Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face – Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855)

The slightest emotion of disinterested kindness that passes through the mind improves and refreshes that mind, producing generous thought and noble feeling, as the sun and rain foster your favourite flowers. Cherish kind wishes, my children; for a time may come when you may be enabled to put them in practice.

Mary Russell Mitford
Our Village: Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery
London: Ward, Lock and Company, 1870
“The Residuary Legatee,” vol. 5, p. 145

Mary Russell Mitford was the only daughter of a father with excessive spending habits. At age ten Mitford won a substantial sum of money in a lottery, which her father quickly spent. Mitford had to work hard to earn enough to support both herself and her father. Luckily, Mitford’s writing was well liked and she and her father were able to survive primarily on the proceeds of her literature. As a poet, novelist, dramatist, and playwright, Mitford was a diverse writer but her prose was the most popular.

Mitford was a close friend and frequent correspondent of Elizabeth Barrett’s, particularly before Barrett’s marriage to Robert Browning. Their letters to each other are full of literary commentary as well as discussions of their daily lives. As a token of their friendship, Miss Mitford gave Elizabeth Barrett an important gift—Flush, EBB’s beloved spaniel. The Armstrong Browning Library has 24 volumes written by Miss Mitford and nine letters.

One of Miss Mitford’s acquaintances was John Kenyon, who was a distant cousin of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This letter from Miss Mitford to Mr. Kenyon talks about geranium seeds given to her by Miss Catharine Sedgwick, then progresses to a review of Miss Sedgwick’s book, presents an offer to share geranium cuttings with Mr. Kenyon, and ends with a discussion of American authors. The letter provides a glimpse into this popular and appealing author, known for her unaffected spontaneous humor, quick wit, and literary skill.

Melinda Creech

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face – Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849)

The law, in our case, seems to make the right; and the very reverse ought to be done – the right should make the law.

Maria Edgeworth
“The Grateful Negro”
Popular Tales (1804)

Maria Edgeworth was born in England but moved to Ireland at the age of five following her mother’s death. Primarily educated in London, she returned to Ireland to care for her siblings after her father fell ill. Many of her early works documented life in Ireland and celebrated Irish culture.

Edgeworth also wrote children’s novels with moral lessons. Her popular Parent’s Assistant, or Stories for Children is a collection of short stories reflecting her view that boys and girls ought to receive equal education. Sir Walter Scott, Maria’s friend, was inspired by her novel, The Absentee, to publish his own novels, attempting “to emulate the admirable Irish portraits drawn by Miss Edgeworth.”

Maria lived during the Irish famine and worked tirelessly for the relief of the Irish peasants. Although after her father’s death she assumed the management of the family estate, she continued to write. She sold her last novel, Orlandino, at the end of the great Irish famine “to raise a little money for our parish poor.”

Kathryn J. Kirkpatrick, Professor of English at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, who has prepared edition of both Belinda and Castle Rackrent, notes that Edgeworth, thankfully, is these days often read within the British canon along with writers like Jane Austen. Kirkpatrick, however, enjoyed working with Edgeworth’s deep engagement with her Irish context.

 Melinda Creech

The Armstrong Browning Library owns five volumes authored by Maria Edgeworth and one letter written by her. In this letter Maria Edgeworth, always concerned with the fair treatment of her tenants, is advocating on behalf of her tenant’s son, Archy Wilson, for his position with the Earl of Desmond.

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face – Hannah More (1745-1833)

It is humbling to reflect, that in those countries in which fondness for the mere persons of women is carried to the highest excess, they are slaves; and that their moral and intellectual degradation increases in direct proportion to the adoration which is paid to their mere external charms.

Hannah More
Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799)

Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey, Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities in the Honors College at Baylor University, in his anthology, A Burning and a Shining Light: English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley, devotes a chapter to Hannah More, describing her as a woman who would have been “remarkable in any century” and “an outstanding woman of her time.” She was both a shrewd culture critic and a Christian feminist, who being more interested in truth than applause, challenged and continues to challenge the political correctness of society.

She was one of the most prolific female writers prior to the Victorian era, with her collected works filling eleven volumes. Her poetry, plays, letters, essays, and tracts focus on women’s education, evangelicalism, abolition, and the poor. She was occupied with promoting philanthropy, establishing charity schools, and providing affordable reading materials for the lower classes in the form of Cheap Repository Tracts.

Although her literary merits were disparaged later in the twentieth century, recent criticism has begun to re-evaluate her influence in religious writing, education, the role of women, abolition, and practical philanthropy. The Armstrong Browning Library owns eleven items authored by Hannah More, including several of the original Cheap Repository Tracts. Hannah More’s Poems can be viewed at the Baylor University 19th Century Women Poets Collection.

Melinda Creech