Hamilton, Elizabeth (1758–1816), writer, was born 25 July 1758 in Belfast, the youngest child of Charles Hamilton, a merchant from an old Scottish family, the Hamiltons of Woodhall, and his wife Katherine (Mackay) Hamilton (d. 1767) of Dublin. She had one sister, Katharine, and one brother, Charles (qv) (d. 1792). In 1759 the elder Charles Hamilton died from typhus, leaving his family in straitened circumstances, and to alleviate the burden on her mother Elizabeth was sent to live with her paternal aunt, Mrs Marshall, and her husband, a farmer in Stirlingshire. She enjoyed a happy and active childhood in Scotland; educated locally in Stirling, she was a voracious reader from an early age. In 1772 she was reunited with her brother Charles, who visited her before taking up his cadetship with the East India Company. Later that year she moved with the Marshalls to Ingram's Crook, near Bannockburn. She was devoted to her brother and they maintained regular contact while he was in India. In 1778 she returned for six months to Ireland, where she established an equally close relationship with her sister Katharine.
Elizabeth returned to Ingram's Crook where, after the death of her aunt in 1780, she became the sole carer of her beloved uncle. Though she was occasionally frustrated by rural isolation, she declined an offer to visit Charles in India, emphatically rebuffing the marital prospecting such expeditions usually entailed. Having begun to write while in her teens (her earliest literary efforts include an unpublished novel on Lady Arabella Stuart, poems, and a journal of a Highland tour, the latter published at her aunt's instigation in a provincial paper), she pursued her interest in literature, publishing an essay in the Lounger (no. 46, 1785). In 1786 Charles, who had been awarded a five-year leave to translate the Heddaya (the Muslim code of laws), returned to Britain and, after visiting his sisters, settled in London. Elizabeth visited him there in 1788, a stimulating experience socially as well as intellectually, and after the death of her uncle in 1790 she joined her siblings in the city.
This domestic happiness proved short-lived, and Elizabeth was devastated when Charles died suddenly from tuberculosis in 1792. She and her sister, by now a widow, left London and lived for a time in Hadleigh, Suffolk, and Sonning in Berkshire. The memory of Charles inspired Elizabeth's first major literary success, Translations of the letters of a Hindoo rajah (1796), a cleverly conceived satire in which a rajah, intrigued by reports of a modern, progressive British society, visits the country for himself and records his observations, including disparaging comments on female education and atheism. The work demonstrates the extensive orientalist knowledge Hamilton had learned from her brother and commemorates him in the character of Captain Percy, while a less flattering self-portrait appears in his sister Charlotte Percy, a young woman languishing in self-pity after the deaths of her uncle and brother until induced to put her talents to some productive, public use. Hamilton's next novel, Memoirs of modern philosophers (1800), was very successful, lampooning the new generation of radical thinkers, most notably Mary Hays and William Godwin, but praising Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas on female education. The education of women was one of her major interests, possibly because of the constraints she had experienced in her own youth; she recalled that as a child she hid ‘Kaimes's Elements of Criticism under the cover of an easy chair, whenever I heard the approach of a footstep, well knowing the ridicule to which I should have been exposed, had I been detected in the act of looking into such a book!’ (Benger, 203).
Around 1800 Hamilton suffered an attack of gout, the first of many such episodes, and she moved to Bath to recuperate. She continued to write, publishing Letters on education (1801), the first of a series of works on education, and Memoirs of the life of Agrippina, the wife of Germanicus (1804), before settling with her sister on a government pension in Edinburgh, where they would remain for the next decade. She agreed to supervise for six months the education of a Scottish nobleman's motherless children, refusing to stay longer because the nature of such employment would inevitably limit her independence. She became very attached to the children, however, and dedicated to them the treatise she subsequently based on this experience, Letters addressed to the daughter of a nobleman (1806). In Edinburgh she became something of a celebrity, opening her home for regular literary salons and forming friendships with Joanna Baillie, Walter Scott, and Maria Edgeworth (qv). Her best-loved lyric, ‘My ain fireside’, was written about this time, and in 1808 she achieved her greatest popular success with her novel The cottagers of Glenburnie, a didactic narrative aimed to reform the lifestyle of the Scottish peasantry, praised by Scott in the postscript to Waverley. Hamilton was active in various charitable projects, and in 1809 she published Exercises in religious knowledge (1809), inspired by her work with the Female House of Refuge in Edinburgh.
In 1812 Hamilton was again seriously ill, and spent a winter in England recuperating. In June of the following year she travelled to Dublin, where she met the city's literati, commenting that she met everywhere ‘with the best and most agreeable society, splendid entertainment, and that cordiality of reception which gives a zest to all’ (Benger, 190). During her three-month tour of Ireland she visited Edgeworthstown, remarking that Richard Lovell Edgeworth (qv), when at home, ‘appears in far more favourable colours than in mixed society’, and that the whole family ‘seem united to each other in bonds of the most perfect sympathy’ (Benger, 214). In this year she also continued her series of works on education, publishing A series of popular essays (1813), intended to make ‘the science of the mind’ accessible, and Hints addressed to the patrons and directors of public schools (1815), which recommended the theories of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.
Hamilton's last years were increasingly troubled by gout and failing eyesight. In an attempt to improve her health she moved in May 1816 to Harrogate, England, where she died, unmarried, 23 July 1816. A respected and widely read writer in her time, her theories on education (particularly equality of curriculum for both sexes and the education of the poor) were highly influential. She was praised by Edgeworth for her tireless work in promoting the education of women: ‘She has shown how they may, by slow and certain steps, advance to a useful object. The dark, intricate, and dangerous labyrinth, she has converted into a clear, straight, practicable road’ (Times, 5 Oct. 1816).