Monday, September 22, 2008
Today is the Autumn Equinox, the first official day of autumn. At the weekend I found a book by Mary Russell Mitford, which gives a series of portraits of life in rural England during the Regency and the reigns of George IV and Queen Victoria. I thought I would share some of her writing on autumn.
Mary Russell Mitford was the only child of George Mitford, a descendant of an ancient Northumberland family, and of Mary Russell, an heiress. George Mitford, who was ten years his wife's junior, had been educated for the medical profession and was a graduate of Edinburgh University. He was clever, selfish, unprincipled and extravagant, with a love of gambling, and an unfortunate lack of skill at whist. In his lifetime he squandered about £70,000 and, finally, became entirely dependent upon his daughter's literary earnings.
Mary was a very precocious child who could read before she was three years old. In 1797, she won a prize in the Irish Lottery worth £20,000. The child herself insisted on choosing the number, 2224, because its digits made up the sum of her age. On the strength of this, Dr. Mitford built a fashionable town house on the London Road in Reading before moving to 'Bertram House', a small country estate. Between 1798 and 1802, Mary was at school at 22 Hans Place, London, kept by Mrs. St. Quintin, a French refugee, where Lady Caroline Lamb had been an earlier pupil.
Dr. Mitford's extravagance reduced his family to the utmost poverty and it was necessary for Mary to turn to literature for their means of livelihood. Her series of country sketches, drawn from her own experiences at Three Mile Cross, entitled 'Our Village,' began to appear in 1819 in the 'Lady's Magazine,' a little-known periodical. She did a great deal to boost the circulation of the magazine!
This is her description of autumn and it is a very evocative picture of the countryside in the early nineteenth century.
"A delicious autumnal day... The harvest is nearly over, the fields are deserted, the silence may almost be felt. They are gathering in the apples. The great tree is bending with the weight of its golden-rennets and the children are creeping on hands and knees under the trees, picking up the fruits and depositing them in a great basket on the grass that is already almost full to overflowing with russeting apples... In the big pear-tree the eldest boy shakes the tree with a mighty swing that brings down a pelting shower of stony bergamots... Here and there the bank is wreathed with long patches of hazel overhanging the water and there are nuts on the bough. I doff my shawl, tuck up my flounces, turn my straw bonnet into a basket and begin gathering and scrambling - for manage it how you may, nutting is scrambling work, for those boughs, however tightly you grasp them by the young fragrant twigs and the bright green leaves, will recoil and burst away... A basket of nuts is the universal tribute of country gallantry; Harriet has had at least half a dozen this season."
You can imagine Harriet, the prettiest girl in the village, wondering what on earth to do with so many baskets full of nuts!