Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hamilton, Elizabeth (1758-1816)

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HAMILTON, ELIZABETH (1758–1816), miscellaneous writer, was born at Belfast on 21 July 1758. She was of the Scottish Hamiltons of Woodhall, but straitened family circumstances had sent her father, Charles Hamilton, into a mercantile house in London. He married Katherine Mackay of Dublin, and at his death in 1759 there were three children, Katherine, Charles, and Elizabeth. Her father's sister, the wife of Mr. Marshall, a Stirlingshire farmer, took Elizabeth home, and when Mrs. Hamilton died the child, aged nine, was left to the kindly and somewhat primitive care of these worthy relatives. They educated her well, and though her studious habits rather puzzled them they were proud of her talents. Her brother, Charles Hamilton (1753–1792) [q. v.], before going off to the duties of an Indian cadetship, visited Elizabeth in 1772, and their cherished arrangement for a regular correspondence produced an interesting and valuable body of letters. Elizabeth's leisure had already been occupied with a journal of a highland tour, and she presently began an historical novel in the form of letters, with Arabella Stuart for heroine and Shakespeare as a subordinate character. In 1782 her aunt died, and between that and 1786, when her brother returned on a five years' furlough, she devoted herself to her uncle, and made considerable literary progress. In December 1785 a paper of hers formed No. 46 of the 'Lounger,' and a poem on 'Anticipation' belongs to the same year.

Miss Hamilton took a direct practical interest in the progress of her brother's 'Hedaya,' on which he was engaged during his holiday in Scotland, and with him, in 1788, she visited London, forming several important friendships. About the end of the year, after her return, her uncle died, when she rejoined her brother in London, remaining with him and her sister, Mrs. Blake, for about two years. In this sojourn she made the acquaintance of Dr. George Gregory [q. v.] and his wife, who continued to be close and valued friends. The death of Charles Hamilton in 1792 was a great blow to his sisters (Letters on Education, vol. i.), who for the next four years were together at Hadleigh, Suffolk, and then at Sonning, Berkshire. In 1796 Miss Hamilton published her 'Hindoo Rajah,' a series of criticisms on England somewhat in the manner of the 'Citizen of the World,' and influenced by impressions from her brother. Her next work, 'Memoirs of Modern Philosophers,' a series of humorous sketches prompted by a conversation with Dr. Gregory, and written in London, in Gloucestershire, and at Bath, appeared in 1800, and ran through two editions in a year. Meanwhile Miss Hamilton had an attack of gout, an ailment ultimately chronic with her, and Mrs. Blake, who had been in Ireland, returned and nursed her. Recovering, she published 'Letters on Education,' 1801-2, and in 1804 'Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, the wife of Germanicus,' Bath, 3 vols. 8vo, which is practically 'an epitome of Roman laws, customs, and manners,' After a tour through Wales and the Lake country, the sisters in 1804 fixed their residence in Edinburgh, Miss Hamilton at the same time having a pension settled on her by government. For six months she was guardian to a nobleman's family, writing in Essex in 1806 'Letters on the Formation of the Religious and the Moral Principle to the Daughter of a Nobleman.' Returning to Edinburgh she contrasted the two modes of life, and warmly indicated her own preference in 'My ain Fireside,' a true Scottish song, resting on a certain independence of attitude, and suffused with sturdy sentiment and tenderness of feeling.

From this time Mrs. Hamilton (as she at length preferred to be called) was important and influential. She was a true philanthropist, and her desire for the improvement of Scottish rustics induced her to write her noteworthy story, 'The Cottagers of Glenburnie,' 1808. Woven into the narrative are various reminiscences of her early Stirling days. Her Mrs. M'Clarty, with her inevitable ‘I canna be fash'd,’ is still a figure of interest for Scottish readers. Mrs. Hamilton gave help in the establishment of the Female House of Industry in Edinburgh, and for the inmates she wrote in 1809 ‘Exercises in Religious Knowledge.’ In 1812 she continued the subject of her education letters in ‘Popular Essays on the Elementary Principles of the Human Mind.’ After a three months' visit to Ireland she returned to Edinburgh, and in 1815, influenced by a study of Pestalozzi, published ‘Hints addressed to the Patrons and Directors of Public Schools.’ From 1812 her health had been very uncertain, and now a disease of the eyes, added to other weakness, necessitated change of climate. She went to England, and died at Harrogate 23 July 1816. She was buried in Harrogate Church, and a monument was erected to her memory.

Mrs. Hamilton was much appreciated by her contemporaries. Miss Edgeworth wrote a eulogistic notice at her death. Lord Woodhouselee, in ‘Life of Lord Kames,’ ii. 282, praises the philosophical spirit of her writings on education. Mrs. Grant of Laggan (Memoir and Correspondence, ii. 16, 129) alludes to the substantial value of her essays, and speaks warmly of her qualities as a friend and a social factor.

[Memoirs, with a Selection from her Correspondence and other Unpublished Writings, of the late Mrs. Eliz. Hamilton, by Miss Benger (1815); Tytler and Watson's Songstresses of Scotland.]

T. B.