Lexicography of the Feminine: Matilda Betham's Dictionary of Celebrated Women

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The poet, painter, and biographer Matilda Betham (1776-1852) earned her own place in the annals of literary history chiefly through her friendships with and portraiture of famous men, most notably the British Romantic poets S. T. Coleridge and Robert Southey. Yet her most scholarly publication, A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country (1804), attests to her particular admiration of women authors, some of whom were her immediate predecessors. (1) As early as 1948, Katharine Anthony, awed by the encyclopedic scope of Betham's research, praised the bold subject matter of her dictionary: "As if to express more fully [than women novelists] the contemporary importance of her sex ... Matilda Betham published a compendious Biographical Dictionary.... It still survives as an evidence of the author's phenomenal industry and of the strong public interest in women's achievements." (2) Despite this commendation, Betham's Dictionary has yet to receive the scrutiny needed to assess its contribution to feminist studies. At first glance, the subject matter of the Dictionary indeed appears to be a striking example of early feminism. In fact, Betham's scholarship was not unique; the eighteenth century saw the publication of several comparable biographical works, many of which, as this essay will show, served a politically conservative agenda. What distinguishes Betham's Dictionary from comparable works is its inclusion of several contemporary writers, some of whom were widely regarded as sexually promiscuous or politically radical. An evaluation of Betham's participation in a prominent genre of the latter half of the eighteenth century, collected biographies on famous or noteworthy women, offers the necessary historical basis for judging this significant aspect of Betham's achievement. Any discussion of Betham's work must be contextualized in these generic and historical terms, since comparisons between her own dictionary and those of her immediate predecessors reveal the extent to which Betham both revised and reiterated existing narratives of women's role in civic affairs.

Betham acknowledged two strains of inquiry--empirical biography and independent analysis--that allowed her to assure the reading public of her reliability as a historian by repeating the judgment of her predecessors and to assert her own views by writing about women who had not previously found inclusion in biographical anthologies. In addressing this dual agenda, my study shows that although Betham certainly relied principally on authoritative sources, the instances when she does offer her own criticism suggest a receptiveness to various interpretations of what constitutes a "celebrated" woman. This dualism in Betham's research, a product of her reliance on personal judgment and adherence to precedent, has elicited two contradictory responses over the course of the twentieth century. Victorian novelist Matilda Betham-Edwards (who was also Betham's niece and first biographer), believed the work to be the first of its kind and praised its "pioneering" quality. Several critics of the early twentieth century agreed in admiring its uniqueness. Recent commentators have instead emphasized its antecedents in earlier encyclopedia projects. Both responses are defensible, for while Betham repeated conservative opinions about women's role in the public sphere, she also sometimes advanced her own more liberal point of view. In part, these contradictory assessments of Betham's project rehearse a larger shift in feminist thinking over the course of the twentieth century, from the celebration of early feminist writers as revolutionaries who defied patriarchal authority, evident in such landmark anthologies as Gilbert and Gubar's Shakespeare's Sisters, to a more cautious, historically informed evaluation of the Bluestocking circle and the cultural complexities surrounding the political affiliations of its first participants and later supporters. …