1258.  EBB to Mary Russell Mitford

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 7, 144–147.


May. 24. 1843.

My dearest Miss Mitford your letters are delightful, & mine shd be grateful,—and will try to be so,—for the letter upon letter, … two at once, .. which I hold in my hands. If you ever did travel round the world (not that I think you ever will) and wrote to me at every stage, I shd be as little likely to grumble, as at the voice of the lark you wrote about for the bazaar.[1] No, no! you cant possibly send me too many letters. For now, I will confess to you!– I like letters per se .. & as letters! I like the abstract idea of a letter—I like the postman’s rap at the door—I like the queen’s head upon the paper—and with a negation of queen’s heads (which does’nt mean treason) I like the sealing wax under the seal and the postmark on the envelope. Very seldom have I a letter which I wd rather not read—altho’ very often do I write letters which I wd rather not write. Even people’s stupidities emit a flash of liveliness to my eyes, between the breaking of the seal & the closing of the letter—and people’s vivacities grow of course more vivacious in proportion. Perhaps this is almost natural considering my solitude, altho’ it astonishes you: but certainly it will explain to you if nothing in the world could (which is an impossible hypothesis) how ‘nine times nine’[2] delightful and welcome the full measure of your letters must be. Who wd not be delighted to have your letters? rich with life & colour & perfume as they are—dewy all over, with the breath of the south wind between the leaves? Well—triple the delight of everybody,—and you may guess at mine! Thank you my dearest friend!—thank you!–

I agree at once that you have proved your wisdom in coming back, by being better since,—and admit willingly, as Mr Kenyon does, that the weather helps to justify you abundantly. Also K’s “passiveness”, I observe from your description of it, had the occult element within side of it, of an irresistible activity. If I had been she, I wd certainly have pushed you on—and perhaps I shd have been, and probably I shd have been, proved very wrong afterwards. But with that sort of passiveness at one side of you, & that untried difficulty before you, & that illness with its peculiar depressiveness, within you, I cannot certainly wonder that you shd dissolve your resolutions & turn homewards. As to Ben, he is a household god of himself, & worthy of all honor.[3] No, I dont wonder at all that you shd prize him as you do—and it must indeed have been delightful to you to receive in such a welcome, a proof of such cordial attachment. I admire Ben afar off, & am grateful to him for his love to you– At the same time, whether he & Tom Thumb & a poney carriage will furnish you with the best means of travelling through Yucatan in August, I am not sure: because, you see, altho’ the programme of it all sounds delightful, & this stepping leisurely from hillock to hillock, is the most perfect way of seeing the scenery & dreaming wayside dreams, yet I have fears that you may find it very expensive .. four or five times as expensive as the ordinary fashion is, .. & also liable to a thousand & one casualties which might end in serious embarrassment.[4] You couldn’t travel with a poney above twenty miles a day, .. I mean on successive days: and if you did so, do you calculate the multiplication of lodging & board,—and take into consideration the possible contingency of poor Tom Thumb’s falling lame in Yucatan & leaving you to moralize upon solitude? Nevertheless there is time enough between now & August both for dreaming & reasoning—and indeed I hope my beloved friend, that we two may talk about it face to face here in London, before then—unless you have made “rash vows”[5] against travelling except in August, with a Cæsar for patron saint of your Augustalia.[6]

Of Mr Haydon’s biography, I have only seen what extends to his twenty first or second year; but he promises to let me see the rest as he writes it,[7] and I have no doubt of finding you in the midst of other notabilities. I was however wrong in telling you (and I think I did tell you) that Bentley had accepted his mss. I understood so from Mr Haydon’s expression to me; but it appears now that the said mss have not yet been offered to Bentley, and that the prospectus of the five successive volumes of four hundred pages each, is the author’s own theory on the subject.

Ah!—the popular poet writes verily most tender controversy!—& if this is the milk of human & Christian kindness,[8] the cows thereof must have been fattened upon very bitter herbs![9] And then the Miss Mary Russell Mitford, authoress—forgive me, but I could’nt help smiling at the discretion of the missionary! Ah! he knew—or she knew—how “to come over you”—charming you with the voice of the Charmer[10] most charmingly– Still & more gravely my dearest friend, & admitting all the miserable taste & judgment of this meddling zeal-without-knowledge, I will try to smooth your brow which Mrs Schimmelpenninck (O ye gods, what a name! & what a broad foundation for your theory about names!)[11] did so well to admire, by suggesting that a very good & affectionate motive was probably at the bottom of the whole act, and that your missionary, in sending the Reverend Montgomery to you, performed after all only an analogical act to the one K. contemplated, of ‘sending for Mr May.’[12] Therefore do forgive, & take a brighter view of the whole action! Forgive “authoress” & all––everything & body except the Revd Robert’s spirit of controversy, which, together with his faculty in poetry, I deliver over to you without a word about mercy. How much true heartedness & warm-heartedness may lie beneath an action of the straightest sect of the Pharisees to all appearance!– I plead for the unknown.

Mr Kenyon has given to me a gift of flourishing ivy—& it is spreading so over my window that I sometimes think the god[13] is holding up the thyrsus just below, telling me to have courage. Do you know I hear, now & then, the rustling of the leaves against the pane—oh, sweet rural sound! I think it is rain, & turning round, it proves to be the leaves. Then, when the scarlet runners & nasturtiums, planted in the same box, spring up to entwine their vivacity with the graver ivy leaves——these are my dreams for the future–

Mr Eagles must be well worthy of knowledge & admiration, but I shall not see him .. not liking to say ‘I will not.’ I have no courage for it; and if I had, there are others with a stronger claim. I take it upon your showing that he is delightful—and that his wife is more amiable & good tempered than the common Gossip sayeth. Mr Landor is an incarnation of contradictions; & I wd not, cd not, receive his estimate of any power or person after that wonderfully foolish eccentricity of his about Mrs Hemans’s “variety,” not if he enunciated his criticicisms [sic] with a voice like Apollo’s lute. Why didn’t you answer “Yes, she was very various– She could sing three notes divinely.” He might as well praise Rabelais for purity[14]—or Mr Browning as you suggest, for clearness– Still Mr Landor is a man of fine genius, & not far (if far at all) from being the noblest prose writer of the day. His style is quite sculpturesque,—so pure & white, & full of ideality & grand suggestion. Do you know his Pericles and Aspasia?[15] It will live with the language, & triumph in its life presently—but is too classical for us, in this first roar of the steam engine.

I had heard of the Valentine & Orson nomenclature. I heard of it long before the Blackwood criticism; & I know that in those first times & at the time of the thunder-grumbling in Blackwood, the two men were declared foes,—not on speaking terms,—& have become reconciled only since the thunder.[16] This fact removes the charge of treachery from Landor, altho’ it leaves him cruel.

Mary Howitt’s last translation from Frederika Bremer’s swedish, “The Home” charms me even more than ‘The Neighbours’ did. The Athenæum compares these books to Miss Austen’s, but I shd be afraid to tell you exactly how I wd modify the comparison.[17]

You are ‘happy as a queen’ on a brick floor,—and sleep better on the hard pillow than “at court!” Thank God that you are better!

Ever your attached


Publication: EBB-MRM, II, 231–235.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Not traced.

2. Macbeth, I, 3, 22

3. As the Romans honoured their lares and penates.

4. Miss Mitford was apparently contemplating travelling with Ben Kirby, Tom Thumb the pony, and carriage in the summer, but EBB’s reference to Yucatan must surely be figurative, denoting distance from home, rather than literal. In any event, the plan did not materialize.

5. Congreve, The Double Dealer (1694), IV, 1, 207.

6. EBB’s play on words refers to the naming of the eighth month after Cæsar Augustus.

7. Haydon never completed his autobiography; by the time of his death in 1846 he had covered only the years to 1820.

8. Cf. Macbeth, I, 5, 17.

9. Cf. Exodus, 12:8.

10. Psalms, 58:5.

11. See letter 727 for an earlier reference to Miss Mitford’s theory that names somehow fitted the bearer’s personality.

12. Miss Mitford’s admiration of Bishop Baines had induced fears that she was about to embrace Catholicism (L’Estrange (2), III, 175). Apparently somebody had sent her the Rev. Robert Montgomery’s works to counteract any such tendency. The editors of EBB-MRM speculate that this “missionary” was Catherine Pyer, who, in a letter dated 20 April 1844, was said to have “performed pilgrimage to Three Mile Cross.”

13. i.e., Bacchus, whose votaries carried the thyrsus, a staff wreathed with ivy or vine leaves.

14. François Rabelais (1494?–1553), author of La Vie Inestimable du Grand Gargantua (1535), was known for his robust humour and licentious language.

15. EBB had referred to this work, published in 1836, in letter 582.

16. The “Blackwood criticism” refers to Landor’s “Imaginary Conversation” critical of Wordsworth (see letter 1211, note 7). The twins Valentine and Orson, protagonists of a 1489 romance of that name, were separated in childhood, Orson being carried off by a bear and growing up wild, while his brother was brought up by the king, his uncle; Landor is being equated with the uncouth Orson, and Wordsworth with the courtly Valentine.

17. The Home: or, Family Cares and Family Joys (1843) was a translation of Hemmet (1839). The Athenæum said of it that “We have had nothing so simply life-like since Galt’s ‘Annals of the Parish’—no pictures of female nature so finely touched, since Miss Austen’s” (no. 811, 13 May 1843, p. 458).


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