Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Smith [née Turner], Charlottefree

(1749–1806)
  • Sarah M. Zimmerman

Charlotte Smith (1749–1806)

by George Romney, 1792

Smith [née Turner], Charlotte (1749–1806), poet and novelist, was born on 4 May 1749 in King Street, off St James's Square, in London, the eldest of three children of Nicholas Turner (b. c.1721, d. before 1776), a prosperous landowner, and his wife, Anna (c.1727–c.1752), daughter of William Towers. Charlotte Turner was born into a family whose holdings included the London townhouse in which she was born, two estates (Bignor Park on the Arun, Sussex, and Stoke Place near Guildford, Surrey), and some smaller properties. She was baptized at Stoke church, near Guildford, on 12 June 1749 and spent her childhood moving between London, Stoke Place, and Bignor Park. She had a younger brother, Nicholas, born in 1750. Her sister and future biographer, the children's writer Catherine Ann Dorset (d. in or after 1816), was baptized on 15 January 1753. Their mother probably died in childbirth with Catherine, when Charlotte was three years old. In the wake of this loss, their father travelled abroad, leaving the children to be raised by Lucy Towers, their maternal aunt.

Youth and marriage

When she was six Charlotte attended school in Chichester, where she also took drawing lessons from the landscape painter George Smith. She moved with her aunt and sister to London when she was eight and continued her education at a fashionable girls' school in Kensington. She learned dancing, drawing, music, and acting, and won praise for her performances in French and English plays. Her avid reading habit and early efforts at poetic composition were encouraged by her father, who wrote poetry himself. At six or seven Charlotte began to compose her own poems (none of which survives) and to submit them to the Lady's Magazine, which did not print them.

It is unclear when Nicholas Turner returned to England, but his homecoming marked the end of Charlotte's childhood, in the form of financial difficulties that motivated him to sell Stoke Place and some smaller properties, and to remarry. In 1765 Nicholas Turner married Henrietta Meriton of Chelsea, who reportedly possessed both property and £20,000. Her arrival prompted Charlotte's formal entrance into society at the age of twelve, while her education continued at home in London with teachers engaged by her father. Although he refused an offer of marriage on her behalf when she was fourteen, he accepted another when she was fifteen. Benjamin Smith (1743/4–1806) was the second son of Richard Smith, a West India merchant and a director of the East India Company. He was twenty-one years old when he married Charlotte Turner on 23 February 1765.

Richard Smith hoped that Benjamin would join his business, but abandoned this plan as his son's irresponsibility and fiscal recklessness became apparent. Richard Smith was the owner of plantations in Barbados and he and his second wife, Elizabeth, brought with them to England five slaves, who were bequeathed, with their descendants, as property in his will. Charlotte Smith later protested against slavery in such works as The Old Manor House and her poem 'Beachy Head', but her new family's annual income of £2000 depended on slave labour. The couple's first home was an apartment over Richard Smith's business warehouse in Cheapside, a location meant to encourage Benjamin's participation in the family business. The family later moved to Southgate and Tottenham.

In the year after her marriage Smith gave birth to her first child, whose name and birth date are unknown. The infant died in 1767, within days of the birth of her second child, Benjamin Berney. Between 1767 and 1785 Smith gave birth to ten more children: William Towers (b. 1768), Charlotte Mary (b. c.1769), Braithwaite (b. 1770), Nicholas Hankey (b. 1771), Charles Dyer (b. 1773), Anna Augusta (b. 1774), Lucy Eleanor (b. 1776), Sir Lionel Smith (1778–1842), Harriet (b. c.1782), and George (b. c.1785). Only six of these children survived their mother, and two perished as children. Benjamin Berney died in 1777 after a long illness that may have been tuberculosis.

As her family grew, Charlotte assumed a small role in the family business that her husband neglected, by assisting Richard Smith with his business correspondence. Charlotte successfully defended her father-in-law against libel by writing a vindication of him, and she persuaded him to relieve his son of all his ties to the business and establish him as a gentleman farmer in Hampshire. She lived with her husband at Lys Farm for nine years from 1774 to 1783. The ties between Charlotte and Richard Smith were strengthened when he married Charlotte's aunt Lucy Towers in 1767, after Elizabeth's death. Wanting to protect his legacy of approximately £36,000 from his unreliable son and to secure it for his grandchildren, he undermined his own efforts, however, in an intricate will that proved vulnerable to legal challenges. After his death in 1776 the trustees could not agree on its meaning, and a chancery suit was spawned that did not reach even a partial settlement until 1798, and remained open until after Charlotte Smith's death. The estate's anticipated settlement prompted Smith's writing career: she wrote in order to maintain her children's social standing until they received their inheritance.

Poet

When Benjamin was sent to the king's bench for debt in December 1783, Charlotte served part of the seven months' sentence with him, leaving their children with her brother, Nicholas. She negotiated the financial arrangements that enabled his release and submitted her first work for publication as a means of raising money. Smith approached the prestigious publishing house of James Dodsley with a collection of sonnets, but received only an offer to print the poems at his expense in exchange for any profits. After approaching Edward and Charles Dilly without success, Smith sent her poems to her Sussex neighbour the poet and biographer William Hayley, whose place in literary history would be secured by his friendship and sometime patronage of artists and writers, including the sculptor John Flaxman, the painter George Romney, and the poets William Cowper and William Blake. When Hayley accepted the dedication, Smith had Dodsley print the poems at her expense. Elegiac Sonnets, and other Essays by Charlotte Smith of Bignor Park, Sussex appeared in a slim quarto edition in June 1784 and immediately justified her risk. Within a year a second edition was printed, and by 1800 Elegiac Sonnets was in its ninth edition and filled two volumes. In identifying herself as 'Charlotte Smith of Bignor Park' on the collection's title-page, Smith made public her profile as a gentlewoman poet, a role that flattered her conviction that she need only remain in the literary market place until her father-in-law's estate restored her family to its rightful position among the landed gentry. Her commercial success as a poet gave Smith the confidence to publish the prose works that followed under her own name, a daring decision for a late eighteenth-century woman writer.

By continuing to add sonnets, other poems, prefaces, and illustrations, Smith enhanced her public profile as a poet. Although her novels, which far outnumbered her poetry collections, garnered the greatest profits and fame, Smith identified herself as a poet, the vocation she deemed best suited to her genteel origins. She prized her verse for the role it gave her as a private woman whose sorrows were submitted only reluctantly to the public. Smith both projected herself publicly and cast herself in her poetry and prose, through the use of thinly veiled autobiographical characters, as a familiar figure from the cultural tradition of sensibility: a woman who suffered a fall into difficult circumstances not of her own making and found solace in her natural surroundings and in sympathizing with other sufferers.

So effectively did Smith adopt the persona of the elegiac poet that Catherine Dorset was moved to correct her sister's self-presentation, by contending that '[c]heerfulness and gaiety were the natural characteristics of her mind' and that '[e]ven in the darkest periods of her life, she possessed the power of abstracting herself from her cares' (Dorset, 53, 54). Dorset provides a striking supplement to Smith's self-portrait as the poet alone in nature:

In the society of persons she liked, and with whom she was under no restraint, with those who understood, and could enjoy her peculiar vein of humour, nothing could be more spirited, more racy, than her conversation; every sentence had its point, the effect of which was increased by the uncommon rapidity with which she spoke, as if her ideas flowed too fast for utterance.

ibid.,

Dorset recalls that her sister excelled at parody 'and did not spare even her own poetry' (ibid., 54). In the novels, this ability was often turned to satiric ends, her favourite figures of critique being lawyers, whom she held responsible for the irresolution of the chancery case, and thus her family's financial distress and her continued literary labour.

Novelist

Soon after Benjamin Smith's release from debtors' prison, the family left England for France, in order to avoid his creditors. Charlotte returned to England shortly after they settled in Dieppe, in Normandy, but this time failed to settle her husband's finances. Back in France during the winter of 1784–5, she began the first of two translations from the French: Manon Lescaut, or, The Fatal Attachment, from the Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut. Later she published selections from François Gayot de Pitaval's court trials, Les causes célèbres et intéressantes, as the popular and influential The Romance of Real Life (1787). Smith withdrew Manon Lescaut from the press in response to criticism of the work's 'bad' morals, and a charge of plagiarism, on the grounds that English translations already existed. Smith acted to protect herself and her publisher Thomas Cadell senior from adverse publicity (the volume appeared anonymously in 1786). For Smith, Cadell was worth sparing, for he proved consistently supportive, and his reputation as a gentleman gratified her sense of her genteel literary standing.

The family returned to England about 1785 and settled at Woolbeding House near Midhurst, Sussex, but in 1787 Smith separated from her husband without obtaining a legal agreement that would protect her earnings from Benjamin's access to them under English primogeniture laws. One of Smith's recurrent concerns in her poetic and prose works is women's status in the English legal system. Smith settled with her children near Chichester and turned to novel-writing as a more lucrative form of publishing, beginning with Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle (1788). The novel, which contained autobiographical portraits of Charlotte and Benjamin Smith as Mr and Mrs Stafford, was a success; the first edition of 1500 copies sold within months, and within a year a third edition appeared. Nine more novels followed in the next ten years: 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), and The Young Philosopher (1798).

Smith's novels develop the form according to Gothic and sentimental traditions (and were satirized by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey). Smith also used her novels to explore social concerns. Critics have noted that Smith often borrows the Gothic setting of the manor house as a metaphor for the nation, and adopts the framework of the courtship novel in order to indict English primogeniture laws which favour empowered men over women, second sons, the impoverished, and the enslaved. From her first novel she examines the relations between social identity and a sense of self, showing how Emmeline's treatment by other characters and ultimately her fate turn on her social position, which begins with her apparent illegitimacy and poverty and ends with the revelation of her identity as the heir to Mowbray Castle.

In her novels and poems Smith frequently adopts the prototypical figure of the wanderer (who may be male or female) as a vehicle for social commentary. For instance in The Old Manor House she sends Orlando Somerive to America, where he begins to sympathize with the American Indians, to question English imperialism, and to critique slavery. Smith herself was a wanderer for much of her literary career. After leaving her husband she moved frequently, residing in numerous locations, including the environs of Chichester, Brighton, Storrington, Bath, Exmouth, Weymouth, Oxford, London, Frant, and Elstead, before settling at Tilford, near Farnham, in Surrey. Her wanderings were motivated by various factors, including her fluctuating economic circumstances, her health, which gradually declined from 1793 onwards, and a restlessness that left her, in her sister's words, 'unsettled, moving from place to place in search of that tranquility she was never destined to enjoy' (Dorset, 51).

Politics and later career

At Brighton from 1791 to 1793 Smith became involved in radical English circles; the French Revolution and its aftermath provided some of her main themes. She was a republican sympathizer but later modified her opinion as a result of the terror. Her fourth novel, Desmond (1792), adopts the epistolary form to tell the story of the title character who travels to revolutionary France and is persuaded by arguments he hears there for revolution abroad and reform in England. The novel appeared from the house of the whig publisher George Robinson in June 1792, the year before war was declared between France and England and before the ‘September massacres’, news of which helped to turn the tide of English sentiment against the revolution. Desmond, the poem The Emigrants (1793), and another novel, The Banished Man (1794), belong to an era that Florence Hilbish terms Smith's 'French period'. In the two latter works Smith's politics follow in part the shifting tide of much radical sentiment in England, which slowly turned against a France that increasingly seemed to threaten its neighbours. The sympathetic title figures of the poem and the novel's hero are émigrés. Yet in dedicating The Emigrants to William Cowper, Smith makes a case against English nationalism and defends the socio-political ideals that initially fuelled the French Revolution. In repeatedly sympathizing with those who have endured social oppression, Smith participated in a tradition of sensibility that bound together the literary and the political by valuing a refined responsiveness to suffering. In recognition of her ability to move readers on social topics, Smith was asked to write A Narrative of the Loss of the Catharine, Venus, and Piedmont Transports (1796), an account of a shipwreck of seven ships off Dorset, in order to raise money for the survivors.

Smith's literary fame is displayed in an epistolary tableau provided by the painter George Romney of a gathering at Hayley's Sussex estate, Eartham, in summer 1792, that included Cowper. Romney completed a pastel drawing of Smith in crayons that Smith had copied and then engraved by P. Condé for volume 2 of Elegiac Sonnets. During the visit Smith composed The Old Manor House (1793), the novel frequently deemed her best. Sir Walter Scott called it her 'chef-d'oeuvre' (Dorset, 63), and Anna Letitia Barbauld chose it for her edition of The British Novelists (1810). The novel returns to the sentimental themes of her earlier novels and is praised for its development of minor characters. Smith's literary stature may also be measured by her acquaintances and correspondents, who included Charles Burney, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Erskine (later lord chancellor), Mary Hays, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Robert Southey. More testimony to her prominence is provided by the number and diversity of periodicals that reviewed her works, including the Anti-Jacobin, the Analytical Review, the British Critic, the Critical Review, the European Magazine, the Gentleman's Magazine, the Monthly Magazine, and the Universal Magazine.

Smith counted on her literary fame to sustain a buying public's interest, but she also courted the aid of patrons who could attract the genteel readers she cherished as reflecting her status as a gentlewoman poet, and who might act on her behalf in the settlement of her father-in-law's estate. Thrice she ventured subscription, a form of publication that straddled both worlds, for the Narrative and both the fifth edition (1789) and volume 2 of Elegiac Sonnets (1797). The subscription list for the fifth edition boasts 815 names, including the archbishop of Canterbury, the duchess of Cumberland, Frances Burney, Elizabeth Carter, William Cowper, Mary Delany, Richard Payne Knight, William Pitt, Samuel Rogers, Horace Walpole, and Thomas and Joseph Warton. The embellishment of Elegiac Sonnets also testifies to its success: the fifth edition featured five illustrations, two by the prominent Thomas Stothard.

Judith Phillips Stanton estimates that Smith's greatest earning years were from 1787 to 1798 (Stanton, Charlotte Smith's “literary business”, 393). When volume 2 of Elegiac Sonnets appeared in 1797, the list of subscribers had shrunk to 283 names. A number of reasons have been suggested for the decline in Smith's popularity, including a corresponding erosion of the quality of her work after so many years of literary labour, an eventual waning of readerly interest as she published, on average, one work per year for twenty-two years, and a controversy that attached to her public profile during her 'French period'. Smith drew criticism from both radical and conservative periodicals for her treatments of the French Revolution and its aftermath. Her perseverance in the chancery suit cost her several patrons, including George O'Brien Wyndham, the third earl of Egremont. Moreover, Smith's growing frankness about the details of her autobiographical lyric speaker's melancholy in the prefaces to her later works, combined with her increasing willingness to treat social issues, made her a less universally sympathetic figure.

In her prefaces Smith shared with readers her sorrow at her misfortunes, which included the loss of several children. Braithwaite died of a fever at age sixteen, the same year that William Towers became a writer for the East India Company in Bengal at the age of seventeen. Both he and Nicholas Hankey, who went to Bombay in 1788, pursued successful careers in the civil service and contributed to the family income. In 1792 Charles joined the 14th regiment of foot and in the following year lost a leg at Dunkirk. He recovered to return to the army, but died of yellow fever in Barbados in 1801. Smith's daughter Lucy married a man who proved to be abusive, and after his death she returned home with three children. Smith mourned most publicly for her daughter Anna Augusta, who married an émigré, Alexandre Marc-Constant de Foville, and died aged twenty in 1795. Of her children, Lionel achieved the most public success: he was knighted and became governor of Barbados and then of Jamaica, where he strongly supported the emancipation of slaves that was under way throughout the British empire.

Despite a decline in her popularity, the end of Smith's life found her successfully entering new literary markets. A collection of tales, The Letters of a Solitary Wanderer, appeared in five volumes (1801–2) and a comedy, What Is She? (1799) was published anonymously, but is generally attributed to Smith. She found her most rewarding new readership in children, by publishing four works for them: Rural Walks (1795), Rambles Farther (1796), Minor Morals (1798), and Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804). She also completed two volumes of a history of England, directed to young women (1806; vol. 3 written by another, unknown author). Two works appeared posthumously, A Natural History of Birds (1807) and Beachy Head, Fables, and other Poems (1807) which included the unfinished but much admired title poem.

Although the immediate cause of Smith's death at fifty-seven is unknown, she suffered from gout, arthritis, neuritis, and pleurisy and her health gradually declined. She died on 28 October 1806 at Tilford, having survived Benjamin by eight months. He died on 22 February 1806 in debtors' prison in Scotland. Their son George died of yellow fever in Barbados in 1806 six weeks before Charlotte (she died before the news could reach her). The final settlement of Richard Smith's estate took place on 22 April 1813, more than thirty-six years after his death and after his estate had been greatly diminished in litigation. Charlotte Smith was buried at Stoke church, Stoke Park, near Guildford.

Although William Wordsworth remembered Smith in the 1830s as 'a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered' (Poetical Works, 7.351), her influence on her contemporaries and successors is widely documented. Coleridge and others credited her with revitalizing the English sonnet. In her lifetime she was perhaps most frequently praised for her poetic and prose landscapes. Scott said of her novels that she 'preserves in her landscapes the truth and precision of a painter' (Dorset, 64), and Barbauld credits Smith with pioneering sustained natural description in novels. Wordsworth observes that she wrote 'with true feeling for rural nature, at a time when nature was not much regarded by English Poets' (Poetical Works, 7.351). As her novels and poetry began to be republished in the late twentieth century, the case for her importance was made again by critics interested in the period's women poets and prose writers, the Gothic novel, the historical novel, the social problem novel, and post-colonial studies.

Sources

  • The collected letters of Charlotte Smith, ed. J. Phillips Stanton (2003)
  • M. Hays, ‘Mrs. Charlotte Smith’, Public characters of 1800–1801 (1801), 43–65
  • ‘Mrs. Charlotte Smith’, Monthly Magazine, 23 (1807), 244–8
  • C. A. Dorset, ‘Charlotte Smith’, in The miscellaneous prose works of Sir Walter Scott, 4 (1849), 20–70
  • F. M. A. Hilbish, ‘Charlotte Smith, poet and novelist, 1749–1806’, PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1941
  • J. P. Stanton, ‘Charlotte Smith's “literary business”: income, patronage, and indigence’, The age of Johnson: a scholarly annual, ed. P. J. Korshin (1987), 1.375–401
  • L. Fletcher, Charlotte Smith: a critical biography (1998)
  • J. P. Stanton, ‘introduction’, in The old manor house, ed. A. H. Ehrenpreis (1989), vii–xxiii
  • The poetical works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. Knight, 7 (1896), 351
  • S. T. Coleridge, ‘Introduction to the sonnets (1796)’, The complete poetical and dramatic works, ed. J. D. Campbell (1903), 542–3

Archives

  • Petworth House, West Sussex, legal documents and letters
  • Princeton University Library, New Jersey, Firestone Library, letters
  • Hunt. L., letters to Joseph Walker and Sarah Farr Rose
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Lord Egremont
  • Preston Manor Museum, letters to Thomas Cadell and William Davies
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to Thomas Cadell

Likenesses

  • G. Romney, pastel crayon, 1792, NPG [see illus.]
  • P. Condé, stipple, 1792–7 (after G. Romney, 1792), repro. in C. T. Smith, Elegiac sonnets, 8th edn (1797), vol. 2
  • Ridley, stipple, pubd 1799, NPG
  • Ridley and Hall, stipple, pubd 1806 (after J. Opie), BM, NPG
  • S. Freeman, stipple (after G. Romney), BM, NPG; repro. in Monthly Mirror (1808)
  • stipple, BM