Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Forgotten Best-Sellers: Elizabeth Hamilton’s The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808)

In 1808, Scottish author Elizabeth Hamilton published her third and final novel, titled The Cottagers of Glenburnie. As Pam Perkins observes in her introduction to what is currently the only extant scholarly edition of this novel, Cottagers became ‘when it was first published […] an immediate critical and popular success’.[1] It is with this success in mind that I am pleased to introduce The Cottagers of Glenburnie as the next title in our ‘Forgotten Best-Seller’ series. 

Published in 2010 by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS), Pam Perkins’ edition remains the only extant scholarly edition of Cottagers. Her edition also includes excerpts from three of Hamilton’s non-fiction publications: Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education (1801); Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, Wife of Germanicus (1804); and Letters Addressed to the Daughter of a Nobleman (1806), the first two of which appear in the Books and Borrowing database. In these works, Hamilton discusses her educational theories, which inform all three of her novels. Image source: ASLS.

Set in the fictional Highland village of Glenburnie, Cottagers follows the story of Mrs Mason, a retired governess who, having spent most of her working life in England, returns at the start of the novel to her native Scotland, to live with her relations, the MacClarty family.

Described by Perkins as ‘a manual for working-class self-improvement’,[2] Cottagers was written, in Hamilton’s own words, ‘with a view to shame my good country folks into a greater degree of nicety with regard to cleanliness, and to awaken their attention to the source of corruption in the lower orders’.[3]

Indeed, horrified by the slipshod domestic habits and parenting techniques of Mr and (in particular) Mrs MacClarty, Mrs Mason attempts over the course of the novel to improve the eponymous cottagers by instilling in them ‘habits of industry and virtue’.[4] In particular, she emphasises the importance of an early education, in which children develop moral principles and a clear understanding of their religious duty, as an imperative means of successfully cultivating these habits.


Overall, Mrs Mason is successful in her attempts to reform the inhabitants of Glenburnie, despite being met with some initial resistance from the ‘sturdy stickler[s] for the gude auld gaits’, and the novel’s final chapter details ‘the improvements that were speedily to take place in the village of Glenburnie’.[5]

The cottages themselves, for example, ‘merely from the attention [now] paid to neatness, all had the air of cheerfulness and contentment’, having previously been ‘blackened by the mud which the cartwheels had spattered from the ruts in winter’, indicating the reformed behaviour and habits of the people who live in them.[6]

Whilst the elder school-boys now express a ‘spirit of emulation […] for the external appearance of their respective homes’, the girls ‘exerted themselves with no less activity, to effect a reformation within doors’, resulting cumulatively in ‘a picture of neatness and comfort’ throughout Glenburnie.[7]

Mrs MacClarty provides the exception to this change by remaining resolute in her conviction that she ‘canna be fashed’ with any of the improvements Mrs Mason proposes.[8] As a consequence of this, and in keeping with the characteristically ‘uncompromising’ didacticism that Perkins identifies in Hamilton’s writing,[9] Mrs MacClarty is depicted still living under slovenly ‘circumstances […] in a declining state’ at the novel’s close.[10] She thus serves as a warning from which readers are implicitly designed to learn in order to avoid meeting the same miserable fate.

This image appeared as the frontispiece of the 1898 edition of Cottagers, published in Edinburgh by W P Nimmo, Hay & Mitchell. No caption is provided, but the image most likely depicts Mrs MacClarty (right), an aghast Mrs Mason (seated, centre), and either the MacClartys’ maid or one of their daughters (left).

As Perkins notes, Cottagers was well received upon publication, with one reviewer observing in the Critical Review that, through ‘pointing out the vices of sloth and indolence Miss H. has most happily blended her little story of Mrs. Mason with much sweetness, good sense, and sound morality’.[11] In June 1810, the following review was published in the Edinburgh Review:

We have not met with any thing nearly so good as this since we read the Castle Rackrent, and the Popular Tales of Miss Edgeworth. This contains as admirable a picture of the Scottish Peasantry, as those works do of the Irish, and rivals them not only in the general truth of the delineations, and in the cheerfulness and practical good sense of the lessons which they convey, but in the nice discriminations of national characters, and the skill with which a dramatic representation of humble life is saved from caricature and absurdity.[12]

Hamilton’s friendship with fellow novelist Maria Edgeworth (to whom she was introduced by their mutual correspondent, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Dugald Stewart) has been well documented by critics. Similarities between their respective works were often noted in reviews of Cottagers and, indeed, they continue to be noted in recent studies of the works of both women.[13]

In a letter dated February 1809, Edgeworth recommended Cottagers to her aunt, Mrs Margaret Ruxton, writing that ‘I hope you will like [it] as well as I do. I think it will do a vast deal of good in Ireland, & besides it is extremely interesting which all good books are not it has great powers both comic and tragic’.[14]

Edgeworth was not alone in praising Cottagers. In 1808, Susan Ferrier (another Scottish novelist, whose forgotten best-seller The Inheritance I write about here) in turn praised Hamilton’s novel, asking in a letter to her friend Charlotte Clavering if she had ‘been introduced to the McLarty family yet? I think they are the most exquisite family group imaginable. Mrs. McC. is quite one of your darlings’.[15]

In her own novel, Marriage, published ten years after Cottagers, in 1818, Ferrier directly refers to the MacClarty family.[16] Writing of the three Scottish aunts in Marriage, all of whom are satirised for their manners and approaches to education, Ferrier writes that: ‘In short, they were not of the M’Larty, or ‘canna be fashed,’ school; for their life was one continued fash about every thing or nothing’.[17] Here, Ferrier’s reference to Mrs MacClarty and her by now recognisable catchphrase assumes a degree of knowledge on the part of readers, reflecting the popularity and familiarity of Cottagers amongst readers of these early-nineteenth century Scottish novels.

Evidently, Cottagers was, at the time of its publication and in the years that immediately followed, an undisputed best-seller amongst novel reviewers and writers alike, but to what extent is this popularity reflected in the Books and Borrowing dataset? This question is one that I’ll be tackling in the final chapter of my PhD thesis, and I’d like to use the remainder of this blog today to share some initial findings.

According to our dataset, Cottagers was by far the most popular of Hamilton’s novels amongst borrowers, yielding a total of 114 borrowing records (as the graph below shows). Hamilton’s other two novels, Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796) and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) both appear in the dataset, but yield a rather less impressive 55 and 58 borrowing records respectively.

This may or may not be due to the fact that Cottagers is the only of Hamilton’s novels to be set exclusively in Scotland (although both Memoirs and Translations make reference to Scotland or to the Scottish educational system, their narratives do not take place in Scotland).

It could also be due to the fact that, by the time Cottagers was published, Hamilton was already a well-known, successful, and respected author, leading to her final novel being the most widely read (or, at least, borrowed) in Scotland. As a reviewer for the Critical Review wrote of Cottagers in 1808, ‘The name of Miss Elizabeth Hamilton would alone be sufficient to recommend the book before us; and we anticipated a work of great merit and use even before we had read a line’, confirming her favourable reputation.[18]

While Translations and Memoirs only appear in the borrowing records of Selkirk Library, Cottagers appears in the records of five of our eighteen project libraries: Westerkirk, Selkirk, Leighton, Wigtown, and the Advocates Library in Edinburgh. It was, therefore, five times more accessible, in a selection of both urban and rural libraries, than Hamilton’s first two novels.

Cottagers was, moreover, borrowed consistently between the years 1808 and 1836 (just after the end of the Books and Borrowing project’s time frame, and at the very end of the time frame of my own doctoral thesis, which analyses the period between 1800 and 1837), indicating its enduring success and popularity.

An 1812 portrait of Hamilton by the Scottish portrait artist Henry Raeburn. This painting is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. Image source: National Galleries of Scotland.

Naturally, the number of borrowings fluctuates year by year. The highest number of borrowings of Cottagers was in 1814, six years after its original publication. This is not necessarily unusual – not all libraries would, for example, have bought a copy of a book as soon as it was published, and not all readers, by extension, would have had access to new publications as soon as they might have liked.

Another possible explanation for this spike in 1814 is the publication of Walter Scott’s Waverley that same year. At the end of Waverley, Scott commends ‘Mrs Hamilton’s Glenburnie’, whose ‘genius’ he describes as ‘highly creditable to [her] country’. Identifying Cottagers as a work written on a ‘similar subject’ to his own (i.e. the Highlands), Scott notes how Hamilton’s novel is ‘confined to the rural habits of Scotland, of which it has given a picture with striking and impressive fidelity’.[19] It is possible, therefore, that having read Waverley (a rather better-remembered best-seller) and Scott’s praise of Cottagers during its final pages, readers were compelled to go out soon after and borrow Hamilton’s final novel.

As mentioned, these questions and ideas are ones that I will continue to analyse and explore in the final chapter of my thesis, which centres on borrowing patterns of the early-nineteenth-century Scottish novels of Mary Brunton, Ferrier, John Galt, Hamilton, James Hogg, and Scott.

More on this to follow anon, but for now I’ll end by encouraging any readers of this blog who have not yet read Cottagers to go and do so. In the astute (if somewhat pompous) words of Mrs Mason, the ‘fear of being fashed is the great bar to all improvement’, and Hamilton was nothing if not an author who sought to improve the minds of her readers.[20]

[1] Pam Perkins, “Introduction”, The Cottagers of Glenburnie and Other Educational Writing by Elizabth Hamilton, ed. Pam Perkins (Glasgow: ASLS, 2010), 1.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Elizabeth Benger, Memoirs of the Late Mrs Elizabeth Hamilton. With a Selection from her Correspondence, and Other Unpublished Writings, 2 vols (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1818), II, 72–73.

[4] Elizabeth Hamilton, The Cottagers of Glenburnie, ed. Pam Perkins (Glasgow: ASLS, 2010), 214.

[5] Ibid., 213.

[6] Ibid., 105; 214.

[7] Ibid., 213.

[8] Ibid., 114. This phrase is repeated regularly by Mrs MacClarty throughout the novel, emphasising her reluctance to reform her behaviour and habits.

[9]  Perkins, “Introduction”, 1.

[10] Ibid., 216.

[11] Critical Review, 3rd ser. 15 (Dec 1808): 421–30.

[12] Edinburgh Review, No. 24, p. 401.

[13] Recent examples of studies that discuss the similarities between Hamilton and Edgeworth include, but are not limited to: Jane Rendall, “Elementary Principles of Education’: Elizabeth Hamilton, Maria Edgeworth and the Uses of Common Sense Philosophy,” History of European Ideas 39:5 (2013): 613–30; or, Susan Egenolf, The Art of Political Fiction in Hamilton, Edgeworth, and Owenson (Routledge, 2009).

[14] Maria Edgeworth, The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, ed. by Augustus J. C. Hare, 2 vols (London: Arnold, 1894), I, 160.

[15] Susan Ferrier, Memoir and Correspondence of Susan Ferrier. 1782–1854. Collected by her Grand-Nephew John Ferrier, ed. by John A. Doyle (London: Murray, 1898; rpt. London: Eveleigh, 1929), 55.

[16] NB Hamilton died in Harrogate in 1816 and would not therefore have noted this reference.

[17] Susan Ferrier, Marriage, introduced by Val McDermid (Virago, 2017), 48. Interestingly, this reference to the MacClarty family does not appear in Dorothy McMillan’s ASLS edition of Marriage, published in 2020; this reference must, therefore, have been subsequently removed from the first edition.

[18] Critical Review, 3rd ser. 15 (Dec 1808): 421–30.

[19] Walter Scott, Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, ed. P. D. Garside (London: Penguin, 2011), 364.

[20] Hamilton, Cottagers, 134.