MATILDA BETHAM-EDWARDS

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"The portly, commanding frame, the powerful head with its shock of raven black hair, the imperturbable features, and slow, measured speech, once seen and heard could never be forgotten.  Yet, in spite of the colossal intellect and iron purpose here embodied, neither in Karl Marx's physiognomy nor in Charles Bradlaugh's did I read a certain inexorableness characteristic of a quite different personage to be portrayed later.  I should say that the predominating mental trait of the German social reformer was that Teutonic, speculative dreaminess so often allied in Germany with reasoning power of the highest order."

Betham-Edwards meets Karl Marx.

". . . . an elderly priest, tall, almost Herculean in stature, and spare to lankness, his long hair hanging down 'in silver slips,' his face wearing a strange look only to be expressed by the word illumination, his eyes of diamond-like piercingness and brilliance.  But even more striking than build and physiognomy were the hands, moved so restlessly and conspicuously.  It could not be said that those long, nervous, expressive hands were out of proportion with limbs so large; the noteworthy characteristic was length of each little finger, the fourth indeed almost equalled in size the pointer.  As he sat at table, whether manipulating knife and fork or chatting to his neighbours, his hands were never for a moment still.  It seemed as if they were restless spirits not to be coerced into passiveness.

    'Who is that extraordinary being?' I whispered to my landlady.

    'Don't you recognise him?' was the astonished reply.  'It is the Abbé Liszt.'

Betham-Edwards meets Franz Liszt.

Photographed by Barraud.

MATILDA BETHAM-EDWARDS
(1836-1919)


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MATILDA BETHAM-EDWARDS was an English novelist, travel writer, Francophile and, overall, a prolific author.

    Born on 4th March, 1836, at Westerfield, Suffolk, she was the fourth daughter of Edward Edwards (1808-64), a farmer, and Barbara (1806-48), daughter of the Revd. William Betham (1749–1839), antiquary.  Miss Betham-Edwards hyphenated her name to include her mother's maiden name.

    Self-educated until the age of ten, she then attended a school in Ipswich, where her French teacher first kindled her interest in France.  Later she moved to London where she came into contact with literary personalities of the day among whom were Henry James, Frederic Harrison, Clement Shorter (who became her literary executor), Coventry Patmore, Sarah Grand, and others.  She also became a close friend of Barbara Leigh Bodichon and George Eliot.

    In her sixty-two years as an active writer, Miss Betham-Edwards wrote articles for newspapers, short stories, and poems; also, many novels, children's books, books about travel (in Wales, Germany, Greece, Spain, and Africa) and about France.  However, she believed that she would be remembered for her novels, regarding 'Forestalled' (1880) and 'Love and Marriage' (1884) as her best; Lord Broughton judged 'Kitty' the finest novel he ever read while Frederic Harrison singled out 'Kitty', 'Dr Jacob', and 'John and I'.  Her writing also showed great interest in public education, opportunities for women, cultural facilities in towns, and positivism.
 

"What, however, would Burgundy be like without the vine?  To accustomed eyes the vine, whether growing in the plain, on rocky hill-side, or trellised as in Italy, must ever be one of the most beautiful things in the world.  The just appreciable, yet never-to-be-forgotten fragrance of its flowers in early summer, the extraordinary luxuriance of its rich green waxen-like leaves, its unrivalled fruit—alike the gold and the purple—are not more striking than the beauty of the foliage clothing slope and ridge.  Especially on September afternoons, towards sunset, is the effect of a vineyard unforgettable.  The leaves are then interpenetrated with warm golden light, and whilst the edges seem almost transparent, as if transmuted into thin plates of beaten gold, all the rest of the plant—the thousand plants between you and the sun—are deep-hued as the purpling fruit hid in the greenery."

The vine, from . . . Unfrequented France.


    Her interests ranged widely, particularly her commitment to France and the French.  Of Huguenot descent, she considered France her second native land and made it her mission to bring about better understanding and sympathy between the two countries which shared her allegiance.  The French government made her an Officier de l’Instruction Publique de France in recognition of her untiring efforts towards the establishment of a genuine and lasting entente cordiale, and she was awarded a medal at the Anglo-French Exhibition of 1908.  Before her death she was granted the belated honour of a civil list pension by the British government.

    After her death, Miss Betham-Edwards' work mostly disappeared from view until the publication, in 2006, of Professor Joan Rees's biography, 'Matilda Betham-Edwards: Novelist, Travel Writer and Francophile' (Hastings Press, ISBN: 1904109012).  Modern reprints of Miss Betham-Edwards' books are now becoming available.

    The following magazine article and obituary (The Times) provide more details about her life and character; her own account is given in the accompanying on-line transcriptions of her autobiography, 'Reminiscences' (1898), and of her posthumously published 'Mid-Victorian Memories' (1919). Her friend, Mrs Sarah Grand, wrote a an interesting and informative Personal Sketch.


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Standards of conduct, Miss Betham-Edwards remarks, differed in the middle of the century from those now generally accepted.

"For instance, walking one day at Ipswich, we met a labourer's wife and her two daughters, girls of twelve and fourteen.

"'So Mrs P――', said my eldest sister, 'you have been shopping?'

"'No, Miss,' replied the good woman, with an unmistakable air of self-approval, 'but I am anxious to do my girls all the good I can, so I have just taken them to see a man hanged.'"


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From . . . .
THE WOMAN'S SIGNAL
11th March, 1897.

MISS BETHAM EDWARDS.

A PERSONAL SKETCH.

BY FREDERICK DOLMAN.


HASTINGS, in recent years has become a favourite place of abode for literary and scientific people.  Miss Matilda Betham-Edwards who has resided there since 1869, is one of a circle which included the late Mr. Coventry Patmore, Mr. Dykes Campbell, the editor of "Coleridge," Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Mr. R. O. Prowse, author of "The Fatal Reservation," Mr. H. G. Detmold, the artist, Mr. T. Parkin, F.R.G.S., &c., founder of the Hastings Natural History Society, and others of intellectual distinction.  Miss Betham-Edward's residence on the East Cliff, overlooking the old town, reminds one of her first novel, "The White House by the Sea," of which a new edition was called for only the other day.

    Miss Betham-Edwards has no family connections with Hastings; she went there in the first place for health, secondly in order to be near her life-long friend, the late Madame Bodichon, whose house was at Robertsbridge, a few miles from the seaside resort, and she has been induced to stay there by an admirable climate and the pleasant social intercourse to which I have referred.  Her family belonged to Suffolk; her father was a farmer at Westerfield, near Ipswich, where her girlhood was spent.  Miss Betham-Edwards' early life, like that of many another of intellectual tastes, would have been terribly dull but for books.  There was no one in the village whom she could make a friend; even the clergyman, as she remembers him, was rough and uncultivated.  Her father was, fortunately, an exception to his class at that time in possessing an excellent library.  Before she was in her teens Miss Betham-Edwards had read all Shakespeare, Scott, and Addison's "Spectator," whilst she knew about half "Paradise Lost" by heart.  Apart from reading, the greatest pleasure of this rural life were the occasional visits of her cousin, the late Miss Amelia B. Edwards, who afterwards became famous as an Egyptologist, when the two girls would talk in their room into the night—there were so many subjects on which they wanted to exchange ideas.  In after years, when they both became well known, the similarity of their names caused some contention between them, which, however, was too good-humoured to disturb their friendship.  There were constant errors of confusion between "Miss Amelia B. Edwards" and "Miss Betham-Edwards."  The latter would not give up Betham "because it was her mother's maiden name and carried with it some literary associations of her family.  Her maternal aunt and godmother, Matilda Betham, was the friend of the Lambs, Coleridge and Southey, and was herself the compiler of a biography of famous women, which had some vogue in its day.  Her cousin, on the other hand, would neither drop the B nor use her name in full, Amelia Blanford Edwards.  Consequently, their common friend, Miss Power Cobbe, used to say, wittily, that they had both a bee in their bonnet.
 

"Sweet and pastoral as was the landscape, it had yet elements of grandeur.  Something of the ruggedness as well as the gracious smile of an Alpine scene was here.  Far away, the rocky parapets shutting in the valley showed grandiose forms, woods of larch and pine lifted their arrowy crests against the sky, and many a mountain stream might be seen tumbling perpendicularly down shelving rock or green hillside.  And nowhere in the world could knolls be found softer, turf more dazzlingly bright, rivulets more crystal clear, richer, more umbrageous shadow.  Not a trace was now left of the flat, scorched, commonplace region just quitted.  While just before it seemed as if the plain were interminable, so travellers might fancy now that the windings of the valley would never come to an end either.  We might well wish it to wind on for ever, Nature here treating her worshippers as conjurors deal with rustics at a fair, every freshly displayed marvel surpassing the last.  At each turn the valley grew fairer and fairer, and the world seemed remoter and more forgotten."

The Val-Suzon, from . . . Unfrequented France


    Miss Betham-Edwards' keen interest in France, which her friendship with Madame Bodichon (whom Miss Betham-Edwards describes as "by temperament and marriage French," though by parentage British) did so much to foster, had its origin in the chance circumstance that the school to which she was sent as a child was conducted by a lady who had spent many years of her life across the Channel.  From her she learned to speak and write the language with ease, Miss Betham-Edwards having the gift of the linguist.  She is now mistress of German, Italian, and Spanish; whilst ever since her girlhood she has delighted in the originals of Latin and Greek authors.  Her exotic reading is a striking proof of what women could do even in the days when Girton and Somerville were only visions of the future.

    The room in which Miss Betham-Edwards writes her novels overlooks the whole of the old part of Hastings, from the Fish Market to the Pier.  Even Beachy Head can be seen on a clear day, and Miss Betham-Edwards sometimes fancies that she discerns the coast-line of her beloved France, 40 miles distant.  On the walls are water-colour sketches made by Madame Bodichon, in the course of the travels she and the novelist were wont to enjoy together.  In the centre, just above a long bookcase, hangs the brevet, conferring on Miss Betham-Edwards the title of "Officier de I'Instruction Publique de France."  She is the only Englishwoman to whom the French Government has given this honour, which testifies, of course, to its appreciation of the books Miss Betham-Edwards published on the social condition of France.

    The comparatively small room is not overcrowded with books, but what Miss Betham-Edwards has are all of the best.  "Now and again I have to weed out my library," she says with a smile, "or I should be driven out of home by the books I accumulate."

    Her own works, in their various editions, fill several shelves in the little corridor.  There are the orthodox three library volumes, picture boards, Tauchnitz editions, foreign translations in palter covers, and American pirates.  You can count over twenty different novels.

    Miss Betham-Edwards once gave me a sketch of her "day."

    "In summer I rise at 6.30 a.m., take half an hour's stroll on the Downs, read for half an hour some favourite classic (I have now in hand the Prometheus of Æschylus, which I almost know by heart), then I work till 1 p.m., allowing no interruption.  A little rest after lunch, a walk, tea—often partaken with a sympathetic friend or friends, sometimes the excuse for a little reunion.  Then, from five to eight in my study again, this time to read, not write, and give myself the relaxation of a little music.  Occasional visits to London or elsewhere, two months or more in France every year; this is my existence.

    "If I am asked," Miss Betham-Edwards adds, "my opinion as to the secret of a happy life, I should say, first and foremost, the conviction of accomplishing conscientiously what as an individual you are most fitted for; next, the cultivation of the widest intellectual, moral, and social sympathies (especially in the matter of friendships); and lastly, freedom from what I will call social superstitions—that is, indifference to superficial conventionalities and the verdict of the vulgar, in other words, the preservation of one's freedom, of what the French call "une vie de dégagée."

    Miss Betham-Edwards takes a keen interest in public affairs, which she regards—as readers of her lately-published book, "France of To-day," will know—from the standpoint of advanced Liberalism.  On many occasions she has been asked to take part in various public movements.  On one occasion, I believe, she was asked to stand as a candidate for the School Board.  She could not be diverted, however, from her literary work.  But in thinking of this she says:--

    "How hard it is in these days of working at high pressure for all possessed of strong convictions to hold aloof from sympathetic workers and good causes, to adhere uncompromisingly to Goethe's maxim, 'An der nachsten musmann denken' ('We must stick to the matter in hand ')."

    "Madame Bodichon, your loved friend, was, I believe, one of the early workers for the higher education and other rights of women ?"

    "Yes, she and Miss Emily Davies between them matured the scheme of Girton.  The pair discussed the matter morning, noon, and night, and the result was the opening of the first college for women, the temporary premises at Hitchin that afterwards grew into Girton.  It was the self-sacrifice of those two that carried out the plan, for Madame Bodichon contributed £1,000 to the initiatory outlay, and Miss Emily Davies freely undertook the onerous post of resident principal.  Madame Bodichon, too, set on foot the amendment of the Married Women's Property laws, getting up the first petition for their alteration."


Leeds Mercury, 19th June, 1875.


    "She was, herself, I believe, happily married ? "

    "Very happily—Dr. Bodichon was a man of no mean attainments, and was in the fullest sympathy with his wife's aims.  Again, it is worth mention that she was as beautiful and healthful in person as in mind.  She was, even in middle-life, 'fresh as a rose,' with magnificent complexion, golden hair and beaming blue eyes.  She was a model for Titian."

    "So that she could richly well afford to despise the silly saying, 'Women's Rights are Men's Lefts.' "

    "Then she was so joyous and light-hearted, though gifted with a tender readiness to feel others' woes.  'It is a benediction to see you,' said Browning to her once; and it was so still after her health failed, and to the very last in her sick-room—living, not there, but in the large life of others, the future of humanity.  She bequeathed £15,000 to Girton, and £1,000 to Bedford College.  I have several times since her death had to call the attention of editors and writers to her work, for she took no care of her own reputation in what she did, and desired no praise, and hence she has not been properly appreciated."

    "To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die," and the reader will value the generous love that Miss Betham-Edwards testifies to her friend.


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TIMES

7th January, 1919.

DEATH OF MISS BETHAM-EDWARDS.
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AN INTERPRETER OF FRANCE.


    Miss Matilda Betham-Edwards, who died at Hastings on Saturday, was a prolific writer, especially on French rural life.  She was the daughter of a Suffolk farmer, and her mother, the niece of Sir William Betham, Ulster King-at-Arms, was the Barbara Betham to whom Mary Lamb addressed many charming letters.  Amelia Blandford Edwards, the novelist who wrote charming books of travel, and finally achieved fame as an Egyptologist, was her first cousin.

    In the manor-house in which she grew up there was a library which she describes as "small but priceless."  It included the Waverley Novels, the "Spectator," "Don Quixote," "The Vicar of Wakefield," "Robinson Crusoe," and "Gulliver's Travels."  On these excellent models Miss Edwards unconsciously formed her taste, if not her style.  She began to write before she was out of her teens, and had finished her first novel—"The White House by the Sea"—soon after her 20th birthday.  As there was no parcel post in those days, the family grocer arranged for its conveyance to London, where it was quickly accepted for publication on terms more advantageous to the publisher than to the author.  The book has passed through several editions—the first appearing in 1857, and the last, we believe, in 1891—but Miss Edwards received no farthing of profit, but only "25 copies of new one, two, and three-volume novels" from the pens of her rivals.

    Her professional literary career, however, did not begin immediately.  Her first experience of life was as a "pupil- teacher" in a Peckham seminary for young ladies—an unsatisfactory establishment in which she was uncomfortable, and would have been unhappy, had it not been for the opportunity of cementing her friendship with her cousin, who was, at that time, an organist in a small London church.  Her cousin's father, a retired officer who had fought at Corunna, lived near Colebrooke-row—an address famous through its memories of Charles Lamb—and it was as a visitor to his house that Miss Edwards began to acquire her knowledge of the metropolis.  She left London to study German at Württemberg, Frankfort-on-the-Main, Vienna, and Heidelberg, and French in Paris.  It was while she was at Frankfort that a scandal connected with the English church furnished her with the plot of "Dr. Jacob," though she did not write the story until some time afterwards [Ed.—pub. 1864]; and she also received, while in Germany, an offer of marriage from a Hungarian patriot, and a proposal that she should become the adopted daughter of a roving Englishwoman of large means.  She declined both propositions, and, on her father's death, returned to Suffolk, and undertook the management of his farm, in partnership with an unmarried sister.  It was during this period of her life that she received her first literary remuneration, a cheque for £5 for a poem contributed to Household Words, and still a favourite at "penny readings."  Even more precious to her than the £5 was the encouraging letter from Charles Dickens which accompanied it.

    On her sister's death she decided to give up the farm and live in London, and there she soon made many friends of great eminence.  She was a guest, sometimes, at Lord Houghton's famous breakfast parties; and she enjoyed the intimacy of George Eliot and Mme. Bodichon.  She, George Eliot, and G. H. Lewes were at Ventnor together in the winter of 1870-1871, and were invited to an entertainment described as "a serious tea" by another author, Miss Sewell, who kept a girls' school there.


TRAVELS IN FRANCE.


    Thus, by degrees, under pleasant auspices, and without much conscious effort, Miss Edwards found her métier.  She had no inconsiderable popularity as a novelist, though her fiction lacked the highest distinction; but a long sojourn in the house of a French family at Nantes in 1875 launched her on the path which she was to follow most successfully.  Thenceforward she became an interpreter of France and the French to England and the English.  She travelled in every part of the country, and wrote books about all her journeys.  "East of Paris," "Anglo-French Reminiscences," "Home Life in France," "Literary Rambles in France" are the titles of a few of them.  She went even as far as the Cevennes and the gorges of the Tarn, and was never tired of insisting that France, in virtue of its historical and literary associations, was a more interesting country in which to travel than Switzerland, whither tourists were driven in personally conducted flocks.  She had her rivals, or rather colleagues—Mr. Baring-Gould and Mr. Harrison Barker, for instance—but her enthusiasm, her humour, and her definite point of view made her, in many ways, the most interesting writer in the group.  She was one of the few Englishwomen who have known how to make themselves welcome in French houses; and she took sides, in a gossipy way, but not without a spice of bitterness, in the controversies which divide French opinion, more particularly in the provinces.  Her Suffolk observations and experiences had made her a Radical and an "advanced" thinker on religious problems.  The late Bishop Ryle—not Bishop then of Liverpool—had in vain tossed her from his passing gig a tract with the alarming title, "Why will you go to Hell?"

    "The upholding of slavery in Suffolk pulpits during the War of Secession," she has written, "for once and for all alienated me from the Church of England.  Nor did Nonconformist chapel or Friends' meeting-house attract.  I remained unattached."  And she continued unattached in France.  Her friends there were unattached—Republican and anti-Clerical pillars of provincial bourgeoisie—and she adopted their doctrines and preached them: doctrines which she summarizes as "the religion of Voltaire," adding, "and, as experience teaches us, an excellent religion too."  Converts were a particular abomination to her; and the attitude of the Catholic Church towards education progress excited her derision.  Her view of these matters is common enough in France nowadays; but she adopted it at a date when the MacMahon reaction was at its height and the triumph of Catholicism seemed assured.

    Of late years Miss Edwards had lived quietly at Hastings.  France had made her an Officier de L'Instruction Publique, and England had awarded her a Civil List Pension.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY
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The White House by the Sea (1857)
Holidays Among the Mountains (or Scenes and Stories of Wales) (1860)
Little Bird Red and Little Bird Blue (verse drama) (1861)
John and I (1862)
Snow-Flakes and the stories they told the children (ca. 1862)
Dr. Jacob (1864)
A Winter with the Swallows (1867)
Through Spain to the Sahara (1868)
Kitty (1869)
The Sylvestres (1871)
Felicia (1875)
Bridget (1877)
Brother Gabriel (1878)
Six Life Stories of Famous Women (1880)
Forestalled (1880)
Pearla (1883)
Half-Way (1886)
Next of Kin Wanted (1887)
The Parting of the Ways (1888)
For One and the World (1889)
A Romance of the Wire (1891)
Edition of Arthur Young’s Travels in France (1892)
Romance of a French Parsonage (1892)
France of To-Day (1892)
The Curb of Honour (1893)
A Romance of Dijon (1894)
The Golden Bee and other Recitations (1895)
Autobiography of Arthur Young - edited (1898)
Reminiscences (1898)
The Lord of the Harvest (1899)
Anglo-French Reminiscences (1900)
A Suffolk Courtship (1900)
Mock Beggars’ Hall (1902)
Barham Brocklebank (1903)
A Humble Lover (1903)
Home Life in France (1905)
Martha Rose (1906)
Poems (1907)
A Close Ring (1907)
Literary Rambles in France (1907)
Unfrequented France (1910)
Friendly Faces of Three Nationalities (1911)
In French Africa (1912)
From an Islington Window (1914)
Hearts of Alsace (1916)
Twentieth Century France (1917)
French Fireside Poetry (1919)
Mid-Victorian Memories (1919)

 


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