Born in Deal, Kent, Elizabeth Carter was the oldest child of Rev. Nicolas Carter, perpetual curate of Deal, and his first wife Margaret (died c. 1728), only daughter and heir of Richard Swayne of Bere Regis, Dorset, who died when Elizabeth was ten. Her redbrick family home can still be seen at the junction of South Street and Middle Street, close to the seafront. Encouraged by her father to study, she mastered several modern and ancient languages (including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic) and science.
Carter rendered into English De Crousaz's Examen de l'essai de Monsieur Pope sur l'homme (Examination of Mr Pope's "An Essay on Man", two volumes, 1739); Algarotti's Newtonianismo per le dame (Newtonianism for women); and wrote a small volume of poems. Carter's position in the pantheon of 18th-century women writers was, however, secured by her translation in 1758 of All the Works of Epictetus, Which are Now Extant, the first English translation of all known works by the Greek stoic philosopher. This work made her name and fortune, securing her a spectacular £1000 in subscription money.
Carter was a friend of Samuel Johnson, editing some editions of his periodical The Rambler. He wrote, "My old friend, Mrs. Carter could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem."
Carter was friends with many other eminent people, as well as being a close confidant of Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, Hester Chapone, and other members of the Bluestocking circle. Anne Hunter, a minor poet and socialite, and Mary Delany are also noted as close friends. The novelist Samuel Richardson included Carter's poem "Ode to Wisdom" in the text of his novel Clarissa (1747–48) without ascribing it to her. It was later published in a corrected form the Gentleman's Magazine and Carter received an apology from Richardson.
Carter appeared in the engraved (1777) and painted (1778) versions of Richard Samuel's The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain (1779) but the figures in the painting were so idealised that she complained she could not identify herself or anyone else in the work. Samuel had not done any sittings from life when preparing the work.
Fanny Burney is quoted in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson as saying in 1780 she thought Carter "a really noble-looking woman; I never saw age so graceful in the female sex yet; her whole face seems to beam with goodness, piety, and philanthropy." However, Betsey Sheridan, sister of the playwright, described her five years later in her diary as "rather fat and not very striking in appearance".
Carter kept an interest in religious matters. She was influenced by Hester Chapone, and she wrote apologetic treatises of the Christian faith, asserting the authority of the Bible over human matters. One of these works, known as Objections against the New Testament with Mrs. Carter's Answers to them and was published in the compilation of writings Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter by Montagu Pennington, which also included her Notes on the Bible and the Answers to Objections concerning the Christian Religion. Her deep belief in God is also reflected in her poems "In Diem Natalem" and "Thoughts at Midnight" (also known as "A Night Piece").
- Elizabeth Gaskell, the 19th-century novelist, refers to Carter as an epistolatory model, bracketing her in Cranford with Hester Chapone, a self-taught Bluestocking.
- Virginia Woolf saw her as a feminist precursor – urging "homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter – the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early and learn Greek."
- Encyclopaedia Britannica Retrieved 13 July 2016.
- 18th C – People & Places Retrieved 13 July 2016.
- Susan Staves, A Literary History of Women's Writing in Britain, 1660-1780 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006) pp. 309–315.
- Lezard, Nicholas (26 February 2005). "Review of Dr Johnson's Women, by Norma Clarke". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-03-08.
- Sic – she remained single all her life.
- "Gallery rediscovers oil portrait". BBC News. 6 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-08.
- Bettany, George Thomas (1891). "Anne Hunter". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 28. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Peltz, Lucy, "Living muses: Constructing and celebrating the professional woman in literature and the arts" in Brilliant women: 18th-century bluestockings. (2008) Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz (eds.) New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 61. ISBN 9780300141030
- Cranford, Chapter V--Old Letters
- V. Woolf, A Room of One's Own (London 1929) p. 98
- Portraits of Elizabeth Carter at the National Portrait Gallery
- "Elizabeth Carter", Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 138–140
- "Home town finds feminist painting". BBC News. 7 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-08.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Carter, Elizabeth". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource [full citation needed]
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Gilman, D. C.; Thurston, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Carter, Elizabeth". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.