore, or the laureated reticences of Tennyson. But she was fully capable of dealing with an altered situation without embarrassment. She enjoyed life and literature, no matter how much they might vary. Her letters never seem tinged by regrets for times passed. She makes her witty or sympathetic comments upon the hour as it flies, but seldom makes unfavourable comparisons with the people of former days.
Miss Mitford went with the stream, " contented if she might enjoy " the things which other people fought over, condemned, or regretted. She saw life easily and pleasantly, and made her shrewd and witty comments " without prejudice." What makes this attitude specially interesting and specially credit- able is that her family life gave plenty of opportunities for regret, or something stronger. Her father was a spend- thrift, and demanded, and received, every possible sacrifice from his wife and daughter. Dr. Russell Mitford not only threw his wife's considerable fortune away with nothing to show for it, but lived ingloriously on his daughter's earnings. Yet he never forefeited the love and devotion of either woman. He was a man of fascination and in a sense he gave them a run for their money. Take for example the incident of the lottery ticket. As far as I know, Miss Mitford is the only prominent " literary character " who ever won a big stake in a lottery. In the year 1795 her father was seeking " refuge from his creditors within the rules of the King's Bench." According to the sporting principles of our ancestors, you avoided being sent to jail by your creditors by going there of your own free will. Owing to some strange but distinctly attractive principle of law no man could be arrested for debt within the rules of the King's Bench Prison. But,. in truth, the whole of our system for dealing with debtors at the beginning of last century was a game of " Puss-in-the- corner." If the debtor kept the rules and had a reasonable amount of luck he could owe any amount of money and yet not find himself in jail.
While Dr. Mitford was living within the rules he determined to try his fortune in the lottery. Accordingly, Mary, who was then only seven or eight years old, was taken one morning to the lottery office—a child's choice was said to bring good luck—and told to select a number. Without hesitation she chose 2224, and, amazing as it sounds, she won a prize of twenty thousand pounds ! Such a sum in cash exactly suited Dr. Mitford and kept him for a couple of years. Alas ! good living, the breeding of spaniels and greyhounds, unlimited whist and plenty of turf-bets soon used up the twenty thousand pounds, and Dr. Mitford returned to the kind of life which is depicted in the early novels of Dickens, Thackeray and Bulwer- Lytton. In one of the letters of her later life Miss Mitford, without anger, without patronage, without sentiment, describes in a letter her father's uncanny capacity for getting through money in the following words :-
"Yes, my dearest, my mother's fortune was large, my father's good, legacies from both sides, a twenty thousand pound prize
in the lottery—all have vanished. My uncle's estates, his wife's, his father's and mother's (a fine old place called Old Wall, in Westmoreland ; she—my grandmother—was a Graham of .the Netherby clan ')—all have disappeared ; so that I, the only child amongst six or seven good fortunes (for my mother—herself an only child—inherited an even splendid inheritance ), have been, during the better part of my life, struggling with actual difficulty ; and, if I should live long enough, shall probably die in a workhouse —content so to die if preserved from the far bitterer misery of seeing my dear, dear father want his accustomed comforts ; content, ay, happy, if that far deeper wretchedness be spared." .
But one ought not, in the case of Miss Mitford, to dwell exclusively upon her character. What is most attractive about
her private letters, as about her incomparable Our Village, is the gusto with which she approached life, letters, politics,
sport—anything, indeed, that was going. Take, for example, the wonderful description of Miss Austen as she appeared to her contemporaries :—
" I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman ; that mamma knew all her family very inti- mately ; 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 everyone is afraid."
One's first thought on reading such words is that Miss Mitford for once stooped to be a cat ; but, as a matter of fact, that is not a fair view. Miss Mitford was not a cat.
She was merely too near to Miss Austen to see her in proper perspective, and when Miss Austen died she made her an amende honorable.' " What a terrible loss I " is her comment.
Besides, one really likes Miss Austen better for knowing that she gave a good lady like Mary Mitford's mamma the impression that she was a pretty, silly, and affected husband-hunting butterfly. Jane Austen, as one sees her reflected in her books, was never a prig and, as her last novel, Sanditon, shows, she always flew to arms to defend the pretty girl who liked attracting the other sex and whole-heartedly enjoyed her good looks, her clothes and her flirtations. She knew, like Elizabeth Bennett, that a woman whose head was full of these things might still be neither a fool in the world's affairs nor, again, a heartless or selfish " minx.1!
One can well imagine that Jane Austen with her good sense and fastidiousness would have frozen when she came into contact with the boisterous Dr. Mitford or, indeed, any members of his family. They were at heart Regency Bohemians, though Bohemians without guile. Their ways of life, we may be sure, would have been anything but pleasing to one who, though she could see its faults, on the whole favoured the Pemberley view of existence.
Miss Mitford in another age and with a less tempestuous private life might, one feels, have become a literary critic of high achievement. Take for example a letter written as early as 1812 in which she deals with Riehardson's Clarissa Harlowe. Could anything be a better short criticism of the great long book than the following ? :- " It is some years since I read it, and even then I skipped a good part of it - but it is one of those works which it is impossible ever to forget, because it stamps itself, not on the memory, but the heart. What a genius had RiCharsdon ! With every fault of style, of plot, of subject, which a writer could have—with the most wearying repetitions, the most distressing coarseness of painting—with characters the most abhorrent to our feelings, and scenes the most repugnant to our delicacy—he has yet contrived to enchain our every thought and passion ; and this he has effected by his angelic heroine, and by her alone. Clarissa was from first to last the sole object which inspired me with any, the smallest degree, of interest and affection ; and I am not sure (so malicious am I) whether I was not almost as much pleased with the earthly punishment of the Harlowes—that detestable race !—as with the beatification of their sainted daughter."
For me, at any rate, that is a singularly happy piece of
criticism, in regard to Clarissa—a book " which fascinates and is intolerable, " or rather, is only tolerable, as Miss Mitford
realized, by reason of the tremendous impression that Clarissa
makes upon one's mind. I cannot help wishing, however.
that Miss Mitford had said something more in detail about Richardson's style. The faults are obvious, but why is it that in spite of these it has so unholy an attraction ? In another letter Miss Mitford returns to Clarissa :—
" I once knew a little of a lady who professed to make Clarissa her rule of life. She was, as you may imagine, a mere piece of clock- work ; said her prayers, ordered dinner, walked, talked, read good books, and scolded the servants to the instant. I dare say she could have set the sun, if he had happened to go astray in his declination. This good lady was, to the unspeakable misery of all concerned, a wife and a mother ; but of all human beings she had most decidedly the outward and visible marks of ' ancient virginity.' Hogarth's f Old Maid of a Frosty Morning' was the image of her, mind and body. As to Sir Charles Grandison himself, he is a man of marble, or rather a man of snow ; just like the companions of Laila in Mr. Southey's Thalaba—snow-people, who walk and talk, and eat and chink, and do everything but feel."
One cannot open this charming little volume without coming upon something delightful ; but of these delights I must now take one that deals with people rather than with books. Here is a perfect picture of a dandy of the school of Beau Brummell. Miss Mitford tells her correspondent, Sir William Elford, the painter, how she had been to a dull ball and how she had survived that dreadful night owing " principally to that charming thing, a dandy " :-
"Don't you like dandies, the beautiful race ? I am sure you must. But such a dandy as our dandy few have been fortunate enough to see. In general they are on a small scale—slim, whipper- snapper youths, fresh from college—or new mounted on a dragoon's saddle—dainty light-horse men, or trim schoolboys. Ours is of a Patagonian breed—six feet and upwards without his shoes, and broad in proportion. Unless you have seen a wasp in a solar microscope you have never seen anything like him. Perhaps a Brobdingnagian hour-glass might be more like him still, only I don't think the hour-glass would be small enough in the waist. Great as my admiration has always been of the mechanical inven- tions of this age, I know nothing that has given me so high an idea of the power of machinery—not the Portsmouth Blockhouses, or the new Mint—as that perfection of mechanism by which those ribs are endued in those stays. I think one or two must have been broken, to render such a compression possible. But it is unjust to dwell so exclusively on the stays, when every part of the thing was equally perfect. Trousers—coat—neckcloth—shirt-collar—head, inside and out—all were in exact keeping. Every look, every word, every attitude belonged to those inimitable stays. Sweet dandy ! I have seen nothing like him since Liston, in Lord Grizzle."
' That is a wonderful piece of portraiture. None of the colour-print artists of the Regency ever presented a dandy with a more malicious poignancy.
J. ST. LOE STRACHEY.