Elder, Olivia (1735?–1780), poet, was born on 21 January, possibly in 1735 or perhaps 1739, the daughter of Rev. John Elder (1693–1779), presbyterian minister of Aghadowey in north Co. Londonderry since 1723; her mother's name is not known. There seems to have been at least one brother in the family. Her father was a notable participant in the subscription controversy which convulsed the denomination in the 1720s; he himself had subscribed the Westminster confession, but published a pamphlet urging support for Christian liberty and the maintenance of religious communion between subscribers and non-subscribers. In 1726 he joined Michael Bruce (qv) (1686–1735), James Kirkpatrick (qv) (1676–1743), Samuel Haliday (qv) and John Abernethy (qv) in the non-subscribing presbytery of Antrim, established the previous year.
Olivia received an excellent education, presumably at home. She had some Latin and Greek, loved literature, and took pleasure in composing verses and verse letters to her friends. Given her background in a presbyterian community, where religion and theology were of central significance in daily life, and frequently discussed, it is not surprising that in her poetry she expressed strong views on morality, and partook enthusiastically in inter- and intra-denominational argument. She never married, and lived with her father as his housekeeper until his death.
Ambitious for a poet's reputation, she hoped that her work would be published, and carefully made fair copies of poems in a notebook. She attempted pastorals, epistles, elegies, odes and even songs, which are known to have circulated in manuscript. The work is lively and in varied styles, with clever versification and occasionally vivid similes and diction. She did have one poem published anonymously in the Freeman's Journal (29 June 1772), a rather vicious satire on the Church of Ireland rector of Coleraine, Robert Heyland. It caused much annoyance to its subject and his family, and could have had unpleasant repercussions for Olivia and her family.
In 1774 she sought the acquaintance of one of the only well-known female professional writers, the Englishwoman Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825), who like Elder herself was from a liberal dissenting background. Unlike Barbauld, and indeed unlike most women writers in English in the next hundred or even 150 years, Elder, perhaps partly because she was a product of a robustly egalitarian rural community, seems not to have cared at all about contemporary metropolitan proprieties of diction or social politeness. Many of her poems chronicle misunderstandings and enmities. In some she is at best thoughtlessly rude, and in others downright insulting, with expressions that can somewhat shock readers, even today. She readily accused neighbouring gentry, clergymen and ministers, especially her father's Old Light adversaries, of all kinds of moral shortcomings, even of vices up to and including fornication, and seems in general to have had a low opinion of men. Benjamin McDowell (qv), a champion of the Old Light beliefs, may be the 'orthodox parson' that she names and viciously satirises in a song set to a tune, 'The big-bellied bottle'. Drinking songs, and verse accusing clergymen of hypocrisy, greed, lying and slander, would be more often associated with Robert Burns than with a minister's daughter.
Like Burns, she was a product of a rural community, familiar with the Scots language (which would have been in general use in Aghadowey and around), and also appears to have been familiar with its earlier literature. One of her most successful poems, 'An elegy on J. S. …', is a parody of one of Allan Ramsay's verses, written in strong Scots, and in the six-line standard Habbie stanza. Elder's ease in using direct speech in her work provides all too rare glimpses of social occasions and relationships in rural communities in the first half of the eighteenth century, even more unfamiliar from a woman's perspective.
Her descriptions of the married state to which most of her contemporaries would have aspired are vivid and unflattering: a poem called 'Matrimony at the throne' is almost dramatic in structure, and presents one possible spouse as a drunken, hiccupping booby, his brother as a domineering and critical tyrant, and life with either as an appalling option for an intelligent woman. In the same poem, however, Elder is almost equally critical of her woman friend who will submit to her husband:
The poem given first place in her notebook, 'To Mrs A. C. H. an account of the Authors manner of spending her time', is perhaps her best work. In it, her recognition of the distractions of everyday tasks and responsibilities presages sentiments later expressed by other women writers, including Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. Elder is funny as well as rueful about the challenges facing the woman as artist, and also clearly takes pride in her abilities in 'ricks and housewifry', her 'bottled beer', and her skill in turf-stack building:
After suffering ill health for some time, she died in 1780, only a year after her father's death. Her notebook was preserved in the family and passed to the physician and poet James Henry (qv), who seems to have been a grand-nephew (his mother was another Olivia Elder). Despite the poet Olivia Elder's hope for fame, her work remained in manuscript, with virtually nothing known about her, until research revealed where she lived and much about her social setting, and her unique work was finally published in 2017.