Wolverhampton BTW

Elizabeth Isabella Spence

Spence, Elizabeth Isabella, 1768—1832

by Benjamin Colbert

Elizabeth Isabella Spence was born in 1768 at Dunkeld, Perthshire, the only child of Dr James Spence (d. 1786), a physician, and Elizabeth Spence (1731-77), née Fordyce. Her parents shared an interest in literature, and her maternal uncle was Dr James Fordyce (1720-96; ODNB), author of the popular Sermons to Young Women (1765).

Soon after Elizabeth Isabella Spence’s birth, her family moved to Durham, where they were visited by Samuel Johnson on his Scottish tour and formed lasting friendships with the Porter family, including the up-and-coming novelists Jane Porter and Anna Maria Porter, as well as the traveller and painter Sir Robert Kerr Porter. On 8 June 1777, Spence’s mother died while visiting her brother, Dr George Fordyce, at Putney (although obituary notices on which Spence’s biographers rely give her husband’s profession as ‘Dissenting Minister at Derby’ rather than physician at Durham [Morn. Chron]).

Probably after the death of her mother, Spence’s father succeeded to a practice at Guildford, Surrey, where they moved to a residence on Quarry Street. In 1786, James Spence died after falling from a horse. After administrators sold off all the household goods, the house, and Spence’s library to pay creditors (Morn. Post; Morn. Her.), Elizabeth Isabella Spence was left at the age of sixteen with little means of support. She is said to have been taken in by an aunt and uncle in London (as yet unidentified), and began writing for periodical publications. After her guardians died a few years later, she turned wholly to literary pursuits to support herself.

Her first major work was a novel, Helen Sinclair (1799), dedicated to her widowed aunt, Henrietta Fordyce (1734-1823; ODNB). Two more novels followed – The Nobility of the Heart (1804) and The Wedding-Day (1807) – but, as one critic wrote in Belle Assemblée, ‘it is as a tourist that Miss Spence appears in her greatest strength’ (94). She wrote three travelogues in all – Summer Excursions (1809), Sketches of the Present Manners, Customs, and Scenery of Scotland, and Letters from the North Highlands (1817). In the last, the letters were addressed to her friend the novelist Jane Porter. Other works included the fictional A Traveller’s Tale of the Last Century (1819) and other collections of tales, as well as a last novel, Dame Rebecca Berry (1827).

In the 1820s, Spence and her friend Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger (bap. 1775-1827; ODNB) played hostesses to regular literary gatherings at Spence’s second-floor flat in Quebec Street, Portman Square, and Benger’s lodgings on the Tottenham Court Road. These soirees provided a fertile meeting ground for women and men of letters, including Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Caroline Lamb, and Edward Bulwer Lytton, among many others (see Lawford).

Spence suffered a paralytic stroke in the spring of 1832, and then took lodgings at Chelsea for a change of air. There she died on 27 July 1832 at the age of 64.


‘Biographical Sketch of Miss Elizabeth Isabella Spence’. La Belle Assemblée 29.185 (Mar. 1824): [93]-94. Print.

J., P. ‘Miss Elizabeth Spence’. Annual Biography and Obituary 17 (1833): 367-71. Print.

Lawford, Cynthia. ‘Turbans, Tea and Talk of Books: the Literary Parties of Elizabeth Spence and Elizabeth Benger’. CW3 Journal: Corvey Women Writers on the Web. Sheffield Hallam University. Web. 5 Feb. 2018.

Lee, Elizabeth, and Rebecca Mills. 'Spence, Elizabeth Isabella (1768–1832), writer'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Oxford University Press. Web. 5 Feb. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/26108

Morning Chronicle, no. 2514 (Wed., 11 June 1777). Gale Databases: 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Web. 5 Feb. 2018.

Morning Post, no. 4274 (Sat., 28 Oct. 1786). Gale Databases: 17th -18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Web. 5 Feb. 2018.

Morning Herald, no. 1894 (Sun., 19 Nov. 1786). Gale Databases: 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Web. 5 Feb. 2018.


Title Published
Summer Excursions 1809
Sketches of the Present Manners, Customs, and Scenery of Scotland 1811
Letters from the North Highlands 1817

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