It was a few years ago now that I stumbled on the story of Elizabeth Elstob, in my pre-blogging days. It was the kind of thing for which blogging has provided the perfect outlet, an out-of-the-way bit of literary history, a reading phase and search. At the time–and it must have been 7 or 8 years ago now–I had a half-hearted sense that it would make a good movie story, knowing all the while that working on it would be taking aim at a tiny target, virtually impossible to hit.
So it seems like what I’m going to do here, trying to get back into a bit of blogging but still not reading very well or enough to write about, is go through the sequence of how I found the Elstob story and then followed it up, trying to remember things all the while. I should probably be telling the story itself, and may switch over at any point to doing that. But for whatever reason I seem to need to get warmed up by remembering how I got into it in the first place.
Ruth Perry. It’s amusing to think that it started with a leading women’s studies scholar. In the more recent blogging period (since Jan 08) I’ve followed up Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Kate Chopin, reading scholars like Nina Baym, Jane Tompkins, and Elaine Showalter and trying to get a handle on feminist criticism. But I didn’t know any of this when I read Ruth Perry’s essay on Elizabeth Elstob and George Ballard. Elstob exists in the world of early women writers (in English), or scholars, a good ways out of my accustomed later 18th and 19th century waters. Ruth Perry wrote an important biography on one such figure, publishing The Celebrated Mary Astell in 1986. I have a copy of that book somewhere around here, but I don’t know where I’d even start to look for it.
But the volume that got things going, Biography in the 18th Century (1980), edited by J. D Browning, comes easily to hand. The funny part is that I picked it up by chance as I was getting ready to have people over to watch the Super Bowl, of all things. Choosing to read, in this collection of academic essays, Perry’s “George Ballard’s Biographies of Learned Ladies” as I puttered and sat and waited for guests, was even more random. But as I got into the article and the gang arrived and game began, I found a fantastic tale embedded in the essay, one with great characters and a storyline that was surprising and compelling and mysterious. I would follow it up and try to learn more, but the basic version goes something like the following. I’m going to try to write out from memory, hoping to follow up with some fact-checking and a look at the research materials later, but you never know.
Elizabeth Elstob and her older brother William were born in the northern part of England, in Newcastle, in the last quarter of the 17th century. Her father was a successful merchant and they lived in comfortable circumstances in her early years. Most importantly, Elstob’s mother was a learned woman, and she believed in educating her daughter as well as her son. Elstob grew up under the protective shadow of her brother William, and this is a brother and sister story, with strong George Eliot echoes, at least in my sense of it. William Elstob was studious, aimed at becoming an Oxford scholar. Family losses didn’t deter that course. Their father died and then, just a few years later when Elizabeth was a mere 10 years old, their mother died too. William was 14 at the time and he went to Oxford as a young scholar, while Elizabeth was sent to live with her Uncle Charles.
At the time Elizabeth had the beginnings of Latin, while her brother was obviously quite advanced. As a young girl living in her uncle’s home Elizabeth’s studies were interrrupted, although she was able to perfect her French. In the meantime, William rose to recognition at a very interesting period of Oxford scholarship. He became part of a group led by Bishop George Hickes, an amazing character in his own right, and one of the compelling figures in this saga. The simple version, as far as I reconstruct things without laboring at them, is that George Hickes was leading university fellows, churchmen, and antiquaries into the birth of Anglo-Saxon Studies, and the broader study of Medieval Germanic languages, known as septentrional studies, which is an obscure and hard word that’s enough to scare off all but the hardy few. But it gets much more involved, and this is that part I should leave alone without reviewing the materials. The scholars were trying to recover and evaluate the pre-Norman laws and language and history of Britain, in part to counter the accession of William of Orange to the English throne. Hickes was the Dean of Worcester Cathedral, and when he opposed the accession he became a leading “non-juror” and a fugitive.
But unless I’m mistaken that part of the story comes later. With William establishing himself quite firmly during an exciting and dynamic moment in scholarship, we hit another spot where the record becomes unclear. Elizabeth eventually joined William at Oxford, and she bagan her own studies, not only of Latin but more importantly of Anglo-Saxon, entering the world of William and Hickes and his colleagues. The question is when she went to Oxford, where she was as young as 14 or as old as 18 or 19. The younger version is more enticing and romantic, and very George Eliot. What’s known, I believe, is that she was prevented from studying Latin while she lived with her uncle, though she was allowed to study French. She lived with her brother at Oxford for at least a couple of years, and during that time she became a full partner in the scholarly communtity. So one assumes that she didn’t gain her erudition overnight, and had a fair amount of living and studying with William to work up to it.
The part that follows is the flowering of the young female scholar, and Elizabeth Elstob becomes known as “the Saxon nymph,” and she gains full scholarly credentials and recognition, all of it at a very young age, and extraordinary for a woman at the time. I’m reminded that Hickes was invested in Elizabeth’s success from early on, and he wrote tracts on the education of women. It’s all a rather amazing phenomenon to try to imagine. A few years pass, and Elizabeth’s own work in Anglo-Saxon studies takes shape, while William works on his own ambitous study of the laws of Anglo-Saxon era.
The story continues as William becomes the curate of one of the poorest parishes of London, on Bush Lane right beside the London Stone. Elizabeth and William live together in a new, challenging setting, where the work is hard and thankless and they have little time for scholarship and no money. William is young and committed to his work, which takes a personal, physical, and financial toll. They struggle along together as partners, while trying to continue their studies. Elizabeth begins to gather a subscription for her new scholarly work, and as William becomes fatigued and sickly from overwork they both try to find him a more comfortable living, where he can survive and continue his studies. They contact their scholarly and antiquarian friends, but gain no success.
The story turns dark and rather desperate. Debts mount as William’s health fails, and he dies before he’s 30, his scholarly magnum opus left unfinished. Elizabeth strives to complete the supscription for her own continuing work, but she’s overwhelmed and hopeless and she faces imprisonment for debt. And then she disappears, fleeing the city and going out to an anonymous and marginal existence somewhere in rural England. Fade to black.
Enter George Ballard. Ruth Perry’s 1980 article is actually a study of the sources and genesis of Ballard’s Memoirs of Learned Ladies, which is really the end of the story. Perry begins her article by introducing Ballard, who is a charming and rather classic figure of the early 18th Century. He was a successful dress-maker, well-established in the Cotswolds town of Chipping Campden, and his presence there is what makes a good part of the tale a Cotswolds story. One very nice touch in Perry’s version is that Ballard’s story is a brother and sister tale that mirrors the Elstobs, as George had an older sister who helped shape his own interests and thinking. Another Elizabeth, she was interested in learning and history, and she too endures female conflicts as an adult and disappears, at least in Perry’s early version. (Perry might have discovered some later information about her; I can’t remember.) At any rate, Ballard grows up as an inspired young antiquarian, searching the local area for signs of the ancient past. Ballard becomes a prodigious expert in coins and the world of numismatics, more than anything else. The big difference, however, is that he goes through his apprenticeship and practices his profession and he is never a trained scholar. His mother may have been a dress-maker, supporting her family after the death of the father, and I don’t remember exactly, but I think she might have been a midwife. At any rate, Ballard’s mother and sister are strong figures and good characters.
Through his prodigious knowledge of ancient coins, Ballard is introduced at an early age to the world of the 18th century antiquarians. This story was my own introduction to this set of characters, and it’s a fascinating world. The antiquarians, more or less a loose and quite unofficial but manageable group, are just off the beaten track for the standard English major, but maybe they get a better spot with students of British history and art history and archaeology. They constitute the early, pre-professional period of archaeology, historical and literary scholarship combined. The general charm of the group lies in the fact that they’re true amateurs, hobbyists and eccentrics, going through a sort of primal process of being captivated by the past and feeling the need to uncover and preserve its records and manuscripts, without knowing exactly what they were doing. The era of the antiquarians arrives not long after the Civil War and the destruction of the monasteries, and in some ways it’s a reaction to what was plundered and lost.
The story of the antiquarians is its own fun and interesting topic, well worth pursuing. A few names stick with me at this point, George Broome and John Nichols and Thomas Hearne, but there are a number of them. The key point for the Elstob-Ballard story is that they were involved with the scholarly world of George Hickes, pursuing Anglo-Saxon Studies and preserving manuscripts, as well as all sorts of historical materials. The antiquaries were mostly scholars of means, but they were in the same world as struggling curates like William Elstob.
At any rate, the young dressmaker George Ballard became something of a pet of the older, scholarly, wealthy antiquaries, impressing them with his energy and passion. His lack of formal education was part of his charm, as he was a true amateur. They guided Ballard and he began his academic studies, on his own and not attached to the university. His nose for discovery turned from coins to manuscripts and materials for historical study. He seems to have covered a lot of ground, but the Cotswolds were a good base to study Ancient Britain. He had already become a proficient scholar of Anglo-Saxon and built a network of relationships with the antiquarians, when he made his most interesting discovery.
It had been twenty years since Elizabeth Elstob had disappeared from London without a trace. During the intervening period Hickes, already proscribed I believe, had died, and the next generation of scholars and antiquaries was ascendant. Ballard heard that there was a learned woman, running a small ‘dame school,” in a village nearby, in the adjacent Vale of Evesham. And so he walked over to go and meet her.
Elizabeth Elstob was stuggling in straitened circumstances, as she had been for two decades. Apparently she never told Ballard the details of her years of obscurity. Everything had been lost, all of her and her brother’s work, all of their papers and writings and books. And yet it was still a fortuitous meeting, as Ballard, with his energetic curiosity, was the perfect candidate to stumble on Elstob. And he also possessed the ability to help her.
The story takes another charming turn here, coming out of the dark lost years, and introducing a third group to join with the Oxford scholars and the Antiquarians. As both a dress-maker and an antiquarian and rising scholar, Ballard had relationships with certain Bluestockings, the next generation of women scholars who followed Mary Astell and Elstob. Elstob’s Anglo-Saxon scholarship was a bit out of their way, but they recognized her as a learned woman.
So George Ballard, now close friends with and a regular visitor to middle-aged Elizabeth Elstob, went to work on two fronts. In the first, he enlisted Mary Delany and Sarah Chapone to find Elizabeth Elstob a more comfortable living, and this was ultimately realized when she became a governess in the household of the Duchess of Portland.
But more importantly Estob was able to influence and direct George Ballard’s own research and studies. Elstob had always been interested in the history of the education of women and the scholarly accomplishments of “learned ladies.” She had some knowledge of the subject, and she was able to guide Ballard towards the figures and materials necessary for a groundbreaking study of that world. As Elstob was comfortably ensconced at the Portland estate to live out her days, Ballard focused his manuscript research on women’s studies. At the same time, now later in his life, he became an accredited Oxford scholar, no long a dressmaker and hobbyist antiquarian. And it was as such that he published The Memoirs of Learned Ladies in 1741. Perry notes that his book remains the only source of material for a large number of its subjects. The other note and attraction to the story is Ballard’s actual collection of manuscripts, which sits in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.