Elizabeth Carter was born in Deal, Kent into a gentry family, members of which had been active supporters of the Parliamentary cause in the civil war, and which, in the eighteenth century, was loyal to the Hanoverian succession. She was the first child and eldest daughter of Reverend Nicolas Carter, perpetual curate of Deal Chapel, an accomplished linguist and author of several pamphlets, and his first wife Margaret Swayne, an heiress who is supposed to have married with a fortune of £15,000 which she lost in the South Sea Bubble in 1720. After she died in 1728?, Nicolas Carter married again. The children of his second wife, Mary Bean, were much loved by Elizabeth Carter who played an active rôle in their upbringing, not only cooking and sewing for them, but educating them to a very high standard. She even prepared her half-brother Henry for Cambridge. She herself had been educated by her father, who was unusual in giving his sons and daughters the same rigorous education. At first Elizabeth got on so badly that her father advised her to give up the Classical languages. Determined to persevere, she resorted to various extreme measure to enable herself to study for long hour. She used to employ a sexton to wake her between 4 and 5 a.m., and wrapped wet towels about her head, chewed green tea and took snuff to keep herself awake at night. By these means she taught herself ancient and modern languages, and studied history, geography, astronomy and mathematics, but also became addicted to snuff and subject to painfully debilitating headaches for the rest of her life. More conventional feminine accomplishments and duties were not neglected. Music and drawing were not her forte, but her proficiency in needlework and domestic science, as well as her sincere piety, to a large degree protected her from the opprobrium usually attached to learned women in this period. Indeed, one of her most significant achievements is that, along with her fellow “Bluestockings”, she made female intellectual endeavour respectable.
It was as a poetical prodigy that she first came to public attention. Her first published poem, a riddle on fire, provoked an immediate reply when it was published in the Gentleman's Magazine 4 (1734). By 1744 she had published more than twenty riddles, odes, epigrams and poems in the Augustan mode, including a witty “Dialogue” between Mind and Body, and a tribute to a female rôle model, “On the Death of Mrs. Rowe” (Gentleman's Magazine 7 (1737, later revised). She also published two translations which in later years she seems to have regarded as hack work: An examination of Mr. Pope's essay on man, from the French of M. Crousaz, and Sir Isaac Newton's philosophy explain'd for the use of the ladies, by Francesco Algarotti (both 1739). In this year Carter seems to have left London rather abruptly and to have lived for the next few years in relative retirement in her home town, Deal in Kent. It is possible that she left after rejecting a proposal of marriage from the clergyman and man of letters, Thomas Birch. In any case, she made a conscious decision not to marry in order to preserve her freedom to study and to organise her life as she wished. She was supported by her father in doing so. From this period, close friendships with women such as Hester Mulso Chapone, Hannah More, and Elizabeth Vesey, but especially Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Montagu became the mainstay of her emotional life. In the 1740s and 50s she published far fewer works and some of these not by choice. Her melancholy tribute to the pleasures of retirement, “Ode to Wisdom”, which had been circulating in manuscript, was inserted by Samuel Richardson in his novel Clarissa, vol. 2 (1747). When she protested, Richardson publicly apologized, and an authorized version was printed in Gentleman's Magazine 17 (1747). Reconciled with Richardson, she became a friend and correspondent, but was never a full member of his “harem” of admiring women friends. Johnson, whom she met during their early Gentleman's Magazine days, was a lifelong friend. She was a keen supporter of his Rambler and sought to broaden its audience by including more appeals to women's interests. To this end she encouraged her friends Catherine Talbot and Hester Mulso Chapone to write for it and herself contributed two papers, numbers 44 (1750) and 100 (1751).
The work for which she was most celebrated is her translation of All the works of Epictetus which are now extant (1758). Although his Enchiridion had been translated several times, his Discourses and Fragments had never been translated into English. Catherine Talbot, who persuaded Carter to undertake the translation in 1749, also urged her to provide an introduction and notes as an “antidote” to the perceived dangers of Epictetus's Stoical doctrine. For Freethinkers such as Shaftesbury, Stoicism proved attractive as a way of resisting the moral and social authority of the established church. To Carter, Stoicism was useful for attaining the liberty that comes from self-government and forbearance. But, as a confirmed Christian, she could not approve of Epictetus's lack of belief in an afterlife, nor his advocacy of suicide, nor his belief that peace comes from the suppression of feeling and indifference to the world. She believed that many of the virtues as well as the pleasures of life derived from the exercise of feeling. Her edition of Epictetus and her other writings, especially her extensive correspondence, published in a much-edited form by her nephew and biographer, Montagu Pennington (5 vols, 1808, 1817), demonstrate how she strove to find a balance between the pleasures of pains of this world and the demands and rewards of the next.
As well as generating increased respect for learned women, Epictetus brought Carter many personal benefits, including fame and financial security. She made about £1,000 profit from the sale of the subscription, enabling her to buy property in Deal, and to spend most winters in lodgings in London. Friendship with Elizabeth Montagu also followed, and with it, access to the Bluestocking circle — a loose grouping of talented men and women which developed into a literary and social network that provided intellectual, emotional and practical support for women writers until the end of the century. Montagu introduced Carter to another patron, William Pulteney, Earl of Bath. Together they persuaded her to publish a second collection of poetry: Poems on Several Occasions (1762). The poems in this collection, which only reprints two works from Poems on Particular Occasions, are mostly different in form and tone from her earlier work. They are mostly in stanzas rather than couplets, and more “sentimental” than “Augustan”, but they have similar preoccupations: friendship, feeling, the life of the mind, the relations between the ephemeral and the eternal. Some of her closest associates, including Talbot and her nephew and biographer, Montagu Pennington, considered this elegant and introspective volume a disappointment after the weighty seriousness of Epictetus. The expanded third edition of Poems on Several Occasions (1776) was her last publication. Yet Carter continued her studies, taking an interest in new work, especially that of women writers, and was an active Bluestocking correspondent and conversationalist until the deaths of her friends and the decline of her health drew in her circle. She died peacefully in lodgings in 1806.
At the height of her reputation, in the 1760s and 70s, she was something of a national mascot: known as “Epictetus Carter”, she was much praised as an example of what women could achieve in an enlightened England. But by 1813, a reviewer in the Quarterly Review (possibly Walter Scott), dismissed her as “very learned, very excellent, and very tiresome . . . once very celebrated and now almost forgotten”. Nevertheless, her Epictetus was frequently reprinted throughout the nineteenth century, and a clutch of books on the Bluestockings published between 1905 and 1925 kept her name alive. She was largely passed over in the first wave of feminist recovery of lost women writers in the 1970s and 80s because her apparently conservative piety did not fit the need to find rebellious foremothers. Since Sylvia Harcstark Myers' pioneering study, The Bluestocking Circle (1990), she has been reappraised and is now beginning to be admired again for the way in which she confidently promoted the intellectual abilities of women and lived an independent life while remaining obedient to the requirements of feminine propriety; in the words of Johnson's complex tribute: she “could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus, and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem.”
Hawley, Judith. "Elizabeth Carter". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 March 2001
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