25 Women to Read Before You Die

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Elizabeth Hamilton 1758-1816

Elizabeth Hamilton's early years read like a Brontë novel: the death of the father leaves his three young children at the mercy of distant relatives. The siblings are separated from each other and raised apart, and the cherished brother ships off to India with the British Army. In her adulthood Elizabeth served as a governess to a noble family and in 1806 she wrote Letters on the Formation of the Religious and the Moral Principle to the Daughter of a Nobleman, which probably reads very differently from Jane Eyre.

Best known for Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education, published in 1801, she is most likely remembered today as an educationalist — if she is remembered at all. (While she is nicely represented in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) with a full two columns, she is followed by Emma Hamilton, who can claim over six and a half pages.)

And that's a shame, because in between publishing such early nineteenth-century pieces as Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, and My Ain Fireside, she wrote Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, the Wife of Germanicus, a scholarly work in three volumes.

Referred to in the DNB as "an epitome of Roman laws, customs, and manners," Hamilton's Memoirs chronicle some of the bloodiest and most powerful personalities in the ancient world — and here I am referring to the women. The men were almost as bad. Not exactly fodder for a gentle governess.

Hamilton read extensively to research the Memoirs. She cites Pliny's Epistles, Adams's Roman Antiquities, and Tacitus's The Annals of Imperial Rome. Much of the material she used is no longer available in print, and is scarce even in used or rare editions. Thank goodness for libraries.

The three volumes of the Memoirs are a beautiful example of English printing and binding. Published at Bath in 1804, the books are bound in contemporary tree calf, with edges decorated in gilt and marbled endpapers. I initially took them off the shelf to write about the binding, but the subject caught my attention. Robert Graves' retelling of the story of Germanicus, Agrippina, Caligula, and Livia in I, Claudius brings these historical figures to life, and follows them to their (usually bloody) death.

The BBC production of I, Claudius is recommended for those who like their history well-written with fabulous actors wearing great costumes and wigs — or is that Patrick Stewart's real hair?

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard in I, Claudius

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Kirsten Berg has worked as a used book buyer for Powell's for more than 10 years. She is experienced with technical and general reading material, and enjoys working with out-of-print and rare material the most.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Jane Eyre (Modern Library Classics) Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. I, Claudius: From the Autobiography...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95

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