Mary Russell Mitford was the only child of George Mitford, a country physician who was better known as a gambler and spendthrift than as a practitioner of medicine. This man had, apparently, the charm to inspire an attitude of unquestioning adoration in his frail but talented daughter. A single-minded devotion to her father stands out as the main theme of Mitford’s personal life and as the direct practical motivation of her writing, for in an attempt to recoup the second fortune squandered by her father she turned from the unprofitable composition of poems to the writing of those discerning sketches of rural life that remain her most important contribution to literature.
The first squandered fortune had been her mother’s; the second had been her own, the winnings from the lottery ticket her father had given her on her tenth birthday. This prize of twenty thousand pounds had provided both for her father’s ostentatious living and for her own education at a French school in London, 1798-1802, where Mitford distinguished herself in the study of Romance literature.
By 1822, when the lottery winnings had been dissipated, Mitford ceased writing long sentimental poems and began a professional literary campaign on two fronts. Her first play, Julian, was produced in 1823, and in 1819 the first series of her rural sketches appeared in the Ladies’ Magazine. Three more plays saw production in the next twelve years. The sketches were published in book form in 1824, as Our Village: Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery, and four more volumes were added to the series by 1832. She edited a collection of American sketches in 1832, published Belford Regis: Or, Sketches of a Country Town, another series of sketches based on the pattern of Our Village, in 1835, and ended her career with Atherton, and Other Tales in 1854.
During these years she remained unmarried and in poor health. Her father, who lived until she was fifty-six, claimed all her affection as well as all her support; she survived him by only eleven years, dying at Swallowfield on January 10, 1855.