The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 12. Mary Russell Mitford; Our Village
The habit of minor novelists of inventing a kind of formula or pattern according to which the production of scores or even centuries of novels could go on almost automatically makes it permissible to group the remaining names under some few lines of general development. One of the things which best reveal the practice of the individual writer and the trend of fiction at large is the treatment of setting and scene. The earliest of those to be considered here as making distinctive use of locality is Mary Russell Mitford. She is rather an essayist than a novelist, her one regular novel, Atherton (1854), a slight tale of love and a missing legatee, being of small account. Her voluminous gossipy letters (which better deserve the designation Recollections of a Literary Life than the anthology of chosen passages and comments to which she gave that title in 1852) reveal some significant preferences; such as those for Cowley, Lamb, Hazlitt, Gilbert White of Selborne, the simpler part of Wordsworth, Steele (whom she thought worth twenty Addisons) and “Geoffrey Crayon,” whose Sketch Book appeared in 1820. Her fame is established by Our Village, begun in The Lady’s Magazine (1819), published in five volumes between 1824 and 1832. The scene Three Mile Cross, where she supported her reprobate father for the last twenty years of his life; the village is near Reading, the county town of her Belford Regis (1835). Her inmost desire was to write ambitious tragedies in verse such as her Rienzi (1828); happily, the art of Jane Austen taught her to work upon a miniature scale. She brushes lightly over her small and rather beggarly world; she does not falsify it, nevertheless its dullness and insipidity disappear; places, people, especially children, seasons, sports, atmosphere are touched into bright and graceful animation. Our Village evokes the spirit of place through its scene; Cranford, through delicate subtleties of characterisation. An instinctive sense of fitness rules in the apparently spontaneous prose; its lightness and vivacity and unforced humour are deceptive; they are, in fact, the outcome of strict discipline, as may be seen from a comparison with the more unstudied letters.
Worthy of notice is a work of very different order, Chronicles of Dartmoor (1866), by Mrs. Marsh Caldwell, who was a pioneer with Catherine Crowe of the novel of the domestic interior. The scene of Chronicles is a village “deeper in the moor than Chagford.” Though it does not occupy a very large portion of the book, the delineation of the barbaric life of this backwater, untouched by any modern influence, the characters deep-grained by supersition and long-standing irrational custom, is a remarkable anticipation of one aspect of the Wessex novels.