Biography of Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger, Stephanie Rogers, May 1998
Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger, 'Feminist, Biographer and Woman of Letters' (Blain et al 81), was born in 1778 in Somerset, the only child of parents Mary and John who survived into adulthood. Following her father's naval enlistment when she was four years old, the young Elizabeth spent her life moving from one naval town to the next. During her early childhood, it was observed that, as an eager reader, she was 'in the tormenting want of books' (Blain et al, 1990: 81). Her mother allowed her to learn Latin, a subject in which she particularly excelled. As a result, at the age of twelve she was sent to a boy's school to continue her studies. The following year, she wrote The Female Geniad (1791), a poem which celebrated woman's achievements throughout history, out of 'zeal for the honour' for her sex (Blain et al 81). The poem was dedicated to Lady Champion De Crespigny and included comprehensive notes and was 'an impressive roll-call of women writers from Sappho to contemporaries' (Blain et al, 1990: 81-2).
The tragic event of her father's death in 1796 meant that she was no longer financially secure, circumstances which unfortunately prevailed for throughout her adult life. During her maturity, she wrote a number of biographies and poetry, including Abolition in 1809. She encountered 'practical problems' composing drama (Blain et al, 1990: 82) and thus avoided the genre, instead writing novels, notably Marian in 1812 and The Heart and the Fancy; or, Valsinore in the following year. The year 1814 saw the publication of Klopstock's letters and a series of biographical lives followed between 1818 and 1823. Particularly acclaimed was her study of Mary, Queen of Scots which judged 'Elizabeth I without animus' (Blain et al, 1990: 82).
In the early 1800's, Benger attempted to forge friendships with other literary minds, including the Lambs, which unfortunately proved unsuccessful due to Benger belonging to Anna Laetitia Barbauld's literary circle, which Charles Lamb despised. However, Benger was well liked and a good conversationalist, which meant she was still able to associate with those not prescribing to Lamb's views. Incredibly, given her success with others, her work did not enjoy considerable success in the literary market. Her political views, although progressive, did not attract the controversy of Wollstonecraft et al. and did not enjoy the fame linked with such controversy.
Little is known about Benger's personal life during adulthood, although it appears she died a childless spinster. No matter how high the quality of her work and the praise it generated from her peers, she did not benefit financially and she died virtually penniless, at the age of forty-nine. It is recognised that her work maintained a steady interest in women's issues, status and history and 'Germaine de Stael found her the most interesting woman in England' (Blain et al, 1990: 82).
Attempting to find out more of Benger's life and works is a frustrating business. She is overlooked by almost all literary history dictionaries, except The Feminist Companion to Literature in English and warrants only a brief mention in The Cambridge History of English Literature. The Dictionary of Literature briefly lists her publications but without any biographical data and dismisses our author as simply a 'miscellany' writer. Apart from The Feminist Companion, the only information existing derives from An Index to the Annuals, which states:
Literary criticism belonging to her work in such publications as The Augustan, Critical or Monthly Reviews either does not exist, or is inaccessible due to the age of the editions and lack of interest in the author.
A Brief Overview of Benger's Major Works:
Adams, W. D. 1880. The Dictionary of English Literature. London: Cassell, Potter and Galpin.
Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy. 1990. The Feminist Companion to Literature In English. Batsford.
Boyle, Andrew. An Index to the Annuals, 1820-1850.
The Cambridge History of English Literature, Volume XV, Index: Volume XI p.460.