Sunday, January 18, 2009

Elizabeth Carter 1717 - 1806

Carter, Elizabeth (1717–1806), poet, translator, and writer, was born on 16 December 1717 at Deal in Kent, the first child and eldest daughter of the Revd Nicolas Carter (1688–1774), perpetual curate of Deal Chapel, and one of the six preachers at Canterbury Cathedral, and his first wife, Margaret (d. c.1728), only daughter and heir of Richard Swayne of Bere Regis, Dorset. Margaret, who married with a fortune of £15,000, died when Carter was about ten. Montagu Pennington, Carter's nephew and biographer, says Margaret's death was hastened by the loss of her fortune in the South Sea Bubble, but if so, as the Bubble burst in 1720, it seems a delayed reaction. In the seventeenth century members of the Carter family were active in the parliamentary cause in the civil war; in the eighteenth they were loyal supporters of the monarchy.

Education and early career

Nicolas Carter, an accomplished linguist who published several pamphlets and sermons, educated all his children, both boys and girls, to a high standard. Elizabeth, however, was at first such a slow learner that he advised her to give up classical languages. Yet by dint of application she became so expert at Greek that, as she used to relate, ‘Samuel Johnson had said, speaking of some celebrated scholar, that he understood Greek better than any one whom he had ever known, except Elizabeth Carter’ (Pennington, 1.13). She also prepared her half-brother, Henry (son of her father's second marriage, to Mary Bean), for Cambridge in 1756, much to the consternation of the fellows of Corpus Christi College. In order to persevere with her studies she resorted to various extreme measures. She used to employ a sexton to wake her between 4 and 5 a.m. by pulling a string attached to a bell hanging at the head of her bed. To keep herself awake late at night she used to wrap wet towels about her head, chew green tea, and take snuff, until she was both addicted to snuff and painfully vulnerable to debilitating headaches for the rest of her life. By these means she first learned Latin and Greek, then Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish. Later in life she also taught herself Portuguese and Arabic. When she was about twenty she studied German on the recommendation of her father and his friends who wanted her to seek a place at court. Although she decided that court life was not for her, she liked the language and towards the end of her life enjoyed conversations about German literature with Queen Charlotte, who lent her German books. To a less advanced level she studied astronomy, mathematics, and Greek history and geography under the antiquarian and natural philosopher Thomas Wright, to whom she alludes in her poem ‘While clear the night, and ev'ry thought serene’. Through him she met one of her most important friends, Catherine Talbot, who lived in the household of Thomas Secker (then bishop of Oxford, later dean of St Paul's, and afterwards archbishop of Canterbury). In order to learn more ‘feminine’ accomplishments, she boarded for a year in Canterbury at the house of a refugee French minister, M. Le Suer, and learned needlework, which she busied herself with throughout her life, as well as drawing and music which she claimed were not her forte. While her scholarship was outstanding by any standards, and certainly prodigious for a woman of her time, her proficiency in domestic skills to a large degree saved her from the general censure directed against learned ladies. Samuel Johnson's remark upon hearing a lady commended for her learning crystallizes contemporary attitudes:
A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek. My old friend, Mrs. Carter, could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek, and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem. (Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. J. Hawkins, 1787, 11.205)
It is by this ‘intended compliment’, as Roger Lonsdale says, that she is ‘perhaps doomed to be best remembered’ (R. Lonsdale, ed., Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, 1989, 167). The study of religion was one of Carter's chief concerns throughout her life, and her piety no less than her domestic science helped her gain a wider acceptance than most women writers in her day.

Carter first came to notice as a writer in the poetry pages of the Gentleman's Magazine, whose proprietor, Edward Cave, was a friend of her father's. Her first published poem, a riddle on fire (GM, 1st ser., 4, 4 November 1734), printed above the name Eliza, prompted a reply from Sylvius (GM, 5 June 1735). Her youth, talent, and sex made her something of a sensation; various epigrams, riddles, and verses celebrated her as a prodigy. With her father's encouragement she went to London to establish a literary career, spending some part of each winter from 1735 to 1739 in the city, mostly staying with her merchant uncle in Bishopsgate, or her friend Mrs Rooke. She joined Cave's circle of (mostly minor) writers, and through him she got to know Thomas Birch, Jane Brereton, Moses Browne, Mary Masters, Richard Savage, and the as yet little-known Samuel Johnson. Johnson, who remained her friend until his death in 1784, celebrated her in Greek and Latin epigrams, and together with Cave and Birch fostered her talents, suggesting projects and promoting her publications. In 1738 Cave printed a slim quarto pamphlet of her poems, Poems on Particular Occasions. The following year he printed her translations, An Examination of Mr. Pope's Essay on Man, from the French of M. Crousaz and Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy Explain'd for the Use of the Ladies, from the Italian of Francesco Algarotti. All three works appeared anonymously and were not prized by Carter when she later became famous for her Greek scholarship. Birch's attentions were assiduous. After encouraging Carter to translate Algarotti, he unsuccessfully tried to secure for her the patronage of Frances, countess of Hertford, through the agency of her secretary, John Dalton, and then gave the translation a glowing review in the History of the Works of the Learned (1 June 1739). (Although the countess declined to accept a dedication, she began a correspondence with Carter. Dalton ten years later became Carter's suitor, but she rejected him for some real or imagined impropriety in his behaviour.) Birch's persistence suggests an amorous as well as intellectual interest and it may have been an unwanted proposal of marriage from him which led to Carter's abrupt departure from London in June 1739.

It is commonly supposed that Carter spent the next decade in Deal in retreat from marriage and from writing. She certainly devoted much time to her female friends in Kent during the 1740s, but not only does she record in her letters frequent and flirtatious attendance at balls and parties, she was also still writing poetry. When Cave wrote to her in 1746 complaining that he had not received any poems from her for a couple of years, she had already contributed over twenty poems to his magazine. She published riddles, odes, epigrams, and poems in the Augustan mode. Some of her poems were circulating in manuscript, which is how Samuel Richardson came across her ‘Ode to Wisdom’. He inserted it in his novel Clarissa (vol. 2, 1747), attributing it to a lady, not knowing its author. This piracy caused Carter some distress, which was alleviated by the authorized publication of the corrected poem in the Gentleman's Magazine (17 December 1747; actually appeared January 1748), and by a public apology from and private reconciliation with Richardson. She joined his circle of readers and advisers but was never as admiring of him as his other female friends. To her annoyance some of her poems also appeared without her permission in anthologies such as Robert Dodsley's Collection of Poems by Several Hands (1748, 1755–8).

In the 1750s Carter published several short works arising out of personal relationships. Her friendship with Johnson led her to try to keep his Rambler going by recruiting both readers and contributors. She encouraged Hester Mulso Chapone and Talbot to write for it and herself contributed two papers which were both imaginatively lively and morally improving (Rambler, 44, 1750, and 100, 1751). Another short anonymous publication is also attributed to her in some library catalogues and evidences less happy circumstances: Remarks on the Athanasian Creed ‘by a Lady’ (probably 1753). It is an intervention in an acrimonious dispute between Nicolas Carter on the one hand, and the Revd Mr Randolph and the mayor and corporation of Deal on the other. The dispute concerning the extent of Nicolas Carter's powers and privileges arose over his refusal to read the Athanasian creed because he disagreed with the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. The matter was finally settled by a donation from his brother which enabled him to hire a clerk to read the creed in his place. The tone of the Remarks is much more contentious than the sober reasonableness of Carter's other religious writings—marginalia, prayers, letters, and ‘Answers to objections concerning the Christian religion’—first collected in Pennington's Memoirs.

Translating Epictetus

In 1749 Carter was encouraged by friends to undertake two translations. William Duncombe sought her involvement in his translation of the complete Odes of Horace. She declined to be a major contributor, but in 1751 completed a translation of book 1, ode 15, which was published in Duncombe's The Works of Horace in Several Hands (1757). More importantly Talbot encouraged her to translate the works of the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It is this work which brought her fame and lasting respect. She worked on the translation under the supervision of Secker and Talbot from 1749 to 1756, but always interrupted her work when domestic responsibilities such as the education of her stepbrother made a stronger claim on her sense of duty. In 1755 she complained: ‘Whoever that somebody or other is, who is to write the life of Epictetus, seeing I have a dozen shirts to make, I do opine, dear Miss Talbot, that it cannot be I’ (Pennington, 1.186). Secker advised her principally on matters of style and Talbot on issues of interpretation. Talbot was chiefly concerned about conflicts between Stoic philosophy and Christian teaching and, when it was decided that the work should be published, insisted that Carter warn her readers against the potentially dangerous influence of Epictetus's doctrines, especially his lack of belief in an afterlife, and apparent recommendation of suicide. Carter followed her friend's advice and added an introduction and footnotes stressing the superiority of Christianity, even though she believed that, while deists found support for their beliefs in Epictetus, most readers would be intelligent enough not to be led astray by his teaching. She herself did not agree with the Stoics' suppression of all feeling.

In 1758 All the Works of Epictetus which are now Extant was published by subscription by Andrew Millar, John Rivington, and Robert and James Dodsley in a handsome quarto volume, priced at 1 guinea. It was prefaced by an ode to Carter by Hester Mulso Chapone, and was the first of Carter's works in which her name appeared on the title-page. Although 1018 copies were printed by Samuel Richardson, this was not sufficient for her subscribers and another 250 copies were printed. A Dublin edition appeared in the following year and there were further London editions in 1766 and 1768. Pennington prepared a posthumous edition in 1807, incorporating a few additions and corrections made by his aunt in her own copy. Selections were included in various works and the text was the basis of several popular editions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The translator of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Epictetus, W. A. Oldfather, acknowledges his debt to Carter's ‘vigorous and idiomatic reproduction’ (Epictetus, The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments, trans. W. A. Oldfather, vol. 1, 1926, xxxvii). The significance of Carter's achievement should not be underestimated. While several translations of the Enchiridion or Manual existed, and, as she acknowledged, she benefited from a French translation of the works and John Upton's parallel Latin/Greek text (1739), Carter was the first to translate the complete works of Epictetus into English. Oldfather considered it ‘a very respectable performance under any conditions, but for her sex and period truly remarkable’ (Contributions toward a Bibliography of Epictetus, 1927, 15). Her contemporaries were both lavish and patronizing in their praise. The Monthly Review proclaimed that Carter proved that ‘France can no longer boast of her Dacier, but must be compelled to own that our women excel theirs in Sense and Genius, as far as they surpass them in Modesty and Beauty’ (Monthly Review, 18, 1758, 588).

Epictetus made a material difference to Carter's life. Pennington estimates that she made a profit of 1000 guineas. She became less dependent financially on her father and was able most years to winter in London, taking lodgings at 20 Clarges Street, always dining out with friends, and often attending gatherings of what became known as the bluestocking circle. Later she leased a group of houses in South Street, Deal, which in 1763 she had refurbished so that she and her father could live independently but together—Nicolas Carter actually renting his accommodation from her. The leases were held by Secker but he would take no money for them (he also made her gifts totalling £200).

Epictetus was also the means of introducing Carter to Elizabeth Montagu, ‘the queen of the bluestockings’, and thus increasing her horizons in other ways. Through Montagu she met William Pulteney, Lord Bath, and together they made a leisurely excursion to Spa, Germany, in 1763. Excerpts from the many letters Carter wrote home are printed in Pennington's Memoirs. When Bath failed to leave her anything at his death in 1764, though Carter insisted that she had not expected anything because of Bath's generosity when alive, his descendants William and Francis Pulteney settled on her an annuity of £100, later raised to £150. In 1782, though feeling the effects of age, she accompanied Miss Henrietta Pulteney, later countess of Bath, to Paris where Miss Pulteney was to spend some time in a convent.

On a visit to Tunbridge Wells in 1761 Montagu and Bath persuaded Carter to publish a volume of poems which, with a dedication to Bath (penned by Bath himself), and congratulatory verses by George, Lord Lyttelton, was published as Poems on Several Occasions in 1762. It included her Rambler papers but only reprinted two items from Poems on Particular Occasions. 1000 copies of the first edition were printed; it ran to five lifetime editions with six new poems and an inscription added to the third edition in 1776. Most of the poems in this collection are stanzaic in form and more lyrical or sentimental in tone than her earlier verse. Most of them are addressed to women, either her Kentish friends or her bluestocking associates. Also included is ‘On the Death of Mrs. Rowe’, a tribute to a poet she much admired (earlier versions of this poem appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine 7 (1737) and 9 (1739), and in a memorial edition of Rowe's works (1739)).

Personal relationships

Although Carter continued to write poetry from time to time, this collection is her last original publication in her lifetime. Because of her dislike of public exposure and fear of censure, it took the insistence of friends to persuade her into print. However, her cultural significance did not cease with her last publication. She was indefatigably active as a correspondent, conversationalist, and supporter of her friends' literary endeavours. In the 1760s she encouraged and assisted Montagu in writing her Essay on … Shakespear (1769), and in 1772 published a posthumous edition of the works of Catherine Talbot at her own expense. Because she never married, she had more liberty to develop both her friendships and her mind. The bluestocking circle—never a club with rules, but a network of like-minded people—allowed her to foster both. In her conversation and her voluminous correspondence she promoted women's education and participation in the world of letters, consciously creating a sense of female community, both high-minded and intimate. Pennington edited two volumes of her letters to Talbot and Elizabeth Vesey (1808), and another three volumes of letters to Montagu (1817), as well as including countless excerpts from letters to a wide range of correspondents in the Memoirs. They are for modern readers among her most satisfying productions, at once informal and literary. Witty gossip jostles with sublime philosophy, Christian piety is tempered by ironic insights, and weighty learning is accompanied by a delightful flirtatiousness which comes as a surprise to those only familiar with her Epictetus.

Carter's most significant relationships were with family and friends, although she was not without admirers. Thomas Birch, John Dalton, and Dr John Burton probably proposed marriage, and her letters in 1740, 1747, 1749, and 1758 allude to other suitors who were not seriously entertained. Rumours circulated that bishops Secker and Hayter were rivals for her affections. At some point, perhaps as early as 1743, Carter probably made a conscious decision not to marry in order to preserve her independence and her freedom to study and to write as she wished. Her literary fame and personal qualities brought her a wide circle of friends and acquaintances including, aside from those already mentioned, the Highmores and Chapones, William and John Duncombe, James Beattie, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Eva Maria Garrick, the countess of Hertford, the countess of Holdernesse, Catharine Macaulay, Lord Monboddo, Hannah More, Sir George Oxenden, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Bishop Porteus, Joshua Reynolds, Elizabeth Vesey, and Horace Walpole. As her years increased and she lost loved ones (her father in 1774, Talbot four years earlier, Montagu and Chapone in 1800 and 1801), she continued as far as possible to live an active social life and to make the acquaintance of a younger generation of writers such as Fanny Burney and Jane West. In December 1805 she was determined to see her friends in London, probably knowing it would be her last opportunity. She had never fully recovered from an attack of what was probably St Anthony's fire (erysipelas) in 1797, and four years later she suffered another attack, which left her too weak to study or read for long periods. She died peacefully in lodgings in 21 Clarges Street, London, on 19 February 1806. She was interred in the burial-ground of Grosvenor Chapel, an appendage to St George's, Hanover Square, having requested in her will that she should be buried where she died and with as little expense as possible. A mural monument was erected to her memory in Deal. Her will divided her fortune among her relatives; she left £40 to each of her maidservants and various tokens to numerous friends (listed in Memoirs, 1.499–500). Her house in Deal she left to Pennington, who had lived there with her for the last twenty years of her life.

Fanny Burney in 1780 thought her ‘a really noble-looking woman; I never saw age so graceful in the female sex yet; her whole face seems to beam with goodness, piety, and philanthropy’ (Boswell, Life, 4.275), but Betsy Sheridan described her in 1785 as ‘rather fat and not very striking in appearance’ (Betsy Sheridan's Journal, ed. W. LeFanu, 1986, 40). Most of the known portraits were made after Epictetus had brought her fame and do indeed depict her as ‘rather fat’ (despite a lifetime of energetic walking), but beaming with the goodness and nobility appropriate to a translator of Greek philosophy.

Because of her remarkable talents countryfolk in Kent, Carter reported, thought her ‘more than half a witch’. Yet she was widely viewed with respect as well as awe and celebrated for her modesty and genius in, for example, John Duncombe's Feminead (1757). She was also immediately seen as a pioneer; J. Swan stated that her translation of Algarotti taught women to ‘boldly tread where none had reach'd before’ (GM, 9, 1739, 322). In the early nineteenth century Pennington portrayed her as a rather pious old maid. More recently feminist critics have appreciated her strong-mindedness and independent spirit, and, reassessing the cultural significance of the bluestockings, have stressed how, although not fully professional herself, she helped make writing a respectable occupation for women.

Judith Hawley


J. Hawley, ed., Elizabeth Carter (1999), vol. 2 of Bluestocking feminism: writings of the bluestocking circle, 1738–1785, ed. G. Kelly [incl. bibliography of Carter's works] · M. Pennington, Memoirs of the life of Mrs Elizabeth Carter, with a new edition of her poems … to which are added, some miscellaneous essays in prose, together with her notes on the Bible, and answers to objections concerning the Christian religion, 3rd edn (1816) [with MS annotations by H. Carter Smith] · S. Harcstark Myers, The bluestocking circle: women, friendship, and the life of the mind in eighteenth-century England (1990) · All the works of Epictetus that are now extant. Translated from the original Greek by Elizabeth Carter. With an introduction and notes by the translator (1758) · A series of letters between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot … to which are added, letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter to Mrs. Vesey, ed. M. Pennington, 2 vols. (1808) · Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, to Mrs. Montagu, between the years 1755 and 1800, 3 vols. (1817) · [E. Carter], ‘Religion and superstition, a vision’, The Rambler, 44 (18 Aug 1750) · E. Ruhe, ‘Thomas Birch, Samuel Johnson, and Elizabeth Carter’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 73 (1958), 491–500 · Boswell, Life, 1.122, 138–40, 203, 208, 242, 546; 3.43, 168; 4.246, 275, 494–5, 526 · C. Thomas, ‘“Th'instructive moral, and important thought”: Elizabeth Carter reads Pope, Johnson and Epictetus’, Age of Johnson, 4 (1991), 137–69 · C. D. Williams, ‘Poetry, pudding and Epictetus: the consistency of Elizabeth Carter’, Tradition in transition: women writers, marginal texts and the eighteenth-century canon, ed. A. Ribeira and J. G. Basker (1996), 3–24 · GM, 1st ser., 4–5 (1734–5) · GM, 1st ser., 7–9 (1737–9) · GM, 1st ser., 11 (1741) · GM, 1st ser., 14 (1744) · GM, 1st ser., 17 (1747) · L. H. Ewert, ‘Elizabeth Montagu to Elizabeth Carter: literary gossip and critical opinions from the pen of the queen of the blues’, PhD diss., Claremont College, California, 1967 · DNB · A. C. C. Gaussen, A woman of wit and wisdom: a memoir of Elizabeth Carter (1906) · W. A. Oldfather, Contributions toward a bibliography of Epictetus (1927) · Epictetus; the discourses as reported by Arrian, the manual, and fragments, trans. W. A. Oldfather, 2 vols. (1926) · Correspondence between Frances, countess of Hartford (afterwards duchess of Somerset) and Henrietta Louisa, countess of Pomfret, between the years 1738 and 1741, ed. W. Bingley, 3 vols. (1805) · W. P. D. Stebbing, typescript of, and notes for, various lectures given in Deal, and transcribed extracts from letters by E. Carter and from N. Carter to E. Carter, Deal County Library, Stebbing Collection


BL, letters, Add. MSS 4302, fols. 69–79; 4297, fols. 60–60b; 4457, fol. 112 [copies] · BL, letters and papers · BL, papers and copies of poems and epigrams, Add. MSS 4456, fols. 57–58b, 60; 4457, fols. 41–42b, 73,115, 123b; 48252, fol. 3 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers [incl. facsimiles] · Mitchell L., Glas., prayer from her pocket book · Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, fragment of letter with engraved portrait and related items | BL, letters to Mrs Berkeley, Add. MS 39312, fols. 53, 183 · BL, letters in Latin to Thomas Birch, Add. MSS 4456, fols. 57–58b, 60; 4302, fols. 69–79 · BL, letters and copies of letters to Edward Cave, Stowe MSS 748, fols. 169, 171–77; Add. MS 4297, fols. 49–50b, 57–59, 61; Add. MS 4456, fol. 59 · BL, letters to Countess Spencer · Hunt. L., letters to Henrietta Pulteney, [Edward Jernyngham], Matthew Montagu, Dorothea Alison, HM 17023, 17024, JE 184, MO 703, HM 17025 · Trinity Cam., letters to Isaac Hawkins Browne, and notes on ‘De animi immortalitate’ · U. Aberdeen L., letters to Elizabeth Montagu, MS 30/29


attrib. J. Fayram, oils, 1738, priv. coll.; formerly in the possession of Mrs G. I. Barrett, Deal, in 1978 · attrib. J. Highmore, oils, c.1738, Deal town hall, Kent · J. Highmore, oils, c.1745, Dover Museum, Kent · K. Read, oils, c.1765, Dr Johnson's House, London [see illus.] · R. Samuel, group portrait, oils, c.1779 (The nine living muses of Great Britain), NPG · J. H. Hurter, oils, miniature, 1781; Sothebys, 1956 · J. R. Smith, mezzotint, pubd c.1781 (after J. Kitchingman), BM · T. Lawrence, pastel on vellum, exh. 1790, NPG · C. Watson, engraving, 1806 (after T. Lawrence), BM · Mackenzie, stipple, pubd 1807 (after cameo by J. Smith), BM, NPG · oil on enamel, 1860–99, Dr Johnson's House, London · C. Geertz, ivory miniature relief (after T. Lawrence); formerly in Deal town hall, Kent · J. Tassie, miniature relief (after cameo), repro. in Gaussen, Woman of wit · E. Walker, engraving (after T. Lawrence), repro. in Gaussen, Woman of wit

Judith Hawley, ‘Carter, Elizabeth (1717–1806)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 19 Jan 2009]

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