Carter, Elizabeth (1717–1806)

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Carter, Elizabeth (1717–1806)

English intellectual, poet and translator, best known for her translation of Epictetus. Name variations: (pen name) Eliza. Born Elizabeth Carter on December 16, 1717, in Deal, Kent, England; died in Clarges Street, Piccadilly, on February 19, 1806; eldest daughter of Nicolas Carter (a curate) and Margaret Carter; educated at home by her father; read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Arabic, and Portuguese and was considered to be the most learned member of the Bluestocking Circle; never married.

Selected works:

Poems on Particular Occasions (1736 or 1738); translated several philosophical works, most notably All of the Works of Epictetus (1758); Poems on Several Occasions (1762); Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, with a New Edition of Her Poems (1807); 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 (1809); Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, to Mrs. Montagu, between the Years 1755 and 1800: Chiefly upon Literary and Moral Subjects (1817); contributed to the Gentlemen's Magazine and The Rambler.

Elizabeth Carter was born in Deal, a town on the English seaside, where she would live for most of her life, except for wintering in London. Her father Nicholas was the curate of Deal and preached at Canterbury Cathedral; he believed in educating all his children, both girls and boys alike. Not considered a gifted student, Elizabeth persisted despite her father's impatience. Although languages did not come easily to her at first, she studied early in the morning and late into the night, taking snuff, and chewing green tea to keep awake; in this manner, she learned nine languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and some Arabic) as well as classics, astronomy, geography, music and history. As a tutor, she prepared her younger brother for university. Ultimately, her translations would be such a financial success as to enable her to purchase her own home, where she spent eight to twelve hours a day studying.

She began publishing her work at the age of 17 (in 1734), in the Gentlemen's Magazine, a publication owned by a friend of her father's, Edward Cave. Cave also published a volume of her poetry entitled Poems upon Particular Occasions (in 1736 or 1738) and suggested to Carter that she pursue translation, probably because, as her publisher, he could profit greatly from the attention that was drawn by a woman scholar. An expert linguist, in 1739 she translated from the French an attack on Alexander Pope's Essay on Man by J.P. de Crousaz. Her translation from the Italian of Francesco Algarotti's Newtonianismo per le Dame appeared the same year under the title of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy explained for the use of the Ladies, in six Dialogues on Light and Colour.

Carter's friends came to include Catherine Talbot , who probably gave some help in the translation of Epictetus, and who introduced her to a much larger intellectual and social circle in London, including Lady Mary Coke . A seasoned Greek and Latin scholar, Carter counted among her friends the distinguished men of the day, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Bishop Butler, Richard Savage, Samuel Richardson, Horace Walpole, and Samuel Johnson (remarked Johnson of a celebrated male intellectual: he "understood Greek better than any one whom he had ever known except Elizabeth Carter"). From March 1750 to March 1752, Carter wrote for Johnson's The Rambler.

Carter received financial support from several people, and she published at her own expense a collection of pieces on religion by Talbot. In general, Carter preferred the company of women, although she considered the feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft too zealous. She came to be included among the women intellectuals of the time who were known as "bluestockings" and became friends with intellectual women, including Hannah More and Elizabeth Vesey , leaders of literary society.

Destined to span roughly two generations, the Bluestocking Circle became one of London's most celebrated societies for members of the leisured gentry. The Circle began during the 1750s and 1760s as a conversation among friends, both females and males, who were interested in literature and other intellectual pursuits. Rather than wear the white silk stockings then worn by London's fashion-conscious gentry, one member of the Circle, Benjamin Stillingfleet, started to attend their evening meetings dressed in blue worsted stockings, ordinarily worn only by peasants. From Stillingfleet's provocative choice, Elizabeth Montagu , an early member, coined the society's name.

A "bluestocking philosophy," concerned with literature rather than politics, emerged as a means of what members called "rational entertainment" for women, and the Circle evolved into London's most famous women's-only society. With Montagu, Talbot and Hester Mulso Chapone , Carter was among the first generation of bluestockings. In addition to their meetings, members communicated through letters, discussing their personal and professional activities and ideas at length. Eventually, as political turmoil in Europe of the late 1790s destabilized society, more conservative men and women openly scorned the accomplishments of intellectual women, and "bluestocking" became a term of ridicule.

Although Carter's favorite philosopher was Plato, she was sympathetic to Stoicism and is best known for translating the collected works of the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus. The translation was begun in 1749, with the encouragement and sheet-by-sheet scrutiny of her friend Catherine Talbot. The first translation of Epictetus to appear in English, the work took nine years to complete. Highly acclaimed on its publication in 1758, her translation was considered by some to be better than the original. She made more than £1,000 from the publication, which continued in popularity for some time (through four editions in her lifetime). The excellence of the translation was given particular notice because it was very difficult scholarship, and unusual due to its authorship by a woman. As was often the case when women made significant contributions in what were perceived to be male spheres, some doubted that a woman could have authored it.

In 1763, Carter undertook a continental tour with Edward and Elizabeth Montagu and Sir William Pulteney, 1st earl of Bath, an account of which can be found in her letters. The great success of her translation of Epictetus gave her the financial independence to purchase a home. An annuity was bestowed on her by Pulteney and his wife, who had inherited Lord Bath's fortune, and Carter had another annuity from Montagu. Her father came to live with her until his death in 1774; all the while, she continued her studies, especially of the Bible. Remaining single, she helped raise her father's large family by his second wife. After his death in 1774, she remained in Deal, a venerated woman who lived to be 88, retaining the vigor of her intellect and the clearness of her judgment until the end.

Elizabeth Carter's Memoirs were published in 1807; her correspondence with Talbot and Vesey in 1808; and her letters to Montagu in 1817.


Buck, Claire, ed. Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Carter, Elizabeth. Memoirs, 1807.

Gaussen, Alice C.C. A Woman of Wit and Wisdom: A Memoir of Elizabeth Carter. 1906.

Kersey, Ethel M. Women Philosophers: a Bio-critical Source Book. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Stenton, Doris Mary. The Englishwoman in History. NY: Macmillan, 1957.

Talbot, Catherine. Letters between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss CT, 1808.

Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph