A Quaker couple, married in 1822, who between them wrote some 180 books for children. Mary was ‘a mild, kind, delightful woman,’ wrote Mrs Oliphant, ‘who frightened me very much, I remember, by telling me of many babies whom she had lost through some defective valve in the heart, which she said was somehow connected with too much mental work on the part of the mother.’ Letitia Landon left another description, saying Mary was: ‘a female in Quaker dress, the hair simply parted on the forehead, the small, close cap, the placid, subdued expression of the face… the large, soft dark eyes seemed sweetness, but lighted up with expression of intelligent observation… William Howitt,’ she went on, ‘is fortunate in a wife who is pretty enough to be silly and yet clever enough to be plain, and good and kind enough to be either.’
Mary was the poet of the pair, her best-known verse being “Will you walk into my parlour?” said the spider to the Fly. (That’s in her misleadingly titled Sketches of Natural History of 1834.) William (who Mrs Oliphant said, ‘did not please me at all’) preferred prose, with titles varying from the (surprisingly gruesome in places) A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia (1854) to the Derbyshire-based The Boy’s Country-book of 1839. (Both were partly autobiographical.) Among Mary’s many books she issued the first English translation of Hans Christian Andersen (Wonderful Stories for Children, 1846) which led to a quarrel with the famously unpleasant Andersen when he demanded a large share of the book’s non-existent profits. Unusually, late in life, both the Howitts abandoned their Quaker beliefs: Mary to become a Catholic and William to become a Spiritualist.