Hamilton, Elizabeth (1758–1816)

views updated

Hamilton, Elizabeth (1758–1816)

Reformist writer in early 19th-century Britain who argued for the education of women and for charity toward the needy. Name variations: (pseudonym) Almeria. Born on July 21, 1758, in Belfast, Ireland; died on July 23, 1816, in Harrogate, Yorkshire, England; daughter of Charles Hamilton and Katherine Mackay Hamilton; never married.

Moved to Scotland (1772); began to collaborate with scholar brother (1766); published first novel (1796); granted royal pension (1804); tutored in Edinburgh (c. 1805); wrote popular "domestic" novel (1808).

Selected writings:

Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796); Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800); Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education (1801); Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, Wife of Germanicus (1804); Letters Addressed to the Daughter of a Nobleman (1806); The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808); Exercises in Religious Knowledge (1809); Popular Essays on the Elementary Principles of the Human Mind (1812); Hints Addressed to Patrons and Directors of Schools (1815); (edited by Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger and published posthumously) Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton with a Selection from Her Correspondence and Other Unpublished Writings (1818).

Elizabeth Hamilton was a reform-minded British author whose writings espouse a moderate feminism, and were infused with a decidedly Episcopalian sense of charity. Never married, Hamilton supported herself through her writing.

She was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1758 to Charles Hamilton, a merchant, and Katherine Mackay Hamilton . The family was of Scottish descent but had been grounded in Ireland since the emigration of an ancestor the century prior. Charles Hamilton died of typhus when Elizabeth was still an infant, and Katherine Hamilton was forced to place all three of her children into homes of relatives or acquaintances, because she knew that as a widow she could not adequately provide for them or their education. Elizabeth, the youngest, was sent to live with an aunt and uncle, the Marshalls. She was fortunate to attend a coeducational primary school, then as a teenager moved with them to Scotland. Later Hamilton recalled her childhood as a happy one, because her guardians had encouraged her to read. She tried to hide her interest in books on philosophy and theology, however, since such topics were considered inappropriate for young women.

In 1772, Hamilton renewed contact with her older brother Charles, not long before he departed to serve in the British colonial forces in India. They corresponded, and he also encouraged her pursuit of further learning and exposed her to progressive ideas and political strains. He was an "Orientalist," a scholar of the Asian subcontinent and pro-Indian, and before his death in 1792 he worked actively to reform British attitudes toward its lucrative colonial possession. At one point, Charles wanted Elizabeth to visit him in India, in the hope that she would find a husband from among his colleagues, but she declined. Yet she did keep her passion for writing and her modest success with published articles a secret to those outside her family for many years, lest she be deemed a poor candidate for a wife.

Hamilton lived with her aunt and uncle well into her adulthood, and after her brother returned from India in 1786 she and her sister Katherine moved to London with him. She also began to help him with his scholarly work, including translations. After his death in 1792, she and Katherine, greatly saddened, relocated to the Suffolk countryside and later to Berkshire. In 1796, Hamilton's first novel, Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, appeared in print. The work was a homage to her brother, the fictional account of an Enlightenment-minded British army captain who tutors a Hindu prince. Her character of Captain Percy is modeled on her brother, and the character Charlotte, his sister, upon herself. In the book, through the writings of the Indian prince, Hamilton is able to offer a critical view of English society, exposing its foibles and the decadence of the era. Other passages skewer the colonial bureaucracy in India.

By the turn of the century, Hamilton and her sister had moved to Bath and she saw her second novel published. In Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800), she lampoons the more radical feminists of her era, such as Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft . More of a moderate feminist who believed in the "women's sphere"—in other words, that women could achieve the highest form of success at home and in raising a family—Hamilton believed in a Christian ideology in perspective while still progressive in spirit. Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, published anonymously, offered a counterargument to what was known as the "Godwin" group, the intellectual circle centered around William Godwin, who was the husband of Wollstonecraft, and his anarchistic beliefs. With this satire, Hamilton directed criticism against some of her fellow Britons, especially in the upper classes, who displayed little sense of charity to the poor.

Yet Hamilton also gained renown for her writings on education, and in some ways shared many of the same views as Wollstonecraft, who argued for equal access to learning for women in her groundbreaking On the Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In Hamilton's 1801 work, Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education, she penned a series of interrelated essays on philosophy and the education of women that would help women play a greater social and political role in Britain. She returned to the novel format with the 1804 opus Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, Wife of Germanicus, which was essentially a fictionalized account of Agrippina the Elder . This work was rather progressive in its day for its sheer presence as a biography of a female historical figure—a topic of scarcity at the start of the 19th century. Agrippina was the mother of the notorious Caligula, the Roman emperor of the 1st century ce, as well as the adoptive grandmother of Nero, the first emperor to persecute Europe's new Christians on a systematic scale. With Hamilton's Episcopalian outlook, her work does not romanticize classical culture, but instead shows how decadence caused a mighty empire to fall from within. The Roman era and its decline were topics of intellectual pursuit in the England of Hamilton's day, and similarities between the two civilizations were analyzed by many others. Most notably in her Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, Hamilton attempted to show how a mother—by remaining within the feminine sphere—might influence her child, and in turn could shape political destinies and indeed the world.

For her achievements, Hamilton was granted a royal pension in 1804, and from that year on she resided with her sister in Edinburgh. There she became a tutor to a lord's daughters, which inspired her 1806 book Letters Addressed to the Daughter of a Nobleman. She also became involved in the Edinburgh House of Industry, a charitable establishment that helped impoverished women gain work skills. Far from a dour do-gooder, however, the unmarried Hamilton was known for her great parties and held a Monday evening salon at her Edinburgh home. She also lent support and encouragement to other women writers.

Her most lasting contribution was perhaps her 1808 novel The Cottagers of Glenburnie. It chronicles the efforts of Betty Mason, a virtuous yet practical-minded woman who has greatly bettered her station in life through hard work and common sense. Mason retires to a Scottish village notorious for its poverty and amorality, and predictably succeeds in cleaning Glenburnie up house by house. This work became a commercial success in the social-realism vein, a genre later popularized by Charles Dickens. Hamilton also wrote two other nonfiction works, Exercises in Religious Knowledge (1809) and Hints Addressed to Patrons and Directors of Schools. The latter work, published in 1815, echoed many of the themes espoused by Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, who also supported the idea of women having equal access to learning. In this book, Hamilton writes of the way in which young boys from impoverished backgrounds seem more intelligent than girls of their age from the same class, but points out that this is probably the result of the common practice of confining girls to the home; boys, on the other hand, are set free to play and roam about, and thus gain needed stimulation and interaction.

Hamilton, who had long suffered from gout, traveled to Harrogate in Yorkshire for the treatment of an eye condition. She died there on July 23, 1816, just two days after her 58th birthday. Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton with a Selection from Her Correspondence and Other Unpublished Writings, edited by Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger , appeared in 1818. Both Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott were familiar with Hamilton's work and gave it praise.


British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Stanley J. Kunitz. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1936.

Dictionary of Ulster Biography. Compiled by Kate Newmann. Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies Queens's University of Belfast, 1993.

Kelly, Gary. "Elizabeth Hamilton," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 158: British Reform Writers, 1789–1832. Edited by Gary Kelly. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996, pp. 119–123.

The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Edited by Joanne Shattock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rich, Myra L. "Elizabeth Hamilton," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 116: British Romantic Novelists, 1789–1832. Edited by Bradford K. Mudge. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992, pp. 130–137.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

About this article

Hamilton, Elizabeth (1758–1816)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article