Friday, November 07, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Mary Russel Mitford and her Surroundings

I had never heard of Mary Russell Mitford until I read Virginia Woolf's thoughts about her in A Common Reader.  Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) led a sort of charmed life, and as I recall, the chapter of A Common Reader that mentions her is themed something like "people who lived unfairly idyllic lives."  (The fabulously leisured clergyman James Woodforde is also featured in this chapter.)

Woolf says,
Speaking truthfully, Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings is not a good book. It neither enlarges the mind nor purifies the heart. There is nothing in it about Prime Ministers and not very much about Miss Mitford. Yet, as one is setting out to speak the truth, one must own that there are certain books which can be read without the mind and without the heart, but still with considerable enjoyment.

Charmed life?  Maybe I am being obtuse.  It's not Mary Russell Mitford's fault that when she was ten years old, her father prompted her to buy a lottery ticket on a whim and she won 20,000 pounds (over three million dollars in modern US currency) and saved her father from financial ruin.  It's not her fault that she was intelligent and charming and a good conversationalist and correspondent and always lived in picturesque places and everybody loved her.  And it's certainly not her fault that Constance Hill may have chosen to gloss over the less pleasant aspects of her life when she wrote this book.  Virginia Woolf says,

It is in many ways a great convenience to have a subject who can be trusted to live a long life without once raising her voice.

But I haven't even told you who she was.  Mary Russell Mitford was a writer; probably best known for Our Village, a series of sketches about the quaint country village she lived in for many years.  She was also a successful playwrite and her books were beloved both in England and the United States.  Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings, by Constance Hill, is a charming sketch of her life.  I found this book to be a good comfort read. It's like biography lite, and now that I've discovered Mary Russell Mitford, I'll have to read her books.


  1. Whatever did she do to poor Virginia?

  2. Oh my. No mind or heart? But still enjoyable. A good bit of escapist entertainment then.

    Nice book review!

  3. Hm. Virginia is all sour grapes! I think I'd read her book just to spite Ms. Woolf!