Mary Howitt was born on 12 March 1799 in Coleford, Gloucestershire and died in Rome on the 30 January 1888. She was raised as a Plain Quaker and subjected to a kind of moral fundamentalism throughout her childhood by her father Samuel Botham. Clothing was kept simple and made from heavy cloth or linen. These materials were as inflexible as her father’s principles. Buttons, ribbons, bows and any other personal adornments were deemed an unnecessary exuberance. Her father didn’t approve of instruments, music or singing and wasn’t too keen on drawing either. He did allow one of his children to partake in a sketch on one occasion but on the strict condition it was done in black and white. Colour was out of the question.
Quakers are pacifists and Mary’s father took this particular principle very seriously, sentiments reinforced no doubt by the Napoleonic Wars. Once, when soldiers were doing a drill outside the family home, one of the nannies made the mistake of dressing up some of the children’s dolls in uniform. She was instantly dismissed.
Life was something to be taken seriously and therefore any literature in the house tended to be of a philosophical bent. This rigid upbringing may partly explain why Mary would find expression in children’s fiction and poetry, though later, the loss of so many of her children (11 survived out of an estimated 28) may also have played its part. Her father’s belligerent conformity to rules may also explain why she adopted a more liberal approach to parenting, believing, for example, that experimentation with clothes was one way of enabling artistic spirit to develop. Mary would eventually demonstrate her independence from her father’s rigid sartorial rules by marrying in a silk dress, which, predictably, he deemed as frippery.
Mary’s mother on the other hand was a member of the Church of England and raised in the capital by a wealthy family. At 18 she had been a governess to Dr George Glasse, chaplain to George III. She was well connected, frequenting society dinners that included the likes of Samuel Johnson. Her marriage inevitably brought an end to her independence and religion, though she soon found a temporary outlet through involvement in Quaker meetings.
Mary’s father worked away a lot which gave her mother the opportunity to share lots of exciting stories about her life before the marriage. Clearly the loss of such an exciting and influential life must have had a profound effect upon Mary. She determined not to suffer as her mother had and would champion social reform through her writing, particularly journal articles offering advice to women to direct political propositions, such as the Married Women’s Property Act.
Politics was in Mary’s blood. Her grandfather Charles Wood spent twenty years in Jamaica and was firmly against slavery, a fight Mary would continue throughout her life. Charles Wood would marry the widow of Captain Lyndon, the captain of the slave ship The Dolphin. His Quaker beliefs of all men being equal and abhorrence of slavery would have made for some interesting and conflicting conversations with his new family.
Mary Howitt would write over 180 books with her husband William. She gave birth to children who would go on to exert influence in a wide range of fields from botany to biography. Her son, Alfred, would become the first anthropologist to live with, and be accepted by, aboriginal tribes. The Howitt’s truly were an incredible family and worthy of celebration in Dawn of the Unread.
Mary Howitt will be brought back to life via Booker shortlisted novelist Alison Moore. Research for this article came mainly from the book, Quaker to Catholic: Mary Howitt, Lost Author of the 19th Century by Joy Dunicliff
- The Spider and the Fly (themarlowebookshelf.blogspot.co.uk)
- ‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore (kimbofo.typepad.com)
- Mary and William Howitt: A Literary Marriage (thorontonsociety.org.uk)
- Mary Howitt poems (poemhunter.com)