17 November - Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806) Jul 14, 2008 22:00:49 GMT 2
Post by moira on Jul 14, 2008 22:00:49 GMT 2
The Nine Livng Muses of Great Britain by Richard Samuel, 1779. Elizabeth Carter is to the direct right of the easel.
According to Sylvia Myers (who wrote a fine book on the "bluestockings" -- she was coerced into using the still derogatory term by the publisher), this famous picture originated with an idea that came out of conversations between the painter and some of the "bluestocking" circle. The women pictured (but not at all individualistically or realistically drawn) are: Elizabeth Carter, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Elizabeth Anne Sheridan (in the middle with the lyre), Hannah More, Charlotte Lennox, Angelica Kauffmann (at the easel), Catherine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu, and Elizabeth Griffith. Poets, translators, learned classicists, musicians, polemicists, novelists, editors, painters, historians, memoir and letter writers and literary critics and playwrights. Frances Burney is not among them as Evelina was first published 3 years later. This is a mid- to late century bunch of women not a late to early 19th century one.
Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806)
I thought maybe people might like to read a poem by someone nowadays
relatively unknown. One of the objections I got twice to my attempts
to publish translations of Veronica Gambara's poetry in the scholarly
world was no one ever heard of her. Well how are they going to begin
if you won't publish her poem? And then the reply, was, well, if you
write about her as a woman who had some power and wielded it (she
famously held out against a seige and fed the people in her area
during a famine), then maybe we're interested.
Elizabeth Carter's years were 1717-1806. Here is a fine poem by her:
A Dialogue (1741)
Says Body to Mind, 'Tis amazing to see,
We're so nearly related yet never agree,
But lead a most wrangling strange Sort of a Life,
As great Plagues to each other as Husband and Wife.
The Fault's all your own, who with flagrant Oppression,
Encroach ev'ry Day on my lawful Possession.
The best Room in my House you have seiz'd for your own,
And turn'd the whole Tenement quite upside down,
While you hourly call in a disorderly Crew
Of vagabond Rogues, who have nothing to do
But to run in and out, hurry scurry, and keep
Such a horrible Uproar, I can't get to sleep.
There's my Kitchen sometimes is as empty as Sound,
I call for my Servants, not one's to be found:
They all are sent out on your Ladyship's Errand,
To fetch some more riotous Guests in, I warrant!
And since Things are growing, I see, worse and worse,
I'm determin'd to force you to alter your Course.
Poor Mind, who heard all with extreme Moderation,
Thought it now Time to speak, and make her Allegation.
'Tis I, that, methinks, have most Cause to complain,
Who am crampt and confin'd like a Slave in a Chain.
I did but step out, on some weighty Affairs,
To visit, last Night, my good Friends in the Stars,
When, before I was got half as high as the Moon,
You dispatch'd Pain and Langour to hurry me down;
Vi & Armis they seiz'd me, in Midst of my Flight,
And shut me in Caverns as dark as the Night.
'Twas no more, reply'd Body, than what you deserv'd,
While you rambled Abroad, I at Home was half starv'd:
And, unless I had closely confin'd you in Hold,
You had left me to perish with Hunger and Cold.
I've a Friend, answers Mind, who, tho' slow, is yet sure,
And will rid me, at last, of your insolent Pow'r:
Will knock down your mud Walls, the whole Fabric demolish,
And at once your strong Holds and my Slav'ry abolish:
And while in the Dust your dull Ruins decay,
I shall snap off my Chains and fly freely away.
As I read this poem, the thrust of the dialogue is the body's complaint. Body is complaining that although Carter does full justice to Mind (which Carter did), Mind does not at all give any fulfillment to Body. Body threatens revenge (she will take over the house), but Mind remains in power. We cannot say alas or even celebrate as Mind counters that Mind is just as chained by Body as Body is by Mind. Encased in flesh, cramped and confined. Mind has to endure all these pains and panics too. But Mind has a friend who will rid Mind of this insolent power, and Mind shall snap my chains and fly away. Alas, that friend is death.
The bright tone which carries this acute content and the realism of the description of Carter's daily life and her evening releases (walking by the moon) might lead readers to ignore the content. It is at odds with it. Note too the Rousseauistic imagery.
I've wondered if Carter had some lesbian leanings. Some of the woman in her Bath group did. We'll never know.
The poem and some of the information in my sketch of Carter's life (just below) comes from Lonsdale's invaluable Eighteenth Century Women Writers. The rest is off the top of my head: Elizabeth Carter who a poet, translator, essayist, scholar, and letter writer.
In the idiom of Muriel Spark's Miss Jane Brodie, Elizabeth Carter was famous for being so learned and knowing Greek. If you've heard of her at all, it's through a quip Samuel Johnson is said to have made about her both being about to read Greek and make puddings. There's another about how she got up so early to do Greek. Recently she features as one of a group of women in a sem-scholarly kind of book by Norma Clarke, Dr Johnson's Women. She was "highly gifted linguistically" (Janet Todd, British Women Writers), and is said to have been able to read French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, German, Portugues and Arabic. Perhaps she was better at some of these languages than others. She is also said to have composed from a very young age plays, novels, sermons, and poems. From her letters we discover she suffered headaches, which she alleviated by playing the flute, gardening, and taking long walks deep into the countryside.
I heard an interesting paper on her in a meeting of the Eastern Region 18th Century society a couple of years ago. The woman scholar who had studied Carter's letters suggested that she came to London in her early 20s determined to make a career as a writer for herself, and we find her noticed and printed by Edward Cave, Johnson (Carter's famous for this too Miss Brodie would tell us); among her important works (read and influential) was her translation of Baretti's dialogues on Newton's philosophy, ostensibly "for the ladies" (as they're made "simple"), but actually read by both sexes. The scholar
who read the paper says there is something unexplained about Carter's sudden retreat from London; she returned home to Deal. Since she returned to Deal, her career fizzled out. The scholar suggested some traumatic event occurred in London. It was hinted it may have been sexual, but we cannot know.
Carter lived the rest of her fairly long life in Deal. She was hampered by the people she was dependent upon for a long while, but she began to write letters, wonderful letters, filled with sparkling observations, love, bitterness, life, mostly to women: Frances Thynne Seymour, Countess of Hertford, Elizabeth Montagu, and most famously, her beloved Catherine Talbot. This letter writing became her lifeline and then her network and she began to travel through visitings. She became part of the circle of women in Bath whose linchpin was Montagu: she knew the highly intelligent and kind Sarah Fielding (novelist in her own right, sister of our Henry), Sarah Scott, and Jane Collier (The Cry).
Samuel Richardson stepped in to help Carter produce a subscribed to edition of Epictetus; that made her enough money to be independent. Richardson was a good man in many ways and helped many women authors; he was always generous with money and time and space in his house. In 1762 with William Pulteney, Earl of Bath, Lord Lyttleton's help and Montagu's encouragement, Carter published her Poems on Several Occasions. She travelled to the continent in the next year, and the year after that Montagu and Pulteney settled an annuity on her. (Fanny Dashwood of Austen's S&S fame may not have liked annuities, but those on the fringe, and who wasn't, much appreciated such crumbs from rich men's tables.)
Later in life she was a familiar figure in literary circles. However, she disliked intensely the new radical movement and gothic and revolutionary and feminist writers like Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft. She is said to have detested the latter -- Freud would suggest reverse jealousy. She didn't take kindly to William Hayley's dediction to her of his Old Maids, though she usually took teasing and pretty well. Of course she liked Hannah More. On the other hand, women who stayed "respectable" and didn't produce revolutionary or feminist ideals of "the rights of woman" (a "wild theory" said Carter) were countenanced: she liked Joanne Baillie who wrote some marvelous gothic plays and hard sharp verse. Her father's death in 1774 had been a "great blow" (Janet Todd). Although from afar she got kudos from people as high as Catherine of Russia and Queen Charlotte, her mainstays were female friends, which included Fanny Burney and Hester Chapone.
It's said that she helped make women writers respectable. I don't know. It seems to me that outside 18th century circles I only hear quoted the line from Johnson that she could bake cakes as well as study Greek at 6 in the morning. I take it I'm supposed to be glad she baked cakes and think that as important as studying Greek at 6 in the morning -- which has the effect of mocking her as well as telling us how she wisely kept her studies in the margins of her daily life. Her picture by Thomas Lawrence is the usual flattery he produced, the usual conventionalization: we see this cosy old lady all in lace. You can see her face clearly though. There is an intensity in the eyes, and her mouth is closed, tight, small. There is more than a bright old lady here.
We do have her poems and what of her correspondence has survived as well as the translations which were useful in their time - and still read today by scholars. One reason we don't know why she retired so suddenly from London is in the usual way her heir, a nephew this time, censored and destroyed her "confidential communications" out of said letters.
She probably did enjoy her existence as much as the mores of her era and her character could allow her to. I take it she decided the game outside safety wasn't worth it or she couldn't pull it off. Her "Ode to Wisdom" used to be well-known because Samuel Richardson imaginatively (well it was a plagiarism but Carter forgave him) attributed it to Clarissa in his novel.
And I close with a summary and critique of Clarke's chapter on Carter in Dr Johnson's Women: Norma Clarke (author of Dr Johnson's Women) does not tell us Carter's birthday, and she does not really go near the heart of Carter's personality and style of life (stay-at-home, write letters, uncommercial, dependent) except in a phrase not developed: "She was, however, a troubled woman." I've thought Carter was someone who should be looked at as psychologically badly wounded and frightened by some experiences she had in her early 20s which led to her retreat from London. (Yes I've read Stella Gibbons's mockery of this kind of thinking in her Cold Comfort Farm about Aunt Aida and the woodshed; all I can say is maybe Gibbons had a thick-skin and was psychologically and sociologically and temporally lucky.) Clarke does tell of Carter's later good friendship with Catherine Talbot and does justice to some of the letters. She also shows how clever Carter was in keeping sufficiently away from Elizabeth Montagu's "patronage" and how Carter alone seems to have found in Montagu someone who had a "language of the heart." Carter's was a life built out of female friendships.
From Annie F (Wom-Po listserv)[/size]
Thank you so much for bringing this richness to the list!! I can't believe I have never heard of Elizabeth Carter. This is exactly the reason that the wompo list exists--to remind people of the richness of women's poetry and of the distinct perspective that women can offer to poetry. I really appreciate your providing so much context about Carter's life as well. Re "A Dialogue," I agree that the thrust of the poem is the body's complaint, and that the balance will clearly be righted by death...but I am curious at Carter's acceptance of the idea that the mind will live on after death. Was this commonly believed in the eighteenth century? I know that Christian theology held that the soul lives after death, but the mind is surely different from the soul--or was it not considered different at the time?
I guess I am wondering whether, if it is true that the theology of an immortal mind would have sounded odd at the time, the mind here might actually be a stand-in not for the soul but for Carter's poetry itself--in a kind of Shakespearean move, saying that her poetry will live on, a claim might have been hard for a woman to make directly at that time. I hope this is clear--it's way later than I should be up and posting, but I just didn't want to let the day end without responding to your marvellously valuable post.
Thank you to all who thanked me. (Two people thanked me offlist too.) Annie asks about Carter's use of the term, mind, in lieu of what one might expect in such an opposition, soul. In the 17th century there's a poem by Andrew Marvell called "A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body" which plays on a struggle for control, but not so much fulfillment, as embedded in that one (I read it lately so remember it), is the idea that the body's longings are sinful.
As far as I know Elizabeth Carter was a conventionally religious woman, but the 18th century was an era where things were changing, and among other ideas, not only was the idea of a literal hell fading away, but people could be openly atheistic (very few, but they were there). In epistemology it had become even commonplace among philosophers that the mind was central to what we know and can see. This idea of the mind was not bound up with sin but seen as a intellectual instrument. It was a way of talking about the intellectual and passions in a secular way. Freud's contribution can be said to have given us a secular language to describe psychology. In brief, both terms were about and were sometimes used interchangeably as today we see three terms, brain, mind, and soul (sometimes spirit too). Brain is our most resolutely soul-free or religion-free term.
I'd say the opposition here was not as in the 17th century an attempt to repress or control the mind because its tendencies are evil or vice versa but rather a struggle for fulfillment such as today someone might see it. Carter asks herself if she studies too much and does not fufill her body's longings; I'm repeating what I said before in plainer or non-metaphoric language I know. The key here is there is no guilt or shame but frustration. The terms are all about housework, not sex (or brooding passion). The body wants to run free, not be tied down to routine, the house, by mores. The concrete example familiar to me is in Austen's P&P: Elizabeth Bennet runs through fields and woods for quite a way to get to Netherfield Park and feels just exhilarated and happy, & is then confronted with the (partly hypocritical) disapproval of Bingley's sisters who sneer at her and say they would not want Georgiana to be so unconventional, so unladylike; Darcy approves but then he's attracted to her and Bingley is pleased at this instance of good nature (she's hurrying to help a sick sister, Jane Bennett).
Carter was steeped in the classics. Note the "Vi & armis." If that's not the first line or words of the Aeneid, it's not far off (by force and arms is the translation I think -- not quite sure and I'm not looking it up). The references are not to Christianity at all.
I'd say it was commonly believed that something mental lived on after death. Indeed many still believed in the resurrection of the body (as many people do today). What was it though? Say we call it soul or spirit or mind? By the middle of the 18th century, or mostly stemming from Locke on, there was a muddle of terms so mind and body could both be used to refer to this entity. Locke we should remember was regarded as radical and early on attacked as implicitly destroying religion since he based his philosophy not on God or the Bible but what he found in his mind and could perceive. There's that word "mind." The mind is a tabula rasa comes from him. I've read some Hume but not much; I will venture from what I can remember Hume does not use the word soul. Johnson is very careful with these terms and my guess is Carter is too and carefully eschews soul in this poem.
People didn't talk about immortal minds. That would have jarred as a term. My guess is it would have been seen as hubristic and inappropriate for mere mortals. The classical gods might take on the adjective immortal.
I don't see any claim for immortality in this poem through poetry. Yes the mind steps out and contemplates weighty matters -- so she could be praying or thinking of God and serious religion -- which then would be bound up with ethics. Characters in books when they are getting serious and ethical and want to escape the irritating, corrupt, competitive anxiety-producing world go to the window, go for walks in the park. When the mind dies, it will go to heaven so the despair at the end (death wish) is countered by a sense of life everlasting after this restricted thwarted existence she has here on earth.
It's an interesting question whether women were much less willing to claim immortality through poetry. They were often much more modest, prosaic. Margaret Homans wrote a book (Women Writers and Poetic Identity) where she claimed what distinguishes women's poetry is much less metaphysics, grandeur, abstraction and dwelling in the immanent and tangible -- I find it convincing for the 18th and 19th century which she deals with. (Helen Vendler I believe, not sure, sneered at Homans and dismissed all attempts to distinguish female from male poetry -- Vendler is coopted and complicit in male erasure of women poetry and denigrating women's writing. To me it's no coincidence Vendler's overpraised and a star in the NYRB.) I'll try to keep a lookout as I quote poems on Fridays and myself think about it as I read them now and again (from the 18th-19th century). For the highly erotic and subversive poetry of early modern women (not those overtly devotional), I suspect this claim would distress them.
Might I suggest that divisions between readers and people may be reconfigured in many ways. The trouble with political labels is they don't take these into account and make people more separate when other divisions (equally separating) can also show us where we share attitudes. The "H" in Homans makes me think of Hirsh's book about how some women read &/or write from a mother's point of view (the authoritarian, the older woman, from prudential considerations) whereas others read &/or write from a daughter's (the younger woman rebelling against the older women, subversive, daring) and that this split is more of a significant faultline than political labels like conservative and liberal. I've seen this split again and again in women readers, i.e., who they identify with or how they identify in a book. I speculate or feel that in Sayers's book we are to look at the doings of the characters from the prudential mother's point of view where say in Jane Eyre and Austen it's the daughter's. This counts.
For me Carter has a youngness a youth continually. She does not look at the world from the mother's point of view but that of a girl, ever eager. Elizabeth Montagu was the motherly or older one (she did always try to dominate and control) in the relationship while with Catherine Talbot Carter was an equal. Neither married and they eschew discussions of sex.
From: Ann F-W: (Wom-Po listserv)
this is fascinating. I stand to learn a lot; I know almost nothing of women poets of this period.
isn't it true that John Donne, for instance, along with Christians in general believed that the body itself would be resurrected at the Last Judgment--and spent time worrying about what would happen if, say, someone had an amputated leg or had lost teeth along the way? so I know this is not an "immortal body," per se, but in a way it is. Christianity does seem to have such an individualistic/person-oriented basis and insistence.
how about Mansfield Park? I really like this distinction between reading-as-a-mother and reading-as-a-daughter (and had not heard of it) but it seems to me that in that instance Austen is SO full of prudence and worry.