Friday, August 19, 2011

"Cousin Mary" and "The First Primrose", by Mary Russell Mitford

Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) worked for much of her life as a professional writer.  It seems to have been work she loved and was well-suited to, but it was also necessary, since her income supported herself and her parents.  Mitford experienced an amazing life of booms and busts.  Her mother was an heiress who married a likeable, happy, but irresponsible man.  He shortly squandered all of his wife's wealth, leaving the family in poverty.

But, at the age of ten, Mary picked a winning number in the Irish lottery and won a prize of £ 20,000.  This made the family wealthy again, and they moved into an opulent house and lived well for a few years.  But Mary's father once again squandered the family's money, and soon they were forced to move to the small village of Three Mile Cross in Berkshire, in Southeast England, where Mary's growing career as a writer supported them all for the rest of their lives.

 Mary Russell Mitford's cottage in Three Mile Cross
(image from flickr user leslie.dray)

Today she is primarily remembered as the author of a volume of sketches of rural life, titled Our Village.   These essays recorded in loving detail the life in and around Three Mile Cross.

 I pulled this book off of the shelf on a sunny late-Fall day last year.  The house I live in was built at about the time Mary Russell Mitford was writing Our Village, and as I read I imagined that time.

Here are two typical essays from Our Village.

The first of these is "Cousin Mary", one of  many character sketches in the book.
"About four years ago, passing a few days with the highly educated daughters of some friends in this neighbourhood, I found domesticated in the family a young lady, whom I shall call as they called her, Cousin Mary. She was about eighteen, not beautiful perhaps, but lovely certainly to the fullest extent of that loveliest word—as fresh as a rose; as fair as a lily;"
Cousin Mary's father had died, and her mother now refused to be separated from her, even to send her to school.  Mary was kept at home, where:
"... her powers of observation were sharpened and quickened, in a very unusual degree, by the leisure and opportunity afforded for their developement, at a time of life when they are most acute. She had nothing to distract her mind. Her attention was always awake and alive. She was an excellent and curious naturalist, merely because she had gone into the fields with her eyes open ;"
Cousin Mary seemed better off for her hardships.  By losing the opportunity for formal education she was able to snuggle into the warm embrace of her family, and gain an intimate first-hand knowledge of nature.  Her well-educated relations paled beside Cousin Mary, in Mary Russel Mitford's eyes.

The seond essay, "The First Primrose", is one of several "Walks in the Country" recorded by Mitford.  She and her greyhound, Mayflower, went for long tramps in the woods and lanes around the village, with Mayflower chasing rabbits while Mitford chased primroses and "small brown snakes".    On this walk she returns to a large house her family had occupied in more prosperous days:
"What a tearing up by the root it was! I have pitied cabbage plants and celery, and all transplantable things ever since; though, in common with them and with other vegetables, the first agony of the transportation being over, I have taken such firm and tenacious hold of my new soil, that I would not for the world be pulled up again, even to be restored to the old beloved ground;"
 In the end, she finds the primroses that she set out to see:
 "Here we are making the best of our way between the old elms that arch so solemnly over head, dark and sheltered even now. They say that a spirit haunts this deep pool—a white lady without a head. I cannot say that I have seen her, often as I have paced this lane at deep midnight, to hear the nightingales, and look at the glow-worms;—but there, better and rarer than a thousand ghosts, dearer even than nightingales or glowworms, there is a primrose, the first of the year; a tuft of primroses, springing in yonder sheltered nook, from the mossy roots of an old willow, and living again in the clear bright pool. Oh, how beautiful they are— three fully blown and two bursting buds! how glad I am I came this way!"


No comments:

Post a Comment