Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413
Whimsical and pleasing are these little sketches of life in rural England in the early part of the nineteenth century. They were first published individually and later collected under the title OUR VILLAGE. In them there is no plot and little action. Instead, there is only the evidence of a true appreciation of nature and of the author’s simple but happy life. The laughter of the children at play, the prancing of the dogs, and the beauty of the violets were to her the real values in life, and in her quiet way she makes them seem important.
It is noteworthy that these sketches, described by Mary Russell Mitford as “half real and half imaginary, of a half imaginary and half real little spot on the sunny side of Berkshire,” were concluded in 1832. That year saw the first of a series of political reform bills that finally put an end to an England dominated by the landed-gentry and agriculture, an England celebrated by the author with sentiment and nostalgia. If her Victorian readers continued to make her happy rural village a myth of potent force, they came to realize—most of them grudgingly—that their fate was bound up with the care and tending of the city and not the country. Nevertheless, they failed abjectly in that task.
One of the reasons the Victorians could not adequately handle the problems produced by the growth of urban industrialism was their emotional attachment to Mitford’s “Village”; or more precisely, that imaginary part of her village, that pastoral dream from which the social actualities were left out.
For the most part, she suppresses or minimizes the severe depression of the 1820’s, a trauma caused by the rapid and uncontrolled expansion of industrialism. She looks back to her childhood in the last quarter of the eighteenth century as a time which she considered stable and tranquil, and she sentimentalizes the remnants of that age. Furthermore, Mitford propagates the myth of a past innocence and simplicity that finds its best expression for her in Shakespeare’s Arcadian comedies.
All in all, then, OUR VILLAGE is a delightful dream. It illuminates a constant in human experience: the feeling that at one time, sometime in the past, men were more virtuous and happier than they are in the present. Nevertheless, readers must take care, as the Victorians did not always do, to guard our idea of the past by distinguishing between Miss Mitford’s dream and the reality.
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