A writer of prose, poetry and plays, Mary Russell Mitford is probably best remembered for her descriptions in ‘Our Village’ of everyday Victorian village life, rarely recorded and, for her, mostly a means to supplement her income from more serious literary efforts. It is fortunate that she left us a portrait of that era.
We have excerpted a chapter here that I have seen in a few anthologies. The e-book, as well as other of her writings can be downloaded here at archive.org.
Our Village, Mary Russell Mitford
The pride of my heart and the delight of my eyes is my garden. Our house, which is in dimensions very much like a bird-cage, and might, with almost equal convenience, be laid on a shelf, or hung up in a tree, would be utterly unbearable in warm weather, were it not that we have a retreat out of doors, — and a very pleasant retreat it is. To make my readers comprehend it, I must describe our whole territories.
Fancy a small plot of ground, with a pretty low irregular cottage at one end; a large granary, divided from the dwelling by a little court running along one side; and a long thatched shed, open towards the garden, and supported by wooden pillars, on the other. The bottom is bounded, half by an old wall, and half by an old paling, over which we see a pretty distance of woody hills. The house, granary, wall, and paling, are covered with vines, cherry-trees, roses, honeysuckles, and jessamines, with great clusters of tall hollyhocks running up between them; a large elder overhanging the little gate, and a magnificent bay-tree, such a tree as shall scarcely be matched in these parts, breaking with its beautiful conical form the horizontal lines of the buildings. This is my garden; and the long pillared shed, the sort of rustic arcade, which runs along one side, parted from the flower-beds by a row of rich geraniums, is our out-of-door drawing-room.
I know nothing so pleasant as to sit there on a summer afternoon, with the western sun flickering through the great elder-tree, and lighting up our gay parterres, where flowers and flowering shrubs are set as thick as grass in a field, a wilderness of blossom, interwoven, intertwined, wreathy, garlandy, profuse beyond all profusion, where we may guess that there is such a thing as mould, but never see it. I know nothing so pleasant as to sit in the shade of that dark bower, with the eye resting on that bright piece of colour, lighted so gloriously by the evening sun, now catching a glimpse of the little birds as they fly rapidly in and out of their nests — for there are always two or three birds-nests in the thick tapestry of cherry-trees, honeysuckles, and China-roses, which covers our walls — now tracing the gay gambols of the common butterflies as they sport around the dahlias; now watching that rarer moth, which the country people, fertile in pretty names, call the bee-bird; that bird-like insect, which flutters in the hottest days over the sweetest flowers, inserting its long proboscis into the small tube of the jessamine, and hovering over the scarlet blossoms of the geranium, whose bright colour seems reflected on its own feathery breast: that insect which seems so thoroughly a creature of the air, never at rest; always, even when feeding, self-poised, and self-supported, and whose wings, in their ceaseless motion, have a sound so deep, so full, so lulling, so musical. Nothing so pleasant as to sit amid that mixture of the flower and the leaf, watching the bee-bird! Nothing so pretty to look at as my garden! It is quite a picture; only unluckily it resembles a picture in more qualities than one, — it is fit for nothing but to look at. One might as well think of walking in a bit of framed canvass. There are walks to be sure — tiny paths of smooth gravel, by courtesy called such — but they are so overhung by roses and lilies, and such gay encroachers — so over-run by convolvulus, and heart’s-ease, and mignonette, and other sweet stragglers, that, except to edge through them occasionally, for the purposes of planting, or weeding, or watering, there might as well be no paths at all. Nobody thinks of walking in my garden. Even May glides along with a delicate and trackless step, like a swan through the water; and we, its two-footed denizens, are fain to treat it as if it were really a saloon, and go out for a walk towards sun-set, just as if we had not been sitting in the open air all day.
What a contrast from the quiet garden to the lively street! Saturday night is always a time of stir and bustle in our village, and this is Whitsun-Eve, the pleasantest Saturday of all the year, when London journeymen and servant lads and lasses snatch a short holiday, to visit their families. A short and precious holiday, the happiest and liveliest of any; for even the gambols and merry-makings of Christmas offer but a poor enjoyment, compared with the rural diversions, the Mayings, revels, and cricket-matches of Whitsuntide. We ourselves are to have a cricket-match on Monday, not played by the men, who, since a certain misadventure with the Beech-hillers, are, I am sorry to say, rather chap-fallen, but by the boys, who, zealous for the honour of their parish, and headed by their bold leader, Ben Kirby, marched in a body to our antagonists’ ground the Sunday after our melancholy defeat, challenged the boys of that proud hamlet, and beat them out and out on the spot. Never was a more signal victory. Our boys enjoyed this triumph with so little moderation that it had like to have produced a very tragical catastrophe. The captain of the Beech-hill youngsters, a capital bowler, by name Amos Stone, enraged past all bearing by the crowing of his adversaries, flung the ball at Ben Kirby with so true an aim, that if that sagacious leader had not warily ducked his head when he saw it coming, there would probably have been a coroner’s inquest on the case, and Amos Stone would have been tried for manslaughter. He let fly with such vengeance, that the cricket-ball was found embedded in a bank of clay five hundred yards off, as if it had been a cannon shot. Tom Coper and Farmer Thackum, the umpires, both say that they never saw so tremendous a ball. If Amos Stone live to be a man (I mean to say, if he be not hanged first) he’ll be a pretty player. He is coming here on Monday with his party to play the return match, the umpires having respectively engaged, Farmer Thackum that Amos shall keep the peace, Tom Coper that Ben shall give no unnecessary or wanton provocation — a nicely worded and lawyer-like clause, and one that proves that Tom Coper hath his doubts of the young gentleman’s discretion; and, of a truth, so have I. I would not be Ben Kirby’s surety, cautiously as the security is worded, — no! Not for a white double dahlia, the present object of my ambition.
Letter To Miss Jephson, Castle Martyr, Ireland
Three Mile Cross, 3 September 1835
I send you, my dearest Emily, the four white oenotheras, the blue pea, the Salpiglossis picta, the white Clarkia, a new lupine, the most beautiful that I have ever seen, similar to the Lupinus mutabilis, in kind and fragrance, but a clear lilac and clear white, and of far larger spikes of flowers (I enclose a flower), a new annual chrysanthemum (Cape marigold) with yellow outer leaves, and two little packets of seeds from Madeira, sent me by a gentleman whom I have never either seen or even heard of till now, but who, having been ordered there for his health, took my books with him, and found them of so much amusement to him that he sent me some seeds on his arrival by way of return, and we are likely to become great friends.
Our Village – Volume 1 1824 (Volume 2 1826; Volume 3, 1828; Volume 4, 1830; Volume 5, 1832)
Letter To Miss Jephson excerpted from My Garden: A Nineteenth-Century Writer on Her English Cottage Garden, Houghton Mifflin, Boston. The Illustrations are from the same book (totalling 158) and are by Pamela Kay.