Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Charlotte Smith (1749–1806)
Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)Edit
Charlotte Smith (b. Turner) (b. 1749-d. 1806) was born to prosperous parents Nicholas (d. 1777) and Anna (d. 1752) Turner. Born to wealthy parents, her education was quite traditional for a woman during the late eighteenth century. From a young age, due to the influence and encouragement of her father (who wrote poetry himself), Smith showed a particular interest in reading and begun composing poems of her own.
Due to unfortunate financial difficulties, Smith was married off by her father at the age of fifteen to Benjamin Smith (b. 1743-1806), the son of a wealthy merchant. Together the couple conceived twelve children during their marriage. Together they endured a deeply unhappy relationship and were burdened by financial hardships on her husband’s behalf; Smith later coined her marriage ‘legal prostitution’. Furthermore, in 1783, Smith joined her husband in debtor’s prison, where she composed her first book of poetry, Elegiac Sonnets. This was the starting point of her career as a writer as Elegiac Sonnets achieved success and paid for their release from prison.
Smith went on to write many successful novels after Elegiac Sonnets, and controversially left her husband in 1787 and began to support their children by writing. Circumstances deriving from their separation found Smith having no legal obligation to her earnings from her works; Smith and her husband never signed a legal arrangement to protect her earnings, and Benjamin obtained them under English laws in the eighteenth century. Smith turned to novel writing as a means of income and, in 1788, wrote her first novel titled Emmeline; The Orphan of the Castle. This novel was a semi-autobiographical piece which contain analogies of herself and Benjamin as the main characters and was a great success. Due to this triumph, Smith proceeded to produce nine more novels over the course of ten years. In her forewords, Smith shared her difficulties regarding her adversities; the loss and hardships her children endured prior to her death troubled her greatly. As her novels were selling at high volumes, Smith utilised her platform to raise social concerns such as feminism (in terms of empowerment, biased laws and social constructs), politics and conventional morality. Smith turned to politics in 1791 and actively participated and exploited her platform to state her position in the political sphere of the late eighteenth century.
Toward the end of her life, Smith’s popularity declined. Despite this, Smith published literary canons such as Rural Walks (1795) and Beachy Head and Other Poems (1807). Smith contended with poverty until Benjamin died in a debtor's prison in 1806, where the money he owed her, alongside the money that was rightfully Smiths was returned to her. However, this return was belated; Smith’s deteriorating health attributed to her death eight months later in 1806.
Notable selected worksEdit
Elegiac Sonnets (1784) – identified as her first piece of work, Smith utilises nature and landscape to explore her tangled emotions and wounded soul. Smith’s work in this piece was simplistic and elegant. Her influence was Thomas Gray, whom she often regarded throughout her life and career. Smith’s first piece was a considerable success, with many others praising her work as provocative and were highly respected.
Beachy Head and Other Poems (1807) – Identified as her final work of poetry, it has quite an obituary, melancholy tone. This final piece was welcomed by many, with reviews noting it as a “pleasure…to pay a tribute…to the elegant genius of Mrs. Charlotte Smith.” (The Annual Review, 1809; Roberts, 2019).
Emmeline; The Orphan of the Castle (1788) – Smith projects herself and her former husband into this piece and is noted as semi-biographical, ‘Cinderella’ style romance novel. Similar to her other works, this novel was of great success to Smith, and many editions were published proceeding its initial release. The genre of this piece was Gothic, which was a common genre Smith explored.
Desmond (1792) – Noted as Smith’s most politically radical piece, Desmond is regarded as a bestselling novel. Embodying a romance novel paired with a satirical tone and political relevancy, Smith produced a piece where she could speak from a position of influence as a woman; controversially why this novel sold so many copies within its first year. Again, like Smith’s other pieces, Desmond was regarded quite controversial and received negative reviews. However, this only encouraged Smith to continue to share her political voice.
The Old Manor House (1793) – Smith composed this as one of her political pieces which challenged contemporary issues society was facing at the time. This included property injustice, neglectfulness toward pressing issues, the ideologies of the American revolution and the overall ideology of how women were expected to live in the eighteenth century. This text is recognised by some as her most notable and famous novel and was reviewed as controversially intense for masking her views through a fictitious avenue. After the release of this book, although selling many copies, her position as a woman found her popularity declining due to her contentious views.
Rural Walks: In Dialogues Intended for the Use of Young Persons (1795) – One of Smith’s Children’s’ literature educational books, specifically for young girls ostracised from school, contained enlightening tales of equity, perspective and class. Complimenting her earlier poetic pieces, Smith integrates nature into this piece as a nod to her traditional roots. As this piece takes a pedagogical approach for young girls, Smith was regarded highly for converting her literary genre to accommodate what she spoke about in her political pieces: inequity and women’s position and status in society.
A common thread sewed throughout Smith’s work is how her pieces were regularly re-printed into numerous editions; ten editions of Elegiac Sonnets, eleven editions of Emmeline; The Orphan of the Castle, three editions of Desmond and so forth. Smith was controversially relevant, and today we could say that the author was ahead of her time. Due to her voice being perceived as too loud, Smith was silenced by many and the author’s popularity declined over the years. Post humanly, Smith was forgotten by many, but not the literary world.
Smith encouraged hundreds of artists in the literary world to create their own pieces, including Jane Austen; “… Charlotte Smith influenced her the most frequently and profoundly of any of her predecessors.” (Magee, 1975). Smith was a ‘mentor’ for William Wordsworth, giving copies of Smith’s work to his children and treasured pieces of his own (Blick, 2020). Wordsworth spoke of Smith in the nineteenth century, following her death, stating she was “…a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered.” (Wordsworth, 1830s). Smith is said to have influenced many other great authors, such as Keats, Dickens and the Bronte sisters (Martin, 1978). Mary Wollstonecraft reviewed five of Smith’s work, which were “thoroughly apolitical” and “…admired [Smith’s] picturesque descriptions of nature and her skill in the portrayal of manners.” (Martin, 1978).
Contemporary critics state that Smith played an integral role in surviving the Romance and Gothic genres, with many believing that Smith also allowed for women’s voices to be projected at a time when they were more commonly silenced. Unfortunately, as mentioned, over time Smith’s work slowly stopped being published and purchased. It was not until the early twenty-first century that Smith's entire collection of literary works again became available to the general public.
Loraine Fletcher (1998) Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography
Claire Knowles & Ingrid Horrocks; Charlotte Smith (2017) Charlotte Smith: Major Poetic Works. "Charlotte Smith: English Writer." Britannica, 2021.
Stanton, Judith Phillips, editor. The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith. Indiana University Press, 2003.