Elizabeth Carter, famous for her brilliant translation of Epictetus, friend of Dr Johnson, Hannah More, Elizabeth Montagu and many notables in the literary and intellectual world, was the archetypal Bluestocking. But like many of the late Augustans, she was sensitive to the appeal of romantic melancholy and sublime scenery, and visited the gloomy ruins of Fountains Abbey and the solemn shades of Rippon Minster in the 1780s. She became an avid reader of novels in the 1790s, and made a special effort to meet Mrs Radcliffe, by an introduction through Henrietta Maria (Harriet) Bowdler, the sister of the man who ‘bowdlerized’ Shakespeare’s plays to make them less dangerous for young readers.

(Copyright © 2000, 2022 Rictor Norton

Mrs Carter to Mrs Montagu
(11 December 1759)

I have not read the History of the Penitents, except a little extract, with which I was greatly pleased. It is much to be wished indeed that the general fashion of novel reading did not render such antidotes very necessary. Various kinds of antidotes perhaps are necessary to the various kinds of poison imbibed in the study of these wretched books*, by which the understanding, the taste, and the heart are equally in danger of being vitiated. Those which are writ in the most specious manner, with great appearance of delicacy, and high pretensions to virtue, are of all others the most destructive;; they form a jumble of right and wrong, so entangled together, that it requires exactness of judgment to separate them, which seldom or never belongs to young people, who take all together; and thus their heads become a mere chaos of confused ideas, and their hearts are cheated out of every fixed principle of action.

[*Note by Mrs Carter’s Nephew: It will be obvious to the reader, how great has been the improvement which has taken place in writing novels, since the date of this letter. Mrs. Carter highly approved of many that have since been written by authors of considerable genius, as well as of strict morals, such as Mrs. West and Mrs. Radcliffe, and others who might be named; and she found the reading of such works a very pleasing relaxation from her severer studies.]

[Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter to Mrs. Montague, ed. Rev. Montagu Pennington, 3 vols (London: F.C. and J. Rivington, 1817), vol. 1, pp. 69–70]

Mrs Carter to Mrs Montagu
(15 December 1790)

I have been reading with much pleasure the Sicilian Romance. The language is elegant, the scenery exquisitely painted, the moral good, and the conduct and conclusion of the fable, I think, original. Have you read it? And do you know the name of the authoress? I do not.

[Letters from Mrs Elizabeth Carter to Mrs Montagu, vol. 3, pp. 323–4]

Joseph Farington’s Diary
(15 September 1794)

Lady B[eaumont] recd. a letter to-day from Mrs Carter, who expresses herself in a very strong manner in favour of the Mysteries of Udolpho and of the talents of Mrs Radcliffe, the author.

[The Farington Diary (1922), vol. 1, p. 71]

Comments by Mrs Carter’s Nephew

After the publication of the third edition of her Poems, in which some were added which had not appeared before, she [i.e. Mrs Carter] wrote nothing for the press. Her head-aches were very frequent and violent, and often prevented her from reading or writing any thing which required much attention. At such times, when she was able to sit up, she was glad to have recourse to any novel, or modern romance, provided the tendency, or moral, of it was good. These she read with much pleasure, especially if removed from real life, from the delineations of which she did not derive much satisfaction. The novels of Mrs. D’Arblay [i.e. Fanny Burney] are indeed exceptions to this rule; for she thought very highly of them, especially of Evelina, the first published; she had them all, and read them with increasing approbation more than once.
          But of Mrs. Charlotte Smith’s works in general she highly disapproved; and was indeed hardly willing to give her credit for the genius which she was generally allowed to possess; the reason of which was, that she thought their morality at least very defective, and in some of them positively bad. Upon the same principles she was very partial to all Mrs. West’s publications, both in prose and verse, as not only displaying a very considerable, and indeed very remarkable, share of genius, under so many disadvantages, and as having the morality of them founded upon the only unerring basis, that of religion. [Mrs West dedicated her Tales of the Times to Mrs Carter.]
          But of all authors of this class, Mrs Carter thought most highly of Mrs Radcliffe, and was most delighted with the perusal of her Romances. The good tendency of all her works, the virtues of her principal characters, supported on the solid foundation of religion, the elegance of her style, and her accurate, as well as vivid, delineations of the beauties of nature, appeared to her such as to raise Mrs Radcliffe to a degree of eminence far superior to any writer of romance of the present day. Of her, however, she had no personal knowledge, any more than of Mrs. Smith; but she was well acquainted with Mrs. D’Arblay, whose worthy and respectable father, Dr. Burney, she had long known, and slightly with Mrs. West, of whose character she thought as highly as she did of her works.
          Few ages have probably been more fruitful than the present, in literary performances of various kinds, and often of great merit, by female writers; but a few years since the world was surprized by a work from a young lady, in the very highest rank of genius, and that in which, perhaps, of all others, women have least succeeded. Their attempts in the tragic line of the drama have generally failed, and it was reserved for the present age to see more of the genuine spirit of Shakespeare revive in the tragedies of Miss Joana Baillie, than has inspired any other author since his time. This was also Mrs. Carter’s opinion, when the first volume of her Plays was published without her name; and her judgment must therefore be free from prejudice. No one then supposed it was written by a woman; but when she found it was by a female author, a young one too, and hitherto unknown to the literary world, she felt a triumph, which those who know her partiality to her own sex will easily believe. She was previously acquainted with Miss Baillie a little, and much better since, and had a great regard for her person, as well as respect for her extraordinary talents.

[Montagu Pennington, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs Elizabeth Carter (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1807), pp. 298–301]

Mrs Carter to Mrs Radcliffe
(April 1799)

If Mrs Radcliffe is not engaged, Mrs Carter will have the pleasure of calling upon her about twelve o’clock tomorrow morning.

Henrietta Maria Bowdler to Mrs Radcliffe
(18 April 1799)

Dear Madam,
          I venture to give you this trouble, at the request of Mrs Carter, whose admirable talents, and far more admirable virtues, are too well known to need any introduction from me. She very much wishes to have the pleasure of knowing you; and will deliver this letter, if she has the good fortune of finding you at home. As I am persuaded the acquaintance must afford mutual satisfaction, I could not refuse the request with which Mrs Carter honoured me; though it is made on the supposition of my having some degree of interest with you, to which I have no claim, except from the very sincere admiration I have ever felt for your talents, and the regard and esteem with which I am, dear Madam,
          Your obliged and affectionate humble servant,
                    H. M. Bowdler

P.S. If Mrs Carter does not deliver this letter herself, she will, I believe, take an early opportunity of waiting on you, with a very amiable friend of mine, Miss Shipley, who has promised to carry her in her carriage.

Mrs Radcliffe to Mrs Carter
(April 1799)

Mrs Radcliffe is extremely sorry that an engagement to go into the country to-morrow, for some time, on account of Mr R’s state of health, which is very critical, will deprive her of the honour intended her by Mrs Carter; for which she requests Mrs C. to believe that she has a full and proper respect.

[Annual Biography and Obituary, for the Year 1824, vol. 8, pp. 103–4]

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