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Sherwood, Mary Martha (1775–1851)

Sherwood, Mary Martha (1775–1851)

British children's author. Born Mary Martha Butt on May 6, 1775, in Stanford, England; died on September 20, 1851, in London; daughter of Dr. George Butt (chaplain to George III) and Martha Sherwood; educated at Reading Abbey; married Henry Sherwood, in 1803; children: five, including Sophia Kelly; adopted three more.

Author of hundreds of stories and morality tales for children, including Henry and His Bearer (1815), The Indian Pilgrim (1818), and The History of the Fairchild Family (1818); a selection of her stories appeared as The Juvenile Library (1880) after her death.

Mary Martha Sherwood was born in Stanford, England, in 1775, the daughter of rector George Butt, chaplain to King George III. Mary was not the only member of the family destined for literary popularity, for her sister Lucy Lyttleton Cameron (1781–1858) would also have a prolific career writing for children, penning the novels The History of Margaret Whyte (1798) and The Two Lambs (1821). At Reading Abbey, Mary received a classical education and started to write while still in school. Her first popular success came in 1802 with her story Susan Gray, a morality tale aimed at bolstering religion among the poor.

In 1803, Mary married her cousin Henry Sherwood, an army officer. When he was posted to India, she left their young daughter in England and joined him. Sherwood wrote many children's stories in India while also doing charitable work for soldiers' orphans, three of whom she adopted and raised with her own five children. The family later returned to England, where her career took off with the publication of Henry and His Bearer, a morality tale for children that proved to be wildly successful. Rivaling Harriet Beecher Stowe 's later American classic Uncle Tom's Cabin in its popularity, the 1815 tale was translated into many languages and went through nearly 100 editions.

Sherwood's most famous book was The History of the Fairchild Family (1818), the title-page of which described it as "a child's manual … calculated to show the importance and effects of religious education." The book, while highly moralistic, also contained some fairly gruesome and thrilling scenes that were appealing to children, and it went through 14 editions before Sherwood published a sequel in 1842. A third part appeared in 1847, and it is believed that by that time the book had been read by the vast majority of middle-class children in England. It would continue to be reprinted in various editions for the next 50-odd years.

In addition to her numerous other didactic works for children, Sherwood studied Hebrew and wrote a dictionary to the prophetic books of the Bible which was never published. She also kept a journal for her entire life, which her daughter Sophia Kelly used after Sherwood's death in 1851 to write the biography Life of Mrs. Sherwood (1854). Kelly had also collaborated on some of Sherwood's later stories, and published a novel of her own, The Anchoret of Montserrat.

sources:

The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City

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