“This Weather Cramps My Genius”

The portrait of this dignified lady may not immediately bring to mind the thought of a hike.

Oh, this woman was a champion hiker. And thinker. Some time back I wrote a post on writers who were enthusiastic walkers. If you read it, you may remember the amazing Elizabeth Carter. (1717 – 1806)

She was known as ‘a very good walker’. That’s putting it mildly. I had every intention of bringing her back for an encore, as she is such a fascinating lady.

NPG 28; Elizabeth Carter by Sir Thomas Lawrence

by Sir Thomas Lawrence, pastel on vellum, 1788-1789, courtesy National Portrait gallery

Well, this isn’t her encore post, not yet, anyway…but whenever I want to take a walk but demur because it’s raining (as has been the case the last few days), I am reminded of this indefatigable walker and eighteenth-century bluestocking.

‘I walked three miles yesterday in a wind that I thought would have blown me out of this planet, and afterwards danced nine hours, and then walked back again. Did you ever see or hear of anything half so wonderful? And what is still more so, I am not dead, which I thought prior to tell you, for fear you should think this letter no sufficient proof of my being alive.’

Walking in this manner is quite different than hiking, to the modern mind. Hiking today is a sport. As a sport it comes with attendant gear that involves expensive shoes, a backpack, and little packets of odd foods that have been dehydrated down to the weight of dryer lint. (My own walks I like to call Perambulations; they might start out as a hike, but end up as a meander, and usually involve short breaks for chocolate.)


Elizabeth Carter, had she lived today, might have been a keen hiker of ‘trackless paths’, as this excerpt from one of her letters reveals:

‘In proportion as my sister has mended, I have recovered my spirits, I am now nearly as gay and wild as ever, and want to be flying all over the face of the earth, though this weather something cramps my genius, for I cannot meet with any body here romantic enough to take moonlight walks in the snow, and travel as people do in Lapland. If I was happy enough to be a Canterbury, what excursions should you and I make through trackless paths, and enjoy a season that less whimsical folks shudder at. Certainly we odd mortals, that take delight in such things as make the rest of the world very sententiously pronounce us mad, enjoy infinitely more pleasure than the sober prudent part of mankind who sit close to a fire because they are cold. To us every season has its charms; and even the gloomy prospects of winter have a kind of dark, sullen beauty, that strikes the mind with no disagreeable sensation. Having read you this curious dissertation upon winter, I should next proceed to descant upon the spring….’

When she wrote about her genius being cramped, this was not just being witty. She actually was a genius, part of the now-famous Blue Stocking Circle; a group of eighteenth century women intellectuals. By the time of her early twenties, Carter had taught herself to be fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Portugese, Arabic, French and Italian. What she is best known for, however, is her seminal translation of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus from the Greek. (you can read this here and find reasons for wonderment that could possibly linger for days….)

As well, by the time she was twenty-one she had translated Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explained for the use of Ladies, in Six Dialogues on Light and Colours.

You’ll love her spirited style. And possibly be encouraged to walk more, in any weather.

For more about Elizabeth and famous walkers, read here.