Mary Howitt was born Mary Botham at Coleford in The Forest Of Dean in Gloucestershire. Her parents were Quakers and she was one of four children. She was educated at home by a governess and at the Friends’ School in York where she was subjected to a strict religious upbringing. She started to write poetry when still quite young and developed an early love of nature by accompanying her father on his travels as a land surveyor.
In 1821 she married William Botham who ran a pharmacy business with his brother. After two years of marriage they moved to Nottingham and William gave up his job to begin a career of joint authorship with her, focusing on poetry and contributions to periodicals. In 1827 they published a joint collection of poems entitled The Desolation of Eyam and Other Poems, a long verse poem describing the plague that decimated this Derbyshire village in the late 17th Century and the heroic efforts of the pastor and his wife to bring comfort to the afflicted.
In 1837 they moved to Esher in Surrey where Mary began writing children’s stories which met with great success. From 1840 to 1843 they lived in Heidelberg where Mary began to learn Swedish and Danish, then translating the Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer’s novels and Hans Christian Andersen’s tales into English. On their return they lived in London where they mixed with many important literary figures such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Elizabeth Gaskell.
In 1847 they left the Quaker fold and became believers in spiritualism. A few years later her husband went to Australia with his brother Richard, his son Alfred William and the painter and garden designer, Edward La Trobe Bateman, who had been engaged to their daughter, to join the great Australian Gold Rush. Alfred William remained there to become a leading anthropologist, explorer and naturalist. On William’s return from this fruitless venture a few years later the couple lived in London until the beginning of the 1870s when they settled in Rome, William dying there in 1879. Mary survived him by nine years, also dying in Italy.
In addition to her prolific output as a poet, Mary wrote novels, children’s books, and works of history and natural history. Her poetry, which reflected her love of nature and art, covered a multitude of subjects and was written in many styles. It is characterised by its lack of affectation and is permeated by a vein of mystical fantasy in keeping with her spiritualist beliefs. She received a Silver Medal from the Literary Academy of Stockholm and was awarded a Civil List pension of £100 a year in 1882. She converted to Catholicism late in life.