Charlotte Smith Critical Essays

Introduction

Charlotte Smith 1749-1806

(Full name Charlotte Turner Smith) English poet, novelist, translator, and author of children's books.

The following entry provides an overview of Smith's life and works. For additional information on her career, see NCLC, Volume 23.

A popular and prolific novelist and poet in her own time, Smith is remembered today for her sentimental novels and her role in the late eighteenth-century revival of the sonnet form which influenced such prominent figures of Romanticism as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In both prose and poetry, Smith went beyond the usual concerns of the woman writer to explore the social, political, and intellectual issues of her time—issues conventionally assigned to male writers.

Biographical Information

Smith was born on May 4, 1749, to a wealthy London family who owned estates in Sussex and Surrey in addition to their London townhouse. Her mother, Anna Towers Turner, died three years after Smith's birth, leaving a maternal aunt to raise her while her father, Nicholas Turner, traveled abroad and nearly exhausted the family's funds. Educated at schools in Kensington and Chichester, and by private tutors at home, Smith was an avid reader and began composing poetry at an early age. Her father's eventual return and remarriage to a wealthy woman prompted an arranged marriage for Smith at the age of 15 to Benjamin Smith, the son of a prosperous West Indian merchant. Her young husband was extravagant, abusive, and profligate. He quickly drove the family into debt and depended on his wife to appeal to his father for more money. In 1783, he was incarcerated in debtors' prison, where Smith herself soon joined him. She began writing out of financial necessity in an effort to support her many children. When her father-in-law died in 1776, his will, intended to provide for his grandchildren and protect the estate from his unreliable son, ironically had the opposite effect. The complexity of the will left Smith and her children unable to collect their much-needed inheritance. Smith continued to write in order to provide for her children and to preserve their social standing, always believing her career as an author was merely a temporary necessity until the estate was settled. She obtained a legal separation from Benjamin in 1787, and although her husband hid from creditors in Scotland, he would often secretly return to England to claim Smith's book earnings as well as the interest on her marriage settlement—both of which he was legally entitled to receive. During these years Smith helped to establish her children in marriages and careers, struggled with her many creditors, and begged publishers for advances on her books. She never achieved the financial stability that would allow her to retire. Her “temporary” literary career lasted for 22 years and her father-in-law's estate was not settled until after her death in 1806.

Major Works

Smith's first publication, Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays (1784), was a collection of various poems she had written over the years and rather hastily assembled while her husband was in debtors' prison. In 1785 when Benjamin fled to France to escape his creditors, Smith accompanied him. While there she translated into English Abbé Prévost's novel Manon Lescaut (1785), publishing the work upon her return to England the following summer. After her separation from her husband in 1787, Smith turned to novel writing in an attempt to generate income to support her large family. Her first novel, Emmeline (1788), met with both popular and critical acclaim and was quickly followed by Ethelinde (1789) and Celestina (1791). Considered by some critics a blending of elements of both the sentimental novel and the Gothic novel, these first three works all feature virtuous young heroines in distress, a standard feature of the sentimental genre, along with the poetic landscape descriptions characteristic of the Gothic.

Smith's fourth novel, Desmond (1792), proved a turning point for Smith's career as she changed focus from the subject of proper female conduct that marked her first three novels to political issues, specifically those inspired by the French Revolution. Many critics, in fact, believe that Desmond was a direct response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Her succeeding novels also dealt with political concerns, although none with the stridency of Desmond. In all, Smith produced ten novels from 1788 to 1798.

Smith also produced several books for children—primarily didactic works designed to teach such virtues as charity, fortitude, and humility—and two more volumes of poetry. Her long poem The Emigrants (1793) was, like Desmond, inspired by the French Revolution; the work urged sympathy for the unfortunate refugees displaced by the events in France. Her final work of poetry, Beachy Head with Other Poems (1807), was published posthumously.

Critical Reception

Smith's books—particularly her sonnets—were well received by her contemporaries. Wordsworth described her as “a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered.” Coleridge credited Smith and William Lisle Bowles with popularizing the sonnet form in the late eighteenth century, and later critics acknowledge her efforts not only to revive the sonnet form but to adapt it to the mood of contemporary England. But in the years between her death and the modern revival of interest in her work, Smith was largely forgotten, and the attribution for the revival of the sonnet was generally assigned to Bowles. However, scholar Brent Raycroft insists this recognition rightfully belongs to Smith and suggests that critical neglect of her work can be attributed to “the deep-set prejudice against admitting women into the mainstream of literary history,” as well as to Smith's politics, which Raycroft describes as “somewhere between liberal and radical,” in contrast to Bowles's conservative affiliation.

Many modern critics focus on the autobiographical elements in Smith's work, particularly her sonnets, which tend to be uniformly melancholy. In her own time, Smith's rival Anna Seward criticized what she considered Smith's constant complaining, calling the sonnets “everlasting lamentables.” But modern scholars find wider implications in Smith's plaintiveness than Seward did. Deborah Kennedy, while conceding that the tone of Smith's sonnets is relentlessly gloomy, claims that writing about the effects of oppression on women was an act of defiance against the patriarchy. Critics also consider that many elements of Smith's novels are based on characters and incidents from her life. Judith Stanton, who has edited Smith's 430 letters, claims that the letters “reveal how very autobiographical her fiction is.” Stanton maintains that Smith's husband Benjamin served as the model for many of her degenerate, albeit charming, male characters. Katharine M. Rogers, however, suggests that the circumstances of Smith's life did not aid her in producing fiction, but rather interfered with her ability to incorporate the ideals of Romanticism into her novels. “Perpetually weighed down by family cares, she could not escape to or even maintain faith in an ideal world,” Rogers explains.

Many scholars have pointed out that by incorporating autobiographical incidents and characters in her fiction, Smith was critiquing social and cultural issues that affected all women. Diane Long Hoeveler asserts that the real concerns of Smith's first novel are inheritance, property ownership, and social status. She believes that Emmeline is a testament of how difficult it is for women to navigate in a social system that defines them as “appendages, dependents … to the ‘main chance,’ the patriarch.” Terence Allan Hoagwood has objected to the concentration on the details of Smith's personal misery that has informed much of the criticism of her work from shortly after her death to the present. Carrol L. Fry also emphasizes the larger issues in Smith's work, claiming that “in all her novels after 1791, Smith adapts the conventions of fiction to present social and political issues from a republican perspective” in order to help educate her female readers.

Some feminist critics rank her on a level with Mary Wollstonecraft in criticizing the effects of patriarchy on women's lives, although she was not as overtly radical as Wollstonecraft. Eleanor Ty has studied the contradictions in Smith's first novel Emmeline, and suggests that her feminism, less explicit than that of her more radical peers, “is manifested in more subversive ways.” According to Ty, “Through narratives that seem to contradict each other, through the conflation of seemingly ‘pure’ and corrupt characters, or the depiction of apparently kind-hearted figures who turn out to be not so benevolent, Smith questions the moral and social values of her contemporary society.”