All Scholars

GRIERSON, Constantia Crawley

  • Date of Birth: 1704/5
  • Born City: County Kilkenny
  • Born State/Country: Ireland
  • Date of Death: December 2, 1732
  • Death City: Dublin
  • Death State/Country: Ireland
  • Married: George Grierson, editor & poet, July 17, 1726
  • Education:

    Local vicarage?

  • Publications:

    Publius Virgilius Maro, P.V.M. opera. Nunc emendatiora, (ed.) (Dublin: G. Grierson, 1724); Publius Afer Terentius, P. Terentii Afri Comoediae ad optimorum exemplarium fidem recensitae. Praefixa sunt huic editioni Loca Menandri et Apollodori quae Terentius Latine interpretatus est. Accesserunt emendationes omnes Bentleianae. Editio novissima (ed.) (Dublin: G. Grierson, 1727); Publius Cornelius Tacitus, C. Cornelii Taciti Opera quae extant ex recensione et cum animadversionibus T. Ryckii. T. Ryckii de Vita et Morte Sigani Oratio, 3 vols. (ed.) (Dublin: G. Grierson, 1730); Poems, ed. Mary Barber: “Poems on Several Occasions” (London: Printed for the author, 1734); The Poetry of Laetitia Pilkington (1712-1750) and Constantia Grierson (1706-1733), ed. Bernard Tucker (Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press, 1996); unpublished manuscript poems and prose.

  • Notes:

    Of all the early modern female classicists, Constantia Grierson is exceptional. Only she and Anne Dacier (1647-1720) produced editions of classical authors. But, unlike the other women of that period who were learned in the classics, Grierson did not have the benefits of a privileged education. The details of her life are insufficient to form a complete picture and there is no known portrait of the scholar. She was born in County Kilkenny in 1704 or 1705. Although her family was poor, according to reports, Constantia learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French from her local vicar. (Elias, 36), She set her sights on training to be a midwife and apprenticed with the distinguished physician John van Lewen (1684-1737) in Dublin, (Griffith, 68) who served as president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1734-1735. (O’Dowd) Living in Dr. van Lewen’s household, Grierson became good friends with his daughter Laetitia (1709-1750) who married Matthew Pilkington (1701-1774), the author of the first English handbook of artists’ biographies, The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters (1770), after 1824 appearing as The Dictionary of Painters, known informally as “Pilkington’s Dictionary.” (Sorensen)  At this time, the young woman’s ambitions shifted, and she took up printing, possibly as a way to satisfy her interests in intellectual subjects. She began working for the Scottish printer George Grierson (1679-1753), whom, after the death of his first wife, she married in 1726. (Griffith, 68) In 1730 the Griersons submitted the following petition to the House of Commons for the office of King’s Printer: “A petition of George Grierson, of the city of Dublin, printer and Constantia, his wife…setting forth that the petitioner George hath followed the printing business in this city for many years, and the petitioner Constantia hath, in a more particular manner, applied herself to the correcting of the press…Insomuch, that the editions corrected by her have been approved of, not only in this kingdom, but in Great Britain, Holland, and elsewhere, and the art of printing, through her care and assistance, has been brought to greater perfection than has been hitherto in this Kingdom and therefore praying the house to grant them such encouragement as shall seem meet.” (Griffith, 70) The petition was granted and the office remained in the Grierson family for nearly 140 years until 1870, at which time the office was abolished. Among the publications of the Grierson Press were a series of Elzevir-style pocket texts of Latin authors. Constantia oversaw the editing and proofreading of the complete works of Virgil (1724), Terence (1727) and Tacitus (1730). At the time of her death, she was preparing an edition of Sallust. (Elias 37) Her editions garnered universal praise. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote to Alexander Pope (1688-1744): “a Scotch Booksellers Wife…is a very good Latin and Greek Scholar, and hath lately published a fine edition of Tacitus with a dedication to the Lord Lieutenant and she writes carmina Anglicana non contemnenda.” (Griffith, 68) The Earl of Orrery (1707-1762) inscribed his copy of Tacitus: “This edition of Tacitus is one of the the best extant. The Press was corrected by Mrs. Grierson…a woman of uncommon learning: and a perfect Mistress of the Greek and Latin tongues.” (Pittock, 197) The biblical scholar Edward Harwood, D.D. (1729-94) (Garnett, 102-3) wrote in 1755 of the Tacitus edition: “I have read it twice through, and it is one of the best edited books ever delivered to the world. Mrs. Grierson was a lady possessed of singular erudition, and had an elegance of taste and solidity of judgment which justly rendered her one of the most wonderful, as well as most amiable of her sex.” (Pittock, ibid) Grierson belonged to a circle of women writers that included Laetitia Pilkington and Mary Barber (c.1685-c.1755). Swift referred to them somewhat patronizingly as his “triumfeminate.” (Gerrard, 13) Only some nine or ten poems of hers were ever published, to which number A.C. Elias has added another ten along with some prose pieces, from a manuscript held by the Grierson family. (Elias, 33) A number of these works stand out: the mournful verse to a son dying as an infant, (Elias, 45) a poem in praise of the wonders of printing (Tucker, 146) and a playful piece in Mary Barber’s voice to her son, Con: “On my son speaking Latin in school to less advantage than English: Written as from a schoolfellow.” (Tucker, 138) This may have been to good effect, as Constantine Barber (or Barbor) (1714-83) went on to Trinity College Dublin and then became president of the Royal College of Physicians in 1754-5, 1764-65 and 1769-70. (Clarke) 

  • Notes (2):

    Despite her literary success, Grierson’s life was marred by tragedy. After the death of her infant son, she lost a daughter and then succumbed, most likely to tuberculosis, in her 27th year, thankfully before witnessing the death of a second daughter shortly afterwards. (Elias, 46) Her fourth child, George Abraham Grierson (c.1727-55), entered Trinity College Dublin in 1743, graduating with a B.A. in 1747. (Griffith, 71) His journal illustrates the extent of his intellectual pursuits, ranging over languages ancient and modern, as well as history, politics, and philosophy. (Griffith, 72) He became a friend of Samuel Johnson (1709-84), whose biographer James Boswell (1740-95) writes of George Abraham: “A gentleman of uncommon learning and great wit and vivacity…[Johnson] highly respected his abilities and often observed, that he possessed more extensive knowledge than any man of his years that he had ever known. His industry was equal to his talents and he particularly excelled in every species of philosophical learning.” (Griffith 72) Sadly, George Abraham never fully realized his talents, living only to the age of twenty-eight, one year more than his mother. (Griffith, 73) The Grierson legacy of intellectual talent continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, represented by the renowned linguist Sir George Abraham Grierson (1851-1941), best known as the author of the “Linguistic Survey of India,” among many other scholarly works. (Sen)

  • Sources:

    Tom Clarke, “Constantine Barbor,” Lives of the Presidents, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland; A.C. Elias, Jr., “A Manuscript Book of Constantia Grierson’s” Swift Studies, 2 (1987) 33-56; Richard Garnett, LLD. “Harwood, Edward, D.D. (1729-1794),” DNB (1891) 25:102-3; Christine Gerrard, “Senate or Seraglio? Swift's 'Triumfeminate' and the literary coterie,” Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an dá chultúr2016, 31 (2016) 13-28; Lisa Marie Griffith, “Mobilising Office, Education and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Case of the Griersons,” Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an dá chultúr, 2007, 22 (2007) 64-80; Michael O’Dowd, “John van Lewen” Lives of the Presidents, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland; Sarah Peterson Pittock, "Constantia Grierson (1705?-1732)," Eighteenth-Century British Literary Scholars and Critics. Ed. Frans De Bruyn (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2010) 105-12; Siddhartha Sen, “George Abraham Grierson, 1851-1941,” Hermathena 172 (Summer 2002) 39-55; Lee Sorensen, ed. “Pilkington, Matthew.” Dictionary of Art Historians (website); Bernard Tucker, “The Poetry of Laetitia Pilkington (1712-1750) and Constantia Grierson (1706-1733),” Studies in British Literature, v. 20 (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996). 

  • Author: Christopher Robinson