I had long promised myself the treat of tackling Letters Written by Eminent Persons in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, To Which Are Added, Hearne’s Journeys to Reading, and to Whaddon Hall, the Seat of Browne Willis, Esq., and Lives of Eminent Men, which I knew would be full of Good Stuff, as the three-volume work contains the first published text of John Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’. I didn’t even get to page 1 of Volume I before being distracted by the contents page: ‘Letter XCI: Dr Hickes to Dr Charlett, recommending Mrs Elstob to his patronage, and that of the University, with a great character of her Learning and Abilities’. Mrs Elstob, who she?
The temptation is (as always) simply to quote the letter and the accompanying notes which provide context. But there is so much additional fascinating metadata leading in so many different directions that I feel obliged to ramble at length … In the first place, the work itself: compiled by the Oxford antiquary John Walker (1770–1831), it consists mainly of manuscripts from the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum. Aubrey’s ‘Lives’, although described as the fourth appendix to the work, in fact comprise slightly less than half of the second volume and the entirety of the third.
Volume I consists of letters between antiquaries including Sir Kenelm Digby, Sir John Cotton (grandson of Robert, the creator of the Cottonian library, who ensured that it was purchased by the nation in 1701, to preserve it from his own descendants) and William Dugdale, on topics ranging from the Cornish language and the cure for a bite from a mad dog to the visit of the Princess Anne to Oxford during the tumult of her father’s deposition in 1688, and the effectiveness of the Royal Touch to cure the King’s Evil (of which a cynical view is taken – I didn’t know that each allegedly cured sufferer was given a gold piece, incentive enough for a faked disease and a miracle cure…).
The Dr Hickes who wrote this letter on 23 December 1712 was George Hickes (1642–1715), famous equally as an Anglo-Saxonist and a non-juror at the turbulent period of the Glorious Revolution, when, although a staunch Protestant (his brother had been executed as a follower of Monmouth), he refused to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary. He was dispossessed of his post as dean of Worcester, declared an outlaw and went into hiding, though he was rescued from this state by the patronage of the duke of Lauderdale, who made him his personal chaplain, and insisted that he received a D.D. from the university of St Andrews. Letter IV is a long self-exculpation from Hickes at his having received a degree from any but his own alma mater. ‘Being grievously tormented with the stone, he died … in his 74th year.’
He continued to pursue his philological studies, and corresponded with Arthur Charlett (1655–1722), executor of the antiquary Anthony à Wood (for whose Athenae Oxonienses Aubrey’s ‘Lives’) were written, and at this time Master of University College, Oxford. Charlett too was inspired by Anglo-Saxon history: the ODNB suggests that his enthusiasm derived from his college’s alleged links with Alfred the Great. He saw Hickes’ monumental Thesaurus linguarum septentrionalium through the press, and it is therefore not surprising that the latter asked him to hold of watching brief on the progress of Elizabeth Elstob’s book.
William Elstob (1674–1715), the son of a Newcastle-upon-Tyne merchant, was sent to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, after Eton, but this didn’t work out well – according to his sister, he was placed ‘in a station below his birth and fortune. This, and the air not agreeing with his constitution … was the occasion of his removal to Queen’s College, Oxford’. A collaborator of Hickes and friend of Charlett, he became a fellow of University, and was later presented to the living of St Swithin London Stone and St Mary Bothaw, London. (I forbear to digress yet further about this parish and its two churches, one a victim of the Great Fire, the other of the Luftwaffe – though the London Stone of course survives.)
Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1756) owed to her brother her entrée into the learned circle of Hickes and Charlett, but she seems to have relied very much on her own determination to get the education she wanted. Orphaned before William came of age, she was raised by her uncle, a canon of Canterbury, whom she describes as ‘no friend to women’s learning, so that she was not suffered to proceed, … being always put off with that common and vulgar saying that one tongue is enough for a woman’. Rebelliously and with difficulty, she studied French and read widely in English ‘till she went to live with her brother, who very joyfully and readily assisted and encouraged her in her studies’. (She was influenced by the example of ‘the celebrated Mary Astell’ (1666–1731), philosopher and educationalist, also from Newcastle, but whose own uncle/guardian encouraged her in all her intellectual explorations.)
The manuscript which Hickes refers to here is apparently that of Elizabeth’s Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715), the first such grammar to be written in English. She had previously published a translation of Mme de Scudéry’s Discours de la gloire, and (in 1709) an edition of Aelfric’s Old English life of Pope Gregory the Great. She had intended to produce a complete edition of Aelfric’s homilies, but by the death of her brother in 1715, and her own ill health, she was ‘unhappily hindered by a necessity of getting her bread’.
Elstob left London in a hurry – perhaps to avoid creditors – without her books and manuscripts, and at one point established a girls’ school at Evesham in Worcestershire. She dropped out of the learned world altogether for over twenty years, but in 1739 was taken into the household of the second duke of Portland and his wife, the remarkable Duchess Margaret – patron of the arts and sciences, friend of Mrs Delany and Mrs Montagu (and Banks and Solander), and collector of shells among many other ‘natural curiosities’ – to act as governess to their daughters.
Her acquaintance with Sarah Chapone – author, correspondent of Samuel Richardson, and mother-in-law of the possibly more famous Hester – may have brought about this employment: Sarah had tried to raise money for an annuity for Elstob, and was an old friend of Mary Delany.
Elizabeth was, according to a visitor to the Portlands’ great house at Bulstrode in Buckinghamshire, ‘a Northern lady of ancient family, and a genteel fortune; but she pursued too much the drug called learning’. In her room, she was ‘surrounded with books and dirtiness, the usual appendages of folk of learning’. She died in 1756, still in the duchess’ service, without (as far as is known) publishing anything further, and was buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster. Her likeness is to be found ‘in the initial G’ of her homily on St Gregory (see above).
So that’s pp. 243–6 of Volume I of Walker’s Letters. (He mentions that while ’the present sheet was actually in the compositor’s hands’, the octavo edition of Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, ‘that interesting and entertaining work’, appeared, with ‘many of the particulars given in these pages’. Do we detect the gnashing of teeth?) I now need to return to page 1, and may eventually get to Aubrey’s ‘Lives’, but with promised distractions en route such as ‘a curious shoe belonging to John Bigg’, and ‘an imposter who personated the duke of Monmouth’, to say nothing of a nest of rats tied together by their braided tails, I may be some time.