Elizabeth Hamilton Essay - Critical Essays

Hamilton, Elizabeth


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.”

Principal Works

*Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah; Written Previous to, and during the Period of his Residence in England. To which is Prefixed, a Preliminary Dissertation on the History, Religion, and Manners, of the Hindoos. 2 vols. [anonymous] (essays and fictional letters) 1796

Memoirs of Modern Philosophers. 3 vols. [anonymous] (sketches and essays) 1800

Letters on Education [as Geoffry Jarvis] (essays) 1801; also published as Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education

Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, the Wife of Germanicus. 3 vols. (history, prose, and novel) 1804

Letters Addressed to the Daughter...

(The entire section is 305 words.)


The Monthly Review (essay date September-December 1796)

SOURCE: Review of Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah. The Monthly Review 21 (September-December 1796): 176-80.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic provides a generally favorable assessment of Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, and comments on cultural inaccuracies in the text.]

Impressed, from the moment at which we begin to think, with many gratuitous notions; bred up with local prejudices; accustomed to respect certain institutions, and to confound acquired habits with natural instincts; we view at a maturer age, without surprise, the complex structure of refined society. It becomes difficult to disentangle the...

(The entire section is 2578 words.)

The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine (essay date September-January 1801)

SOURCE: Review of Memoirs of Modern Philosophers. The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine 7, no. 27 (September-January 1801): 39-46, 369-76.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic celebrates Memoirs of Modern Philosophers as a well-written, humorous, and effective tool for the anti-Jacobin cause. The reviewer later admits that he did not know the author's identity until halfway through writing the review.]

We will endeavour to offer to our readers something like an outline of the story of this excellent work; in doing which we shall occasionally make such extracts as will afford them an opportunity of forming their own judgment, on what we esteem the...

(The entire section is 6817 words.)

The Edinburgh Review (essay date July 1808)

SOURCE: Review of The Cottagers of Glenburnie. The Edinburgh Review 12, no. 24 (July 1808): 401-10.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic enthusiastically welcomes Cottagers of Glenburnie as a vibrant and compassionate portrayal of the Scottish peasantry as well as an excellent vehicle for social reform.]

We have not met with any thing nearly so good as this, since we read the Castle Rackrent and the Popular Tales of Miss Edgeworth. This contains as admirable a picture of the Scotish peasantry as those works do of the Irish; and rivals them, not only in the general truth of the delineations, and in the cheerfulness and practical...

(The entire section is 4736 words.)

Maria Edgeworth (essay date December 1816)

SOURCE: Edgeworth, Maria. “Character and Writings of Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton.” The Gentleman's Magazine Supplement 86, no. 2 (December 1816): 623-24.

[In the following obituary, Edgeworth, a literary contemporary of Hamilton's, reflects on the deceased author's major works and comments on her legacy.]

The following account of the late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton, is understood to have been written by Miss Edgeworth:

She was born at Belfast, in Ireland, and the affection for her Country which she constantly expressed proved that she had a true Irish heart. This lady is well known to the publick as the author of The Cottagers of...

(The entire section is 1821 words.)

Ann H. Jones (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Jones, Ann H. “Elizabeth Hamilton (1758-1816).” In Ideas and Innovations: Best Sellers of Jane Austen's Age, pp. 19-48. New York: AMS Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Jones examines Hamilton's major works, discussing her role in the development of the novel and documenting her contemporary critical reception.]

One day in November 1813 Jane Austen wrote to tell her sister Cassandra that the second edition of her Sense and Sensibility was out:

Mary heard before she left home, that it was very much admired at Cheltenham, & that it was given to Miss Hamilton. It is pleasant to have such a respectable Writer...

(The entire section is 13746 words.)

Eleanor Ty (essay date October 1991)

SOURCE: Ty, Eleanor. “Female Philosophy Refunctioned: Elizabeth Hamilton's Parodic Novel.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 22, no. 4 (October 1991): 111-29.

[In the following essay, Ty maintains that Hamilton's parodic reproduction of liberal texts in her Memoirs of Modern Philosophers provides ironic support for the very philosophies that the work overtly condemns.]

During the 1790s, a number of English women writers used the novel as a means of conveying their endorsement or disapproval of the ideals of liberty, equality, and the “rights of woman,” the rallying cry of many female supporters of the French Revolution of 1789. Among...

(The entire section is 7149 words.)

Peter Garside (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Garside, Peter. Introduction to Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, vol. I, pp. v-xviii. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Garside presents an overview of the liberal and conservative rhetoric of the late eighteenth century and addresses the extent to which Memoirs of Modern Philosophers can be categorized as an anti-Jacobin novel.]

After a slow start following publication in 1800, Memoirs of Modern Philosophers gradually began to attract public attention. The pseudonym of Geoffry Jarvis, the supposed ‘editor’ of a mutilated manuscript left by an impoverished author, was hardly calculated to fool experienced novel...

(The entire section is 3946 words.)

Gary Kelly (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Kelly, Gary. “Elizabeth Hamilton: Domestic Woman and National Reconstruction.” In Women, Writing, and Revolution: 1790-1827, pp. 265-304. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Kelly provides a detailed analysis of Hamilton's post-1800 works, asserting that she covertly feminized traditionally masculine discourses—such as philosophy, history, biography, and theology—in an environment of post-revolutionary remasculinization.]

Helen Maria Williams and Mary Hays found their Sentimental and Revolutionary feminism increasingly under attack in the later 1790s and the Revolutionary aftermath, and had to turn to other ways of sustaining their...

(The entire section is 16781 words.)

Janice Farrar Thaddeus (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Thaddeus, Janice Farrar. “Elizabeth Hamilton's Domestic Politics.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 23 (1994): 265-84.

[In the following essay, Thaddeus argues that Hamilton has been inaccurately labeled an anti-Jacobin conservative when her writings show a complexity far beyond such a limited categorization.]

I am well convinced that they must ever be content with a very narrow and superficial knowledge of human character, who do not study it at the seasons when it is to be seen in undress; or rather in the nakedness in which it sometimes appears in the domestic scene. The men who boast a knowledge of the world, know mankind only as...

(The entire section is 8527 words.)

Janice Thaddeus (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Thaddeus, Janice. “Elizabeth Hamilton's Modern Philosophers and the Uncertainties of Satire.” In Cutting Edges: Postmodern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire, edited by James E. Gill, pp. 395-418. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Thaddeus suggests that the text of Memoirs of Modern Philosophers displays a “Ventriloquist/Dummy” satirical technique (as defined by Margaret Doody), which allows it to subversively illustrate and support Godwinian philosophy while pointing out its potential abuses and limitations.]

Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) was a book...

(The entire section is 10712 words.)

Susan B. Taylor (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Taylor, Susan B. “Feminism and Orientalism in Elizabeth Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah.Women's Studies 29, no. 5 (2000): 555-81.

[In the following essay, Taylor explores Hamilton's paradoxical use of Oriental studies in Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah to address the subjugation of women in Britain while expressing support for British imperial control over India.]

Elizabeth Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796) offers a place to view the interaction of two vexed issues that first draw considerable attention in the British Romantic era: the increasing debates over what...

(The entire section is 8999 words.)

Penny Warburton (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Warburton, Penny. “Theorising Public Opinion: Elizabeth Hamilton's Model of Self, Sympathy and Society.” In Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830, edited by Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Clíona Ó Gallchoir, and Penny Warburton, pp. 257-73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Warburton addresses references to Adam Smith in A Series of Popular Essays and compares Smith's concept of “sympathy,” as defined in Theory of Moral Sentiment, to Hamilton's idea of the “Selfish Principle.”]

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas argues that a bourgeois reading...

(The entire section is 7175 words.)

Claire Grogan (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Grogan, Claire. “Crossing Genre, Gender and Race in Elizabeth Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah.Studies in the Novel 34, no. 1 (spring 2002): 21-42.

[In the following essay, Grogan addresses the difficulty of classifying the genre of Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, arguing that the work is part Oriental satire, part Oriental tale, but primarily an Oriental study. Ultimately, the critic proposes that Hamilton's approach can best be defined as female Orientalism.]

This study was prompted by an incident while researching the politics of British women's writing in the late eighteenth century several...

(The entire section is 10081 words.)

Further Reading


Benger, Elizabeth O. Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton: with a Selection from Her Correspondence, and Other Unpublished Writings, 2 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1818.

Provides biographical information as well as a collection of Hamilton's memoirs, correspondence, and unpublished works.

Elwood, Anne Katharine. “Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton.” In Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England, Vol. 2, pp. 98-124. London: Henry Colburn, 1843.

Presents a detailed account of Hamilton's life and works.

Tytler, Sarah, and J. L. Watson. “Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton...

(The entire section is 425 words.)