Elizabeth Thomas (1677–1731)
Note: the 19th--century biography below preserves a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
THOMAS, ELIZABETH (16771731), poetaster, known as ‘Corinna,’ the daughter of Emmanuel Thomas (d. 1677) of the Inner Temple, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Osborne of Sittingbourne, was born in 1677. During 1699 Elizabeth, who was a great celebrity hunter, managed to inveigle Dryden into a correspondence, and two of the poet's letters to the lady are still preserved (Works, ed. Scott, xviii. 164 seq.). Dryden professed to detect in her manner much of the ‘matchless Orinda’ [see Philips, Katherine], and he conferred upon her (by request) the poetic name ‘Corinna,’ after the Theban poetess. ‘I would,’ says the gallant poet, ‘have called you Sapho, but that I hear you are handsomer.’ After Dryden's death she kept up a correspondence with Mrs. Creed and other members of the family. During her early career she seems to have resided with her mother in Dyott Street, Bloomsbury. On 16 April 1717 there died Richard Gwinnet [q. v.], a gentleman of means, who had, she declares, repeatedly offered her marriage. Many years afterwards she published the letters (No. 4 infra) which had, she stated, passed between them during their long courtship. In the correspondence she assumed the name of ‘Corinna,’ and Gwinnet that of ‘Pylades.’ The latter bequeathed his ‘Corinna’ 600l., of which sum she managed to obtain 213l. from the lawyers and relatives. This was rapidly absorbed by creditors after her mother's death in January 171819. Hitherto she declares that ‘platonic love’ had been her ruling passion, and she published some ‘Poems’ inspired by this sentiment in 1722. In the meantime, as Scott observes with more probability than politeness, it would seem that ‘her person as well as her writings were dedicated to the service of the public.’ While under the protection of Henry Cromwell, the correspondent of Pope, some letters of Pope came into her clutches. In 1726 she sold twenty-five of these letters for ten guineas to Curll, by whom they were promptly published. They appeared on 12 Aug. 1726 as ‘Mr. Pope's familiar Letters … written to Henry Cromwell, Esq. between 1707 and 1712, with original Poems by Mr. Pope, Mr. Cromwell, and Sappho’ (cf. Dilke, Papers of a Critic, i. 28990). The transaction led to the long series of manœuvres by which Pope schemed to invest with an appearance of spontaneity and artless grace the publication of his carefully revised correspondence [see Curll, Edmund, and Pope, Alexander]. The original letters sold by Mrs. Thomas to Curll were bequeathed by Richard Rawlinson [q. v.] to the Bodleian. Pope having professed to believe that the letters were stolen, the fact was expressly denied upon the title-page of the second edition in 1727. It seems probable that Mrs. Thomas attempted to subsist for a time upon the products of blackmailing, but early in 1727 she became quite destitute, and was thrown into the Fleet prison, then under the wardenship of the infamous Thomas Bambridge. Under an act of insolvency a warrant was issued for her release in 1729; but in consequence of her extreme indigence and inability to pay the gaoler's fees, she was unable to regain her liberty. Probably about 1727, in order to raise a few shillings, she concocted a harrowing but almost entirely fictitious account of Dryden's death and funeral [see Dryden, John]. This she disposed of to Curll, who introduced it into his Grub Street ‘Memoirs of Congreve’ in 1730. ‘Mrs.’ Thomas also contrived to extract some didactic letters from Henry Norris of Bemerton, which she published in a cheap duodecimo to relieve her necessities while in the Fleet. On 16 April 1730 she addressed to Sir Joseph Jekyll from prison a pitiable appeal for some means of support and a ‘few modest fig leaves’ to cover her. Two months later she was enabled to remove to lodgings in Fleet Street, where she died on 5 Feb. 17301 (Hist. Reg. 1731, Chron. Diary, p. 11). She was buried in the churchyard of St. Bride's, at the expense of Margaret, lady De La Warr. Swift's ‘Corinna, a Ballad,’ from the reference in the last stanza to the ‘Atalantis,’ would seem to have been aimed at Mrs. Manley; but the contents, as well as the title, make it more appropriate to Mrs. Thomas (Swift, Works, ed. Scott, 1824, xii. 300). The writings of ‘Corinna’ comprise:
- ‘Poems on several Occasions. By a Lady,’ 1722, 8vo, 1726 and 1727.
- ‘Codrus; or the Dunciad dissected. To which is added Farmer Pope and his Son,’ 1729, a small sixpenny octavo, written for, and perhaps in conjunction with, Edmund Curll.
- ‘The Metamorphoses of the Town; or a View of the present Fashions. A Tale, after the manner of Fontaine,’ 1730, 8vo; 2nd edit., to which is added Swift's ‘Journal of a Modern Lady,’ 1730, 1731; 1731 (4th edit.). ‘By the late celebrated Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas, who has so often obliged the town under the name of Corinna’ (the British Museum has William Cowper's copy).
- ‘Pylades and Corinna; or Memoirs of the Lives, Amours, and Writings of Richard Gwinnet, Esquire, and Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas, junior. … To which is prefixed the Life of Corinna, written by herself,’ 1731, 2 vols. 8vo (dedicated to the Duchess of Somerset and Lord and Lady De La Warr). The ‘autobiography,’ for the most part a tissue of absurdities, was abridged for Cibber's ‘Lives of the Poets’ (iv. 146 seq.).
An engraving of ‘Mrs. Eliz. Thomas, æt 30,’ by G. King, is prefixed to the first volume of ‘Pylades and Corinna.’
[Malone's Dryden, i. 354 seq.; Dryden's Works, ed. Scott, xviii. 164 seq.; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, iv. 327, vi. 36, 61, 419, 434; Steele's Tatler, 1823, vol. i.; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict. xxix. 281; Hone's Year Book, p. 473; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Noble's Cont. of Granger, vol. ii.; Lowndes's Bibliogr. Man. (Bohn); Cibber's Lives of the Poets, iv. 14654; Curll's Miscellanea, 1727; Remarks on the Fleet Prison, 1733; Halkett and Laing's Dict. of Anon. and Pseudon. Lit. pp. 1607, 1951.]