Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Betham, Mary Matilda

BETHAM, MARY MATILDA (1776–1852), woman of letters and miniature painter, was the eldest daughter of the Rev. William Betham [q. v.], of Stonham Aspel, Suffolk, and rector of Stoke Lacy, Herefordshire (the compiler of some ‘Genealogical Tables of the Sovereigns of the World,’ and of a ‘Baronetage of England’). Her education, which consisted mainly in having free access to her father's fine library, and in a little occasional teaching from him, developed in her an ardent love of literature, especially of history. She was sent to school, but ‘only to learn sewing, and prevent a too strict application to books.’ Matilda taught herself miniature painting, and many of her portraits possess much sweetness of expression and delicacy of finish; but from a total want of any training in art they are weakly drawn, and she was unable to achieve an enduring success. Belonging to a large family she made strenuous efforts to turn her talents to practical account; and gathering together some of the fruits of her large miscellaneous historical reading she published, in 1804, a ‘Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of every Age and Country,’ which, though quite fragmentary and disproportioned, contains much entertaining matter, and is agreeably and often judiciously written. She had already gone up to London, where she gave Shakespearean readings, exhibited her portraits at the Royal Academy, and had a brief but brilliant period of literary and artistic success. She formed cordial friendships with Charles and Mary Lamb, with Coleridge, Southey, Mrs. Barbauld, and others. How high she stood in their esteem and liking may be gathered from their letters to her, some of which are printed in ‘Six Life Studies of Famous Women,’ by her niece, M. Betham-Edwards. Matilda had already published two small volumes of verse, ‘Elegies,’ 1797, and ‘Poems,’ 1808, which are poor enough; but in 1816 her ‘Lay of Marie’ achieved a considerable success. Charles Lamb, to whom the volume had been shown in manuscript, wrote: ‘Did I not ever love your verses? The domestic half will be a sweet heirloom in the family. 'Tis fragrant with cordiality. What friends you must have had or dreamed of having! and what a widow's cruse of heartiness you have doled. among them!’ Southey and Allan Cunningham were still warmer in their praise, Southey advising her to insert at the end of her fictitious ‘Lady of Marie’ the real ‘Lais de Marie’ (Marie being a poetess of considerable figure among the Anglo-Norman Trouveurs of the middle of the thirteenth century), so as to give her book an antiquarian value. This advice Matilda followed in part, adding two appendices, the first containing extracts from a ‘Dissertation on the Life and Writings of Marie, by M. La Rue,’ in the ‘Archæologia,’ vol. xiii.; the second not, unfortunately, the actual ‘Lais’ from the Harleian MSS., but only some paraphrases from them. Family circumstances and misfortunes, combined with a breakdown of health, compelled Matilda to return to the country and relinquish literary pursuits. But her friendships remained, and when, as an elderly woman, she once more settled in London with unabated love of literature, her wit, her stores of apt quotation and anecdote, her sweetness and cheerfulness of disposition, made her still a favourite, not only with the literary people of her own date, but with the new generation. ‘I would rather talk to Matilda Betham than to the most beautiful young woman in the world,’ said a young man of her in her old age. She died in 1852.

[Betham-Edwards's Six Life Studies of Famous Women, 1880; obituary notice in the Gent. Mag. 1852.]

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