Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 November 2016
This chapter is specifically concerned with an English tradition of rural writing, developing in tandem with the short story as a distinctly modern form, from the nineteenth century onwards. As other chapters in this History attest, rural experience is also prominent in short fiction across the full geographical range of the four nations – for example, as a way of framing ideas about national identity or social hardship – in Scottish, Welsh and Irish writing. Rural experience can focus key points of social history in England, too; yet the tradition is distinctive in that conventions (and expectations) of aesthetic appreciation concerning the countryside are often made to jar with rural reality, in intense episodes written against the (sometimes unspoken) background contexts of imperialism and international conflict, where uncertainty about Englishness – or a homogenizing Britishness – can explain the macro context for the micro event. It would be misleading to claim that there is a necessary or compelling connection between rural experience and the fragmented and episodic form of the modern short story; yet the literary mediation of rural experience serves to frame the challenges of modernity, especially through complex and disjunctive narrative styles, which themselves often embody an ambivalent interrogation of nostalgia. In this respect, the English rural short story, especially in the twentieth century, can be seen to bear the impress of modernity's influence on literary creativity.
Mary Russell Mitford was an early innovator in the rural story. She is best known for Our Village (1824–32), which was originally issued in five separate volumes. Because the pieces that make up Our Village do not really harness the narrative capacities of short fiction, they now read as sketches rather than stories, or ‘a series of snapshots of rural life’, as Tim Killick has it. However, they represent a noteworthy landmark in the development of the short story form, first appearing in the decade that, for Killick, ‘saw the beginning of short fiction's emergence as a distinct and challenging form of literature’ (p. 2). They are still more significant in the emerging tradition of the rural short story, playing an important role in defining its niche in English literary history.