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

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 7. Her Translation of Epictetus

In the work of correcting sheets for the press, bishop Secker again gave ungrudging assistance; and, in one letter, we find her thus whimsically adjured:

  • Do, dear Madam Carter, get yourself whipt, get yourself whipt … I know you mean to be careful; but you cannot without this help … The first thing I have cast my eyes upon is Epictetus for Epicurus …
  • Epictetus appeared before the public in 1758, and its success and sale make it one of the minor romances of publishing. It was in one volume, large quarto, and 1018 copies were struck off at first; but, as these were insufficient, 250 more were printed a few months later. It was issued by subscription, and the price was a guinea in sheets. In her own copy were the names of no fewer than 1031 subscribers, and, since many copies were not claimed “by way of compliment,” Mrs. Carter gained nearly a thousand pounds profit. Richardson’s bill for printing the first impression amounted to £67. 7s. Two further editions were printed in her life-time, and, for many years, it remained a good selling book at a high price. Epictetus gained for its author a European reputation. So far afield as Russia, where, said Elizabeth Carter, “they were only just beginning to walk on their hind legs,” there appeared a notice of the learned Englishwoman, and she was told that the Tsarina had read it through with high approbation. After its publication, she was regarded by the bluestocking circle with something akin to awe, and it is almost a relief to find her intimates, Mrs. Montagu and Miss Talbot, jestingly referring to her “uncle Epictetus,” or writing of her as “cousin-german to Xenophon,” while Walpole, with his facile talent for bestowing unchristian names, frequently calls her Mrs. Epictetus Carter.

    After Epictetus, Mrs. Carter did not write anything more for publication, though, in 1762, Lord Bath persuaded her to publish a small volume of poems that had been written at various times. She gave such reluctant consent to this that Miss Talbot accused her of thinking it “no small degradation from a quarto of Greek Philosophy to dwindle into an eighteen-penny pamphlet of English verse.” The dedication was to the earl of Bath, and, writes her biographer, “is wholly unsullied by that flattery which is too often a disgrace both to the author and the patron.” But this praise is somewhat discounted, when on the next page, he quotes a letter from Mrs. Carter, indicating that Lord Bath wrote the dedication himself!

    For the remainder of her long life, Elizabeth Carter settled down to the comfortable enjoyment of her fame on the modest competence of which the profits from Epictetus were the foundation. Her influential friends invested this money profitably; and, some years later, when Mrs. Montagu inherited her husband’s fortune, she allowed her friend £100 a year. Lord Bath did not leave her an annuity, according to the expectation of many of the bluestockings; but his heirs generously made good this deficiency by a grant of £100 a year. During the summer months, she lived with her father at Deal, or went on visits to her friends among the great at their country houses. The winter she invariably spent in London in handsome and comfortable apartments in Clarges street, within easy distance of several of the bluestocking hostesses. “She kept no table,” and never dined at home, except when ill, or unable to go out. In the wide bluestocking circle, she was always a welcome guest, and, not only did they invite her to their houses, but they invariably sent for her their sedan chairs or carriages, which again carried her back to Clarges street by ten o’clock at the latest. She was, apparently, a sympathetic listener rather than a talker, but she was always, to the end of her long life, a notability in the inner circle of the bluestockings.