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Mary Matilda Betham, more usually known as Matilda Betham was born on 16th November 1776, the eldest of fourteen children to the Rev. William Betham and Mary Damant. Matilda was and raised in Stonham Aspal and had a very happy childhood although she was dogged by poor health. She was mainly self-taught, using her father’s library, but with help from him on history and literature.
Her appetite, from a young age, for poetry, plays and history was balanced by being sent out for sewing lessons ‘to prevent my too strict application to books.’
In 1797, Matilda wrote ‘Elegies & Other Small Poems’, which included Italian poems translated into English and ‘Arthur & Albina’, a Druid ballad. She received a poetic tribute from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote ‘To Matilda from a Stranger’ in 1802, comparing her to Sappho and encouraging her to continue writing poetry.
Her painting career also moved forward and on to a larger public stage. Matilda painted delicate miniature portraits, which she exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1804 to 1816.
In 1804, after six years of research, she published ‘A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country’. Four years later she published her second book of poetry: ‘Poems’.
Matilda was close to many poets including Robert Southey and his wife, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and her husband, Charles Lamb and his sister Mary as well as Hannah More and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Matilda also took to publishing anonymously in magazines and to public Shakespeare readings. Both life and career were good.
Her poem ‘Lay of Marie’ (1816), was based upon the story of Marie de France, the medieval poet, written in couplets, and commended by Southey as "likely to be the best poetess of her age."
However, fate now played different cards. Matilda returned to the country after a rapid flurry of problems involving her publications, health problems and family circumstances. She lost her income and attempts to gain employment painting portraits were difficult because of now her dishevelled state.
On 17th June 1819, Matilda was placed in a mental asylum by her family after suffering a breakdown. By the following year she seemed to be back to normal.
Matilda said she had suffered a "nervous fever" after the hard work and stress of ensuring that ‘Lay of Marie’ was published. She felt harshly treated at being put into an institution without examination or treatment.
After her release she moved to London but kept her address a secret. A successful application for financial assistance was obtained from the Royal Literary Fund, which had been set up in 1790.
Matilda now embarked on a passion for social reform. She called for women's rights, demanded greater participation of women in parliament, 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 levelled against Queen Carolina during her difficult marriage to King George IV, calling for women to support her against state persecution and to sign a petition on her behalf.
Sadly, in 1822, her family once more placed her into an asylum.
Writing and painting now became occasional pursuits. By the 1830s she was living with her parents in Islington. In the mid-1830’s she published ‘Sonnets & Verses’ within which are several moving poems expressing sorrow at the passing of several siblings.
Despite her decline she maintained, as best she could, her friendships, love of literature, wit, and her entertaining conversation. However, it was hard for her to make a living. Her work ‘Crow-quill Flights’, an account of her life, failed to find a backer.
Mary Matilda Betham died on 30th September 1852 at 52 Burton Street in London. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Publisher: Copyright Group