Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Charlotte Turner (1749-1806)



Charlotte Turner was born in 1974 to parents Nicholas Turner and Anna Towers. She was the oldest of three; her siblings were named Nicholas and Catherine Ann (herself a poet and author). Her family was well to do and as such she attended school in Chichester. She would later attend a girl’s school in London. Charlotte was married at the age of fifteen to Benjamin Smith, the son of a wealthy merchant.[1] The marriage was mainly for financial reasons as the family had met with financial difficulties following the death of her mother. Richard Smith was an abusive partner and Charlotte would later condemn her father’s decision to marry her to Richard Smith. Moreover, the Smith family disagreed with her artistic lifestyle; she felt that the Smith family were uncouth and uneducated. Benjamin Smith became enraptured in financial scandal after illegally drawing upon his fathers will – ultimately, he was arrested for this and forced into a debtor’s prison. It was at this time that Charlotte began to publish her works; initially publishing a collection of sonnets. The work was highly successful, and the revenue earnt from it allowed Charlotte to pay of her partners debt. After a brief period in France, the family moved to Sussex – the relationship between Richard and Charlotte continued to degrade and they were divorced in 1787. After the divorce, she moved to Chichester and began writing novels. These novels often intermingled political views, biographical elements as well as traditional elements of novels of the era.[2] In 1791 Smith became involved with the English radicals at this time and her novels became more explicitly concerned with the French Revolution and the American War of Independence – using her novels to push her radical republican perspectives. Smith began to experience financial hardships and thusly began to write less overtly political novels; however, her appearance as a radical as well as her continued suing of her husband over stolen inheritance caused many patrons to reject her. Smith’s health took a turn in her advanced age and died in 1806 of natural causes.[3]



Charlotte Smith wrote several novels and collections of poems. Her first novel Elegiac Sonnets (1784) utilized irregular, simplified sonnet forms, instead choosing to focus on expression emotion. She was classified as a romantic poet; however, her poems were more overtly concerned with the natural science rather than the transcendent aspects of nature. While her simplified sonnets were met with some derision, the collection was highly successful and would create somewhat of a renaissance of the form. Her first novel Emmeline was published in 1788 and was a great success.[3] The novel was critically well received and sold quickly; the novel was characterized by its autobiographical elements and strong descriptions - one famous detractor of the book was Mary Wollstonecraft. She published nine more novels between 1789 and 1798; her novels were influential in the creation of Gothic fiction and often subverted traditional notions of women’s literature; choosing to employ political commentary as well as rejecting the patriarchal romance of other novels of the era. Her novels would go on to become increasingly political during the 1790s – her political interests growing more extreme during this era. Smith’s magnum opus is frequently deemed to be The Old Manor House (1793); deemed such for its strong characterization[1]. Her later works were often broadly considered to be inferior and featured diminished political themes; attempting to appeal to a larger audience. These books were mostly commercial failures. Two history books authored by Charlotte Smith were published posthumously as well as a collection of poems, signaling a return to the form.[1]



Smith’s work was well received within her lifetime for her heady political perspectives, distinguished use of form and her strong sense of character and place. Both her early novel works as well as her poetry was incredibly commercially successful as well as critically well received, while her later works are viewed less favorably. This is in large part due to the subdued political content of the works as well as the perceived over-sentimentality of the texts. Contemporary critics regard Charlotte Smith as amongst the most significant romantic poets of her time and as a significant notable influence on the emerging Gothic genre. She is also credited for causing a resurgence in the sonnet form. She was a notable influence on many; notably, Jane Austen who satirized her in Northranger Abbey (1817)[4]. Smith's work also characterizes her as a pioneer of sustained natural descriptions. While her work was popular during her lifetime, the decline of her career in its later stages signaled a downturn in public awareness of her work; however, current critics place a re-solidified importance on her work as it relates to poetic form and women's literature.

  1. a b c Smith [née Turner], Charlotte (1749–1806), poet and novelist | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (oxforddnb.com)
  2. Charlotte Smith | English writer | Britannica
  3. a b Smith [née Turner], Charlotte (1749–1806), poet and novelist | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (oxforddnb.com)
  4. Charlotte Smith - Poetry Archive