Modern Scholars
Biographies & Bibliographies

Elise C. Otté
Scandinavian Scholar and Translator
Sept 30, 1818 — Dec 20, 1903
First English Translator of the Complete Poetic Edda
Assistant of Benjamin Thorpe

  Elise Charlotte Otté
Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement
by Edmund Gosse

OTTÉ, ELISE (1818–1903), scholar and historian, was born at Copenhagen on 30 September 1818, of a Danish father and an English mother. In 1820 her parents went to Santa Cruz, in the Danish West Indies, where her father died. Her mother returned to Copenhagen, where she met the English philologist, Benjamin Thorpe [q. v.], while he was studying Anglo-Saxon under Rask in Denmark, and married him. Elise accompanied her mother and step-father to England. From her step-father Elise Otté received an extraordinary education, and at a very tender age knew so much Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic as to be able to help Thorpe in his grammatical work. His tyranny, however, became more than she could bear, and in 1840 she went to Boston, U.S.A., to secure her independence. Here her mind turned from grammar to science, and she studied physiology at Harvard. Later on she travelled much in Europe, and then resumed her life with her step-father, whom she helped in his version of the 'Edda of Sæmund.' But the bondage was again found intolerable, and in 1849 Elise Otté escaped to St. Andrews, where she worked at scientific translations for the use of Dr. George Edward Day [q. v.], Chandos professor of anatomy and medicine. In 1863 she went to reside with Day and his wife at Torquay, and in 1872, after Day's death, made London her home. Here, for years, she carried on an active literary career, writing largely for scientific periodicals. In 1874 she published a 'History of Scandinavia,' which is her most durable work; she compiled grammars of Danish and of Swedish, and issued translations of standard works by De Quatrefages, R. Pauli, and others. Her translation of Pauli's 'Old England' (1861) was dedicated to her step-father, Thorpe. Miss Otté was one of the most learned women of her time, especially in philology and physical science, but she never acquired ease in literary expression. She lived wholly in the pursuit of knowledge, even in extreme old age, when rendered inactive and tortured by neuralgia. She died at Richmond on 20 Dec. 1903, in her eighty-sixth year.
[Personal knowledge; Athenæum, 2 Jan. (by the present writer) and 16 Jan. (by Miss Day), 1904.]
Massachusetts Historical Society: The Adams Papers
On microfilm, P-54, reel 340.
Diary of traveler and private tutor Elise Charlotte Otte, kept from 13 - 27 July 1843. Entries describe Otte's travels with John Quincy Adams and the Joseph Grinnell family of New Bedford, Mass., through northern New York and Quebec en route to Niagara Falls. Along the journey Otte comments extensively on the history and geography of the regions toured, in particular their connections to events of the French and Indian War. Regions visited in addition to Niagara Falls include Saratoga, Lake George, Quebec, and Montreal.
Also included with the diary are two letters written by Otte addressed to Charles Francis Adams, asking him if he would be interested in adding her travel journals to Adams's collection of family papers. Also, a newspaper clipping taken from the London Athenaeum noting Otte's death, as well as a letter to the editors in response to factual errors in the piece.
The Adams Papers consist of correspondence, letterbooks, diaries, literary manuscripts, speeches, legal and business papers, and other materials, largely of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Charles Francis Adams.
The Athenaeum:
A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Music, and  Drama
January 2nd 1904

A REMARKABLE career came to a close on Sunday evening, December 20th, in the death of Miss Elise C. Otté, at Richmond, where she had long been living in great seclusion. Although wholly unknown to the present generation, Miss Otté had at one time taken an active part in scientific and literary society. She was a Dane by birth, having been born in Copenhagen about the year 1822. Her mother, a widow, married Benjamin Thorpe, the well-known philologist, while he was studying Anglo-Saxon under Rasmus Rask in Denmark, and when the Thorpes came to England they brought the little orphan with them. 
From her stepfather Elise Otté received an extraordinary education. Finding her linguistic capacities unusual, he cultivated them to the height of their power, not merely instructing her in all the modern lan guages known to him, but also quite early grounding her in as much as was then understood in England of Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic. At a very tender age the child was able to help Thorpe in his grammatical work, and in particular with his translations. Benjamin Thorpe, however, was a pedant of the narrowest description, and a captious taskmaster. His demands upon his young stepdaughter's time and labour became more than her patience could endure. Without informing her parents, the girl contrived to secure employment in America, and went out about 1840 to teach in a Boston family. Her stay in the United States coincided with the Transcendental Movement, and she became acquainted with Margaret Fuller, whose intellectual pretensions she distrusted, and with George Ripley, with whose German proclivities she had much more sympathy. Miss Otté was invited to join the Brook Farm experiment, but declined to do so, as her mind was now turning from grammatical to scientific curiosity. She made many friends at Harvard University, and attended lectures in geology, physiology, and anatomy. After residing for some time at New Bedford, circumstances obliged her to return to Europe, and after travelling for several months she settled at Frankfort, in the family of one of the scientific professors there, whom she helped in the translation of English monographs into German.
She then returned to London, intending to devote herself to literary work, and she resumed her life with her stepfather. Her gifts were again of material service to him; she aided him in completing and preparing for the press his translations from German and Scandinavian folk-tales, and his version, from the Icelandic, of the poetical Edda of Seemund, a version which was not completed until 1856. But, once more, the bondage of life in Benjamin Thorpe’s library proved intolerable, and Miss Otté, about 1849, joined George Edward Day and his wife when the former was appointed Chandos Professor of Anatomy at St. Andrews. Their household in this university city was her home for many years, and she worked at scientific translations for the members of the faculty there, particularly for her special friends Edward Forbes, John Goodsir, and Day. When Forbes was dead, and Day and Goodsir had broken down in health, the St. Andrews colony was dispersed. The Days withdrew in 1863 to Torquay, taking Miss Otté with them, and she nursed the eminent physician until a long and most painful illness terminated in his death in 1872. From the results of her arduous devotion Miss Otté never recovered; for the remainder of her life she suffered from an agonizing form of spinal neuralgia caused by the long strain of nursing.
Left alone in the world, Miss Otté now returned to London, and for a few years carried on an active literary career. She wrote largely for scientific periodicals, where her remarkable knowledge of languages was serviceable. She published, in 1874, a ‘History of Scandinavia,’ which is her most durable work; she compiled grammars of Danish and of Swedish, and issued translations of standard books by De Quatrefuges, R. Pauli, and others. After a few years, however, the recurrence of her malady closed all the avenues of activity to her, and for nearly a quarter of a century she had lived in complete retirement. The mere enumeration of Miss Otté’s publications gives no idea of the extraordinary wealth of her intellect, or of the prodigious equipment of her memory. She was unquestionably one of the most learned women of her time, especially in the departments of philology and physical science. Unfortunately, she never acquired any real ease in literary expression, and it was always somewhat painful to her to impart her knowledge in writing. Her conversation, in her years of health, was, on the contrary, copious and marvellously illuminating; her sympathy with all that was modern, audacious, and liberal.
The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality,
Vol. 44
, Oct 1903—Jan 1904

MISS ELISE C. OTTE died at Richmond in the end of the year at the advanced age of eighty-two. Though she had lived in seclusion for many years, she had a remarkable career and did much to make Scandinavian literature better known in England. In a charming obituary sketch in the Athæneum, Mr. Gosse informs us that Miss Otté was a Dane by birth, and that her mother, a widow, married Benjamin Thorpe’, the well-known philologist. From Thorpe Miss Otté received an extraordinary education. He treated her tyrannically, however, making demands on her time and labour which she found unendurable. Miss Otté went to America and became acquainted with Margaret Fuller. She was among those invited to join the Brook Farm experiment, but she declined to do so and pursued her studies at Harvard University. About 1849, she joined Professor Day and his wife at St. Andrews, and there she worked at scientific translations for some fourteen years. She removed with her friends to Torquay in 1863, and assisted Dr. Day till his death. Her arduous devotion brought on a painful form of spinal neuralgia. Coming back to London, Miss Otté published grammars, translations, a History of Scandinavia, and other works. If I am not mistaken, she contributed articles on Scandinavian subjects to some of the literary periodicals. But, in spite of her English and varied accomplishments, Miss Otté had no mastery of English style, and it was not until Mr. Gosse got the ear of English readers by his articles in the Spectator and elsewhere that Scandinavian literature became a subject of study and of interest in this country. Mr. Gosse, however, testifies that her conversation in her years of health was copious and marvelously.

Annual Register of World Events 1903
On the 26th, aged 81, at Richmond, where she had long been living in great seclusion, Elise C. Otte.  Born in Copenhagen; her mother subsequently married Benjamin Thorpe, the philologist, who was much assisted in his work by his step-daughter. In 1840, she went as a governess to the United States, and resided at Boston, and had a large circle of friends among the professors at Harvard. After her return to England she again assisted Thorpe in his translation of the Eddas, etc., but in 1849 joined Professor G. E. Day at St. Andrews, and worked at scientific translations until 1863, when she accompanied the Days to Torquay and nursed Dr. Day through a long illness, in which her own health broke down; she was the author of a History of Scandinavia (1874).
Opinions of Women on Women's Suffrage
Issued by the Central Committee of the
National Society for Women’s Suffrage, 1879

Miss Otte (Author of  "Scandinavian History," &c).  
It is often argued that women generally do not wish to acquire the right of electoral suffrage, and that if it were extended to them the majority of those who might claim it would regard its obligations as burdensome and distasteful, and would either evade them altogether, or fulfil them with reluctance and indifference, or with inconsistency and caprice. Such an argument can, however, have no weight in a question like this, which is one of right and not of sentiment. Similar charges of disinclination and inefficiency for the discharge of electoral duties might possibly apply with equal force to numerous men; but no one would for a moment pretend that any such individual contingencies could be advanced as reasons why Englishmen should not retain their constitutional right of having a voice in the election of those who legislate upon the questions which most closely affect the interests of each individual member of the community.
If women generally labour under the ignorance and indifference imputed to them with regard to all that concerns the conduct of public affairs, it would seem the more imperative that they should be made participants with men in the exercise of those electoral duties and privileges to which Englishmen are wont to point as the basis of their own claim to be regarded as patterns for other nations of the enlightenment which springs from the free individual exercise of political rights. If it be true that political enlightenment comes with the power to exercise political rights, women will have an important grievance to complain of till they are in this respect put on an equality with men. —Elise C. Otte.

Scandinavian History. London, Macmillan & Co., 1874.

Denmark and Iceland. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1881.

A Simplified Grammar of the Swedish Language. London: Trübner & Co., 1884.

A Simplified Grammar of the Danish Language. London: Trübner & Co., 1884.

Norway, Sweden and Denmark. edited by Edward Samuel Corwin.

Polar research by G.T. Surface. Chicago : H.W. Snow, [c1910]


Views of Nature, or, Contemplations on the Sublime Phenomena of Creation by Alexander von Humboldt. with Henry G Bohn. London : H.G. Bohn, 1850.

Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe by Alexander Von Humboldt. London: H.G. Bohn, 1851

The Rambles of a Naturalist on the Coasts of France, Spain, and Sicily by Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau. London : Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1857.

Pictures of Old England by Reinhold Pauli. Cambridge, London, Macmillan and Co., 1861.