Mathers, Helen (1853–1920)

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Mathers, Helen (1853–1920)

English novelist . Name variations: Helen Buckingham Mathers; Helen Reeves; Mrs. Henry Reeves; (pseudonym) David Lyall. Born at Crewkerne, Somerset, England, on August 26, 1853; died in London, England, on March 11, 1920; daughter of Thomas Mathers (a country gentleman) and Maria Buckingham Mathers; educated at Chantry School; married Henry Albert Reeves (an orthopedic surgeon), in 1876 (died 1914); children: one son, Phil.

Selected writings:

Comin' Thro' the Rye (1875); Cherry Ripe! (1877); Land o' the Leal (1878); As He Comes up the Stair (1878); My Lady Greensleeves (1879); Jock o' Hazeldean (1884); Murder or Manslaughter (1885); The Fashion of this World (1886).

Born in Somerset, England, in 1853, Helen Mathers was raised at her parents' country home, where she and her 11 siblings had much vigorous physical activity to complement their strict schedule of home schooling. Her father was a tyrant over his children, and according to Mathers treated his daughters as "his white slaves." Of the character based on her father in her novel Comin' Thro' the Rye, she noted: "If he had his way he would keep all his daughters withering forever on their virgin stalks, and when they were miserable, peaky old maids turn round upon them, and twit them with their incapacity to get a man to marry… them." Mathers decided by the age of eight that she wanted to be a novelist, and often read her stories and poems to her family. She spent hours in her room writing on pieces of paper; when she had a large collection of pieces, she sorted them out and fashioned them into a narrative sequence, a practice she would follow well into her adult life. At 13, she went away to the Chantry School, where her ability landed her in a class with students who were much older. She worked so hard at her studies that she had a physical breakdown, causing partial deafness which was to last her entire life.

When she was 16, Mathers sent a poem to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who encouraged her to keep writing. Her first story was published in 1872 in the illustrated monthly magazine Belgravia (later edited by Mary Elizabeth Braddon , whose novels were popular with the same audience as Mathers' own). Her autobiographical first novel, Comin' Thro' the Rye, was published three years later. Mathers had written the book secretly, and after it was published anonymously she lived in fear that someone would tell her father how she had portrayed him; the novel describes a house similar to the one she had grown up in, a dominating and sadistic father, a kind and exhausted mother, and the passage from adolescence to maturity within this household of Nell, one of twelve children. A great success, Comin' Thro' the Rye sold over 35,000 copies, a huge number in those days, and was translated into many languages, including Sanskrit.

In 1876, Mathers married Henry Albert Reeves, later a prominent orthopedic surgeon, with whom she had one son. Although she was considered a "sensation" novelist in the style of Rhoda Broughton , meaning that her work often broached topics that polite society considered risqué, British Authors of the Nineteenth Century opines bluntly: "Her life was completely uneventful." Mathers continued to write popular novels until nearly the end of her life, and died in London on March 11, 1920.


Black, Helen C. Notable Women Authors of the Day. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press.

Kunitz, Stanley J., ed. British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1936.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Patrick Moore , Associate Professor of English, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas

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Mathers, Helen (1853–1920)

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