Elizabeth Hamilton Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Hamilton 1758-1816

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Eliza Hamilton and Geoffry Jarvis) Irish-born Scottish novelist, prose writer, historian, and essayist.

Hamilton was a prominent voice for moral and educational reforms in London during the tumultuous late eighteenth century. She produced epistolary fiction, satire, comical sketches, philosophical essays, historical biography, theological treatises, and essays on educational theory. Best known for entertaining and erudite fiction, Hamilton addressed many of the most controversial issues of her time. She advocated equal education for all and stressed that a solid religious foundation and an educated citizenry were the keys to correcting societal ills without political upheaval. Hamilton was considered a conservative anti-Jacobin during her lifetime, and she engaged in rhetorical battles with prominent Jacobin liberals like William Godwin. Although she never married, Hamilton asserted that women should concentrate on pious self-improvement through education, while maintaining their domestic roles of wife and mother. Despite her commitment to female domesticity, Hamilton herself circumvented gender limitations. At a time when female writers were relegated to novels and children's literature, Hamilton delved into history, philosophy, political satire, educational reform, and Oriental studies—discourses normally considered the realm of men. She was able to escape reprobation by disguising these disciplines under the broad umbrellas of fiction or moral essays. Due to the variety of material she produced, it is with reservation that critics today characterize her as a novelist. Indeed, Hamilton considered herself to be a moral essayist and educationist.

Biographical Information

Hamilton was born on July 25, 1758, in Belfast, Ireland, the youngest child of Charles and Katherine Mackay Hamilton. Before she was a year old, her father died of typhus, leaving his widow and three children with no means of financial support. At the age of six, Hamilton was sent to live with her paternal aunt and uncle, the Marshalls, near Stirling, Scotland. The Marshalls were well-educated and happily married despite their differences in background. Her aunt was of high birth, conforming to the Church of Scotland, and her uncle was the Episcopalian son of a peasant. This felicity between social classes and the ecumenical spirit of the household would have a lasting effect on Hamilton's life and works. At the age of eight, she was sent to Stirling to attend boarding school, where she studied writing, geography, French, drawing, music, and dance. At age thirteen, Hamilton returned to the Marshalls' and continued her study of music and drawing. A year later, the family moved to Ingram's Crook, a house located in rural Scotland. That year, she was briefly reunited with her brother, Charles, who was embarking to India as a cadet for the East India Company. Through their subsequent correspondence, Charles would direct Hamilton's “second education” by suggesting books to read and providing a forum in which to discuss them. Hamilton's relationship with Charles proved to be the most influential of her life. In 1780, when she was twenty-two years old, her aunt died. Hamilton decided to stay on at Ingram's Crook as her uncle's companion. In 1786 Charles returned from India with a commission to translate a commentary on Islamic laws, the Hedaya, into English. He stayed at Ingram's Crook and worked on his research. Hamilton happily assisted him, becoming familiar with the customs and manners of the East. When Charles moved to London in 1788, Elizabeth accompanied him and stayed for several months. For the first time, she was exposed to a number of London's leading intellectuals and literary figures. Hamilton characterized this period as the “era of a new existence.” After the death of her uncle, she joined her brother in London. For two years, they lived happily together. After Charles finished the Hedaya, he was reappointed abroad and Elizabeth returned to Ingram's Crook. A few months later, she received word that her brother had contracted consumption and died shortly thereafter. Charles had repeatedly encouraged Hamilton to pursue her literary inclinations, and after his death, she penned a collection of their conversations. In 1796 Hamilton published Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, in which she satirically addressed English hypocrisy and the oppression of women. Her three-volume Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) was well received, and in 1804, Hamilton was awarded a pension from King George III for her contribution to “religion and virtue.” That year she moved to Edinburgh, where she maintained a lively social life. In addition, Hamilton managed the Edinburgh House of Industry, a shelter and training facility for women. Hamilton's The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808), a satirical treatment of Scottish mores and class distinctions, achieved both critical and popular success. Hamilton continued to write and publish until 1816, when she died at Harrogate Spa while undergoing treatment for an inflammation of the eye.

Major Works

Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah was originally published anonymously. It was not until after the work's initial success that Hamilton identified herself as the author; by 1813, five editions had been published. In later editions, Hamilton included a 100-page explanatory essay with a glossary, to familiarize her readers with the history and culture of India. Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, a satirical examination of Godwinian philosophy, was originally published under the pseudonym Geoffry Jarvis, and included an elaborate tale regarding its origins. Again, Hamilton revealed herself as the author of this work once it became widely popular. The 1801 publication of Hamilton's Letters on Education was met with considerable acclaim; seven editions were printed by 1837. In Letters, Hamilton became one of the first theorists to apply educational psychology to teaching and to emphasize the early years as crucial for the development of the mind. In addition, she recommended equal education for all children, and argued against corporal punishment and rote learning. In Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, the Wife of Germanicus (1804), her semi-biographical novel, Hamilton demonstrated comprehensive knowledge of her subject. While acknowledging Hamilton's meticulous approach, critics complained that the novel was too moralistic and ambitious, and the distinction between fact and fiction was unclear. In 1806, after spending six months supervising the education of a nobleman's daughter, Hamilton published Letters Addressed to the Daughter of a Nobleman, on the Formation of Religious and Moral Principle (1806) in which she discussed such topics as Sunday observance, humility, the workings of Providence, and self-control. Hamilton's peers derided her discourse on Christian theology as “unladylike.”

Hamilton again met with widespread success with the publication of The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808). It was originally planned as a cheap repository tract, intended as moral instruction for the Scottish peasantry, but soon grew to a full novel, appropriate for readers of all levels. Both critics and the public loved the vivid depictions of lower-class Scotch society. A contemporary reviewer for the Edinburgh Review wrote, “We recommend it as a specimen of the purest and most characteristic Scotch which we have lately met with in writing.” More recently, Gary Kelly has pointed out that in addition to being lively and entertaining, the novel also adroitly dissects class issues, British imperialism, and international conflicts. The Cottagers of Glenburnie became Hamilton's best-known work, producing five editions by 1813 and several new printings well into the nineteenth century. Hamilton delved into theology again with the publication of Exercises in Religious Knowledge, for the Instruction of Young Persons (1809), an instruction on the catechism. The target audience for the work was young persons who had been raised in charitable institutions, although it was also read by the higher classes. Hamilton next published A Series of Popular Essays (1813). Gary Kelly has described this work as “a philosophical rationale in laywoman's language for Hamilton's post-Revolutionary programme of social transformation,” an ideology that argues that the ability to think critically is the foundation of liberty and political stability. The reviews ranged from lukewarm to hostile. Hamilton again advocated equal education for girls in her last book, Hints Addressed to the Patrons and Directors of Schools (1815), in which she promotes the educational model put forth by Pestalozzi, an influential Italian theorist. It suggests abolishing the use of artificial rewards and punishments, and tailoring instruction to the development of the mind. To this work she attached Examples of Questions Calculated to Excite and Exercise the Infant Mind (also published as a separate work in 1815) which offers suggestions on ways adults can facilitate learning in young children.

Critical Reception

Hamilton was embraced by the conservative anti-Jacobin movement during her life because of her satirical treatment of Godwinian philosophy, her support for female domesticity, and her evangelical leanings. She published her first work when anti-Jacobin sentiment was at its height. Although Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah was more a humorous and pointed critique of English society, it did include a section satirizing the characters within Godwin's circle. With Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, she continued parodying the Jacobins. Both of these works were hailed by the conservative critics of the day for their entertaining and well-written satire. After Memoirs of Modern Philosophers was published, Hamilton's name as a woman of letters was established. Letters on Education met with success as well. Such was Hamilton's celebrity that King George awarded her a pension. However, as Gary Kelly has pointed out, shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century, there was a reactionary swing in sentiment towards the “remasculinization” of culture. As a result, critical praise for Hamilton's work declined. She was particularly censured when indulging in traditionally masculine discourses such as history and theology. The one exception to this trend was The Cottagers of Glenburnie. Extremely popular with contemporary critics and audiences alike, this work, according to Peter Garside, “was to secure a place in literary history for its pioneering use of vernacular Scots and depiction of regional ‘manners.’”

Although her more popular works stayed in the public eye for several decades after her death, notably The Cottagers of Glenburnie, Hamilton's works eventually receded into obscurity. For a century, Hamilton was little known and considered only tangentially in reference to more popular women writers of her time such as Jane Austen. In the 1970s, however, there was a revival of scholarly interest in Hamilton's writings, which has increased since that time. While some modern commentators have speculated that her reputation as a conservative may explain the lack of attention, most critics agree that this early conservative label is erroneous and that a closer reading of her works shows sympathy for feminist and socially progressive thought. Indeed, Janice Thaddeus has noted that “[Hamilton,] who at first glance appears to be conservative, becomes in the discursive interchange a liberal, if not a radical, presence.” Gary Kelly has summarized Hamilton's legacy as a writer who aimed “to intellectualize women's culture by popularizing, novelizing, and thereby disseminating philosophy, theology, and history, and doing so in a way that offered herself as model for the new intellectual-domestic woman.”