Brooke Stewart, our Pitt-Greensburg student research assistant on the Digital Mitford project, contributes this blog post reflecting on the immense research she has been doing over the past several months on Mary Russell Mitford’s letters. Brooke has been completing the editing, proof-correcting, and research of Mitford’s manuscript letters from the year 1823, including identification of mentioned people, events, and contexts. Many of the letters Brooke reviewed and completed were begun by other editors and student assistants helping with our project, and others Brooke took on herself with my supervision. Brooke’s survey of the letters of 1823 shows this to have been a very exciting and distressing year of transition in Mitford’s life. We’re excited to publish it on the 230th anniversary of Mitford’s birth, Dec. 16, 1787. ~Elisa Beshero-Bondar
The year 1823 held many difficult situations for Mary Russell Mitford. She was caught up in a major feud in the theatre for most of the year, experienced inconsistent payment for both her plays and her magazine submissions, and struggled financially. Through it all, she tried her best to keep her hopes and spirits up, but they were admittedly, and understandably, dashed at times. Mitford was not alone in her trying times; a dear friend of hers also experienced a rough patch, but with support, both looked ahead to a better future.
The major feud that overshadowed 1823 took place in the theatre between rival actors William Charles Macready and Charles Kemble. In a letter of January 13, 1823, Mitford wrote to her friend William Elford that she was “worn out with mental labour” with the situation; the two actors would not even speak to each other and she was stuck in the middle, a friend to each. She explained the rift of the moment: which actor would play the role of the Doge in her upcoming play, Foscari? Kemble was set to bring the play out at Covent Garden Theatre in six weeks and she feared that Macready would not play the part as he refused to share the stage with Kemble. Mitford also feared that the quarrels could mean the end of Foscari. Mitford had a backup plan in case her fears came true; she had apparently prepared another play, that had a part for Macready but not Kemble. However, she held on to the hope that Macready would play the Doge after all, at least for a little while.
In addition to her work with drama, Mitford was writing for newspapers and magazines in 1823 to supplement her income and support her family. A lot of what she wrote for magazines, especially The Lady’s Magazine, were prose fiction sketches about life in the country. She started writing the sketches in 1822, and many were published in a collection for the first time in 1824, titled Our Village.
She also would discuss more domestic current events in her letters, usually at the end after the more pressing issues had been addressed. At this point in time, Mitford had lost spirit and was so plagued with anxiety over finishing Julian and with money concerns that she had hardly left her house in three months, though she assured Elford that she was taking care of herself and walking five miles a day. She didn’t let her fear get the best of her; her prose writings were being praised, she felt she was making progress in drama, and expressed her hope to write a great tragedy one day. She included that Charles Dickinson and his wife and daughter were spending Christmas in Somersetshire, and her friend and artist Benjamin Haydon was celebrating the birth of his heir. She also suggested Elford read the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian artist, which has been famed as one of the most colorful biographies ever written. She also inquired about Elford’s brother, Jonathon, and said that she had enclosed a name of a book she suggested he should read on another piece of paper.
In a letter of February 28, also to Elford, Mitford announced that her most recent and “favourite play,” Julian, was on the verge of being performed with Macready as the lead role, supported by Mr. Bennett, Mr. Abbott, Miss Lacy, and Miss Foote. Kemble, on the other hand, would have no role in the play, and Mitford suspected it was revenge for Macready refusing to play the Doge. However, Mitford wrote that Kemble behaved “fairly & honourably,” giving Macready full power in his role in Julian. Mitford did not despair at not having Kemble in the play; she praised Macready as the best actor since David Garrick, the influential 18th century English actor, playwright, and theatre manager. As for Foscari, Mitford reported that it was in rehearsal, but withdrawn from the theatre for the time being. Julian, she assured, was worth “a thousand of Foscari.” On an interesting note, Mitford wrote that she had never met Macready in person up to this point, though it was obvious she admired him and his work. It was her friend, Thomas Noon Talfourd, to whom she owed the introduction of Macready to her plays.
Mitford’s spirits had been lifted at the prospect of Julian being performed, though she said she had been unwell the last fortnight. Elford’s brother had some sort of illness at this time, for which Mitford suggests Mr. [Benjamin] Hutchinson’s rust of iron and the “Reading Remedy” or, Boulte’s Embrocation. The carbonate or rust of iron was used, with some success, to treat ailments, especially tic douloureux (trigeminal neuralgia). An advertisement in the Brighton Gazette of July 7, 1864, claimed the Reading Remedy to cure many ailments such as rheumatism, neuralgia, weak and contracted muscles, and stiff joints among other things. Jonathan Elford’s ailment was not specified, and given this list, it could have been a number of things.
Jumping ahead to a letter of March 25, to Haydon, Mitford first inquired whether his painting, The Raising of Lazarus, had been sold, for she hoped so. She then confided that Mr. Elliston of Drury Lane Theatre had offered to produce Foscari, but she declined under Macready’s advice. Meanwhile, she reported that Julian had survived four nights at Covent Garden so far, despite the “execrable acting.” After poor reviews of Julian appeared in the John Bull and the Examiner, Mitford pleaded for Haydon to find another reviewer to either defend her article or write something positive about the performance. She was especially put-off by the term “melodramatic” that was used to describe the play in the Examiner article. Melodrama is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “dramatic piece characterized by exaggerated characters and a sensational plot intended to appeal to the emotions.” Mitford took this criticism to mean that her work was over the top; she preferred the term “tragedy,” which had a more classical feel in the sense of Shakespeare or Greek tragedies. She saw it as a citique that her work is not of good quality. The Examiner also supposed that the acting was as good as it could have been, given the plot. In a letter from Haydon of March 27, he revealed that he complained about the Examiner review himself: “I complained about the ‘Examiner.’ It was unjust, I think. But really you must expect it. … All the critics in the papers are ci-devant poets, painters, and tragedy writers who have failed. A successful tragedy and by a lady, rouses their mortified pride, and damnation is their only balm. Be assured of this…”
The John Bull article further proves that the critics are ci-devant, or stuck in an earlier time. They criticized Mitford’s use of crude language and taking God’s name in vain, which reflects back to 1642 when London theatres were closed because of the belief that they were the centers of vice, and distracted citizens from the Church. Even after more than 100 years of the theatres reopening, this critic was still shocked by the language. The John Bull also used the term “melo-drame” to refer to the play and harshly criticized Mitford’s dialogue and the acting, save for much of Macready’s effort.
To end the letter to Haydon, Mitford observed that Macready and his sister had been “kind beyond kindness.” The letter addresses Julian’s fifth night of production at Covent Garden, which is confirmed by an article in the Morning Post as happening on April 2nd.
In this year, the Digital Mitford Project only has one letter between Mitford and her father, George Mitford, a letter dated April 3rd. In this letter, she told him mostly about the happenings at the theatre and with her prose fiction, which will be discussed later. As for the drama, Mitford revealed that Talfourd also advised her not to withdraw Foscari from Covent Garden and give it to another theatre unless Kemble or the Committee give her a good reason. It seems as though this would be a big move, that she may destroy her loyalty and good standings with Kemble if she were to give the play a chance elsewhere. The critics had not lightened up by this point; an article in the London Magazine criticized Macready’s acting but admired
Mitford’s writing. In actuality, the article had quite a lot of positive feedback as well. It stated that the characters were not forced out of human proportion and the dialogue was not clouded and that the stage managers were at fault for the disruption in the dialogue, not Mitford. There was also a nod at her well-written poetry. The article mainly condemned the plot and the acting, as well as questioned Mitford’s admiration of Macready. The reviewer thought he had never performed worse and that Mitford gave him too much respect: “Does the age belong only to Mr. Macready?” With this mixed review, it’s uncertain whether Mitford wanted to track down the author because she was upset about the criticism or if she wanted to speak about her writing, as the reviewer obviously interested in it. Poor Mitford, deeply affected by the criticism, lamented: “my next play–if ever I have courage & spirits to write another, shall have no name, no woman to attack.” However, Rienzi, her next play to be produced, was published under her name in 1828. Mitford asked her father if he knew who wrote the article and grieved that Macready has apparently been fatigued from his performance. By the end of the letter, she had decided to leave Foscari at Covent Garden but insisted that Macready should never play the Doge. She also asked her father to bring her white and black paint without smell in order to fix up the house. Mitford states that she would “write another play to get this room made decent without offence to Mama,” indicating that proceeds from her productions were funding the upkeep of the Mitford home. She also mentions that her geraniums have died for lack of water; Mitford was an avid gardener and was very fond of her flowers.
Mitford was very much discouraged by the harsh reviews of her play. She wrote to Samuel Hamilton, editor of The Lady’s Magazine on April 9th about business matters, but she also questioned whether she would have courage enough to write another play. She had apparently acted irritably toward Hamilton the last time she saw him, as she (understandably) was stressed with all the theatre drama. She excused her poor mood by stating: “it is like going into battle to produce a successful play.” She also decided to try her luck with Hamilton concerning the author of the review in the London Magazine. It’s evident that the reviews really bothered her, and one wonders what she would do if she did ever find the author. Despite her troubles, Mitford expressed gratitude toward those involved with Julian and stated that it would not feel right for her to withdraw Foscari from Covent Garden. She only wished it out of that theatre so that Macready would not be forced to play the Doge–a role he did not want. Kemble stilled wished to have it performed and Mitford was willing if they could secure Mr. Young, another actor, for the role of the Doge. It’s unclear why Mitford would be discussing the happenings in the theatre in such detail with Hamilton, a magazine editor. The best guess is that Hamilton had some sort of pecuniary motive; perhaps he was interested in publishing Foscari or another of her plays since he was also a publisher. Mitford mentioned that she had an article half-written for The Lady’s Magazine and that she had handed out copies of the magazine to her neighbors in hope that they would take it in.
In a letter of April 25 to Elford, Mitford expressed that she had no heart to talk of plays and theatres for she was sick of them. She stated, “between the lies & the quarrels & the envy that attends success I have fairly wished a thousand times that the Play had failed.” She also conveyed that the situation was difficult for her as one who valued peace and quietness above all else. Her exasperation was not unwarranted as she had been plagued by bad reviews on top of being caught between the Macready/Kemble feud. Speaking of Kemble, Mitford also revealed in this letter that he had threatened her with a lawsuit if she were to withdraw Foscari from Covent Garden. Julian had also been stopped at the end of the eighth night even though Mitford claimed it to be going “brilliantly in brilliant houses.” She also mentioned that Kemble had not paid her for the third or the sixth nights although he gave his word to pay her and she did trust him to. An annotator, possibly William Harness or A. G. L’Estrange, has left a note indicating that Mitford did receive the money owed to her: “Miss Mitford received £200 for Julian from Covent Garden £ 100 cash on the 9 of May & £100 by bill payable on the 12 of October.” Mitford continued to voice her discontentment with the theatre in this letter, stating that she would rather work in a shop, scrub floors, or nurse children rather than deal with the disputes and “unwomanly” publicity.
It’s around this time that Mitford started to experience troubles with The Lady’s Magazine. She exclaimed to Elford that Hamilton had run away with over £40 in her debt. While this rightfully upset her, she was comforted by the fact that the magazine couldn’t continue without her contributions and the quarreling over her at the theatre proved to her that she had importance there.
To conclude this letter, she mentioned that she had been sitting for her portrait at the desire of her bookseller. She also extended her sympathy to Elford and his family, possibly for the death of his son, Jonathan, in March but as she did not mention any details this is hard to know for sure. Elford’s brother was still ill to some extent at this point and Mitford wished that he would continue to get better.
Mitford moved on rather quickly from her doubts surrounding the theatre and discussed many ideas for developing new plays. In a letter to Macready of April 26, she was already planning and inquiring about topics for new plays. She had enclosed a scheme of a play on Garzia de’ Medici which she wouldn’t hesitate to abandon if she could find a better topic. She cited Procida as a potentially better topic (referring to a 13th-century Sicilian Count of Procida who led a revolt against a foreign ruler, Charles of Anjou) , but she was hesitant to “jostle” with it if another woman writer was working on it. L’Estrange provides a note on this letter that this play on Procida was indeed written by a woman, Felicia Hemans, and it was produced under the name of The Sicilian Vespers (later published as The Vespers of Palermo). Mitford also mentioned ideas for a play that she would later develop, Rienzi, but at this time she was afraid to attempt this plot possibly because it was too political; she drew parallels between the 14th-century Roman “Tribune” Cola di Rienzo and Napoleon. She expressed reluctance to attempt Greek or Roman plots because she believed the women characters in them were always pedantic. She eventually expressed her hopes to write two or three tragedies over the summer for Macready to choose the best from these, but she also doubted that she would be able to achieve this goal as she was rather slow and easily distracted. After all the discussion about choosing a topic for a play, she conceded that she may “leave to Chance” the suggestion.
Meanwhile, her father had gone to London to see Julian performed. She reported that he thought it went splendidly but Mitford insisted that Macready just not play the part again when he felt unwell. She even told his sister not to let him, hoping they would agree one way or another. On another note, she was still trying to find the author of the London Magazine article at this point. She had hoped that Talfourd would have, through Charles Lamb (an essayist associated with the magazine), protected against such an unfavorable review. However, there is good news! Haydon had secured a Mr. Jeffrey to write a positive review for Julian in the Edinburgh Review. There was still enough drama to go around though; the Kembles were “exceedingly angry” and Mitford didn’t know why. She heard from her father that Mrs. Kemble supposedly believed that she sent back Foscari. She insisted that she had not on advice from Talfourd, but she insisted that it would never be acted there to Macready’s annoyance. She was back from London at this time and enjoying her calm and peaceful time in the country.
Mitford was in no hurry to return to London and all the turmoil as she expressed in a letter of May 13 to Elford. She was still stuck in the war between Macready and Kemble and feeling the effects. She knew that Macready and his sister liked her, but she had suffered more from their “injustice & prejudice & jealousy” than from the attacks of Kemble who still wished her well despite his dislike of Macready. She wished dearly to be free from both of them and the theatre, where she was “alternately the idol & the slave of that most fascinating & accomplished but most tormenting of men William Macready—who had power over me because I have a real regard for his splendid qualities & a sincere gratitude for his unbounded zeal, but whose temper makes that power a perpetual source of misery to himself & to me.” This passage reveals the challenging side of Macready and that Mitford wasn’t so enamored with him and his skilled acting that she couldn’t see his faults. Of course, she still valued Macready as she followed this rant with more positive thoughts: “yet he is a most ardent & devoted friend & it seems ungrateful in me to say so much even to you.” Mitford acknowledged that yes, Macready troubled her at times, but he was still a friend and she did not wish to cause more ill feelings, and she implored Elford to keep her feelings to himself. As for Foscari, it was to be brought out at Covent Garden in the next year if Mr. Young would agree to play the Doge. If Kemble did try to force Macready to play the Doge, she said she would try to withdraw it if she could, for she gave her word to Macready that she would. Mitford intended to write another tragedy for Macready to perform at Covent Garden anonymously to avoid attacks, but as mentioned earlier with Rienzi, she did continue to use her name. Although she intended to keep writing drama, Mitford confided in Elford that she didn’t think she was cut out for the theatre scene: “I literally cannot scold & squabble & bargain & hold out & threaten as he would have me—I can neither resist kindness—nor bear up under hard usage—& this feebleness—this want of moral courage will not do for a Theatre.” However, she felt it was her duty to try once more, as it was her greatest prospect of making money. She added in a postscript that the Duke of Gloucester, who would have been Prince William Frederick at the time, had gone to see Julian performed at least once.
The situation with The Lady’s Magazine had improved at this point; Mr. Davison had taken over the magazine and promised Mitford “if not indemnity for the past security for the future.” She also revealed that Hamilton had run away after her articles had increased the sale of the magazine from 250 to 2,000, which probably refers to the number of subscriptions or the total number of copies sold. She expressed her hope that Mr. Davison would make good on his promise because the writing for the magazine was sure pay and “Heaven when compared to Covent Garden.” Regarding her personal life, she reported that she had recovered physically, but not her old hopefulness. She also mentioned that her father was willing to find work in order to lighten her financial burden, so she asked Elford if he could assist in the search for a job.
In a letter to Haydon of June 14, Mitford put her troubles on the back-burner as Haydon was in a difficult situation himself. In April, The Raising of Lazarus was seized while on exhibit and Haydon was arrested and taken to King’s Bench Prison, where he was imprisoned for two months for debt. In her letter, Mitford both expressed her unhappiness with the situation: “[we are all] so ashamed that such a country as this, such an Artist, such a man should be suffered to undergo the deprivations & losses which you have experienced” and encouraged Haydon: “but you still have your lovely mate & the dear little ones—& your own buoyancy.” On top of his financial troubles, Mitford referenced one of Haydon’s pupils, and remarked that it would be an “added grief to lose a friend.” However, she hoped that he was mistaken about whatever had transpired and that the pupil was not an unworthy friend. This letter shows how much Mitford cared about her friend’s wellbeing as she discussed only Haydon’s situation and offered him hope rather than burdening him with her troubles as well.
By August, Mitford had some relief from the theatre as she found peace at home in the country. In a letter to Elford on the 21st, she wrote that “the quiet & the repose of the Country & the entire absence of all theatrical cabal have had the happiest effect on my health & mind.” However, her father still did not have work, so she felt she must give the theatre one more trial to help support her family. At the moment, she was attempting a tragedy on Charles Cromwell at the desire of Macready, both of whom wish it to remain anonymous. Mitford did indeed complete this tragedy under the title of Charles the First, but it was refused license to be performed in the London Royal Theatres in the 1820’s because it was considered to be too historically accurate and dangerous in the sense that it portrayed the English government as being unstable. The play was later performed under her name in 1834 at the Surrey Theatre. In this letter to Elford, Mitford revealed that she had been consulting old memorials, letters, and state papers while writing the play to get an accurate idea of Cromwell’s character. She had run the plan for the play by Talfourd, and she said that his hopes had been outrun by it so far. As for the current affairs at the theatre, she reported that Macready may have no power at Covent Garden in the next season if they do secure Mr. Young for Foscari. While Mitford preferred Julian over Foscari, she did admit to Elford that there were faults in the plot and the acting, save for Macready and Miss Foote. She believed that the play itself must have had much power to survive the acting that was “more fit for a barn” on top of the fact that only one new costume and no new scenery was made for the performance. She believed that if Foscari were to come out, Kemble would have new scenery and costumes made and she did hope that it would be performed as she was sure that it was too good to fail on the first night.
In other news, Mitford believed that her father wasn’t actually looking for employment even though he said he would, but she decided not to push the matter. She wished that she could support the family without and not have to ask for his contribution, but the trouble with the theatre was proving to be hard on her. She asked Elford again to let her know of any opportunity for him, especially anything in the medical line. Mitford was happy to hear that Elford’s brother had benefitted from the Reading Remedy and again she suggested the rust of iron to improve his condition, whatever it may have been. She also passed on the knowledge that Haydon was keeping up good spirits in the midst of his misfortunes and gone into humble lodgings with his family since his release from prison.
In a letter of August 24, Mitford wrote to Haydon to inquire whether or not he received a congratulations note that she sent after he was released. She also asked about what his next subject would be for his painting, if it would be his wife and child. Mitford then went on to talk about a cricket match she attended in Bramshill that disappointed her. She didn’t care for the “ugly men” or their “hideous disguise of a cricketing jacket.” She preferred the village men and their carefree approach to the game. This game in the city revolved too much around money, causing such as serious tone that Mitford declared she was never so disappointed in her life. In her words, “every thing is spoilt when Money puts its ugly nose in.” She was possibly also thinking about her recent experiences with the theatre and The Lady’s Magazine; she often wished to quit them both, but she needed money to support her family, so she had to continue.
The last letter that the Digital Mitford project currently has from 1823 written by Mitford is of October 1, to Haydon. She praised his humorous paintings, his “peculiar talent,” and his portrait for which Mitford stated he would be considered in remembrance among Titian, Ruben, and Rembrant. In her only news about the theatre affairs, she reported that Macready had left Covent Garden and that she hoped Foscari would be performed there that season.
—Brooke Stewart, Research Assistant, U. of Pittsburgh at Greensburg