Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

SMITH, CHARLOTTE (1749-1806)

SMITH, CHARLOTTE (1749-1806), English novelist and poet, eldest daughter of Nicholas Turner of Stoke House, Surrey, was born in London on the 4th of May 1749. She left school when she was twelve years old to enter society. She married in 1765 Benjamin Smith, son of a merchant who was a director of the East India Company. They lived at first with her father-in-law, who thought highly of her business abilities, and wished to keep her with him; but in 1774 Charlotte and her husband went to live in Hampshire. The elder Smith died in 1776, leaving a complicated will, and six years later Benjamin Smith was imprisoned for debt. Charlotte Smithʼs first publication was Elegiac Sonnets and other Essays (1784), dedicated by permission to William Hayley, and printed at her own expense. For some months Mrs Smith and her family lived in a tumble-down château near Dieppe, where she produced a translation of Manon Lescaut (1785) and a Romance of Real Life (1786), borrowed from Les Causes Célèbres. On her return to England Mrs Smith carried out a friendly separation between herself and her husband, and thenceforward devoted herself to novel writing. Her chief works are: — Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle (1788); Celestina (1792); Desmond (1792); The Old Manor House (1793); The Young Philosopher (1798); and Conversations introducing Poetry (1804). She died at Tilford, near Farnham, Surrey, on the 28th of October 1806. She had twelve children, one of whom, Lionel (1778-1842), rose to the rank of lieutenant-general in the army. He became K.C.B. in 1832 and from 1833 to 1839 was governor of the Windward and Leeward Islands.

Charlotte Smithʼs novels were highly praised by her contemporaries and are still noticeable for their ease and grace of style. Hayley said that Emmeline, considering the situation of the author, was the most wonderful production he had ever seen, and not inferior to any book in that fascinating species of composition (Nichols, Illustrations of Literature, vii. 708). The best account of Mrs Smith is by Sir Walter Scott, and is based on material supplied by her sister, Mrs Dorset, with a detailed criticism of her work by Scott (Misc. Prose Works, 1841, i. 348-359). Charlotte Smith is best remembered by her charming poems for children.

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SMITH, Charlotte (1749-1806) by Stuart Curran

Charlotte Smith was the eldest child of Nicholas and Anna Turner of Stoke Place (not “House”), Surrey; Bignor Park, Sussex; and King Street, St James’ Square, London; her younger siblings were Catherine Anne and Nicholas, the latter of whose birth in 1752 came at the cost of their mother’s life. As the multiple addresses attest, her father was a man of fashion who spared no expense either for himself or his children.

Charlotte (Turner) Smith
Romney, George. Portrait of Charlotte (Turner) Smith. 1792, Lakeland Arts Trust, Kendal Original image

Charlotte was raised at Bignor Park, a large-scale estate, and in her girlhood was educated at a Kensington finishing-school, where, aside from learning to dance with notable grace, she fortunately became fluent in French. At the age of twelve, however, her education ceased and she entered society. Around this same time, her father sold off Stoke Place to raise money to support his lifestyle; then, seeking a further source of income, he courted a rich, unmarried woman in her 40s who took an instant dislike to the assertive Charlotte. The result of their wedding was the end of Charlotte’s idyllic childhood: two months shy of her sixteenth birthday she was married off, or, as she later put it, was sold, a legal prostitute to Benjamin Smith, the indolent 23-year-old son of Richard Smith, a rich trader to the West Indies whose considerable fortune was sustained in the end by slave labor.

At first there was ample money for the newly-weds, though living in fetid Cheapside was a painful contrast with Bignor Park, and helping her father-in-law with the books an unwelcome substitute for her former literary pursuits. Then came the children, one after the other; through her teens, twenties, and well into her thirties she underwent twelve pregnancies; ten of these children survived their childhood. Eventually, she managed to move Benjamin away from the dissipations of London to an estate in Hampshire where, while he affected the role of gentleman farmer, she could revive something of the existence she felt raised to enjoy.

When Richard Smith died in 1776, the event should have left the family with the resources to sustain this station; but he wrote his own will, and in his attempt to keep Benjamin from inheriting a business he would certainly mismanage, it contained so many conflicting provisions that it would not be settled until decades later, after Charlotte’s death. In such circumstances, given Benjamin’s irresponsible ways, ruin was inevitable, and in 1783 he was arrested as a bankrupt and remanded to King’s Bench Prison in London where Charlotte joined him, spending her days attempting to assuage his creditors.

As a means of independently raising money, the next year she published the first of many editions of Elegiac Sonnets, beginning a notable literary career at the age of 35 in order to rescue her family from her husband’s profligacy. In the summer of 1784, Charlotte took Benjamin, who spoke no French, to Dieppe and found him rooms to rent before returning to the children she had left with her brother. But finding no means of raising funds until a second edition of her sonnets could be issued, in November, several months pregnant with her last child, she moved her entire family with her to the dilapidated rural chateau that Benjamin had rented in the meantime. She spent half a year there tending to his affairs from afar and translating from the French: first Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, then accounts of legal cases, Les causes celebres (The Romance of Real Life), which was to bring her sufficient remuneration so as to rethink her entire existence. Three years after this, wholly committing herself to a literary career, she separated from Benjamin without legal formality, agreeing to take responsibility for all the children still alive. It was anything but a friendly separation.

This biographical preface to Smith’s life as a writer affords us an understanding of the wide disparity of cultures and social spheres she occupied. The resilience she developed is entirely absent from the account of Smith in the eleventh edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, which notes the titles of several novels and commends her charming children’s verse but ignores her revolutionary success as a poet and the major impact of her fiction. In the latter sphere, her emphasis on the lack of female empowerment clearly influenced Wollstonecraft’s writings, and her ranging, complicated multi-tiered plots find their rightful descendant in Charles Dickens’ novels. Surprisingly, though, her most central influence may have been on Jane Austen—at least, so persuasively argues Jacqueline Labbe in Reading Jane Austen after Reading Charlotte Smith (2020).

It is evident that the Britannica author had never read a word she wrote. Here is what the account leaves out.

Individual sonnets in that first edition of Elegiac Sonnets may seem conventional in subject matter—sonnets to the moon or a nightingale or on spring—but the cumulative effect is to put on display a grief that is profound, unmeasured, and unassuageable; also, in a substantial way, unparalleled in eighteenth-century verse. What Charlotte Smith sets in motion is mental interiority as the subject of poetry, which, as its possibilities unfold over the next two generations of poetry in English, will come to be understood as a central purview of Romanticism. William Wordsworth, for one, will come to fully recognize his debt, noting that Smith is a poet to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered.

Publishing poetry satisfied Smith’s sense of still being a gentlewoman author, but it could not secure the means to raise the then nine surviving children, so in 1788 she turned to novel-writing. The novel of sensibility was then the dominant mode, and Smith entered the lists with Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle by forcing realism upon the unwieldy genre. The heroine is less the creature of sensibility than her cousin and would-be lover Delamere, a stalking, emotionally impulsive, and self-indulgent romantic hero. Aside from warding off his advances, Emmeline’s main undertaking is to protect her friend Adelina, married to a lout and pregnant with another man’s child, so that she may give birth. The affront to conventional social rules was so pronounced as to prompt an immediate second edition and Smith’s entrance into the first circle of novelists. From this point on, over another ten sprawling works of fiction, interspersed with writings for the children’s market, Charlotte Smith, through character, incident, and especially concern for the plight of women in a patriarchal society, extended progressive political and social realism into the far corners of contemporary fiction. So dark are the timbres of most of these novels, that the expected happy ending seems impossible just pages from their end. Although her liberal politics, evident in her early novels and her lengthy descriptive poem on the fallout of the French Revolution, The Emigrants, were tempered by the course of the descent of France into the Terror, her fervent hopes for a different outcome are especially evident in her fourth novel Desmond, whose last volume (of three) is set during the revolutionary turbulence and violence; and to write it, she daringly returned alone to France in the summer of 1791 to document the rise of a democratic nation.

Always at the mercy of having her resources seized by her improvident husband, she developed an innovative way of living by publisher’s advances and taking on loans, so that there would be no loose moneys around for Benjamin to claim as his own. She complained, I live only to write and write only to live, and it is true that the poet William Cowper, for a time intimate with her writing habits, saw her as [c]hained to her desk like a slave to his oars. Still, she was well aware that she was breaking ground as the principal British novelist of the 1790s, as well as with the ever-expanding Elegiac Sonnets. Her final major poem, Beachy Head, published posthumously is a loco-descriptive masterpiece, intermingling the near-at-hand and ancient history upon a single palette.

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