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Mary Russell Mitford and the Topography of Short Fiction

Tim Killick
p. 11-28

Résumé

Our Village (1824-1832) de Mary Russell Mitford, est un recueil de récits et saynètes qui décrit les habitants d’un petit village du Berkshire et leur environnement au tout début du dix-neuvième siècle. Les diverses formes de prose qui composent ce recueil contribuent à donner au texte court, et principalement au recueil d'histoires brèves, un nouveau rôle sur le marché littéraire de cette période.
Cet article cherche à explorer comment l'engagement de Mitford pour la description des paysages et des gens de la campagne britannique est étroitement lié à son utilisation des conventions du récit bref. Dans Our Village, les récits intimement liés les uns aux autres mais aussi distincts les uns des autres, s'inscrivent dans un mouvement qui, dans les années 1820, permet à des recueils d'histoires brèves de mettre en question l’hégémonie du roman. Si la suprématie du roman est mise à l’épreuve en termes de commercialisation, il en est de même pour son cadre idéologique : le roman était seul jusqu'alors à peindre les vastes horizons ouverts par l’historicisme des Lumières. Cependant, l’optique panoramique par laquelle il le faisait était souvent un peu linaire.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Mary Russell Mitford

Texte intégral

1Our Villagewas issued in a series of five volumes at two-year intervals from 1824 to 1832 and became Mary Russell Mitford’s most successful and celebrated achievement.1 Stylistically and generically difficult to place, it is possible to view the collection as both a series of distinct pastoral sketches and stories and as a work with some degree of over-arching narrative connectivity. The individual pieces are not entirely stand-alone: the narrative voice remains constant, characters recur, scenes are revisited, and stories refer back and forth in time to events in other parts of the work. The context of each sketch or story within the collection as a whole helps lend the work a broader, cyclic cohesion, and although many of the segments were first published separately in periodicals, the effect of reading the work is often more akin to that of reading a serialized novel, with the reader anticipating the next instalment, than to a series of self-contained narratives. Conversely, the overall unity of a novel is lacking, as is the necessary plot development. A novelistic sense of advancing narrative is missing—upon reaching the end of the first series of Our Village, the reader, despite having met and visited sundry persons and places, has the sense of a return to the geographical and ideological point of origin and of having been presented not with a progression and conclusion, but with a series of snapshots of rural life. This is, of course, an intrinsic part of the work’s charm.

2The early decades of the nineteenth century, and in particular the 1820s, saw the beginning of short fiction’s emergence as a distinct and challenging form of literature: a form which, if presented as an internally coherent collection, could compete in the literary marketplace with the novel. Fiction in general was enjoying the legacy of the critical and popular successes of writers such as Maria Edgeworth and Ann Radcliffe at the turn of the nineteenth century, as well as the huge fillip that Walter Scott’s series of historical novels had given to the intellectual credibility (and saleability) of fiction. Other authors, most notably perhaps Washington Irving and James Hogg, but also Mary Mitford, were testing the boundaries of shorter forms in new ways. Here, I wish to examine in particular the ways in which Mary Mitford’s use of short prose modes is inextricably bound up with the topography and the social and physical peculiarities of the regions with which she engages.

3Since the early nineteenth century, shorter fictional forms have been to some degree in ideological competition with the hegemony of the novel. For many authors, the route towards short fiction was prompted by a lack of self-belief with regard to novel-writing. On more than one occasion Mitford expressed the conviction that the sustained and expansive style necessary for longer literary compositions was beyond her:

I began a novel myself once, and got on very prosperously for about a hundred pages of character and description. […] I came to a dead stop for want of invention. A lack of incident killed the poor thing. It went out like a candle. In all those hundred pages not one person had said or done a single thing but my heroine: and she—guess what she had done! Turned the lock of a drawing-room door! After that it was time to give up novel-writing.2

4The predilection for“character and description” was to find its niche in the dramatically less-demanding scenes of Our Village. Nonetheless, a desire to emulate the novel’s scope and realism remains a fundamental part of Mitford’s short fiction.

5For Mitford herself, the most influential novelist among her contemporaries was Jane Austen. A letter of February 1825 illustrates this debt:

Of course I shall copy as closely as I can Nature and Miss Austen—keeping, like her, to gentle country life; or rather going a little lower, perhaps; and, I am afraid, with more of sentiment and less of humour.3

6Indeed, the advice that Austen dispensed to her niece, Anna, concerning the construction of a novel (“3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on”)4 could equally well have been addressed to and adopted by Mitford, and the basic Austenian template of the vicissitudes of a small, insular community provides a key model for Our Village.

7Austen’s polished depictions of manners were not the only influence on Mitford. Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was first published in Britain in 1820 andnot only achieved large sales, but also helped create a new audience for short fiction and descriptive sketches. Mitford was keen for her work to emulate some of this success:

It will be called—at least, I mean it so to be—”Our Village;” will consist of essays and characters and stories, chiefly of country life, in the manner of the “Sketch Book,” but without sentimentality or pathos—two things which I abhor—and will be published with or without my name. (Letter to Elford, dated January 1824, AGL, ii: 172)

8Mitford sought to distance herself from the connection to Irving later in her career, but, as an acute comment from the Monthly Magazine’s reviewer demonstrates, she was initially perfectly willing to borrow from Irving’s model:

’Jack Hatch’ […] is manifestly founded on Washington Irving’s inimitable story of ‘The Fat Gentleman.’ Indeed, if we mistake not, Miss Mitford has a penchant for the American’s style, and owes more to his crayon sketches than she would choose, perhaps, to acknowledge.5

9Aside from the author of The Sketch Book, Mitford drew inspiration from a wide range of literary contemporaries. Gary Kelly, for one, has noted the debt that Mitford owes to the naturalistic depictions of village life in Elizabeth Le Noir’s Village Anecdotes; or, the Journal of a Year (1804) and Elizabeth Hamilton’s The Cottagers of Glenburnie; a Tale for the Farmer’s Ingle-Nook (1808).6 Such works were part of an emerging concern with the role played by rural life within society as a whole: a concept that was crucial to Mitford and which presented her, if not with a ready-made readership, at least with an audience attuned to descriptive village tableaux that her works were able to tap into successfully.

10Mitford also makes frequent references in her letters to the simultaneously journalistic and discursive essays of William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. While Mitford’s writings are undoubtedly connected to the novel of female experience and the short moral tales of the previous generation of women writers—most notably Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson), Hannah More, and Amelia Opie—she also aligned herself with those authors whom she felt challenged generic and stylistic preconceptions. The vogue for informally-presented short prose could not be ignored:

[W]e are free and easy in these days, and talk to the public as a friend. Read [Charles Lamb’s] ‘Elia,’ or the ‘Sketch Book,’ or Hazlitt’s ‘Table Talk,’ or any popular book of the new school, and you will find that we have turned over the Johnsonian periods and the Blair-ian formality to keep company with the wigs and hoops, the stiff curtseys and low bows of our ancestors. […] [T]he public—the reading public—is, as I said before, the correspondent and confidant of everybody. (AGL, ii: 179–80)

11Mitford’s compositions were part of a new approach to lighter literature. Populist works were less easily dismissed as inconsequential because of their lack of politics, philosophy, or explicit moral didacticism, and it was becoming possible to hold essayistic musings and well-wrought sketches in as much regard as the densest economic treatise.


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12There exists, as Raymond Williams describes in The Country and the City (1973), a long and glorious literary tradition of lamenting the decline of the English countryside.7 During the 1820s—in the midst of the Industrial Revolution—the dichotomy of town and country and the ideal of a rural golden age held no less fascination than at any other time. Depictions of country life seldom have their rural protagonists in mind as a prospective readership. Instead, such works are usually written for a literate, and therefore predominantly urban audience, and Our Village is no exception. In the early nineteenth century, this audience had not only the requisite literacy and finances to be purchasers of books, but also the appetite for expositions of the countryside that reinforced desires for continuity and stability in a rapidly changing urban environment. These broad concerns about the increasing industrialization of the country and the loss of an older way of life created ideal conditions for Mitford’s nostalgic depictions.

13A key component of any tradition of rural literature is its verisimilitude. Williams’s acute criticism of rosy retrospection reminds us to remain sceptical about assertions of truth in rural literature, especially concerning the decline of country life. However, the importance of what W. J. Keith terms “the premium put on truth and accuracy by most rural writers” (and, crucially, by their readers) must also be borne in mind.8 From this perspective, Our Village continues the role that pastoral literature had historically played in Britain, reinforcing belief structures that asserted the centrality of the morality and functionality of the countryside to the ethical and economic fabric of the nation. As such, it was crucial that any portrayal of the country offered to an urban audience should be at least convincing, if not strictly accurate or representative from a twenty-first-century critical perspective.

14In Our Village, the countryside is as much a state of mind as a location. From the outset this stance is clear. The reader is invited to enter “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” (OV, i: 1). These analogous situations help place the village and its environs outside of society’s normal boundaries and lend them an internal social code and logic that signify a site of escape from the wider social sphere. The village is not hermetically sealed away from the rest of society, but it does have a meniscoid insularity that enables it to retain its otherness.

15This otherness is apparent in the sketch entitled “Violeting.” Returning to the country “from the heat, the glare, the noise, and the fever of London, […] that great Babel,” the narrator explains: “I must go violeting—it is a necessity—and I must go alone” (OV, i: 100). The countryside is an elixir to her, and becomes a magical site of transport:

What a renewal of heart and mind! To inhabit such a scene of peace and sweetness is again to be fearless, gay and gentle as a child. Then it is that thought becomes poetry, and feeling religion. Then it is that we are happy and good. (OV, i: 106)

16Mitford’s pastoral vision is not only a sanctuary from the increasingly stultifying qualities of urban society; the simple, pure pleasures that it provides are the basis for all the discerning faculties. Here, the discriminative powers that are instilled organically into the rural mind by close contact with nature’s magic and beauty far outreach those artificially acquired for measuring quality in human terms.

17Much of the uniqueness of Mitford’s village experience is derived from the formal qualities of Our Village. The level of description contained in the work could never be incorporated into a novel without severely taxing the reader’s patience, but in these short pieces, the fresh start and minor variation that every story brings allow a repetitive pattern to evolve without the constant demands of plot progression. The assortment of styles and narrative modes that make up Our Village are held together by a connective series of descriptive and anecdotal discursions entitled “Walks in the Country.” Shelagh Hunter accurately describes the “Walks in the Country” as the “backbone” of the work, and in the process of imparting a much needed rigidity the recurrent nature of these scenes means that they are also able to act as restorative devices that re-engage the reader with the work’s primary function of rural description.9 These particular pieces have an immediacy about them derived from the narrator’s sudden and complete immersion in the landscape. The “Walks in the Country” are the sorbets between the various courses of Our Village, and are often delivered following an especially involved narrative, or a sketch in which the mood darkens.

18It is important to recognize that the countryside that appears in Our Village, and which is so crucial to the formation of the minds which dwell in it, is represented not as nature unalloyed, but instead as a peculiarly English interpretation of the beauty of environment. Here, the narrator’s beloved flowers cannot be fully appreciated without their “decent, homely, well-wearing English names” (OV, i: 55) and vegetation can always be rendered even more delightful by cultivation. Domestic gardens provide a recurring image of the English attitude to nature. The narrator’s own garden is not only her constant solace and her absolute pride, but is in competition with that of others: “My garden wants no watering, and is more beautiful than ever, beating my old rival in that primitive art, the pretty wife of the little mason, out and out. Measured with mine, her flowers are nought” (OV, i: 203). Although “primitive,” this art remains one that captures the imagination, and allows genteel combat to flourish in the village as nature is simultaneously brought to heel and encouraged to express itself in full.

19The foremost example of this natural/human interface, however, is that supreme embodiment of the English countryside: the meticulously landscaped garden of a country house. In “The Visit,” a day’s outing takes in a location where the ideally English conflation of the organic and the civilized can be found: ”the very midst of that beautiful piece of art or nature (I do not know to which class it belongs), the pleasure-ground of F. Hill” (OV, i: 266). Nature here has been tamed and, in the eyes of the narrator, this can only be for the better. Landscaping not only improves, but in fact engenders the very essence of the land and gives it meaning: “Thirty years ago this place had no existence; it was a mere undistinguished tract of field and meadow and common land” (OV, i: 267). For the English countryside to attain its full potential it must first undergo some alteration at the hand of humanity. This application of taste upon nature almost always ameliorates the latter, but occasionally the narrator’s love of artistic taste comes into conflict with the undiluted beauty of nature. The ruined gardens of “The Old House at Aberleigh” provide “sad memorials of past grandeur!” (OV, ii: 244), but their reversion to nature cannot be entirely without merit, since “the shrubs and flowering trees are undestroyed, and have grown into a magnificence of size and wildness of beauty, such as we may imagine them to attain in their native forests” (OV, ii: 245).

20Landscaping alone, though, is not enough. It is the collaged variety of the countryside that constructs its aesthetic function. There is more than one way to cultivate and humanize the country, and farmland also has its visual attractions. The fields are separated by hedgerows, bear different crops, house a variety of animals, and lie fallow in their turn. This lends them a mosaic appeal that sits well in the mind of the narrator with their agricultural value, and which is mirrored by the montage structure of Our Village itself. Part of the attraction of the rural landscape for the narrator, and without doubt for the contemporary (and modern) reader, is the function that informs the beauty. The pleasure that can be derived from a scene is enhanced if that scene is a backdrop to employment, and this idyllic conception of the countryside as a region that holds in perfect balance the twin concerns of sustaining both natural order and the bellies of the British people is one that continues to the present day.

21Complementing the farmland, and increasing the narrator’s pleasure in both vistas by their juxtaposition, are the numerous unspoilt oases that pepper the landscape. These “delicious green patches, the islets of wilderness amidst cultivation, which form perhaps the peculiar beauty of English scenery” (OV, i: 101) are sought out as palate-cleansers for the artistic temperament. The carefully circumscribed pockets of profusion are considered as nature unfettered and act as reminders of the basis for imitation and improvement upon which the principles of rural aestheticism are founded. Indeed, the entirety of the rural scenes depicted in the work forms a microcosm of an idealized British countryside. In this utopian vision, the land acts simultaneously as a bountiful provider, a canvas for the application of artistic endeavour, a cornerstone of the appreciation of those endeavours, and an untouched natural haven.

22The version of the English countryside in Our Village is, like so many literary rural environments, under siege. The 1820s saw some of the most profound social shifts of the Industrial Revolution. The first railways appeared in this decade, helping to close the gap between the rural and the urban. The expansion of the towns of the industrial north was at its peak, and even Mitford’s comparatively unaffected Berkshire village is exposed to some of the more political changes and threats to the country. However, the dominant description of the decline of rural life in Our Village addresses a less tangible fear. The narrator’s overriding concern is that she lives in what are somehow “degenerate days” (OV, ii: 52) for the strength and industry of the country people. In this way, the rural mode of life is often presented as being on the cusp of ruin. Even in Mitford’s bucolic utopia, the weight of the archetypal crisis of perspective to which Raymond Williams refers can be felt. As with the pastoral literature of any period in history, Our Village draws upon a mythologized, prelapsarian, and idyllic past, where the way of life of the previous generation was comparatively exempt from the incursion of modernity.

23Elizabeth Barrett Browning accurately described Mitford’s pastoralism as that of “a sort of prose Crabbe in the sun”.10 The comparison is derived from the adherence of both writers to the detail of nature and their assertions of accuracy. For George Crabbe, however, the decline of the land is already beyond retrieval, and the woes of rustic life are exacerbated by the poetic idealization to which it is subjected. In the opening lines to Book II of The Village, Crabbe’s poetry claims to redress this sentimental idyllicism:

No longer truth, though shown in verse, disdain,
But own the village life a life of pain.11

24Not only does Mitford’s optimism differ markedly from Crabbe’s unflinching anti-sentimentalism and anti-pastoralism, but Our Village further diverges by presenting the reader with an idealized past that still retains a precarious existence. In Mitford’s work the value-system of a rural golden age still holds sway, although it is periodically threatened. This position allows Mitford to assert, at the close of the first part of the series, that not only has the village “undergone less alteration than any place of its inches in the kingdom” (OV, i: 273), but to claim naïvely that the modernizations that have taken place will not merely beget a series of others: “we shall see no more of him [the road-mender]; for the Mac-Adam ways are warranted not to wear out” (OV, i: 277). If only the village could be let alone, she insists, it could become a site of rest from the flux of existence—its movements circular and natural instead of linear and man-made. Birth, marriage, and death are not affirmations of progress here, but marks of continuity and stability, and the village is consequently given the status of a stronghold against an otherwise inevitable decline.

25This powerful conception of cyclic existence, daily reinforced, connects with the villagers’ appreciation of history. The past, for the small rural enclave, is a common site—one to which the connections of the whole community remain strong. The elder members of society, therefore, become links to that site. Mrs Mosse, the family housekeeper during the narrator’s childhood, holds the position of keeper and chronicler of the lore of a bygone age that remains intensely relevant. Mrs Mosse can be seen as a more personal version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s old Esther Dudley, who is believed to be capable of conjuring lost imperialistic grandeur from her mirror in the derelict New England mansion she inhabits and who acts as a receptacle for the collective unconscious of a departed era. Mrs Mosse’s similar temporal displacement is acknowledged in the narrator’s parting message,“thou wast of the antique world” (OV, i: 240), but the necessity of her and her kind as beacons of reference for the present is undiminished.

26The treatment of the past in Mitford’s work never extends very far back into history. To travel beyond the recollection of a single generation implies that the chosen subject matter, to be worth remembering, would by necessity be larger than the narrative of an individual or a single family. This would in turn endanger the archetypal quality that the work strives to maintain; the sense that the stories it tells are not extraordinary, but are those that every person has to offer, yet which deserve to be told. From this perspective, Our Village can be seen to edge towards a more modern, gentrified version of the folktale, wherein the rural existence becomes the basis for all understanding, and the origin of a collective unconscious. Village life provides a basic model for the distillation of the universality of experience, which exists in even the most mundane and trivial of circumstances.

27Mitford’s vision is of a socially inclusive, non-partisan country village, open to all who are willing to engage wholeheartedly with its belief system. The fundamental moral ideal behind this model is a sense of rural utility: a philosophy that allows every person in the community their own mode of contribution to the common good. This concept, as with all ideology in Our Village, is in turn bound up with the formal qualities of the book; indeed, short fiction lends itself to this firmly limited theatre. With the scope sufficiently narrow, the individually mild lives of the villagers can be explored in full. The characters can begin to be represented more than “merely as figures in the landscape” and thus merit “an essay to themselves” (OV, i: 16). This belief in the intrinsic value of an individual’s narrative informs the entire work, and the variety and individuality of the villagers and their lives matches the diversity of the landscape that surrounds them. The emphasis on the significance of the singular finds its expression in the form of the work—a solitary person or incident is less likely to be subsumed into the collective narrative or general landscape if they have their own, separately-titled story within which to exist. The people, who in a conventional novel would be relegated to the fringe of the central plot as minor characters, here become masters of their own narratives.

28The village celebrates those who would be subsumed into the morass of human life in a town or city. Hence, the interfering Aunt Martha becomes “the most delightful of old maids!” (OV, i: 250). Not merely endured, but venerated, Martha is able to channel her energies into the whole community as a beloved busybody. The country village becomes a location for an exposition of the conservative ideal of the moral individual: the implication being that every person has unique talents, and those willing to set those talents to work in any form can thrive in the society which Our Village presents. This social mode demands responsibility, as well as collective values and agendas. At harvest time, the gathering of the crops requires the help of more people than have a direct interest in the yield. Furthermore, this help must be given, if not for free, then at least in return for only a nominal reward—companionship and a glass of beer. Without this willingness to place community above self, Mitford’s village way of life could not survive, and the stifling impersonality of modernity and progress would be unopposed.


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29I have already argued that Mitford’s success with her highly wrought, painterly style was largely due to the fact that conditions within her readership had been attuned to descriptions of rural idylls in the 1800s and 1810s. Vineta Colby, in Yesterday’s Women: Domestic Realism in the English Novel (1974), traces the lineage of depictions of rural existence further back into the eighteenth century. She attributes this rise in the stock of idyllic and descriptive pastoral writing in the early nineteenth century to the popularization of an idealized version of village life by The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and Goldsmith’s subsequent imitators. Our Village’s contribution to this movement was to give the descriptive elements of the narrative the greatest weight. Colby’s study also includes a quotation from the novelist Harriet Martineau’s autobiography. Martineau (whose own novels were influenced by the rural descriptions of Mitford and her contemporaries) gives the stylistic mode of Our Village the term “graphic description,” and claims that during her childhood: “we had no conception of detail like Miss Austen’s in manners and Miss Mitford’s in scenery,” placing Mitford at the centre of at least one facet of the increasingly important literary “real.”12

30The realist model that Mitford was working from was largely under construction at this point. Since the turn of the nineteenth century and the advent of the Waverley novels, the parameters for realism in fiction had shifted. Scott had helped create a demand for a close and naturalistic descriptive style in which scenes were not only depicted as they stood, but also as they had been and would be: landscape constructed as post-Enlightenment history and also as continuity and futurity. This meant that even evocations of contemporary rural life were expected to conflate elements of an eternal and ineffable ideal of Britain, and maintain an exactitude that precisely located the narrative in space and time. This challenge is recognized in Our Village, and the dialogue between the personal and the universal that the work presents is the result of an attempt at this realist combination.

31The desire for a high level of verisimilitude necessitated a painstaking and painterly style that the work acknowledges is not unmediated. The recognition on the part of the narrator of lending the village “a brighter aspect” (OV, i: v) than most, stems from an awareness of the subjectivity of painting, both of landscapes and of portraits. A contemporary of John Constable, Mitford can be said to offer scenes of a similarly intense, ultra-realistic vision of the culture and vista of the English countryside—one which is necessarily sentimentalised, moralised, and picturesquely polished to achieve what the author (or painter) regards as the most accurate and precise mode of representation available. In Mitford’s case, however, while the devotion to a particular ideal of moral verisimilitude is retained, the literary sketch—and in particular the series of literary sketches—offers an added narrative element. This not only threads the static scenes together, but provides scope for chronological shifts. Our Village narrates the changing countryside, rather like an artist’s portable sketch-book, but unlike a single canvas, and it is this belief in the power of cyclic, shifting sketches that gives Mitford’s work its particular ideological dimension. Richard Sha has argued that the sketch is a mode that “must appear to resist rhetoricity if it is to maintain its truthfulness, authenticity, or propriety,” yet rhetoric is precisely what creeps into many of Mitford’s scenes.13 The scenes and sketches that Mitford created were part of an ongoing negotiation between realism, romance, and morality that engaged much of the fiction produced during this period. P. D. Edwards has identified the rural pictorial mode in literature as one early example of the drive for “the illusion of realism, of actuality.”14 Mitford’s short fiction always remains conscious of this fundamentally illusory quality inherent in landscape description—the fact that such writing is “realist” rather than “real” and a particularly bourgeois, unashamedly sunny realism at that.


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32In the later parts of the Our Village series, the narrative scope of the individual pieces is expanded from descriptive sketches and anecdotes to include more carefully plotted stories. Here, the work attempts to move the reader beyond his or her previous position of a visitor taking a guided tour of the village, and to give a fuller insight into the history and ideology of the rural population. A recurring concern in much short fiction of the early nineteenth century was the negotiation of a balance between the naturalism and social accuracy for which longer works strived, and the powerful archetypal stories of the magical, mysterious, and marvellous that were so often the focus of its ancestral folk and fairy tale forms. In Our Village, this conflict is most clearly manifest in the narrator’s shifting attitude to the supernatural.

33Washington Irving’s depiction of the village of Sleepy Hollow provides one contemporary example of agrarian pragmatism going hand-in-hand with deeply rooted superstition, and his story is illustrative of a readiness to regard the enclosed nature of small villages as a breeding ground for all manner of irrational beliefs. Short fiction has, of course, deep links to the more marvellous elements of folklore and is often concerned with fantastical ordeals. The perceived excesses of the gothic fiction of the late eighteenth and turn of the nineteenth century, had, however, seen the use of this mode undergo a reassessment. The nascent realist and historical fiction of the time meant that such occurrences were at odds with the more naturalistic and political narratives of the 1800s and 1810s. As the century progressed, and with it the boundaries of fictional realism, the vogue for the marvellous increased. In the 1820s, however, the water was still being tested. As such, stories that involved mysterious occurrences were usually presented either as anthropology, and as such often subject to satirical treatment, or if presented as reported fact, eschewed a fantastical (in the Todorovian sense) ambiguity between a marvellous and a rational explanation, and firmly pointed the reader toward a conclusion based on reason.15

34Mitford’s attitude to the supernatural is predominantly socio-historic, but Our Village also offers less rationalistic alternatives in the course of its volumes. In the first two parts of the series, there is a tangible scepticism toward what the narrator regards as simple-minded rustic credulity for omens and portents of all kinds. Our Village deliberately attempts to circumvent the tendency of much short fiction to rely for its effect on the anecdotal relation of marvellous events, and instead consciously tries toharnessnarrative to the prosaic and commonplace. Characters are censured for their adherence to superstitions. The narrator’s servant Lucy, who is otherwise extolled, receives a rebuke for her tendency to voice “rather more fears than were quite convenient of ghosts and witches, and thunder and earwigs, and various other real and unreal sights and sounds” (OV, i: 61). Similarly, short shrift is given to Aunt Martha’s predilection for seeing “strangers in her tea-cup, gifts in her finger-nails, letters and winding-sheets in the candle, and purses and coffins in the fire” (OV, i: 254), all of which are represented as belonging to an outmoded way of life and conception of the natural world.

35This fittingly aloof demeanour and scathing attitude towards such borderline heathenish behaviour holds sway initially. By the third part of the series, however, Mitford begins to contradict her own admonitions concerning the relation of prophecy and omen. Two stories, “The Chalk Pit” and “Jessy Lucas,” neither of which are strictly fantastical, nonetheless represent a departure for Mitford. The former concerns a “dreaded spot” of “evil name” (OV, iii: 141 and 140), and the portentous circumstances surrounding a child’s death. The latter relates the “gloomy forebodings” (OV, iii: 160) of the blind Jessy, whose prescient certainty that she would never again be reunited with her soldier brother comes to be “verified to the letter” (OV, iii: 163), although the foretold death is hers, and not his. For the hitherto sternly rational Mitford, these tales, as well as the several narratives that come under the heading of “Ghost Stories” in the fourth volume, have an heretical tinge. Petty superstitions, earlier dismissed as “unreal sights and sounds,” are here cherished, in the manner of Irving’s antiquarian Squire in Bracebridge Hall, as “a sort of supplement to the national faith, an apocrypha as ancient and as general as our language” (OV, iv: 298), and their presence in Our Village indicates just how difficult short fiction and the supernatural were to separate.

36These ghost stories are just one aspect of Mitford’s contribution to the local-colour story, a mode which would develop into an increasingly important part of British short fiction over the remainder of the century. The Victorian concern with the rural condition, with individual morality and with the detailed representation of place and community, owed something to Our Village’s polished charm and attentive precision. These recurrent themes are perhaps most notable in the works of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), in particular, explores precisely the latent morality of those minor, sometimes even mediocre, stories and lives that are consistently championed by Mitford. In these later pieces from Our Village, the narrative devices associated with more conventional storytelling (those of the “tale” rather than the “sketch”) are more apparent: suspense is generated, hidden intentions and characteristics are revealed, and the timescale of the stories is extended. Unlike contemporaries such as Washington Irving and James Hogg, Mitford’s work never crosses into a mode which can be said to prefigure the more complex explorations of short fiction that appeared from the middle of the century onwards. Few of her vignettes and scenes contain more than the shadow of a plot; nonetheless Our Village, read as a complete unit, gives a sense of gradual change, like time-lapse imagery, and as such remains a powerful expression of rural life, made through a series of brief, individually cohesive, sketches.

37It was not until 1854, nearing the end of her life and in a very different cultural and literary environment, that Mitford made any real attempt to leave behind the descriptive miniatures that had served her so well. While Belford Regis (1835) and Country Stories (1837) both retain the same basic template as Our Village, the title story of Atherton, and Other Tales (1854) was the novel that she had always hoped to write but which had continually been put off for fear of a lack of discipline and material. The other, shorter tales that were published alongside Atherton are of interest here, particularly because they mark Mitford’s only prose venture beyond the Home Counties. They were written, she states in the Preface, for gift-books and annuals, “which many bought to look at, and few cared to read.”16 The settings of the stories range from the Highlands (“Marion Campbell”) to Italy (“The Wager”), and also extend to historical themes (“The Roundhead’s Daughter” and “The Cartel”—a fictionalised dialogue between Napoleon and Josephine). These attempts to give the imagination a freer geographical and chronological rein were matched by a style which was more dialogic, and far less descriptive than that of her previous sketches. As such, Mitford struggled to achieve the same degree of control that she had wielded so effectively over the stories of Our Village. The pastiche of seafaring cliché that appears in the tale of “The Buccaneer,” for example, reveals just how adept Mitford was at depicting her rural scenes and suggests that, in terms of prose at least, she had only one mode.


***

38Mitford’s influence on the historical and topographic relevance of short fiction extends beyond her own collections of short fiction. In the 1830s she edited a number of anthologies of American stories which serve to shed light on her broader attitude regarding shorter prose forms.17 The Preface to Stories of American Life (1830) makes explicit the aim of the work: the “lighter literature” of a country, Mitford argues, offers a unique insight into a nation’s self-image.18 These collections express the belief that the short narrative stories produced by a country are “as national and characteristic” as it is possible for literature to be.19 As such, a short piece was capable of demonstrating even more powerfully than a novel the basic characteristics that a nation felt itself to possess, and of reflecting commonly held hopes and assumptions. Mitford’s edited collections are concerned less with individual literary ability than with narrative and descriptive archetypes, and the exposition of shared national values. There is a strong sentiment, reminiscent of Irving’s conciliatory aims in The Sketch Book, of the need to bridge the literary gap between the Old World and the New, as well as a sense of discovery on the part of Mitford at finding such gems amongst the rough-hewn body of American writings.

39Lawrence Buell, in his discussion of formative American literature, New England Literary Culture (1986), cites Mary Russell Mitford as second only to Irving in “teaching native writers to exploit regional material for literary purposes.”20 Buell contendsthat Our Village gave the writers of the United States an example from which sprang descriptive portrayals of native scenery and society. Mitford, he claims, gave writers such as Catherine Maria Sedgwick and Sarah Hale “a more documentary model than Irving’s of the blend of essay and anecdotalism, especially (but not exclusively) attractive to women writers.”21 This analysis of the impact of Mitford’s work can be applied almost equally well to her own country. While British writers were clearly less concerned about the construction of a national literature than were the Americans, the attention paid by Mitford to those small stories and descriptions that usually pass by unnoticed helped to formulate a new position for short fiction in the canon of literary genres.

40The accumulated variety of narratives that Mitford sought to portray give rise to a plethora of minutely distinguished environments, individuals, and social echelons—all connected, but also individually defined and resistant to catalogue. The shifting narratives, styles, persons, and scenes which pass successively in front of the reader are embodiments of the fragmented and multifarious topographic qualities of the countryside, and the short pieces coagulate to provide the full scope of Mitford’s vision of rurality and nationality. The complex social and physical geography of the English countryside is laid out in Our Village in a way very different from that of a conventional novel, and Mitford’s work embodies the belief that the figurative representation of protean variety must necessarily be conveyed by multiple and distinct narratives.

Notes

1  The later parts of Our Village are described on the title pages as “Vol. II” etc., with the exception of the fourth part which is given the title of “Fourth Series.” The fifth part returns to the volume denomination. The parts were issued by George Whittaker’s publishing house in 1824, 1826, 1828, 1830, and 1832 respectively and are henceforth cited as OV, i–v.

2  Letter to Sir William Elford, dated 30–31 January 1820. R. Brimley Johnson (ed.), The Letters of Mary Russell Mitford (London: John Lane, 1925), p. 167.

3  A. G. L’Estrange (ed.), The Life of Mary Russell Mitford: Related in a Selection from her Letters to her Friends, 3 vols (London: Bentley, 1870), ii, 198. The letter is to William Elford, and refers to the planned second series of Our Village. L’Estrange is used as the primary source for Mitford’s letters and will henceforth be cited parenthetically as AGL.

4  Letter dated 9 September 1814. Deirdre Le Faye (ed.), Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd edn. (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1995), p. 275.

5  Monthly Review, 3 (November 1826), 316–26 (p. 322), reviewer’s italics. Review of the second volume of Our Village. “Jack Hatch” is one of the sketches in the second part of Mitford’s series, and “The Fat Gentleman” refers to Irving’s story of the “The Stout Gentleman” in Bracebridge Hall (1822).

6  See Gary Kelly, English Fiction of the Romantic Period, 1789–1830 (London and New York: Longman, 1989), pp. 86–92 and 202–06.

7  Williams treats the charting of this decline metaphorically, using an image of a literary escalator that continually retreats further and further back into the past, away from a threatened present in search of an historical rural ideal. See The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973), “Chapter 2.”

8  W. J. Keith, The Rural Tradition: A Study of the Non-Fiction Prose Writers of the English Countryside (Toronto and Buffalo, ny: University of Toronto Press, 1974), p. 15.

9  Shelagh Hunter, Victorian Idyllic Fiction: Pastoral Strategies (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 70.

10  Letter to Richard Hengist Horne, 20 October 1843. Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson (eds.), The Brownings’ Correspondence, 14 vols (Winfield, ks: Wedgestone Press, 1984–98), viii: October 1843–May 1844, p. 1.

11  George Crabbe, “The Village” (1783), Bk. ii (ll. 1–2), The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Norma Dalrymple-Champneys, et al., 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), i, 168.

12  Cited by Vineta Colby, Yesterday’s Women: Domestic Realism in the English Novel (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 13.

13  Richard Sha, The Visual and Verbal Sketch in British Romanticism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), p. 1.

14  P. D. Edwards, Idyllic Realism from Mary Russell Mitford to Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 10.

15  Todorov defines the fantastic as a mode which is deliberately ambiguous, creating a hesitancy on the part of the reader between a rational and a supernatural explanation for a story. The adjacent terms are the uncanny, where the rational explanation is accepted, and the marvellous, in which events can be explained only from a supernatural perspective. See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970). One obvious exception to the rationalising approach was James Hogg, many of whose short stories contain truly fantastic presentations of the supernatural.

16  Mitford, Atherton, and Other Tales, 3 vols (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1854), Preface, i, ix.

17  The first of these was Stories of American Life (1830) (on which Mitford may have collaborated with James Athearn Jones). A children’s collection, American Stories for Little Boys and Girls, followed in 1831, and two more works, American Stories for Young People and Lights and Shadows of American Life (a sequel to the first of these publications), were issued in 1832.

18  Mitford [?and Athearn Jones] (eds.), Stories of American Life. By American Writers, 3 vols (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1830), Preface, i, iii.

19  Ibid., i, v.

20  Lawrence Buell, New England Literary Culture: From Revolution Through Renaissance (Cambridge and New York: CUP, 1986), p. 294.

21  Buell, New England Literary Culture, p. 294.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Tim Killick, « Mary Russell Mitford and the Topography of Short Fiction », Journal of the Short Story in English, 43 | 2004, 11-28.

Référence électronique

Tim Killick, « Mary Russell Mitford and the Topography of Short Fiction », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 43 | Autumn 2004, mis en ligne le 05 août 2008, consulté le 19 octobre 2017. URL : http://jsse.revues.org/396

Auteur

Tim Killick

Dr Tim Killick, BA (Liverpool), MA, PhD (Wales) is a Research Associate at Cardiff University, working on AHRB-funded project A Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustrations, due for completion January 2007

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