Lexicography of the Feminine: Matilda Betham's Dictionary of Celebrated Women
Bailey, Elaine, Philological Quarterly
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. (3) I too will define the dictionary in relation to an existing body of prose biographies that Betham drew upon for her own publication but will do so in order to explore the significance of certain changes Betham makes to received opinion. (4) The other reason for the contradictory assessment of Betham's Dictionary lies in the methodology of the research. She both collaborated with and subverted mainstream notions of history and definitions of womanhood, apparently adhering to a conservative position on historiography even as her research included a surprisingly eclectic range of secondary sources.
Although Judy Simons has claimed that "the committed female artist ... was clearly an inappropriate subject for serious literary treatment" during the eighteenth century, other scholars document the period's interest in literary biographies about women. (5) As Margaret Ezell's Writing Women's Literary History reveals, women poets were anthologized with biographical commentary from early in the century. Ruth Perry's edition of George Ballard's Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (originally published in 1752) shows that the eighteenth-century's preoccupation with the heroes found in biography extended to women subjects. (6) As Ballard states in his preface,
The present age is so far from being defective in this respect [the illustration of great characters] that it has produced a greater number of excellent biographers than any preceding times; and yet, I know not how it has happened that very many ingenious women of this nation, who were really possessed of a great share of learning and have, no doubt, in their time been famous for it, are not only unknown to the public in general, but have been passed by in silence by our greatest biographers. (7)
In its celebration of women's achievements, principally literary ones, Ballard's project provided an early feminist argument that continued with such publications as George Colman and Bonnell Thornton's Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755), the anonymously published Biographium Foemineum: The Female Worthies (1766), Thomas Gibbons's Memoirs of Eminently Pious Women of Great Britain (1777), Mary Pilkington's Historical Beauties for Young Ladies (1800), and Mary Hays's Female Biography; or Memoirs of illustrious and celebrated Women, of all Ages and Countries (1803).
Betham was well aware that she was following the example of these eighteenth-century biographers, even though she hoped to be the first to write an international dictionary of women in English and had, she tells us, submitted proposals for a four-volume project in 1801. She consequently found the publication of the radical novelist Mary Hays's Female Biography especially galling. A champion of Hays's research, Jeanne Wood has accused Betham of writing a "querulous" and "indignant" Preface, in which Betham criticizes Female Biography, but Hays's successful completion must have exacerbated Betham's financial woes, which were to dog her throughout her career. (8) With respect to its subject matter, then, Betham's dictionary was far from innovative. It frequently cites the aforementioned sources, often verbatim, and in many respects endorses the position held by the author of the Female Worthies, "that nature has been no less indulgent to the female sex than to the male, with respect to those noble faculties of the mind...." (9) In asserting mental equality between the sexes, Female Worthies and Ballard's Memoirs argue for an increased appreciation of women who made full use of their artistic and rational capacities.
While these biographies acknowledged the presence of women, however, their willingness actively to advance or champion women's social identity has been questioned by Ezell and McDowell. Both caution that this genre, while apparently accommodating female-centered biographies, also endeavors to erase certain women from public consciousness through a process of exclusion. Despite the biographers' avowed intention to celebrate the lives of women, biographical noteworthiness is internally defined by the dictionary's notion of the feminine. The inevitable result is that those left "out," beyond the pale of articulation, demonstrate through their absence the defining qualities that make a woman mentionable. As McDowell writes, "It was precisely through the establishment of a 'female literary tradition' in the first place ... that oppressive new norms for female literary activity were constructed...." (10) She adds that Ballard's omission of commercial playwrights and Quaker women limited approval to literary ladies who were British, Anglican, and chaste. Ezell agrees, explaining that Ballard argued "for the improved education of women--but only that they may fulfill certain social roles.... His ideal woman in this volume--modest, middle-class, well-read, pious, and charitable--does not challenge her society in any direct way except to urge further educational activities. Women who do not fit this pattern are permitted to slip into oblivion." (11) Betham's dictionary receives a mention as among those that unquestioningly repeat the judgment of their predecessors and, in the process, solidify the received wisdom of what constituted "female worthiness." (12)
This judgment has been corroborated through reference to Betham's social circle. Biographical research on Betham herself has focused on her admiration of conservative writers: Robert Southey and S. T. Coleridge in their post-pantisocratic years and her father, Rev. William Betham, and her brother, Sir William Betham. Not surprisingly, then, the more recent tentative conclusion has been that Betham endorsed their politics and that her Dictionary prescribed oppressive norms of feminine behavior. (13) There is good reason to believe that Betham was didactic in her purposes as a biographer, since her …
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Publication information: Article title: Lexicography of the Feminine: Matilda Betham's Dictionary of Celebrated Women. Contributors: Bailey, Elaine - Author. Journal title: Philological Quarterly. Volume: 83. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2004. Page number: 389+. © 1998 University of Iowa. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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