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Elstob was born and brought up in the Quayside area of Newcastle upon Tyne, and, like Mary Astell of Newcastle, is nowadays regarded as one of the first English feminists. She was proficient in eight languages, and was a pioneer in Anglo-Saxon studies, an unprecedented achievement for a woman in the period.
An orphan, she was raised by her uncle Charles Elstob, a prebendary in Canterbury, who disdained female education, believing that "one tongue is enough for a woman", but allowed her to learn Latin and French as a child. Her brother William Elstob (1673–1715) was sent to Eton and Cambridge and entered the church. Like his sister, he was a scholar and edited Roger Ascham's Letters in 1703. Elizabeth lived with him at Oxford from 1696, and in London from 1702. As a teenager he introduced her to a small but enthusiastic circle of scholars who worked on Anglo-Saxon history and culture.
In London Elstob translated Madeleine de Scudéry's Essay upon Glory in 1708, and an English-Saxon Homily on the Nativity of St Gregory in 1709. Both works are dedicated to Queen Anne, who is praised in feminist prefaces.
From 1702 Elstob was part of the circle of female intellectuals around Mary Astell, who helped to find subscribers for her Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715), the first such work written in English. The preface, "An Apology for the Study of Northern Antiquities", took issue with the formidable Jonathan Swift, and seems to have caused him to amend his views.
After her brother's death in 1715, she was left without a home and plagued by debts he had incurred in financing their expensive publications. She tried to start a girls' school in Chelsea, but despite obtaining so many pupils that she had "scarcely time to eat", they only paid a groat (4d.) a week, and the school failed within six months. In 1718 she fled London and her creditors, leaving behind her books and a partial manuscript of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, now preserved at the British Library, and ended up in Evesham in rural Worcestershire. She lived there for many years dependent on her friends, running a small dame school under the assumed name of Frances Smith. Her whereabouts were apparently unknown to anyone in the scholarly community until 1735.
In the autumn of 1738 Elstob was introduced to the wealthy Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, and was made governess to her children, remaining in her service until her death, at Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire, on 3 June 1756. In her last years she lived "surrounded by the congenial elements of dirt and her books". She wrote in a letter that "this is not an Age to hope for any encouragement to Learning of any kind".
She was buried in the churchyard of St Margaret's, Westminster.
- Gretsch 2007.
- Seale, Yvonne (4 February 2016). "The First Female Anglo-Saxonist". History Today. Retrieved 5 February 2016.
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- Sutherland, Kathryn (1994). "Editing for a new century: Elizabeth Elstob's Anglo-Saxon manifesto and Ælfric's St Gregory homily". In Scragg, D. G.; Szarmach, Paul E. The Editing of Old English: papers from the 1990 Manchester Conference. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer. pp. 213–37.
- Sutherland, Kathryn (1998). "Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756)". In Damico, Helen; Zavadil, Joseph B. Medieval Scholarship: biographical studies on the formation of a discipline. 2. New York: Garland. pp. 59–73. ISBN 0815328907.
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