Smith, Elizabeth (DNB00)

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SMITH, ELIZABETH (1776–1806), oriental scholar, second child and eldest daughter of George and Juliet Smith, was born at Burn Hall, a family property near Durham, in December 1776. Sir Charles Felix Smith [q. v.] was her brother. A clever and bookish child, she was never at school, and was chiefly educated by her mother, whose accomplishments do not seem to have been literary. At the beginning of 1782 the family moved into Suffolk, to be near a blind relative, who died in 1784. They were then at Burn Hall till June 1785, when the father, who was partner in a west of England banking firm, took Piercefield Park, near Chepstow, Monmouthshire. By this time Elizabeth had made good progress in music. For three years from the spring of 1786 she was under a governess, who taught her French and a little Italian. All her other linguistic attainments were of her own acquiring. Her father had a good library, and she read with avidity, especially the poets. Devoting some hours before breakfast each morning to study, she improved her Italian, and by 1793 could read Spanish without difficulty.

The declaration of war by France (1 Feb. 1793) produced a financial crisis which proved fatal to several banks, Smith's among the number. In March he gave up Piercefield, and in 1794 took a commission in the army, serving for some years in Ireland. Elizabeth spent seven or eight months at Bath, where her friend Mary Hunt encouraged her to study German and botany. At the end of the year she began Arabic and Persian. She began Latin in November 1794, and by February 1795 had ‘read Cæsar's Commentaries, Livy, and some volumes of Cicero,’ and was ‘very impatient to begin Virgil.’ After she and her mother joined her father at Sligo, she picked up an Irish grammar at Armagh, and at once began to study it. She must have begun Hebrew soon after returning to Bath in October 1796, as she was translating from Genesis in 1797. In 1799 she found at Shirley a Syriac New Testament, printed in Hebrew characters, and could ‘read it very well.’ Buxtorf's ‘Florilegium’ she carried always in her pocket. In the summer of 1799 the family settled at Ballitore, co. Kildare, removing in May 1801 to Coniston, Lancashire, where Elizabeth ended her days. In May 1802 she met Elizabeth Hamilton (1758–1816) [q. v.], who thought that ‘with a little of the Scotch frankness … she would be one of the most perfect of human beings.’

Evidently she was overtaxing every faculty. She died at Coniston, after a year's decline of health, on 7 Aug. 1806, and was buried at Hawkshead, where there is a tablet to her memory in the parish church.

Miss Smith's powers of memory and of divination must have been alike remarkable, for she rarely consulted a dictionary. Translation from Hebrew was her ‘Sunday work.’ With her intellectual accomplishment went, we are assured, facility in women's work, like cooking and needlework, and she was a horsewoman. Her verses have no merit, and her reflections are of the obvious kind, gracefully expressed. Her translations are flowing and good. Among her philological collections were lists of words in Welsh, Chinese, and African dialects, with some Icelandic studies. The following were published from her papers: 1. ‘Fragments, in Prose and Verse … with some Account of her Life, by H. M. Bowdler,’ &c. 1808, 8vo (portrait); contains translations of Jonah ii. and Habakkuk iii.; numerous editions, the latest being 1842, 8vo. 2. ‘Memoirs of Frederick and Margaret Klopstock, translated from the German,’ &c. 1808, 8vo (from materials supplied by Dr. Mumssen of Altona); in many issues this is treated as a second volume of No. 1. 3. ‘The Book of Job, translated,’ &c., 1810, 8vo, edited by Francis Randolph [q. v.], himself no great hebraist, on the recommendation of Archbishop William Magee [q. v.], who read the manuscript, and thought it the best version of Job he knew; dedicated (18 Jan. 1810) to Thomas Burgess, D.D. (1756–1837) [q. v.] 4. ‘A Vocabulary, Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian,’ &c. 1814, 8vo; edited, with ‘Praxis on the Arabic Alphabet,’ by John Frederick Usko, vicar of Orsett, Essex, who notes that the authoress had no predecessor in this systematic collation of the three languages; prefixed is letter (1 July 1814) by Bishop Burgess. Selections from the authoress's didactic writings are in ‘The Lady's Monitor,’ 1828, 8vo.

[A somewhat confused Life by Henrietta Maria Bowdler [q. v.], a personal friend from 1789; Jones's Christian Biography, 1829, pp 385 sq.; De Quincey's Works, ed. Masson, ii. 404; Notes and Queries, 25 Jan. 1868, p. 76.]

A. G.