Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Turner Smith (4 May 1749 – 28 October 1806) was an English author.

Her mother died when she was three years old and, immediately afterwards, her father left England to travel alone in Europe. He left Smith and her two younger siblings in the care of their maternal aunt.

Born into an affluent gentry family, Smith started going to school in Chichester, when she was six years old. Two years later, she attended a girls’ school in Kensington, after the family moved to London. She was considered the best-read girl of the pupils. When Smith was around twelve years old, however, after her father returned to England, she left school and started to be tutored at home, due to his financial difficulties. He had run into substantial debt while travelling, and forced her to an early “come out” into society, at twelve, to rush her into an early marriage.

When Smith was fifteen, her father married a wealthy woman. Charlotte and her stepmother disliked each other from the first time they met, so Smith’s father hurriedly arranged to marry his daughter off: only six months later, in 1765, fifteen-year-old Charlotte was married to the son of an affluent London merchant, director of the East India Company and owner of sugar cane plantations in Barbados. Forty years later, in a letter to Lord Egremont, from February 4th 1803, Smith would refer to her father’s decision as the moment when she was sold “like a Southdown sheep to the West India shambles”. In a letter to Sarah Rose, from June 15th 1804, she would refer to the event as the experience of being sold like “a legal prostitute”.

Unfortunately, her marriage was a nightmare. Her husband’s relatives were mostly uneducated, and frowned on her literary aspirations. In 1766, Charlotte gave birth to her first child, who died one year later. Between 1767 and 1785, the couple had eleven more children and, before long, her husband proved to be a heavy drinker, a gambler, and a promiscuous and abusive man. In a 1788 letter to her publisher Thomas Cadell, Charlotte wrote of her husband’s “fits of fury” and his “more than usual brutality“, referring to him as a man from whom “I and my family have everything to fear.”

 Worried about the future of his grandchildren, Smith’s father-in-law drawn up a testament to leave most of his property to them. However, the document contained legal problems, and, after his death in 1776, the inheritance was tied up in chancery for almost forty years. This case is said to have inspired the fictional case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in Dickens’s Bleak House.

Because of his reckless spending, Smith’s husband ended up imprisoned for debt, in King’s Bench Prison, in 1783. Charlotte, as his wife, had to move to prison with him, since, according to the mores of the time, their marriage bound her to his misdeeds. While living in prison, she wrote and published, at her own expense, her first book: Elegiac Sonnets (1784), which, in a bold move for a woman of her time, she signed with her own name. The book achieved instant success and, with its profits, Charlotte was able to pay for their release from debtors’ prison.

After their release, the family briefly moved to France to avoid further creditors, and later returned to England in 1785. To ensure some independent income, Smith started to translate works from French and, in 1786, she anonymously published her translation of Manon Lescaut, by Abbé Prévost, a book considered immoral at the time.

In 1787, after twenty-two years of marriage, Smith left her husband. She was thirty-eight years old. This was not an easy decision, since, in Britain at the time, the act of leaving one’s husband was legally seen as desertion – which meant that Smith’s husband was relieved of any responsibility to support his wife or her nine surviving children. Later, in a letter to Joseph Cooper Walker, from October 9th 1793, Charlotte wrote about her husband that she might “have been contented to reside in the same house with him”, had not “his temper been so capricious and often so cruel” that her “life was not safe”. After their separation, her husband went into hiding, to escape further court proceedings, and lived on the interest of the fortune from Charlotte’s marriage settlement.

Relying on her success and respectability as a poet, Smith started writing prose to support herself and her children, since novels brought more money at the time. Her first novel, Emmeline (1788), was a success, and, over the next decade, Charlotte would go on and publish ten multi-volume novels, three poetry collections, several nonfiction pieces, and four educational books for children. She wrote at such a quick pace and was so intent on supporting herself by her pen, that, in a letter to Joseph Cooper Walker, from October 9th 1793, she described herself as a “slave of the Booksellers”. In a letter to Joseph Cooper Walker, from October 9th, 1793, Smith wrote that sometimes the pressure to write was so high that she “loved novels no more than a grocer does figs.”

Charlotte Smith was one of Britain’s most popular writers during the 1780s and 1790s, and all of her works were published under her own name, which was then an unusual decision for a woman. Most of her novels touch upon the topic of a badly married wife, and subtly represent the legal, economic, and sexual exploitation of women by marriage and property laws in Britain at the time. Smith also twisted the conventional treatment of the “fallen” women in fiction, and was a vigorous advocate for legal and egalitarian reforms. From 1791 to 1793, she became involved with English radicals, and supported the libertarian ideals of the French Revolution. In her epistolary novel Desmond (1792), Smith supported republican principles. She also wrote in favour of pacifism, and argued against slavery in her book The Old Manor House (1793).

Furthermore, she deliberately blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction, weaving her personal experience into fictional narrative. Even the prefaces to her novels became a kind of serialized autobiography, where she updated her readers on the latest developments in her struggle to support her children.

Charlotte corresponded with several prominent writers of her time, such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the novelist Mary Hays, the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband and Mary Shelley’s father), and the poet Robert Southey. Her novels were praised by the novelist Sir Walter Scott, and her poetry was highly regarded by William Wordsworth, who, on a footnote to “Stanzas Suggested in a Steamboat off St. Bees’ Heads” (1833), wrote that Smith was “a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered”. Within literary history, Smith is said to have played a significant part in the revival of the sonnet in the Romantic period, as well as in the shaping of the basic features of Gothic romance.

In Jane Austen’s The History of England, written around 1790, she compares Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux to the heroine Emmeline Mowbray and her impulsive lover Frederic Delamere, characters in Smith’s first novel Emmeline (1788). In her juvenilia Catharine or the Bower, Austen mentions, among other books, Smith’s Emmeline. Later, Austen would go on to satirize Smith’s Ethelinde (1789) in Northanger Abbey (1817).

“You have read Mrs Smith’s Novels, I suppose?” said she to her Companion-. “Oh! Yes, replied the other, and I am quite delighted with them-They are the sweetest things in the world-” “And which do you prefer of them?” “Oh! dear, I think there is no comparison between them-Emmeline is so much better than any of the others-” “Many people think so, I know; but there does not appear so great a disproportion in their Merits to me; do you think it is better written?” “Oh! I do not know anything about that-but it is better in every- thing-Besides, Ethelinde is so long-” “That is a very common Objection I believe, said Kitty, but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” “So do I, only I get tired of it before it is finished.” “But did not you find the story of Ethelinde very interesting? And the Descriptions of Grasmere, are not they Beautiful?” “Oh! I missed them all, because I was in such a hurry to know the end of it-” Jane Austen, Catharine or the Bower

 

Charlotte Smith belonged with the group of writers who were called ‘Jacobins’ by their detractors: they were writers who wanted radical reform in England, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Helen Maria Williams, Elizabeth Inchbald and Mary Hays. Smith’s ideals, despite what her detractors said, were closer to Girondism than to Jacobinism. After the Reign of Terror in France, however, Smith’s popularity waned and she had to tone down her radicalism. Because of her defense of the French Revolution, Smith was mentioned in Richard Polwhele’s poem Unsex’d Females (1798), a satire written in response to William Godwin’s memoirs of Wollstonecraft and centered on what Polwhele saw as the increasing influence of French political ideals in Britain, particularly through the women’s rights movement. In the poem, he accused Smith of resigning “her power to please” and suffering “her mind to be infected with the Gallic mania”.

Despite her efforts to conform, the sales of her novels started to drop, and, in a letter to Joseph Cooper Walker, from January 1804, she would write: “I seem to be no longer in the literary World, and my Pegasus is as much a cripple as I am.” By the beginning of 1803, Smith complained that she could barely afford food and had no coals to heat her cottage. She even had to sell her collection of 500 books to pay her debts.

To make matters worse, for several years, she had been suffering from what is now believed to be rheumatoid arthritis, and the cold at her home severely affected her joints. Writing became increasingly painful to her and, by 1804, she was virtually paralysed and could barely hold a pen. In a letter to Sarah Rose, from March 5th 1804, Charlotte wrote that she was “literally vegetating, for I have very little locomotive powers beyond those that appertain to a cauliflower”.

On 23 February 1806, her husband died in a debtors’ prison. He had made her executor of his estate and, outrageously, had requested that she raised his illegitimate child. Because they were still married, she was also liable for his debt.

In summer 1806, Smith bled constantly and had symptoms of uterine cancer. While she anticipated her own death, her youngest son George died in Surinam of yellow fever. Six weeks later, and eight months after her husband’s death, Smith died, on 28 October 1806. At that time, only six of her children were alive. She remained largely forgotten by the middle of the 19th century, and only at the end of the 20th century her works started to be rediscovered.

Books

Poetry

  • Elegiac Sonnets (1784)
  • The Emigrants (1793)
  • Beachy Head and Other Poems (1807)
  • Poems, edited by Stuart Curran (1993)

Novels

  • Emmeline; or The Orphan of the Castle (1788)
  • Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake (1789)
  • Celestina (1791)
  • Desmond (1792)
  • The Old Manor House (1793)
  • The Wanderings of Warwick (1794)
  • The Banished Man (1794)
  • Montalbert (1795)
  • Marchmont (1796)
  • The Young Philosopher (1798)

Play

  • What Is She? (1799)

Nonfiction

  • Rural Walks (1795)
  • Rambles Farther (1796)
  • Minor Morals (1798)
  • Letters Of A Solitary Wanderer, 5 vols. (1801–02)
  • Conversations, Introducing Poetry; chiefly on subjects of natural history, for the use of children and young persons – 2 vols. (1804)
  • A History of England, from the earliest records, to the peace of Amiens in a series of letters to a young lady at school – 3 vols. (1806)
  • A Natural History of Birds, intended chiefly for young persons – 2 vols. (1807)
  • The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith, edited by Judith Phillips Stanton (2003)

About her

  • Female Biography, or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women –6 vols., by Mary Hays (1803)
  • Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England – 2 vols., by Anne K.  Elwood (1843)
  • Charlotte Smith, Poet and Novelist, by Florence M. A. Hilbish (1941)
  • Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776–1837, by Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel HaefnerPhiladelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)
  • Charlotte Smith, by Carrol Lee Fry (1996)
  • Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography, by Lorraine Fletcher (1998)
  • Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontes, by Diane Long Hoeveler (1998)
  • Charlotte Smith: romanticism, poetry, and the culture of gender, by Jacqueline Labbe (2003)
  • British Women Writers and the French Revolution: Citizens of the World, by Adriana Craciun (2005)
  • Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s: Romantic Belongings, by Angela  Keane (2005)
  • Charlotte Smith in British Romanticism, edited by Jacqueline Labbe (2008)
  • A Lady Novelist and the Late Eighteenth-Century Book Trade: Charlotte Smith’s Letters to Publisher Thomas Cadell, Sr., 1786-94, by Emily Marie Brewer (2013)

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