Elphinston, James (DNB00)

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ELPHINSTON, JAMES (1721–1809), educationalist, the son of the Rev. William Elphinston, an episcopalian clergyman of Edinburgh, was born on 6 Dec. 1721. He was educated at the high school and university of Edinburgh, and in his seventeenth year became tutor to Lord Blantyre, and later to Lord Dalhousie. On coming of age he accompanied Thomas Carte [q.v.], the historian, on a tour through Holland, and made a stay at Paris long enough to become proficient in the French language. Returning to Edinburgh he became private tutor to the son of Mr. Murray of Abercairney. In 1750, on the appearance of the 'Rambler,' he superintended an edition which was published in Edinburgh, affixing English translations of the mottoes. This work earned him the thanks of Johnson, who became his occasional correspondent. In 1751 he married a Miss Gordon, niece of General Gordon of Auchintoul, Banffshire, and two years later removed to London and established a school at Brompton, where he 'educated young gentlemen under sixteen at 25l. a year, and above that age in proportion.' In 1758 he published 'An Analysis of the French and English Languages' (2 vols. 12mo) and 'Religion,' a poetical translation from the French of the younger Racine, which he followed up four years afterwards with an indifferent rendering of Fénelon's 'Fables,' In 1763, having removed his school to Kensington to a site recently occupied by Baron Grant's mansion, he published 'Education, a Poem, in Four Books,' a composition devoid of merit, and apparently designed as an advertisement of his academy. For the use of his pupils he brought out 'The Principles of English Grammar Digested, or English Grammar reduced to Analogy' (2 vols. 8vo, 1765), a diffuse work, lacking in system, but a second edition was called for in 1766. He gave up school in 1776. It was probably not successful. Dr. A. Carlyle writes of a friend (Autobiogr. p. 493): 'He had overcome many disadvantages of his education, for he had been sent to a Jacobite seminary of one Elphinston at Kensington, where his mind was starved, and his body also.' Johnson, however, who dined with Elphinston at his school more than once, remarked more favourably: 'I would not put a boy to him whom I intended for a man of learning; but for the sons of citizens who are to learn a little, get good morals, and then go to trade, he may do very well' (Boswell, ed. Hill, ii. 171). In 1778 Elphinston, who, after a lecturing tour in Edinburgh and Glasgow, had settled in Edward Street, Cavendish Square, published 'An Universal History,' translated from the French of Bossuet, and in the same year appeared a 'Specimen of the Translations of Epigrams of Martial,' in a preface to which he informed the public that he was only waiting for subscriptions to be taken up before he published a complete translation of Martial. It was four years later before the whole work, a handsome quarto, made its appearance, and was received with ridicule. Garrick declared it the most extraordinary of all translations ever attempted, and told Johnson, who had lacked the courage to do the like, that he had advised Elphinston not to publish it. Elphinston's brother-in-law, Strahan the printer, sent him a subscription of 50l., and offered to double the amount if he would refrain from publishing (ib. iii. 238). Beattie spoke of the book as 'a whole quarto of nonsence and gibberish;' and Burns addressed the author in the following epigram (Letter to Clarinda, 21 Jan. 1788):—

<poem>O thou whom poesy abhors, Whom prose has turned out of doors! Heardst thou that groan? proceed no further; 'Twas laurell'd Martial roaring further.

Elphinston retaliated on the critics, who had uniformly and with justice laughed at all his publications, with 'The Hypercratic' (1783), in which be endeavoured to show their malice. He refrained, however, from any further strictly literary ventures, and devoted himself for the remainder of his life to evolving a fantastic system of quasiphonetic spelling He endeavoured to set forth his views on this subject in 'Propriety ascertained in her Picture, or Inglish Speech and Spelling under mutual guides' (2 vols, 4to, n.d. but 1787) and in 'Inglish Orthoggraphy epittomized, and Propriety's Pocket Diccionary' (8vo, 1790). The spelling adopted in these works is purely arbitrary; 'the,' for example, appears as 'dhe,' 'whole' as 'hoal,' 'which' as 'hwich,' 'single' as 'singuel,' 'portion' as 'poartion,' and 'occasion' as 'occazzion,' In 1791 there further appeared 'Forty years' Correspondence between Geniusses ov boath Sexes and James Elphinston, in 6 pocket volumes, foar ov oridginal letters, two ov poetry,' in which all the letters of himself and his friends appeared with the spelling altered in accordance with the new system. Two further volumes of correspondence appeared in 1794. Elphinston died at Hammersmith on 8 Oct. 1809. His first wife having died in 1778, he re-married, 6 Oct. 1785, Mary Clementina Charlotte Falconer, a niece of the bishop of that name, by whom he had a son. Johnson said of him: 'He has a great deal of good about him, but he is also very defective in some respects; his inner part is good, but his outward part is mighty awkward' (Boswell, ii. 171). Of his eccentric manner Dallas, his biographer in the 'Gentleman's Magazine,' gives the following instance: 'When any ladies were in company whose sleeves were at a distance from their elbows, or whose bosoms were at all exposed, he would fidget from place to place, look askance with a slight convulsion of his left eye, and never rest till he approached some of them, and, pointing to their arms, say, "Oh, yes, indeed! it is very pretty, but it betrays more fashion than modesty!" or some similar phrase; after which he became very good humoured.' Elphinston was also probably the 'old acquaintance' of whom Johnson said: 'He is fit for a travelling governor. He knows French very well. He is a man of good principles, and there should be no danger that a young gentleman should catch his manner, for it is so very bad that it must be avoided;' and of whom he remarked on another occasion: 'He has the most inverted understanding of any man whom I have ever known.' Besides the works mentioned above, Elphinston published 'A Collection of Poems from the best Authors,' 1764; 'Animadversions upon [Lord Kames's] Elements of Criticism,' 1771; and 'Verses, English, French, and Latin, presented to the King of Denmark,' 1768; and Bossuet's 'Universal History,' 1778.

[Anderson's Scottish Nation, ii. 139; Boswell's Life of S. Johnson, ed. Hill, as above, and i. 210, ii. 226, iii. 364; Elphinston's Works and Correspondence; Gent. Mag. 1809, pt. ii., containing life and specimens of his letters; Nichols's Literary Illustrations, vii. 657.]

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