All Scholars

CARTER, Elizabeth

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  • Date of Birth: December 16, 1717
  • Born City: Deal, Kent
  • Born State/Country: England
  • Parents: Rev. Nicolas, perpetual curate of Deal, & Margaret Swayne C.
  • Date of Death: February 19, 1806
  • Death City: London
  • Death State/Country: England
  • Education:

    Educated in Greek and Latin by her father

  • Professional Experience:

    Poet, classicist, translator, author, linguist.

  • Publications:

    Jean Pierre de Crousaz, An Examination of Mr. Pope's Essay on Man. (trans.) (London, 1739); Francesco Algarotti, Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy Explain'd for the Use of Ladies: In Six Dialogues on Light and Colours, from the Italian... (trans.) (London, 1739); Remarks on the Athanasian Creed (London, 1752); All the Works of Epictetus, Which are Now Extant (London, 1758; Dublin, 1759); Poems on Several Occasions (London, 1762); A Series of Letters between Mrs Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine 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, 1809; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1975); Elizabeth Carter, 1717-1806: an Edition of Some Unpublished Letters, ed. Gwen Hampshire (Newark: U. of Delaware Press, 2005). 

  • Notes:

          Other women learned in Greek and Latin lived in England before Elizabeth Carter, such as Elizabeth Weston (1582-1612), Bathsua Makin (1600-75), and Constantia Grierson (1705-32). Carter, however, was the first to publish her own translation of a classical author along with commentary. Her father, Nicolas (he insisted that his name be spelled without an "h"), was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he obtained his master's degree in 1714 and his Doctor of Divinity in 1728. Her mother Margaret brought a substantial inheritance to the marriage. Elizabeth was their first child. Unfortunately her parents invested Margaret's inheritance in the South Sea Company and lost most of that in 1720. From that time on, Elizabeth's mother went into a decline and died in 1727, when Elizabeth was ten years old, leaving five small children. Nicolas soon remarried, to Mary Bean. Mary had four children, but only two survived childhood. Elizabeth got along well with her step-mother and helped her father with the instruction of her brothers and sisters. Nicolas was a caring father and progressive in educating all of his children equally, with whom he shared his knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. At first Elizabeth made slow progress and her father despaired of her ever becoming a scholar. She worked diligently at her studies, however, and overcame her initial difficulties. She also began the study of French with an exiled Huguenot family living in Canterbury with whom she boarded at age fifteen.To these languages Elizabeth added Italian and German, as well as some Arabic and Portuguese. She tutored her younger brother Henry in preparation for Cambridge, where he entered in 1757. Henry distinguished himself on the entry examinations and amazed everyone when he said that he had been taught by a woman.

           Carter's literary career began when she, at age 17, contributed "A Riddle" to Edward Cave's (1691-1754) newly founded Gentleman's Magazine. This was followed a year later by her translation of Anacreon 30. In 1737 she moved from Deal to London. A number of other poetic contributions soon followed and were so well received that Cave chose Carter for the editorial team in the same year as another young poet, Samuel Johnson (1709-84). A life-long friendship soon developed between the writers. An edited volume of her father's sermons, two volumes of her verse, and translations from the French of Jean-Pierre de Crousaz's (1663-1750) "An Examination of Mr. Pope's 'Essay on Man'" and Francesco Algarotti's "Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy Explain'd for the Use of Ladies" from Italian soon followed, bringing her literary renown. In 1741, at a social gathering, Elizabeth was introduced by her astronomy tutor to the author and member of the Blue Stockings Society, Catherine Talbot (1721-70), with whom she formed an intense and enduring friendship. It was on behalf of Catherine that Carter undertook her major literary achievement, the first English translation of the complete works of Epictetus. Besides her translation of the Dialogues and Handbook, she added a lengthy introductory essay on Stoicism and frequent scholarly notes to the text. The deep religious sensibility of the work corresponded well with contemporary moral sentiment. Samuel Richardson was the printer and there were over 500 subscribers to the first edition of more than 1000 copies. A second edition of 250 copies was soon needed to meet the demand for the book. The income from the sale allowed Carter to enjoy financial security. 

          Carter never married, but never denied her intention to do so, saying up to the end of her life that she "may still do so." Her attitude towards the various marriage proposals she received is similar to the times she expressed distaste for the several offers of becoming a royal tutor. She had a kind and fun-loving nature which expressed itself in a love for dancing and the highest consideration and sensitivity towards others. She also was an indefatigable walker, an exercise that helped overcome the headaches brought on by her intense study.

  • Sources:

    Memoirs of the Life of Mrs Elizabeth Carter, ed. Montagu Pennington, 2 vols. (London, 1807; repr. New York: Cambridge U. Press, 2011); Claudia Thomas, "'Th'instructive moral, and important thought,' :Elizabeth Carter reads Pope, Johnson, and Epictetus" Age of Johnson 4 (1991) 137-69; Brigitte Sprenger, "Miss Epictetus, or, the Learned Eliza: A Literary Biography of Elizabeth Carter," (thesis: U. of London, 1996); Judith Hawley, Elizabeth Carter (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998; repr., Routledge, 2016); Jennifer Wallace, "Confined and Exposed: Elizabeth Carter's Classical Translations," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 22 (2003) 315-34.

  • Author: Christopher Robinson