Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Carter, Elizabeth

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CARTER, ELIZABETH (1717–1806), poet and miscellaneous writer, was born at Deal in Kent on 16 Dec. 1717. She was the eldest daughter of the Rev. Nicholas Carter, D.D., perpetual curate of Deal Chapel, and one of the six preachers at Canterbury Cathedral, by his first wife, Margaret, only daughter and heiress of Richard Swayne of Bere Regis, Dorsetshire. Her mother lost her fortune, which had been invested in the South Sea stocks, and died of a decline when Elizabeth was about ten years old. Her education was undertaken by her father, who was a good Latin, Greek, and Hebrew scholar. So slow at first was she in learning the dead languages that, weary of teaching her, he frequently entreated her to give up the attempt. By incessant application, however, she overcame her natural incapacity for learning. She read both late at night and early in the morning, taking snuff, chewing green tea, and using other means to keep herself awake. By this vigorous course of study she injured her health, and as a consequence suffered from frequent and severe headaches for the rest of her life. Beginning with Latin and Greek, she afterwards learnt Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, and German; later in life she taught herself Portuguese and Arabic. She took a great interest in astronomy, ancient and modern history, and ancient geography, played both the spinnet and German flute, and worked with her needle to the last days of her life. That she was a good housewife we have the authority of Dr. Johnson. It is related in Boswell (v. 229) that the Doctor, on hearing a lady commended for her learning, said, ‘A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner on his table than when his wife talks Greek.’ ‘My old friend, Mrs. Carter,’ he added, ‘could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek, and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem.’ Before she was seventeen she commenced writing verses, and the riddle which appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for November 1734 (p. 623) is probably her first published piece. She continued to contribute to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for some years, her contributions generally appearing under the name of ‘Eliza.’ In 1738 ‘Poems upon particular Occasions’ (London, 4to), a small pamphlet of twenty-four pages containing a collection of eight of her poems, was published by Cave, the originator of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and a friend of her father's. This pamphlet, which is now rare, bears the name neither of author nor publisher, but contains a cut of St. John's Gate on the title-page. It was through Cave that Mrs. Carter was introduced to Dr. Johnson, who, being of opinion that ‘she ought to be celebrated in as many different languages as Lewis le Grand’ (Boswell, i. 93), wrote a Greek epigram to Eliza, which appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for April 1738 (p. 210). The friendship thus commenced lasted nearly fifty years, until Johnson's death in 1784. She contributed two articles to the ‘Rambler,’ No. 44 being on ‘Religion and Superstition,’ and No. 100 on ‘Modish Pleasures.’ In 1739 she published her anonymous translation of ‘Examen de l'essay de Monsieur Pope sur l'homme,’ by Jean Pierre de Crousaz. This translation, which had for its title ‘An Examination of Mr. Pope's Essay on Man, translated from the French of M. Crousaz’ (A. Dodd, London, 12mo), was erroneously attributed to Dr. Johnson (Boswell, i. 107). In the same year appeared her anonymous translation of Francesco Algarotti's ‘Newtonianismo per le dame,’ under the title of ‘Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy Explain'd for the use of the Ladies. In Six Dialogues on Light and Colour. From the Italian of Sig. Algarotti’ (2 vols. London, Cave, 12mo). Both these translations have become very scarce; and though Mrs. Carter never willingly referred to them in after life, they were undoubtedly useful to her in making her known to her contemporaries. In 1741 she became acquainted with Miss Catherine Talbot, granddaughter of Dr. William Talbot, bishop of Durham, which led to an introduction to Dr. Secker, then bishop of Oxford, and afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, with whom Miss Talbot resided. It was at the request of these friends that Mrs. Carter undertook the translation of Epictetus. This was commenced in the summer of 1749, but was not finished until December 1752. The translation was not originally intended for publication, and was sent in sheets as it was written to Miss Talbot. At the suggestion of the bishop, Mrs. Carter added an introduction and notes to the manuscript, and in April 1758, at the request of her friends, it was published by guinea subscription. The subscription was so successful that 1018 copies were struck off at once, and 250 more were printed afterwards, the result of the publication being a gain to Mrs. Carter of nearly 1,000l. The title of the first edition was ‘All the Works of Epictetus which are now extant, &c.’ (London 4to). The fourth edition, which was published after her death, contains the last alterations of the translator taken from her manuscript notes, and has a slightly altered title. In 1762 she published her ‘Poems on several Occasions’ (London, 8vo), which she dedicated to William Pulteney, earl of Bath, and prefaced with some highly panegyrical verses by Lord Lyttelton. In this collection only two of the poems which appeared in the former volume, viz. ‘In Diem Natalem’ and the ‘Ode of Anacreon,’ are to be found. A second edition was published in 1766, and a third in 1776, the latter edition containing seven additional poems. A fourth edition was published in Dublin in 1777, and in London in 1789. In the second volume of Pennington's ‘Memoirs’ the two collections of poems are printed, together with eight other pieces which had not been published before. During the summer months of 1763 Mrs. Carter, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Montagu and Lord Bath, visited France, Germany, and Holland, an interesting account of the trip being given in her letters to Miss Talbot. In the following year she lost her friend Lord Bath, in 1768 her old patron Archbishop Secker, and in 1770 her correspondent Miss Talbot. On 23 Oct. 1774 her father died. Mrs. Carter had passed the greater part of her life with him, and for the last twelve years of his life had lived with him in a house at Deal, which she had purchased. In October 1782, at the request of Sir William Pulteney, who, out of regard for Lord Bath's old friend, had settled an annuity of 150l. a year upon her, she accompanied Miss Pulteney to Paris. This was her last visit to the continent, she being then sixty-five years of age, and no longer very active. For several years afterwards, however, she travelled through various parts of England with her friend Miss Sharpe. In 1791 Mrs. Carter was introduced to Queen Charlotte at Lord Cremorne's house at Chelsea. In 1796 a certain Count de Bedée, a stranger to Mrs. Carter, published ‘Twelve Poems translated into French; Six in Prose and Six in Verse, selected from the works of Miss Eliza Carter, intitled Poems on several Occasions’ (London, 8vo). About nine years before her death she was attacked by an illness from which she never entirely recovered. In the summer of 1805, though her mental faculties remained unimpaired, her bodily weakness increased very much. In accordance with her annual custom, she went up to London for the winter, and on 19 Feb. 1806 died in her lodgings in Clarges Street, Piccadilly, in the eighty-eighth year of her age. She was buried in the burial-ground belonging to Grosvenor Chapel; and a monument was erected to her memory in Deal Chapel. She was never married. In 1807 her nephew and executor, Montagu Pennington, published her memoirs, in which were included the new edition of her poems before alluded to, some miscellaneous essays in prose, together with her ‘Notes on the Bible,’ and ‘Answers to Objections concerning the Christian Religion.’ In 1809 ‘A Series of Letters between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catharine Talbot from the year 1741 to 1770, to which are added Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter to Mrs. Vesey between the years 1763 and 1787’ (London, 8vo, 4 vols.), appeared, and in 1817 ‘Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter to Mrs. Montagu, between the years 1755 and 1800, chiefly upon Literary and Moral Subjects’ (London, 8vo, 3 vols.)

Mrs. Carter was more celebrated for the solidity of her learning than for any brilliant intellectual qualities; and it is as a Greek scholar and the translator of Epictetus that she is now best remembered. She used to relate with pleasure that Dr. Johnson had said, speaking of some celebrated scholar, that ‘he understood Greek better than any one he had ever known, except Elizabeth Carter.’ Her poems have ceased to be read and are not of very high order, the ‘Dialogue between the Body and the Mind’ being perhaps the most successful. Her letters display considerable vigour of thought, and now and then a transient flash of humour. Though by no means a woman of the world, she possessed a large amount of good sense, and, though more learned than her fellows, was a thoroughly sociable and amiable woman. Her acquaintance with Mrs. Montagu commenced at a very early period of their lives, and on the death of her husband in 1775 Mrs. Montagu settled an annuity of 100l. upon her friend. Among Mrs. Carter's other friends and correspondents were Burke, Reynolds, Richardson (who introduced her ‘Ode to Wisdom’ into his ‘Clarissa’), Savage, Horace Walpole, Bishops Butler and Porteus, Dr. Beattie, Hannah More, and most of the other literary characters of the time. Several portraits were taken of her by different artists; an engraving from a cameo by Joachim Smith will be found in the first volume of the ‘Memoirs’ (i. 501 note), and the National Portrait Gallery has a pleasing crayon drawing by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

[Pennington's Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter (2nd ed. 1808); Gaussen's A Woman of Wit and Wisdom 1906; Sir E. Brydges's Censura Literaria (1815), vii. 176–201, viii. 190–200, x. 277–95; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, vols. v. and viii.; Boswell's Life of Johnson (Croker, 1831); Chalmers's Biog. Dict. (1813), viii. 301–5; Gent. Mag. 1806, vol. lxxvi. pt. i. pp. 190–1; Encyclopædia Britannica (9th ed.), v. 141; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.