Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sherwood, Mary Martha

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SHERWOOD, MARY MARTHA (1775–1851), authoress, born at Stanford, Worcestershire, on 6 May 1775, was the elder daughter and second child of George Butt, D.D. [q. v.], by his wife Martha, daughter of Henry Sherwood.

Mary, a beautiful child, was educated at home, and subjected to a rigorous discipline. In 1790 she was sent to the abbey school at Reading, under the direction of M. and Mme. St.-Quentin. The school, which was afterwards removed to London, numbered among its pupils Mary Russell Mitford and L. E. Landon. As a schoolgirl Mary Butt acquired a good knowledge of Latin, and composed many stories and plays. Her first published tale, ‘The Traditions,’ appeared in 1794; the proceeds were destined to assist an old friend.

After Dr. Butt's death, on 29 Sept. 1795, his widow and children settled at Bridgnorth, where Mary wrote two tales—‘Margarita,’ sold in 1798 for 40l., and ‘Susan Gray,’ sold for 10l. They were printed in 1802. The latter, which claims to be the first book especially written to inculcate religious principles in the poor, was a great success, and was pirated in every fashion until 1816, when the copyright was returned to the author. Mary occupied herself in works of charity and Sunday-school teaching until her marriage, on 30 June 1803, to her cousin, Captain Henry Sherwood, of the 53rd foot. The next year he was made paymaster of his regiment. Their first child, Mary Henrietta, was born in 1804 at Morpeth, where the regiment was quartered. It was soon afterwards ordered to India, whither Mrs. Sherwood, leaving her daughter behind, accompanied her husband. The voyage was long, and they narrowly escaped capture by French ships. In India Mrs. Sherwood continued her charitable works, devoting herself more particularly to the pious care and education of soldiers' orphans. It was owing primarily to her influence that the first orphan home, the precursor of the Lawrence Asylum and similar institutions, was opened at Kidderpur, near Calcutta. Some account of her endeavours is given in her work on ‘Indian Orphans’ (Berwick, 1836). At Cawnpore Mrs. Sherwood made the acquaintance of Daniel Corrie [q. v.] , afterwards bishop of Madras, and of the missionary, Henry Martyn [q. v.], and wrote ‘The Indian Pilgrim,’ an allegory adapted to native experience, from Bunyan's ‘Pilgrim's Progress,’ which was published in England in 1815. It was translated into Hindustani. About 1814 Mrs. Sherwood composed ‘The Infant's Progress,’ and shortly afterwards she composed the short tale of ‘Little Henry and his Bearer,’ the popularity of which has been compared to that of ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin.’ It was translated into French in 1820, and there are probably a hundred editions between that date and 1884, including translations into Hindustani, Chinese, Cingalese, and German. It was first published anonymously, having been sold to a publisher for 5l.

Subsequently the Sherwoods returned to England and settled, with a family of five children and three adopted orphans, at Wick, between Worcester and Malvern. Mrs. Sherwood visited Worcester prison with Mrs. Fry, and in London made the acquaintance of Edward Irving. Soon, with her whole family, she studied Hebrew with a view to a type dictionary of the prophetic books of the Bible. Her husband spent ten years on a Hebrew and English concordance and upon Mrs. Sherwood's dictionary, which was finished a few months before her death, but was not published.

The Sherwoods travelled on the continent between 1830 and 1832, and in June 1832 they went from Holland in the same vessel as Sir Walter Scott, then returning home in a moribund condition. In 1848 their son-in-law, Dr. Streeten, died, and Mrs. Sherwood removed to Twickenham. Her husband died there on 6 Dec. 1849, and she followed him to the grave on 22 Sept. 1851. Of eight children, one son and two daughters, Mrs. Dawes and Sophia (Mrs. Streeten, afterwards Mrs. Kelly), survived her.

Mrs. Sherwood wrote over ninety-five stories and tracts, all of a strongly evangelical tone, and mainly addressed to young people. A selection of her short stories for children was published as ‘The Juvenile Library’ in 1891. Her most notable production is ‘The History of the Fairchild Family, or the Child's Manual, being a collection of Stories calculated to show the importance and effects of a religious education.’ The first part appeared in 1818, and between that date and 1842 it passed through fourteen editions. In 1842 appeared a second part, and in 1847 a third, in which Mrs. Sherwood was assisted by her daughter, Mrs. Streeten, who aided her in much of her literary work between 1835 and 1851. Numerous editions followed down to 1889. Most children of the English middle-class born in the first quarter of the nineteenth century may be said to have been brought up on the ‘Fairchild Family.’ In spite of its pietistic rigour and in spite of much that is trite and prosy, the work displays an insight into child nature which preserves its interest (cf. New Review, April 1896, pp. 392–403).

Among Mrs. Sherwood's longer stories were ‘The Monk of Cimiés,’ ‘The Nun,’ ‘Henry Marten,’ and ‘The Lady of the Manor.’ The last is ‘a series of conversations on the subject of confirmation, intended for the use of the middle and higher ranks of young females.’ It fills four volumes, and was published between 1825 and 1829 (4th ed. 7 vols. 1842) (cf. Quarterly Review, No. lxxii. p. 25). Several of her books were translated into Hindustani, French, German, and Italian. They were all popular in America, and an edition of Mrs. Sherwood's works was published in sixteen volumes at New York in 1855 (with a portrait engraved by M. Osborne).

[The chief authority is Mrs. Kelly's Life of Mrs. Sherwood, 1854 (with a portrait showing a handsome and benign countenance), which embodies interesting autobiographical fragments by Mrs. Sherwood; Gent. Mag. 1851, ii. 548; Illustr. London News, October 1851; Living Age, November 1854; Sherer's Annie Childe; Allibone's Dict. ii. 2084.]

E. L.