Mary Howitt 1799-1888). Courtesy Wikipedia.

Mary Howitt (12 March 1799 - 30 January 1888) was an English poet, author of the famous poem The Spider and the Fly.



Mary was born at Coleford, Gloucestershire; she married William Howitt in 1821, and settled at Hanley, where they carried on business as chemists. 2 years later they moved to Nottingham, where they remained for 12 years, and where much of their literary work was accomplished. Thereafter they lived successively at Esher, London, Heidelberg, and Rome, at the last of which they both died Their literary work, which was very voluminous, was done partly in conjunction, partly independently, and covered a considerable variety of subjects -- poetry, fiction, history, translations, and social and economical subjects. Useful and pleasing in its day, little of it is likely to survive. Mary translated the Swedish novels of Frederica Bremer and H.C. Andersen's Improvisatore, and wrote novels, including Wood Leighton and The Cost of Caergwyn, many successful tales and poems for children, and a History of the United States. Their joint productions include The Forest Minstrel, Book of the Seasons, and Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain. Both brought up as Quakers, they left that communion in 1847, and became believers in spiritualism; and in 1882 Mary joined the Church of Rome.[1] Together with her husband she wrote over 180 books.[2]

Family, youth educationEdit

She was born Mary Botham on 12 March 1799 at Coleford, Gloucestershire, the temporary residence of her parents, while her father, Samuel Botham (died 1823), a prosperous quaker of Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, was looking after some mining property. Her mother was Anne Wood, a descendant of Andrew Wood the patentee (attacked by Swift in the Drapier Letters.[3]

Mary Botham was educated at home, soon read widely for herself in many areas, and commenced writing verses at a very early age.[3]

Marriage and careerEdit

On 16 April 1821 she married at Uttoxeter William Howitt, and began a career of joint authorship with her husband. Their literary productions at 1st consisted chiefly of poetical and other contributions to annuals and periodicals, of which a selection was published in 1827 under the title of The Desolation of Eyam, and other poems.' The life of Mary Howitt was completely bound up with that of her husband; she was separated only from him during the period of his Australian journey (1851-4).[3]

On moving to Esher in 1837 she commenced writing her well-known tales for children, a long series of books which met with signal success.[3] In 1837 they went on a tour of the north and stayed with William and Dorothy Wordsworth.[4]

While residing at Heidelberg in 1840 her attention was directed to Scandinavian literature, and in company with her friend Madame Schoultz she set herself to learn Swedish and Danish. She afterwards translated Fredrika Bremer's novels (1842-1863, 18 volumes), works which she was the 1st to make known to English readers. She also translated many of Hans Andersen's tales, such as Only a Fiddler, 1845, The Improvisatore, 1845, 1847, Wonderful Stories for Children, 1846, The True Story of every Life, 1847.[3]

Among her original works were The Heir of West Waylan, 1847. She edited for 3 years the Drawing-room Scrap Book, writing for it among other articles Biographical Sketches of the Queens of England. She edited the Pictorial Calendar of the Seasons, translated Ennemoser's History of Magic, and took the chief share in The Literature and Romance of Northern Europe, 1852. She also produced a Popular History of the United States (2 volumes 1859), and a 3-volume novel called The Cost of Caergwyn (1864). Her name was attached as author, translator, or editor to upwards of 110 works.[3]

Last yearsEdit

The Times said, speaking of the Howitts: "Their friends used jokingly to call them William and Mary, and to maintain that they had been crowned together like their royal prototypes. Nothing that either of them wrote will live, but they were so industrious, so disinterested, so amiable, so devoted to the work of spreading good and innocent literature, that their names ought not to disappear unmourned."[3]

The death of her husband in 1879, and of her eldest child, Mrs. A. A. Watts, in 1884, caused her intense grief.[3]

In the decline of her life she joined the Church of Rome, and was one of the English deputation who were received by the Pope on 10 January 1888. Her interesting `Reminiscences of my Later Life' were printed in `Good Words' in 1886.[3]

Howitt, having moved from her usual residence at Meran in the Tyrol to spend the winter in Rome, died there of bronchitis on 30 January 1888.[3]


Among the works written, like those already mentioned, independently of her husband, were: `Sketches of Natural History,' 1834. `Wood Leighton, or a Year in the Country,' 1836. `Birds and Flowers and other Country Things,' 1838. 'Hymns and Fireside Verses,' 1839. 'Hope on, Hope ever, a Tale,' 1840. 'Strive and Thrive,' 1840. 'Sowing and Reaping, or What will come of it,' 1841. 'Work and Wages, or Life in Service,' 1842. 'Which is the Wiser? or People Abroad,' 1842. 'Little Coin, Much Care,' 1842. 'No Sense like Common Sense,' 1843. 'Love and Money,' 1843. 'My Uncle the Clockmaker,' 1844. 'The Two Apprentices,' 1844. 'My own Story, or the Autobiography of a Child,' 1845. 'Fireside Verses,' 1845. 'Ballads and other Poems,' 1847. 'The Children's Year,' 1847. 'The Childhood of Mary Leeson,' 1848. 'Our Cousins in Ohio,' 1849. 'The Heir of Wast-Waylan,' 1851. 'The Dial of Love,' 1853. 'Birds and Flowers and other Country Things,' 1855. 'The Picture Book for the Young,' 1855. 'M. Howitt's Illustrated Library for the Young,' 1856; two series. 'Lillieslea, or Lost and Found,' 1861. 'Little Arthur's Letters to his Sister Mary,' 1861. 'The Poet's Children,' 1863. 'The Story of Little Cristal,' 1863. 'Mr. Rudd's Grandchildren,' 1864. 'Tales in Prose for Young People,' 1864. 'M. Howitt's Sketches of Natural History, 1864. 'Tales in Verse for Young People,' 1865. 'Our Four-footed Friends,' 1867. 'John Oriel's Start in Life,' 1868. 'Pictures from Nature,' 1869. 'Vignettes of American History,' 1869. 'A Pleasant Life,' 1871. 'Birds and their Nests,' 1872. 'Natural History Stories,' 1875. ' Tales for all Seasons,' 1881. 42. 'Tales of English Life, including Middleton and the Middletons,' 1881.

Critical introductionEdit

by Alexander Hay Japp

Mary Howitt’s poetical works vary through a wide range. She treated many subjects, and essayed many styles; but 1 note may be found in all — a delightful naturalness, and a graceful fancy. She had the gift of vision; she clearly painted what she saw, and on fitting occasions could command apt and striking figures. She was free from one of the great faults of the earlier school—she knew no affectations. She has been most remembered by what are, in some respects, her least artistic productions, those poems which she wrote either primarily for children, or were professedly weighted with a lesson or a purpose; whereas several of her pieces are inspired by a fantastic imagination, by a nimble fancy, and an unexpected power over the weird and wonderful. Such pieces as “The Voyage with the Nautilus,” and “An Old Man’s Story,” suffice to attest this. Then she can be very daintily fanciful, and gently, lightly humorous, as proved by a large body of poems, of a purely playful or inventive cast—not to speak of those parables in dialogue, of which “The Spider and the Fly” may be cited as the best-known illustration.

She wrote many poems, too, to commend the study of nature and the practice of humanity to animals; indeed, viewed from one side, a large section of her poetic work was humanitarian: her special claim to praise is that, whatever the subject, whatever the purpose, she managed in her treatment to infuse into the work so much subdued imaginative colour, that it may well be claimed for her, that however definite her purpose or pronounced her moral aim she very rarely or, indeed, never failed to produce what has the true note of poetry, observation, fancy, and happy, figurative illustration. A rare power of raising the conventional or properly prosaic in subject to a higher level, through the divining presence of imagination,—though not perhaps of a very high order,—goes with her, gently irradiating whatever she touches. It would be wholly unjust to try many of her pieces, written with an eye to certain evils almost special to the time—by the highest standard of what we nowadays are taught to consider “high-art.”

But one thing is sure. A certain number of the most successful of Mary Hewitt’s poetic efforts will have the suffrage and favour and gratitude of many generations of young folks yet to come. And in the power which she will thus wield there is an assurance that she not only had a message, but conveyed that message with something of the touch that makes all men (or we may perhaps here say children) kin. That is no slight service to render; no slight fame to have made sure.[5]


Mary and William Howitt also owned a school still used today, Howitt Primary School in Heanor, Derbyshire.

From the Literary Academy of Stockholm she received a silver medal.[3]

On 21 April 1879 she was awarded a civil list pension of £100 a year.[3]

A portrait is prefixed to Margaret Hewitt's Life of Mary Howitt, 1889.[3]

A version of Howitt's poem, "The Spider and the Fly," illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi, was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2007.[6]








Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[7]

Poems by Mary HowittEdit

"The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

"The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

  1. Old Christmas
  2. The Spider and the Fly

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Boase, George Clement (1891) "Howitt, Mary" in Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography 28 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 122-123 . Wikisource, Web, Jan. 30, 2018.
  • Mary Howitt: An autobiography (edited by her daughter, Margaret Howitt), 1889.
  • A. Lee, Laurels and Rosemary: The life of William and Mary Howitt, 1955.
  • C.R. Woodring, Victorian Samplers: William and Mary Howitt, 1952.


  1. John William Cousin, "Howitt, William," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 201-202. Web, Jan. 30, 2018.
  2. William Howitts entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography accessed 4 October 2007
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 Boase, 122.
  4. Mary, Web, Oct. 3, 2007.
  5. Alexander Hay Japp, "Critical and Biographical Essay: Mary Howitt (1799–1888)," Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (edited by Alfred H. Miles), London: Routledge / New York: E.P. Dutton, 1907., Web, Sep. 4, 2013.
  6. Childrens Book awards announced, New York Times October 6, 2007]. Web, Oct. 8, 2007
  7. Search results = au:Mary Howitt, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Sep. 4, 2013.

External linksEdit

Audio / video