Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Selections from Our Village by Mary Mitford

Mary Mitford's series of sketches were first published in the Lady's Magazine in 1819. The popularity of Mitford's sketches led to their collected volume publications, first in 1824, and then four more volumes were published between 1826-1832.

The popularity of the sketch form in the nineteenth century is one that has received comparatively little attention (the novel being considered the dominant nineteenth-century literary form). It might be mentioned, then, that other authors successfully published their own volumes of sketches between 1820-1840, including Dickens (see Sketches by Boz), Washington Irving (Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon), Thackeray (The Paris Sketch Book), and Elizabeth Gaskell (Sketches among the Poor).

Mitford's sketches also survived the test of time in that Victorian audiences continued to enjoy them. Margaret Oliphant, for example, wrote a piece in Blackwood's in 1870 comparing Mitford to Austen, and favoring Mitford with a "larger heart" and more pleasantness. Oliphant writes, "Miss Mitford...takes in all the Joes and Pollys and Harriets of a country-side, and makes their wooings and jealousies as plesant to us as if they were the finest ladies and gentlemen." (Source: Amanpal Garcha's From Sketch to Novel)

General features: Mitford's sketches are picturesque descriptions of different people in a village in the Berkshires which she calls "Our Village." People are at the heart of these descriptions, though the rural landscape often features as a comforting backdrop to the lives of these people. Each sketch stands alone, as they were originally published separately. The titles of the sketches range from specific individual's names ("Hannah," "Lucy," "Cousin Mary," "Tom Cordery") and descriptive types ("The Talking Lady," "The Old Bachelor," "A Village Beau") to events ("Bramley Maying," "A Country Cricket Match") and places ("A Great Farm-House"). "Walks in the Country" is a repeated title for a number of different sketches. Mitford's sketches don't really tell stories, although sometimes important events in the lives of people (for example, marriages) are referred to as "stories." As Oliphant has noticed, the sketches strive to present a pleasant picture, even when handling more difficult subjects like death or poverty--there is frequent mention of the resilience of village congeniality and comfort, the healing force of nature, and village people and events are linked up with pleasant literary allusions.

Although Mitford swears fidelity to real life in her preface to the sketches, other comments that she revealed to the press demonstrate that she did in fact wish to sugar-coat and embellish where necessary. Characters in the village don't seem particularly realistic and more types, and pleasant types at that whose faults inevitably seem only to be trifles.
Here are some notes on specific sketches and the preface:
Preface: Mitford's preface to the 1824 edition associates feelings of comfort and community with the local dwelling over time: Her "hearty love of her subject" comes from a "local and personal familiarity, which only a long residence in one neighbourhood could have enabled her to attain."

Our Village: This initial sketch moves a bit more quickly than the others; Mitford takes us from house to house, briefly sketching out caricatures of the people that live in each house. She soon remarks, however, that it won't simply do to pass over some people so quickly: "But cricketers and country boys are too important persons in our village to be talked of merely as figures in a landscape. They deserve an individual introduction--an essay to themselves--and they shall have it. No fear of forgetting the good-humoured faces that meet us in our walks every day."Mitford is confident that individuals won't be lost upon her on such a local scale.

Modern Antiques: In this sketch, "modern antiques" refer to two women who seem to be stuck in the eighteenth century with regards to their clothing, customs, and reading. Unlike the old man of Dickens's "Scotland Yard" sketch, however, these old women seem to exist side by side with the "modern" inhabitants--they are accepted into the community despite their "antiquity" and are visited by younger members of the society. This brings a sense of a continuous historical community.

Lucy: This sketch describes the narrator's amiable servant. Lucy, who is a big gossip, is nevertheless described as a sort of model for a "good" gossip: she is a "very charitable reporter," who "could have furnished a weekly paper from her own stores of facts, without once resorting for assistance to the courts of law or the two houses of parliament." Such a comment seems to level news reports and gossip; Lucy has just as much information; what's more, she relays this information charitably and pleasurably.

Walks in the Country (The First Primrose): One of many of the "walks" sketches, this one tells of the narrator encountering her old house. The sketch shows some momentary anxieties about the "curse of improvement," but ends reassuringly about key features of the natural landscape surrounding the house that has not changed.

Bramley Maying: Here Mitford actually references Irving's sketches, claiming that Geoffrey Crayon would be interested in the rural custom known as Maying - the social meeting of young women and men from different parishes in what is called a "may-house." Mitford takes a jab at metropolitan life, describing this "rural custom" as "altogether a different affair from the street exhibitions which mix so mcuh pity with our mirth, and do the heart good, perhaps but not by gladdening it." On the way, Mitford and her traveling party get lost (but the getting lost seems rather delightful). When they finally see the affair, they are, however, disappointed because the strictness of "etiquette finding its way into the May-houses." Again, such potential unpleasantness is immediately balanced out by the festive laughs and congenial, unrestrained socializing outside of the May-house.

Walks in the Country (Violeting): In another "walks" sketch, Mitford passes by a workhouse, but quickly turns away to think on cottage gardens, where "order, cleanliness, food, clothing, warmth, refuge for the homeless, medicine and attending for the sick, rest and sufficiency for old age, and sympathy, the true and active sympathy which the poor show to the poor" abound. Like Dickens, Mitford seems to critique philanthropic feeling and sympathy borne out of an observer observing from high those more miserable than himself/herself.

Country Cricket Match: Mitford compares a country cricket match with men in literary wars. The affect seems overblown here, but it serves to heighten her sense of the "genuine and hearty sympathy of belonging to a parish, breathing the same air, looking at the same trees, listening to the same nightingales." She seems to convey here patriotism and unity.

Old Bachelor: Sometimes, there are some that end up with hard lives. A poor old bachelor dies right before he decides to take the path of conjugal bliss: "He had waited for this living thirty years; he did not enjoy it thirty days." Nevertheless, the villagers invite him for visits; he too, despite his unorthodox lifestyle, is integrated into the community.

Aunt Martha: Relations inside of the village are analogized to familial relationships: the narrator's Aunt Martha is "every body's Aunt Martha--and a very charming Aunt Martha she is." Aunt Martha, like Lucy, as it turns out, is also a good gossip, one which doesn't spread malicious rumors but actually reports on scandal and makes it sweeter: "she is a gentle newsmonger, and turns her scandal on the sunny side."

A Parting Glance at Our Village: This sketch reveals some more anxieties about industrial development; the narrator complains about the "innovation" of a stone road connecting their parish to others. Nevertheless, she assures us that the "hive" remains unchanged despite such formal changes, and despite bees dying out. Again, village community is imagined as resilient against the test of time and creeping modernity. And yet, the sketch ends with her observations of the curator's house being "let" - undoubtedly a strange and new aspect of the housing market in the village.

According to Amanpal Garcha, Mitford's impact on Victorian audiences has much to do with her valuing of (rural) "stasis" in an industrialized world increasingly plagued by fast, metropolitan movement. For Mitford, it isn't narrative in the form of a moving plot that generates pleasure, for readers, but that "Imaginative pleasure issues primarily from a work's static elements." In particular, in Mitford, this is an "aestheticized" and picturesque stasis. And yet, Garcha argues that Mitford doesn't distance herself from fiction despite the lack of narrative plot, but actually connects her work with that of novels. As Mitford writes in the sketch entitled "Our Village," "nothing is so delightful as to sit down in a country village in one of Miss Austen's delicious novels...or to ramble with Mr. White over his own parish of Selborne" thus linking novels and Gilbert White's "fragmentary, plotless, and minutely detailed accounts of natural phenomena." Mitford's work fits into Garcha's larger argument that the development of the sketch was important to the many of the eventual features of the mature Victorian novel.

To return to the "stasis" which Garcha singles out in Mitford--I think that more might be said about the affective resonances of this stasis and relatedly, resilience. As evident from the summaries/notes above, Mitford constantly tries to "sugar-coat" adversity and anxiety and to also stubbornly maintain that those who have been exposed to more metropolitan, modern influences yet retain their country congeniality and kindness. This kind of stasis, resilience, and continuity of village life is meant to be deeply comforting, but it's a kind of comfort that feels a bit like a choice. Like the "good" gossip who does "charitable reporting," there's an element of willful avoidance of the unpleasant, and even the fictionalizing of the unpleasant through figuring it as pleasant. Mitford gives us why this kind of willful resistance and resilience against the discomforting and unpleasant is important: the kind of sympathy that the rich give to the poor, or more broadly, from one in a higher/better position to one in a lower/worse position is a cheap kind of sympathy, something common and ultimately borne of a kind of selfishness. To perpetuate the bonds of community, it seems, Mitford finds the type of sympathy created by "staying" with the bright side of things and being happy about others's happiness to be far more efficacious. What Garcha's argument offers is a look at how for Mitford, the "bright side" is culturally located in the kind, slow-paced, human-scale familiarity of the country, and the "dark side" in the indifferent, fast-paced, machine-scale anonymity of the city.

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