Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 6. Mrs. Elizabeth Carter

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 6. Mrs. Elizabeth Carter

But, of the members of the bluestocking circle none was more “darkly, deeply, beautifully blue” than Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, who, though unmarried, took brevet rank as matron after the custom of her day. She was the daughter of Nicholas Carter, perpetual curate of a chapel at Deal, and one of the six preachers at Canterbury. As a first step in her education, she was sent to Canterbury for a year to learn French in the house of a Huguenot refugee. On her return home, she took lessons with her brothers in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but she acquired knowledge with such difficulty that her father advised her to give up attempting the classical languages. She continued, however, with dogged persistence. She rose early, and, to keep her attention from flagging at night, she took snuff, bound wet towels round her head and chewed green tea and coffee. As a result of this undaunted plodding, she gained so solid a knowledge of Greek that Johnson spoke of her later as one of the best Greek scholars he had ever known. By degrees, she added Italian, German, Portuguese and Arabic to her languages. She was, at the same time, educating her young step-brothers, one of whom was sent to Cambridge.

As a linguist, who spoke fluent French, who could write pure, literary Italian, who, at need, could talk in Latin, who “delighted” in German, who knew something of Hebrew, Portuguese and Arabic and who was among the best Greek scholars of her time, her views on the study of languages are worth considering, particularly as they accord with some of the most modern and intelligent methods of teaching in vogue to-day. She knew practically nothing of Greek and Latin grammar, and used to speak of them, says her biographer, “with some degree of unmerited contempt.” He hastens to explain that, as a science, she understood grammar, but, he adds significantly, not as taught in schools. Her fine intellect quickly discovered that the common-sense method of acquiring a foreign language is identical with that of learning one’s own. A preliminary store of words and phrases must be assimilated before grammar can be of use, and she regarded it “rather as a consequence of understanding the language, than as a handmaid.…”

Though grammar was not, for her, an obstructive fetish in the acquirement of a new language, she yet had a cultivated eye for grammatical errors, and a fault that she had detected in a line of Homer “kept her awake at night.” At another time, she disputed with archbishop Secker over the translation of two verses in Corinthians, and, after consulting the original, the archbishop was compelled to admit that “Madam Carter” was in the right.

She was introduced to Cave, of The Gentleman’s Magazine, by her father, and contributed verse to his magazine so early as her seventeenth year. In 1738, he published for her a thin quarto of twenty-four pages; poems that had been written before she was twenty. Johnson, who was then doing hackwork for Cave, wrote Greek and Latin epigrams on the author, to whom he had been introduced by the publisher. At another time, he said that “Eliza” ought to be celebrated in as many languages as Louis le Grand, and, in proof of his high opinion of her abilities, he asked her to contribute to his Rambler. Numbers 44 and 100 are hers; four “billets” in no. 10 are by Hester Mulso, afterwards Mrs. Chapone, and no. 30 is by Catherine Talbot, all accomplished ladies of the bluestocking circle. Richardson the novelist, seeing Elizabeth Carter’s Ode to Wisdom in manuscript, printed it without permission in Clarissa. Her remonstrance was the prelude to an acquaintance with him, and she sometimes joined his “flower-garden of ladies” at North End, his petticoaterie, according to the scoffing Walpole. It is said that he gravely consulted her on the qualities that should distinguish the perfect man before he created Sir Charles Grandison.

Her first serious effort in literature was Examination of Mr. Pope’s Essay on Man, which she translated from the French of Jean Pierre de Crousaz. It was thought that this might lead to an acquaintance with Pope, and Sir George Oxenden warned her father

  • that there is hardly an instance of a woman of letters entering into an intimacy of acquaintance with men of wit and parts, particularly poets, who were not thoroughly abused and maltreated by them in print … Mr. Pope has done it more than once.
  • Shortly afterwards, she translated Algarotti’s Newtonianismo per le Dame into English, under the title, Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy explained for the use of the Ladies, in Six Dialogues on Light and Colours. She was then twenty-two, and Thomas Birch wrote of her as, “a very extraordinary phenomenon in the republic of letters.” Elizabeth Carter was not, by temperament, a literary woman; her pleasure was in acquiring knowledge rather than in giving it out. In all her studies—save that of German, perhaps, which she began with the view of preparing herself for a place at court—she had not, apparently, any ambition beyond her passion for study. Even the great literary achievement of her life, the translation of Epictetus, was made to oblige her friend Miss Talbot, and was not, at first, intended for publication.

    Catherine Talbot, with her mother, lived in the household of bishop Secker and his wife. She was an accomplished woman, but she did not read Greek, and, in 1743, she wrote to Mrs. Carter that she was “vastly curious” to read those precepts of Epictetus that had not been translated. It was not till 1749, however, that Elizabeth Carter, to please her friend, began a rough translation of the work that was to be the foundation of her modest fortune, as well as to add enormously to the fame she already enjoyed as the learned Mrs. Carter. These few pages were submitted to the bishop of Oxford, who found the translation good. Its only fault, he said, was its elegance of diction, that block of stumbling to many eighteenth century writers. Epictetus, the bishop reminded her, was a plain man, who spoke plainly, and the translation ought to be less smooth to preserve the spirit of the original. When Mrs. Carter wrote back that she had “some defence of her passion for ornament,” the bishop replied grimly, “Why would you change a plain, home-awakening preacher into a fine, smooth, polite writer of what nobody will mind?” But Mrs. Carter was not easily persuaded to renounce the “elegance of polite literature” into which she was transforming the Greek slave’s trenchant exhortations. It was only after Miss Talbot added the weight of her opinion, and wrote “I am much of my Lord’s mind … for energy, shortness and plainness,” that she was induced to put her translation into a more direct form. The bishop wrote a few pages as a model of the rough almost literal translation which he advocated, but perhaps he was a little chagrined at her obstinacy, for, a few months later, she laments that “Epictetus and I are miserable that … my Lord had so inhumanly given us up to our own devices.” Bishop Secker, however, gave her valuable help in correcting it, devoting a whole month, when he was laid up with gout, to its revision. It was he, probably, who, in 1753, suggested its publication, for, from that time, it was prepared for the press. When it was at length finished, Miss Talbot urged her friend to collect materials for the life of Epictetus, to be published with it, to which Elizabeth replied: “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.” She, however, added the Enchiridion and notes, at the bishop’s suggestion, and the whole was finished in 1756, just seven years after it was begun.