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Girl power - Victorian style

PUBLISHED: 01:01 13 July 2006 | UPDATED: 16:50 25 February 2010

Matilda Betham-Edwards - a prolific novelist, and champion of France, born at Westerfield, near Ipswich. 
This picture was taken in 1911, when she was aged 75, and she is wearing her English and French honours

Matilda Betham-Edwards - a prolific novelist, and champion of France, born at Westerfield, near Ipswich. This picture was taken in 1911, when she was aged 75, and she is wearing her English and French honours

SHE wrote more than 30 novels, tackled hot potatoes such as the future of religion in a post-Darwinian age, worked tirelessly to convince Brits that the French were really a very nice lot, and was on close terms with luminaries like Henry James.

Westerfield Hall, near Ipswich, where Matilda lived

SHE wrote more than 30 novels, tackled hot potatoes such as the future of religion in a post-Darwinian age, worked tirelessly to convince Brits that the French were really a very nice lot, and was on close terms with luminaries like Henry James.

And all this largely from a woman largely self-taught.

Yet mention Matilda Betham-Edwards in Suffolk today and you'll be met with blank looks, even thought six of those novels are set in the county. The farmer's daughter from Westerfield, just outside Ipswich, doesn't feature on the usual lists of local greats.

That's something her champion hopes to put right. Joan Rees, Emeritus Professor of English literature of the University of Birmingham, has written the first biography of Matilda. Nearly 150 years after the publication of Betham-Edward's first novel, she insists: “She has been forgotten, and it's not fair and it's not right!

“I think she's an interesting woman in her own right: this farm girl who comes out of a not-very-promising background with no family financial backing and imposes herself on the world and makes acquaintance with some of the most prominent people of her day. “They come to her house in Hastings when she retires there - Henry James (the author) comes, for example - it's a remarkable story.

“And then she has this very great interest in another country and develops this missionary feeling. She can trace her ancestry back to the Huguenots and, having some French blood in her and having this deep feeling for the country, feels some sort of obligation on her to improve relations between the two countries.”

Matilda was born in March, 1836, at Westerfield Hall - then the fifth child, and fourth daughter, of Edward Edwards and Barbara Betham. Her mother died when she was 12, though they don't seem to have been overly close.

By 1850 her father was farming 186 acres and employing six men. Edward came from an agricultural family; his wife's had more literary connections.

Matilda was named after her aunt and godmother, Mary Matilda Betham - a poet and miniature painter who counted among her acquaintances poets such as Coleridge. Mary, says Joan Rees, had a major influence on her niece. Letters “stimulated her with talk of books and gossip about the literary figures she knew”.

At the age of 10 Matilda went to a day school, but appears to have left after her mother died (the young girl was just 12). Education after that was left to what she could pick up on her own.

She read over and over again the small stock of books in the family home, such as Shakespeare, Milton and Walter Scott, and read books from Ipswich library. She also studied the lives and characters of agricultural workers. “Her later career as a writer would be built on these foundations,” says Joan.

“How carefully and appreciatively she studied her Suffolk surroundings and the farmers and farm workers who lived there becomes fully apparent in the six novels based on Suffolk rural life which she wrote between 1899 and 1906, but an attractive evocation of the Suffolk life she knew in her early years appears in an article of 1893 written for The New England Magazine.”

This was intended mainly as a memoir for her cousin Amelia, who had died the previous year.

“She made a special visit to her home ground in preparation for the article and in nostalgic mood sought out the houses and well-known spots which had once been all the world she knew.

“She delights to see again the Swan Inn in Needham Market and to wander through its numerous passages and the old rooms redolent of memories of long-past lives. She remembers the wild flowers which used to grow round about, naming with love the unostentatious riches of meadow and lane . . .

“With fresh pleasure she renews acquaintance with Creeting St Peter - 'rusticity itself' - once home of Uncle William and Aunt Maria, and exclaims at the beauty of Coddenham - 'as pretty a village as England can show . . . indeed a gem of gems.'”

Matilda became a pupil-teacher at a seminary for young ladies in Peckham, which she'd call a place “of evil memory”. She was a studious and serious young person, and was shocked by the “low ethic standards and intellectual dead level”. Bullying was rife, seemingly condoned by the principal, and some of the girls were uncouth.

“Vices with which they ought to have been absolutely unfamiliar were openly discussed, and in language that savoured of the gutter . . . Where had girls of well-to-do middle-class parents learned such abominations?” she wrote.

Her first novel had been started while she was still at home in Suffolk. In 1857, when she was barely 21, The White House by the Sea was published. It was about a 16-year-old girl living an isolated life with her widowed father. Life changes when she goes out alone in a storm to help a party sailing in a pleasure boat. She becomes involved in love affairs - her own and other people's - and the novel includes an elopement and a dramatic night-time suicide attempt.

Matilda, by the way, had asked a brother to “smoke” the manuscript with his pipe so publishers would think it was written by a man.

In her 20s she went to Germany, Austria and France - taking to foreign travel eagerly. John and I, her first major book since The White House by the Sea, was set in Germany. It features a handsome Englishman lacking in moral fibre.

When Matilda's father died in 1864, she went back to Suffolk. The big house in Westerfield had already been substituted for something smaller. When an unmarried sister with whom she was living died the following year, the author opted to base herself in London.

Joan Rees says that one of Matilda's early stories - 1869's Kitty - suggested she had the potential to develop into a very good novelist, possibly a major one. However, in the mid-1870s she went to France for a year and fell in love with it.

It was a pivotal moment. From then on, the author's energies were divided. “She did not abandon her career as a novelist but she took on the task of informing, explaining and otherwise interpreting France to her fellow-countrymen and women in a bid to dispel the ignorance and prejudice that had historically bedevilled cross-channel relations . . . She never abandoned this mission or her faith in it.”

Thus in 1877 Matilda published the non-fictional A Year In Western France. Twentieth Century France, in 1917, was her last observational offering after four decades of travel and study.

Her efforts at establishing l'entente cordiale prompted the French government to make her an Officer de l'Instruction Publique de France­ - the first English person to be so honoured.

“When she died, she was honoured by tributes on both sides of the Channel,” explains her biographer. “Her attachment to France was an enrichment in all respects except the financial, but the time and energy she devoted to it was to the detriment of the other career she might have had as a distinguished novelist.

“From the early 1870s on, she lived a divided life, writing novels still, but pressed to write too quickly and too much by the need to earn money to support herself and to continue her French travels.”

The result, Joan Rees told the EADT, was that some stories were “really very good and certainly deserve to be revived”, while others fell short.

“What redeems almost everything, including the weakest of the novels, is her engagement with serious things that were going on at the time. She was interested in Darwinism. She's interested in various aspects of science, like genetic inheritance. There's an endless list, and she builds them into her novels; some with greater success, artistically, than others.”

Recurrent themes include social injustice and social systems that stop the underprivileged reaching their potential. They're not, says Joan, pumped full of melodrama. “A lot of them are concerned with men, who are clergy or have been, and plots turn a great deal on loss of faith and what they're going to do, now that they can no longer believe in the truth they've thus far lived by.”

Kitty (1869), she says, is very good by anyone's standards. “It's about a girl who, like Matilda herself, is living in humble circumstances and wants to get out into the world, but the only way Kitty finds she can do it is by ingratiating herself with people.

“It's rather like Thackeray's Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. The difference between Kitty and Becky Sharp is that Matilda has a great deal of sympathy for Kitty; she doesn't approve of this social climbing but she understands it. That is interwoven with the story of a young man who is in love with Kitty from the start, and how she wants to accept this love because she wants to be a grand lady and have money and live the high life.

“The story of the young artist counterpointed with Kitty's is terribly well done. It shows what Matilda could have done if she had been able to, or dedicated herself to, writing, rather than taking up this international crusade.”

Another one Joan Rees admires is about an inheritance: 1887's Next of Kin Wanted 1887. “This sort of background, which is often a story of vicious, even murderous, intrigue, is treated with irony and compassion and humour, and it's really delightful, I think - a very clever and heart-warming book.”

Meanwhile, the success of her books about France rose and fell according to the current political situation between England and France. “If people were feeling grouchy about the French, they didn't buy her books; if things were going better, they bought more of them!”

In light of Matilda's achievements - an example of ambition, energy and determination to make her way in a wider world that presented many obstacles to women - Joan Rees rues the way the author has slipped into the fog of history.

“I suspect one of the reasons she has been forgotten is that she died in 1919. Having lived through the First World War, people's minds were very much occupied by other things at that time. Looking back on this long and very active life tended to be something that got passed over.

“She should be remembered. She deserves it.”

Matilda Betham-Edwards: Novelist, Travel Writer and Francophile is published softback by The Hastings Press at £9.99. ISBN 1-904-109-012

THERE were two places that moulded the life of Matilda Betham-Edwards: her native Suffolk and her beloved France.

Why did she develop this cross-Channel love affair?

“One of the things she talks about is that she liked what she saw as the lightness, the vivacity, of the French character - as distinct from the heavier, less forthcoming, English temperament,” Joan Rees tells the EADT.

“The conditions of 19th Century, bourgeois, middle-class society were really very oppressive, especially to women, and she found a greater resilience, a greater receptivity to energy and to spirit. It was a different kind of society, and one that she responded to.

“There were things about France she didn't like. She was hostile to Roman Catholicism - the hand of the priest was very heavy and crippling and very repressive, and she wrote a great deal about that. But there was a certain openness to ideas and to experience that she found in France - and intellectual vitality, too.”

Six of her novels are set in Suffolk - written when she was in her 60s. They include A Suffolk Courtship, Mock Beggars' Hall, Barham Brocklebank, and The Lord of the Harvest.

They draw on her experience of agricultural life and farming folk, but are free of sentimentality, says Joan - neither rural idylls nor cosy dreams of a lost paradise. There were quaint customs, and harvest-time celebrations, but also harsh times. Childhood stone-picking was “a system of indentured child-labour disgracing English annals, while winter could mean little or no work and “the combined miseries of cold, hunger and despair”.

Matilda retired to East Sussex in 1884 - chest problems in the 1870s convincing her she needed to find somewhere healthier to live than London - but Suffolk remained in her heart. Her dining-room in Hastings contained old prints of Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds.

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