Swing on Captain Swing

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village .

Mary Russell Mitford from the American 1949 edition. Source: Amazon.com

Mary Russell Mitford from the American 1949 edition. Source: Amazon.com

The Chelmsford Chronicle carried the following report from The Athenaeum on the 19th of January 1855:

After a long period of decline and helpless suffering, cheerfully borne, the author of “Our Village” died at Swallowfield Cottage, near Reading, on Wednesday last…

Mary Russell Mitford (1787 – 1855), it went on to say, had seen her cottage become:

…a place of pilgrimage to some of the highest and most accomplished persons in Europe.

Of these accomplished persons, the Dictionary of National Biography wrote that:

Charles Lamb declared that nothing so fresh and characteristic had appeared for a long time; Christopher North spoke of their ‘genuine rural spirit;’ Mrs. Hemans was cheered by them in sickness; Mrs. S. C. Hall acknowledges that they suggested her own ‘Sketches of Irish Character;’ Mrs. Browning called Miss Mitford ‘a sort of prose Crabbe in the sun;’ while Harriet Martineau looked upon her as the originator of the new style of ‘graphic description.’

The success of her village sketches, later published in five volumes between 1824 and 1832, was as immediate as it was dramatic. First published in 1819 in the Lady’s Magazine, this little-known journal saw its sales rise from 250 to 2,000.  Coachmen and post-boys pointed out to visitors to the village of Three Mile Cross in Berkshire (where Mary Russell Mitford lived for thirty years ) the locations of scenes from the stories, and parents named their children after those in the fictional village and also after the narrator’s pet greyhounds. The Scot’s Magazine of August 1825 may have identified the cause of this critical and popular success (most of the money she made was squandered by her spendthrift father, including the £20,000 she won in a lottery) when it wrote:

In tracing the likeness of its portraits, the reader need not go far from his own fireside, or the residence of his neighbours; he will find, we think, very accurate resemblance in those features which a little observation will enable him to trace among his friends or acquaintances.

Mary Russell Mitford's house at Three Mile Cross. Source: Flickr, user Leslie Dray.
Mary Russell Mitford’s house at Three Mile Cross. Source: Flickr, user Leslie Dray.

I’m not sure what George Moore,  James Dunk, James Pointer and George Holland would have recognised from the “portraits,” had they read any of the books. In December 1830 at the assize for the County of Kent they were all sentenced to seven years transportation. George Barrow, carpenter; John Ballard, labourer; John Tickner, tailor and John Beale, carpenter were also sentenced to seven years transportation. All had been found guilty of destroying threshing machines. They could, however, consider themselves lucky. Mr. Justice Bosanquet found Henry Packman and William Packman guilty of burning down a barn belonging to Mr. Wraight, and sentenced them to be hung, the sentence to be carried out the following week.

Wanted poster for suspected arsonists. Source: The National Archives.
Wanted poster for suspected arsonists. Source: The National Archives.

Throughout that summer and autumn of 1830, in a swathe that ran across the south of England, barns were burnt and threshing machines smashed.  Agricultural labourers, who had seen incomes drop after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, turned their resentment against the threshing machines which were now being used by  farmers to cut costs further, by doing away with their jobs. Letters were sent to local farmers, threatening that their threshing machine would be targeted if they did not get rid of them. The letters were signed “Captain Swing,” the notorious/invisible/mythical leader of the machine breakers.

A Captain Swing letter.  Source: The National Archives
A Captain Swing letter.
Source: The National Archives

The poor, the sad and the mad can be found in the stories in Our Village, but not a tailor or a carpenter who, sympathising with the landless labourers left jobless by the new technology, went out at night and set fire to hay ricks, maimed cattle and smashed threshing machines. Mary Russell Mitford speaks with pride when she writes:

We have the good fortune to live in an unenclosed parish, and may thank the wise obstinacy of two or three sturdy farmers, and the lucky unpopularity of a ranting madcap lord of the manor, for preserving the delicious green patches, the islets of wilderness amidst cultivation, which form, perhaps, the peculiar beauty of English scenery.

She was, however, writing of an English rural society that had long vanished by the time she was writing her portraits, when labourers had often been paid in kind, worked on their own land on the unenclosed commons, sat with the farmer and his family to eat and at the head of it all, patriarchal and with roots deep in the local soil, the local lord, “preserving…the islets of wilderness amidst cultivation.”

Would I be so petty as to deny the literary value of a book solely because it did not reflect accurately the experiences of the labouring poor? Of course I would. But the truth is, I do not know what to make of Our Village. There is no one to talk to about it, unless it is on a reading list somewhere for a university course. But Mary Russell Mitford wrote it to appeal to like-minded people who believed that an older truth could be found in the countryside; and in our GM world we have moved on so much further from threshing machines and threatening letters from Captain Swing. Like the machine breakers of 1830, she is out of joint with the times. A disappointing (2,9) will have to be plotted.

Make yourself at home Arnold.

Enough of the nineteenth century, next time I will be bang up to date with Wyndham Lewis’ 1918 novel Tarr. I shall do my level best not to call him an insufferable little shit.

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  1. I wish I could talk to you about Mary Russell Mitford, but alas I am one of the masses who have not read her. There must be somebody out there who has…

    • Her stories are enjoyable, the characters well-drawn, but in the end I’m not sure what you could say about her. There was a genre of country writing at the time, particularly in Germany, but it was so linked to a fixed set of ideas, I don’t think it translates into our time. Whereas, Hardy, on the other hand, does. Which leads of course to the question why. Which is, of course, a fish of a different kettle.


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