Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 319–321.
This correspondent, to whom EBB poured out her thoughts for nearly two decades, was born at Alresford, Hampshire, on 16 December 1787—the only surviving child of Dr. George Mitford and Mary (née Russell) Mitford. The mother, who died in 1830, had come into the marriage with considerable wealth, but Dr. Mitford wasted her fortune, along with most of the £20,000 lottery prize which young Mary won at the age of 10. In the 1790’s the family moved to the vicinity of Reading. At a young ladies’ school in Chelsea, Mary received an education strongly rooted in literature and French. For much of her adult life she was primarily concerned with the care of her father, who, besides requiring her financial support, seemed excessively demanding upon her time and attention; thus she and her friend EBB both felt heavy paternal pressure in one form or another. A lover of the outdoors, and especially of flower-gardening, Miss Mitford sometimes spoke scornfully of “pen-and-ink” people, and tended to regard writing as an unhealthy occupation, but she worked at it, hard and successfully, to provide a living for herself and her father. Her wide-ranging output included children’s stories, poems, tragedies, and tales of village and country life. Works that helped to establish her reputation included the tragedy Rienzi (1828); the novel Belford Regis, or Sketches of a Country Town (1835); and particularly the sketches of country life published as Our Village (1824–32). Burdened as she was with toil and worry, Miss Mitford was nevertheless “folksy” and gregarious, not at all like the shy and scholarly EBB, with whom her name is now linked.
Miss Mitford first met RB and EBB in May 1836—one day apart. The meeting with RB occurred at the supper party given on 26 May by Thomas Noon Talfourd (q.v.), just after the first performance of his play, Ion. Miss Mitford’s impression of RB that evening, and her feeling about his poetry, was described to Charles Boner in a letter of 22 February 1847 [Yale] as follows: “I … remember thinking how exactly he resembled a girl drest in boy’s clothes—& as to his poetry I have just your opinion of it. It is one heap of obscurity confusion & weakness.... I met him once as I told you when he had long ringlets … & when he seemed to me about the height & size of a boy of twelve years old—Femmelette—is a word made for him. A strange sort of person to carry such a woman as Elizabeth Barrett off her feet.”
The meeting with EBB was on the following afternoon, that of 27 May 1836, when mutual friend John Kenyon (q.v.) took the two of them sightseeing. They met several more times during Miss Mitford’s brief visit to London—although, in the same period, she had to turn down more than 30 dinner invitations. In sharp contrast to her feelings about RB, Miss Mitford was soon writing of EBB: “If events lead her to write on, & she be blest with life & health I have no doubt of her being the most remarkable woman that ever lived” (SD804). The very intense friendship that sprang up between these two women generated a massive volume of correspondence. EBB wrote more letters—around 500 in all—to Miss Mitford than to any other one person. (Of these, 497 are extant and are reproduced in EBB-MRM.) The correspondence started immediately after the 1836 introduction and did not end until December 1854—the month before Miss Mitford’s death. EBB wrote on probably a wider range of topics to Miss Mitford than to anyone else. Miss Mitford, meanwhile, struggled on with her writing, tried to cope with streams of admiring visitors at her home in Three Mile Cross, near Reading, agonized over the illnesses of her father and at last his approaching death (which occurred in December 1842), suffered misadventures with hired help, and tried to make ends meet financially. Despite a £100-per-annum government pension, awarded in 1837, she faced almost £900 of debt by the time her father died. A subscription by friends and admirers, in which EBB took great interest, enabled her to pay off the debt and provided some support thereafter. For several years, starting in 1837, Miss Mitford edited Findens’ Tableaux, an annual. To this, EBB made a number of literary contributions: “A Romance of the Ganges” (1838), “The Romaunt of the Page” (1839), “The Dream” (1840), and “The Legend of the Brown Rosarie” (1840). Little was said or written to Miss Mitford about RB during the courtship period. But on 18 September 1846, the day before their departure for Italy, EBB wrote a long letter of explanation. Miss Mitford sent a prompt and friendly reply, despite her continuing doubts about RB. She spent a week in London to be with the Brownings while they were visiting there in 1851. A serious crisis occurred between EBB and Miss Mitford soon thereafter. In Recollections of a Literary Life (1852), Miss Mitford discussed the 1840 drowning of EBB’s brother “Bro,” a subject still deeply distressing to EBB. The latter wrote to Miss Mitford on 21–22? January 1852, saying: “Now let me tell you the truth. It will prove how hard it is for the tenderest friends to help paining one another, since you have pained me.” Then, after stating her position, she went on to other topics. In the words of biographers Griffin and Minchin (p. 186), “it is creditable to the two women that their friendship survived what might, had either’s nature been less generous, have wrecked it.” Meanwhile, in September 1851, Miss Mitford had moved from her beloved village of Three Mile Cross to nearby Swallowfield, where she spent the few remaining years of her life. But her failing health was by now a frequent topic in the EBB-Mitford correspondence. EBB’s dog Flush, a Mitford gift very frequently mentioned in the correspondence, died in June 1854, but Miss Mitford’s condition prevented EBB from reporting this. Miss Mitford herself died on 10 January 1855 and was buried at Swallowfield. An interesting sidelight on the story of EBB and Miss Mitford relates to the notorious literary forger Thomas J. Wise and his spurious edition of EBB’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Relying on the fame of the EBB-Mitford friendship, Wise tried to show the authenticity of his work with a fragment of a letter purportedly written by Miss Mitford to EBB in 1847; further, he claimed Reading—nearest town to Miss Mitford’s Three Mile Cross—as the place of publication.