Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855)


Life is a Lottery – Nigel Gossop

Nigel Gossop entertained us at our November ’22 meeting with an engrossing and well researched account of the life and literary output of Mary Russell Mitford, probably unknown to most of us. With numerous informative slides and technical assistance from his wife Wendy, Nigel presented a portrait of an eventful literary life with several house moves, (Alresford, Three Mile Cross, Lyme Regis, London, and Reading) prompted by her father’s poor financial management and gambling habits. Our knowledge of her life is mostly gleaned from her numerous letters, now held by Reading Record Office and the Chawton House Library collection. She is best remembered for her Our Village sketches (c.100) of closely observed, amusing (and perhaps somewhat embellished) characters and descriptions of daily life and events from her local village of Three Mile Cross, near Reading. Thanks to a winning lottery ticket (No.2224) of £20,000, chosen by Mary aged 10, she benefited from a good education at the Abbey School, Knightsbridge in London and was an avid reader, frequenting the circulating library, from which her mother recorded her reading 55 volumes in 1806 in 30 days. Her collection of Miscellaneous Poems was published in 1810, and her narrative poem Christina (or Maid of the South Seas)in 1811, followed by Blanch of Castile (with advice and guidance from Samuel Taylor Coleridge) in 1812. She moved in the literary circles of the day and was acquainted with Coleridge , Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and the artist Benjamin Haydon. She wrote four full length plays, Julian, Foscari, Rienzi, (based on Italian operas) and a history play – Charles I which were performed at Covent Garden and other London theatres. The Our Village sketches, first published as a series, from 1821 in The Lady’s Magazine proved a great success and boosted the circulation of the magazine from 250 copies to 20,000 copies per month. From 1840, illustrated editions of the Our Village sketches were published and made her famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Her village of Three Mile Cross became a tourist attraction. She was financially savvy, unlike her father, and retained copyright of her works and was able to increase fees for reprints as her celebrity status grew.

Despite the upheavals and financial difficulties her father put the family through she remained a loyal and loving daughter to her gambling father, sometimes paying off his debts. What a remarkably resilient and successful literary lady of her time she was!

Nigel brought along some attractive, illustrated editions of her books from his personal collection, which members were able to examine at the end of the talk – see photos below.

Lois Coulthart

Mitford – Our Village Cover – Illustrated edition.