Digital Mitford: The Mary Russell Mitford Archive

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Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855) (Image courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas at Austin)

 

There’s a popular British TV quiz show called Pointless. Contestants win by coming up with answers to general knowledge questions that no one else thought of (or at least not the hundred random people interviewed by BBC television researchers). If asked to name a nineteenth-century woman writer, I’m pretty sure I could win a round of Pointless with Mary Russell Mitford (1785-1855).

Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters continue to dominate popular culture, generating film and TV adaptations, prequels, sequels, and spin offs, but Mary Russell Mitford, author, playwright, and letter writer extraordinaire, has — by contrast — faded into relative obscurity. While Mitford was a familiar literary figure throughout the nineteenth century, by the twentieth century only Our Village (1824), Mitford’s delightful collection of sketches of country life, was regularly reprinted. Today there are no contemporary critical editions of Mitford’s work available and her writing is little known outside academic circles.

Although Mitford’s relative obscurity in the twenty-first century is handy for any nineteenth-century scholars hoping to compete on daytime British quiz shows, it’s a far less appealing situation for anyone — like me — interested in nineteenth-century women’s writing. Mitford is a significant literary figure not just because of the generic variety of her work (Mitford’s writing ranges from prose fiction to verse tragedies to periodical contributions) or its historical breadth (Mitford’s oeuvre spans the Romantic and Victorian periods) or even because she once gave a spaniel named Flush to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was later immortalized by Virginia Woolf in the world’s most famous canine biography. Importantly, Mitford was also an avid and accomplished letter writer, whose sizeable extant archive includes correspondence with some of the biggest names in nineteenth-century literature, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Kingsley, Harriet Martineau, Nathanial Hawthorne, John Ruskin, and Catherine Sedgwick.

It’s the current comparative inaccessibility of Mitford’s work that’s prompted me to join a set of innovative researchers on the Digital Mitford project.

Led by the amazing Dr. Elisa Beshero-Bondar at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Digital Mitford: The Mary Russell Mitford Archive was first conceived by a group of resourceful scholars at the 18th– and 19th-Century British Women’s Writers Conference in April 2013. Using TEI XML encoding, the Digital Mitford team of editors are producing the first comprehensive scholarly edition of the works and letters of Mary Russell Mitford. The edition will provide everything readers expect from a scholarly edition (accurate manuscript transcription, sensitive editing, and carefully researched annotations and headnotes) along with features only possible in an online environment such as network analysis graphs, which use prosopography data (information about Mitford’s social, literary, and cultural connections) to build visual representations of her literary and social networks, such as the one below:

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 “Mitford’s Jane Austen and her First Neighbors” by Digital Mitford is licensed Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. See some more cool examples at http://digitalmitford.org/visual.html.

 

What makes Digital Mitford extra-special, however, is the project’s other goal.

Aside from building the Mary Russell Mitford Archive (no small undertaking in itself), Digital Mitford was also created “to share knowledge of TEI XML and other related humanities computing practices with all serious scholars interested in contributing to the project” (“Digital Mitford”). Every year the project organizes a coding school at the University of Pittsburgh’s beautiful Greensburg campus. In one intense week, Digital Mitford provides scholars, students, and librarians with an invaluable introduction to the skills needed to successfully create digital scholarly editions, with workshops ranging from textual scholarship and paleography to text encoding, project management, and interface development.

It’s this workshop that provided me with the skills needed to join the project — and to imagine how I might introduce our students here at K-State to textual scholarship, TEI XML encoding, and even to work on the Digital Mitford project itself.

Reading other people’s mail has never been such fun!

Anne Longmuir, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies

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