Mary Matilda Betham

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Not to be confused with her niece, the novelist Matilda Betham (1836–1919).
Mary Matilda Betham
Matilda Betham.jpg
Matilda Betham, estimate 1794-1820
Born (1776-11-16)16 November 1776
Stradbroke, Suffolk, England
Died 16 November 1776(1776-11-16) (aged -76)
London, England
Resting place
Highgate Cemetery, London
Nationality British
Known for Poet, woman of letters, and miniature portrait painter

Mary Matilda Betham, known by family and friends as Matilda Betham (16 November 1776 – 30 September 1852),[1]:143 was an English poet, woman of letters, and miniature portrait painter.[2] She exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1804 to 1816. Her first of four books of verses was published in 1797. For six years, she researched notable historical women around the world and published A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country in 1804.

Early life[edit]

She was the first of fourteen children born to Rev. William Betham of Stonham Aspal, Suffolk[2] and Mary Damant of Eye, Suffolk.[3]:91 Her father researched and published books about royal and English baronetage geneaology. He had also been a school master at a secondary school and rector of Stoke Lacy, Herefordshire.[2][3]:91

Betham was baptized 1 January 1777[4] and raised in Stonham Aspal. She had a happy childhood, enjoyed hearing singing inside and outside of the house, but had poor health.[1]:143–144 Betham had little formal academic training, but she gleaned an interest in history and literature from her father's occasional tutelage and the use of his broad library.[2] She claimed that a key loss of not having attending a school was that she did not learn the art of self-defense.[1]:144 From a young age, Betham was reciting poetry and the was a voracious reader of plays and history.[1]:144 She was taught to sew to prevent her from becoming obsessed with reading. Betham learned to speak French during her trips to London.[3]:91 A younger brother was William Betham (1779–1853).[4]

As the family grew, family furnishings were sold to support the family, and although she was not pushed out of the home, Betham felt the need to support herself.[1]:144 Betha taught herself to paint miniature portraits.[2] It was during a trip to her Uncle Edward Beetham's[a] residence in London that she was inspired to pursue painting and explore her literary talents. The family lived in a center of literary and artistic activity. She met artist John Opie while visiting the Beethams. Opie, her cousin Jane Beetham's painting instructor, gave Betham lessons during her stay. Betham was also encouraged to explore her literary talents by her uncle, who was a publisher.[1]:143 She studied with William Wordsworth and studied Italian with Agostino Isola in Cambridge in 1796.[3]:91[5]


Mary Matilda Betham, Sara Coleridge (Mrs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge), portrait miniature, 1809

In 1797, Betham wrote Elegies, and Other Small Poems, which included Italian poems translated into English and Arthur & Albina, a Druid ballad. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, impressed by her work, wrote To Matilda from a Stranger in 1802.[5] He compared her to Sappho and encouraged her continued poetic pursuits.[1]:144} She received encouragement from her good friend Lady Charlotte Bedingfield and her family in her literary and artistic endeavors.[5]

Portrait of Herbert Southey, 1809

Betham painted pleasant, delicate portraits, which she exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts[2] from 1804 to 1816[6][b] as a way to be financially independent from her parents who had many children to raise.[1]:144 Among the dozens of exhibited portraits were those of the Harriot Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans, the poet George Dyer, Countess of Dysart, and Betham's father and other family members.[7]

In 1804, she published A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country.[2] The book was the culmination of six years of research.[3]:91 The 774 page book included short biographies of Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, East Indian Bowanny, Madame Roland, and other notable historical women from around the world.[5] Four years later she published her second book of poetry.[2] Betham was a close friend of Robert Southey and his wife, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and her husband, and Charles and Mary Lamb and an acquaintance of John Opie, Frances Holcroft, Hannah More, Germaine de Staël, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.[3] She made portraits of the Coleridges and the Southeys and wrote a verse for Emma Isola and Edward Moxon's marriage. Isola was the adopted daughter of Charles Lamb.[5] Other works were published in magazines anonymously.[8]

In London, Betham gave public Shakespeare readings. Her best work in poetry is Lay of Marie (1816), based upon the story of Marie de France.[3] The story of the medieval poet, written in couplets, included a scholarly appendix, which was recommended by Robert Southey to increase its antiquary value.[5] Southey said she was "likely to be the best poetess of her age."[9] Betham returned to the country and gave up a literary career when beset by a series of incidents, a breakdown of health, misfortunes, and family circumstances.[2] For instance, advertisements to promote her book spelled her heroine's name Mario and misspelled her name, many printed books had become mildewed, and she was in financial distress as the result of the advertising and publication costs. She became destitute and tried to attain employment painting portraits, which was difficult because her clothing had become shabby.[1]:146

She was put in an insane asylum by her family by 17 June 1819 after she suffered a mental breakdown, and she was acting and conversing normally in 1820.[1]:145[10] Betham stated that she had suffered a "nervous" fever" after the hard work and emotional stress getting Lay of Marie published and that she felt she was unjustly put into an institution without examination or curative care.[1]:145 Betham moved to London upon her release and kept her address a secret. George Dyer sought assistance for her from the Royal Literary Fund, which was established to provide financial aid to authors in 1790 by David Williams. She received some monies from the fund.[1]:145

Betham championed women's rights, called for greater participation of women in parliamentary affairs,[1]:144–145 and wrote Challenge to Women, Being an Intended Address from Ladies of Different Parts of the Kingdom, Collectively to Caroline, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland to address charges leveled against Queen Carolina during her particularly acrimonious marriage to King George IV. The document defended the popular queen and called for women to support Queen Caroline, seen to be persecuted by the state, by signing a petition.[1]:145 Betham was put into an asylum again in 1822 by her family.[1]:145

She lived with her parents in Islington during the 1830s.[3]:92 About 1836, Betham expressed sorrow at the death of several of her siblings in Sonnets and Verses, To Relations and their Connexions. A tale of two poisoned men was published in Dramatic Sketch in 1836. The manuscript for Hermoden, a play that she wrote in the late 1830s had been lost and was unpublished.[1]:145 She studied at the British Museum in the 1830s.[5]

  • Though Age advances, strength decays,
  • Enjoyments come a thousand ways—
  • The bending trunk of Life's old tree
  • Still blossoms forth abundantly!
—Mary Matilda Betham[3]:92

She returned to London in her later years.[3]:92 Betham maintained her friendships, love of literature, wit, and her entertaining conversation and presence.[2] She had a difficult time making a living: she was unable to obtain promised assistance in getting her manuscript for Crow-quill Flights printed, Betham had been rebuked when she asked friends for copies of poems that she had given them, and some of her manuscripts were accidentally burned at Stonham.[1]:146

Betham died 30 September 1852 in London at 52 Burton Street[2][8][1]:146 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.[1]:146 Some of Betham's letters along with a biographical sketch are in the book Six Life Stories of Famous Women (1880) by her niece Matilda Betham-Edwards.[11] Her niece, though, burned a lot of Betham's letters.[1]:146 Edwards published a biography of her in Friendly Faces of Three Nationalities.[1]:143



  • Elegies, and Other Small Poems. Ipswhich: Jermyn & Forster, London: Longmans. 1797. OCLC 8660173. 
  • A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country. London: B. Crosby. 1804. OCLC 35029141. 
  • Poems. London: Hatchard. 1808. OCLC 13288477. 
  • Lay of Marie. London: Rowland Hunter. 1816. OCLC 11408420. 
  • Vignettes: in verse. London: Rowland Hunter. 1818. OCLC 22692584. 
  • Mary Matilda Betham (1821). The Case of Matilda Betham. London: Moses Press. 
  • Caroline, Queen consort of George IV King of Great Britain; Caroline, Queen consort of George IV King of Great Britain. London: Moses. 1821. OCLC 34593476. 
  • Remarks on the coronation, as it respects the Queen: and on recent cases called suicides. London. 1821. OCLC 56804317.  - sometimes attributed to Matilda Betham
  • Sonnets and Verses, To Relations and their Connexions. 1835–1837. 
  • Dramatic Sketch. 1836. 


She exhibited the following paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts between 1804 and 1816:[7][6]

  • Miss Armstrong, by 1808
  • F. F. Baker, Esq., by 1805
  • Harriot Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans, by 1804
  • Miss B. Betham, by 1811
  • Miss E Betham, by 1806
  • Mrs. J. Betham, by 1816
  • Miss M. Betham, by 1805
  • Mr. R. G. Betham, by 1810
  • Mrs. R. G. Betham, by 1816
  • Rev. William Betham, by 1810
  • Rev. William Betham, by 1812
  • Mr. Boughton , by 1806
  • Sir C. R. Boughton , by 1806
  • Miss R. Boughton, by 1807
  • Miss Rouse Boughton, by 1805
  • Miss Chesshyre, by 1806
  • Mr. Cromie, by 1805
  • Miss A. Dove, by 1816
  • Miss Duncan, by 1810
  • George Dyer, poet, by 1807
  • Countess of Dysart, by 1804
  • Rt. Hon. Lady Fauconberg, by 1806
  • Mr. Finucane, by 1805
  • Gaiety, miniature, by 1808
  • Rt. Hon. Lady E. Gamon, by 1807
  • Mrs. Colonel Gardner, by 1816
  • Miss M. Graham, by 1807
  • Mr. Manners, by 1804
  • Miss Manners, by 1804
  • Portrait of a lady, by 1807
  • Portrait of a lady, by 1808
  • Portrait of Mr. de Venville, Mr. Southey the poet, and Messrs. C. and G. Betham, by 1808
  • Mrs. Pymar, by 1812
  • Mr. Saxon, by 1807
  • Self portrait, by 1810
  • Rev. P. Stockdale, by 1811
  • Mrs. C. Thompson, by 1807
  • Master F. Thompson, by 1807
  • Lady Wilson, by 1806

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Edward Beetham changed his surname from Betham to Beetham.[1]:143
  2. ^ The 1804 to 1815 exhibitions have been attributed to her cousin Jane Beetham,[7] but were really shows by Mary Matilda Betham.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Elaine Bailey, University of Ottawa (Summer 2007). "Matilda Betham: A New Biography". Wordsworth Circle 38 (3): 143–146. Retrieved 5 March 2015 – via Fatih Universites. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k  "Betham, Mary Matilda". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Feldman, Paul R. (1997). "Matilda Betham". British women poets of the romantic era: an anthology. Johns Hopkins U. Press. pp. 91–102. ISBN 0-8018-6640-5. 
  4. ^ a b "Mary Matilda Betham". Lord Byron and His Times. Center for Applied Technologies in the Humanities, Department of English, Virginia Tech University. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Laura Dabundo (15 October 2009). Encyclopedia of Romanticism (Routledge Revivals): Culture in Britain, 1780s-1830s. Routledge. pp. 38–40. ISBN 978-1-135-23234-4. 
  6. ^ a b c Algernon Graves (1906). The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from Its Foundation in 1769 to 1904. H. Graves and Company, Limited. pp. 464–465. 
  7. ^ a b c Algernon Graves (1905). The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from Its Foundation in 1769 to 1904. H. Graves and Company, Limited. p. 165. 
  8. ^ a b "Mary Matilda Betham". Orlando Project, Cambridge. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  9. ^ Carol Bolton and Tim Fulford, ed. (11 July 1808). "Letter 1479. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 11 July 1808 ⁠". The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, Romantic Circles. University of Maryland. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  10. ^ Carol Bolton and Tim Fulford (ed.). "Biographies: Betham, (Mary) Matilda". The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, Romantic Circles. University of Maryland. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  11. ^ Betham-Edwards, M. (1880). "Matilda Betham". Six life stories of famous women. New York: E. P. Duttton & Co. pp. 229–303. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Elaine Bailey (September 22, 2004). "Lexicography of the Feminine: Matilda Betham's Dictionary of Celebrated Women". Philological Quarterly (University of Iowa). 
  • Ernest Burton Betham (1905). A house of letters: being excerpts from the correspondence of Miss Charlotte Jerningham (the Honble. Lady Bedingfeld), Lady Jerningham, Coleridge, Lamb, Southey, Bernard and Lucy Barton, and others, with Matilda Betham; and from diaries and various sources; and a chapter upon Landor's quarrel with Charles Betham at Llanthony. London: Jarrold & Sons. OCLC 21497494. 

External links[edit]