Biographical / Historical
William Howitt (1792-1879) and his wife, Mary Botham Howitt (1799-1888) were both born into Quaker families of the English Midlands, he in Derbyshire and she in Staffordshire. Both early determined to make their living by their pens. William rejected his early apprenticeship as a builder-carpenter and at first supported his family as a druggist until their joint success as writers enabled them to devote themselves entirely to writing.
They both were professional writers in every sense, writing books on a wide range of topics from their experiences and interests. Early books included volumes of ballads and other poems, works on natural history and the countryside, descriptions of ancient castles and historic mansions, "homes and haunts of the poets," etc. They were liberal, even radical, in their views of social and political matters and actively supported the causes of abolition, women's rights, temperance, and the improvement of the conditions of the lower classes. In the years between 1846 and 1848, they took over the publication People's Journal, designed to "teach and enlighten" the working classes. This soon failed, and they launched their own periodical, Howitt's Journal, which survived only one year. During its life, however, their journal published Elizabeth Gaskell's earliest stories, and they were helpful in launching her literary career.
During a period of about ten years in Heidelberg, William produced works on student and social life in Germany. Together with Mary, he wrote a book on the literature of Northern Europe. Mary wrote many books for juvenile readers and translated works from Scandinavian literature, including the first translations into English of Hans Christian Anderson. In August 1847, the Howitts resigned from the Society of Friends. They had become interested in mesmerism and spiritualism, and in 1863, William produced "The History of Spiritualism. Beginning in 1852, William Howitt had spent two years in the gold mines of Australia, a visit which resulted in several books about that country. In later years, the Howitts spent their time in the Austrian Tyrol and in Rome. William died in Rome in 1879. Mary Howitt became a Roman Catholic in 1882, and died in Rome in 1888.