Photographed by Barraud.
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,
"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 . . .
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
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
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
"'So Mrs P――', said my eldest sister, 'you have been
"'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.'"
From . . . .
THE WOMAN'S SIGNAL
11th March, 1897.
MISS BETHAM EDWARDS.
A PERSONAL SKETCH.
BY FREDERICK DOLMAN.
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
"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
The Val-Suzon, from . . .
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,
"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.
7th January, 1919.
DEATH OF MISS BETHAM-EDWARDS.
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
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
"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.
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)
The Sylvestres (1871)
Brother Gabriel (1878)
Six Life Stories of Famous Women (1880)
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)
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)
A Close Ring (1907)
Literary Rambles in France (1907)
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)