Betham-Edwards, Matilda (1836–1919)

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Betham-Edwards, Matilda (1836–1919)

British novelist and travel writer. Born Matilda Barbara Betham-Edwards at Westerfield, Suffolk, England, on March 4, 1836; died at Hastings, Sussex, England, on January 4, 1919; daughter of Edward Edwards (a East Anglian farmer); niece of Matilda Betham (1776–1852, a poet and diarist); cousin of Amelia Blanford Edwards (an author and Egyptologist); educated at home and at a village school; never married, no children.

Selected works:

The White House by the Sea (1857); A Winter with the Swallows (1866); Through Spain to the Sahara (1867); Forestalled (1880); Love and Marriage (1884); Reminiscences (1898); Mid-Victorian Memories (1919).

"I suppose every one of us goes down to the grave with some wrankling regret, some unsatisfied wish," Matilda Betham-Edwards wrote in her autobiography Reminiscences (1898). "Mine will be a hankering after the Rule of Three." The three r's of formal schooling—reading, writing, and arithmetic—were considered unnecessary for girls, and Betham-Edwards and her two sisters were taught at home by their mother when chores for the family farm were done. For books and magazines, Betham-Edwards turned to the local Mechanics Institution, supplementing the oft-read family library of classics. She attended a small village school from age ten to twelve, during the slow farming seasons. When her mother died in 1848, an uncle recommended that she attend the Peckham School, which his daughter Amelia Blanford Edwards attended. The young girls became friends and lifelong correspondents, often confusing the literary community with their similar names. For six months at Peckham, Betham-Edwards traded service as a governess for her tuition until she was called home to help with the farm. She also penned The White House by the Sea when she was a teenager. Published when she was 21, The White House was reprinted for 40 years, though she was only paid in copies.

Betham-Edwards left home to make her living as an author and journalist, covering French topics for the Daily News. With longtime friend Barbara Bodichon , founder of England's first women's university Girton College, she traveled through Europe wrote guides of their experience. It was Bodichon who provided Betham-Edwards with an introduction to George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ). Eliot invited select intellectuals to her home for roundtable discussion. While Betham-Edwards never had a friendship with Eliot, "Thenceforward I was invited to the famous Sunday afternoon at the Priory." Famous friends also included Frederic Harrison and Henry James, whose correspondences and anecdotes Betham-Edwards shared in her Mid-Victorian Memories (1919).

Betham-Edwards was frail in her final years. As a houseguest, she provided her hosts an advance list of needs, including cotton, unlavendered sheets, one glass of Chablis at lunch, and absolutely no noise from her bedding hour to the time she arose. A herd of noisy cows opposite a friend's house once provided cause for concern. Though her body failed, Betham-Edwards' mind remained tuned to writing. In March of 1918, she wrote a friend: "Haven't been out of the house for months this year. Once out and then slipped down on wet cobblestones. … Quite well now and just finishing a set of fire-eating short stories." Matilda Betham-Edwards suffered a stroke on December 8, 1918, and died at home in January, just prior to publication of her Mid-Victorian Memories.

suggested reading:

Betham-Edwards, Matilda. Mid-Victorian Memories. London: John Murray, 1919.

——. Reminiscences. London: George Redway, 1898.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts

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Betham-Edwards, Matilda (1836–1919)

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