Charlotte Smith Essay - Critical Essays

Smith, Charlotte


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.”

Principal Works

Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays (poetry) 1784; enlarged edition 1786; enlarged as Elegiac Sonnets 1789; enlarged edition 1792; enlarged edition 1795; enlarged as Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Poems 2 vols. 1797

Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost [translator] (novel) 1785

Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle 4 vols. (novel) 1788

Ethelinde; or, The Recluse of the Lake 5 vols. (novel) 1789

Celestina: A Novel 4 vols. (novel) 1791

Desmond: A Novel 3 vols. (novel) 1792

The Emigrants: A Poem, in Two Books (poetry) 1793

The Old Manor House: A Novel 4 vols. (novel) 1793

The Banished Man: A Novel 4 vols. (novel) 1794

The Wanderings of Warwick (novel) 1794

Montalbert: A Novel 3 vols. (novel) 1795

Marchmont: A Novel 4 vols. (novel) 1796

A Narrative of the Loss of the Catharine, Venus, and Piedmont Transports, and the Thomas, Golden Grove, and Æolus Merchant Ships, Near Weymouth, on Wednesday the 18th of November Last (journalism) 1796

Minor Morals, interspersed with Sketches of Natural History, Historical Anecdotes, and Original Stories (children’s stories) 1798

The Young Philosopher: A Novel 4 vols. (novel) 1798

The Letters of a Solitary Wanderer (novel) 1800

Conversations Introducing Poetry, Chiefly on Subjects of Natural History, for the Use of Children and Young Persons 2 vols. (fictional dialogues and poetry) 1804

Beachy Head, with Other Poems (poetry) 1807

The Natural History of Birds, Intended Chiefly for Young Persons 2 vols. (non-fiction) 1807


British Critic (review date 1807)

SOURCE: “Beachy Head, with Other Poems” British Critic 30 (August 1807): 170-74.

[In the following review, the author laments the death of Smith and praises her posthumous poems as some of her best work, particularly noting the composition and tone.]

Most sincerely do we lament the death of Mrs. Charlotte Smith. We acknowledged in her a genuine child of genius, a most vivid fancy, refined taste, and extraordinary sensibility. We could not, indeed, always accord with her in sentiment. With respect to some subjects beyond her line of experience, reading, and indeed talent, she was unfortunately wayward and preposterous; but her poetic feeling and ability have...

(The entire section is 1530 words.)

Sarah Zimmerman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Zimmerman, Sarah. “Charlotte Smith's Letters and the Practice of Self-Presentation.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 53, no. 1 (autumn 1991): 50-77.

[In the following essay, Zimmerman discusses Smith's constant efforts to present herself to her readers and publishers as a woman attempting to support her children through her writings.]

In a letter to her publishers written in March 1797, Charlotte Smith requests changes to a portrait for a new edition of her Elegiac Sonnets, the collection of poems which had already undergone seven editions since its initial appearance in 1784.1 The engraving provided a visual counterpart to the...

(The entire section is 9127 words.)

Matthew Bray (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Bray, Matthew. “Removing the Anglo-Saxon Yoke: The Francocentric Vision of Charlotte Smith's Later Works.” The Wordsworth Circle 24, no. 3 (summer 1993): 155-58.

[In the following essay, Bray examines the increasingly pro-French version of the history of English-French relations.]

Charlotte Smith initially opposed the British war with France for humanitarian reasons. In her polemical blank-verse poem, The Emigrants (1793), for instance, Smith argues that her fellow country men and women should derive national pride from “acts of pure humanity” toward French ecclesiastical emigrés displaced by the Revolution rather than from “the deafening roar...

(The entire section is 2893 words.)

Terence Allan Hoagwood (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Hoagwood, Terence Allan. In an Introduction to Beachy Head with Other Poems, by Charlotte Smith, pp. 3-11. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1993.

[In the following essay, Hoagwood describes the content of Smith's poetry as surpassing the usual poetic concerns to embrace social, political, and intellectual issues.]

Charlotte Smith, an influential poet and extraordinarily successful novelist, was the author of sixty-three volumes, altogether,1 including bestseller novels with social themes (saliently feminist and politically revolutionary themes) and books of widely-admired poetry, of which the volume here reprinted was her last....

(The entire section is 3074 words.)

Eleanor Ty (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Ty, Eleanor. “Contradictory Narratives: Feminine Ideals in Emmeline.” In Unsex'd Revolutionaries: Five Women Novelists of the 1790s, pp. 115-29. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Ty discusses Smith's first novel, suggesting that although Smith was constrained by financial considerations and the need to please her readers, her critique of patriarchy is as powerful as those of her more radical peers.]

Like Wollstonecraft's Mary, a Fiction and Inchbald's A Simple Story Charlotte Smith's first novel, Emmeline; or, The Orphan of the Castle, may be considered a pre-revolutionary novel because of its...

(The entire section is 7238 words.)

Katharine M. Rogers (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Rogers, Katharine M. “Romantic Aspirations, Restricted Possibilities: The Novels of Charlotte Smith.” In Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837, edited by Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, pp. 72-88. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Rogers explores Smith's limitations as a female writer incorporating the ideals of Romanticism in her novels.]

Charlotte Smith wrote her novels in the 1790s (from Emmeline in 1788 through The Young Philosopher in 1798), at the time when Romanticism was just beginning to vitalize English literature. She shared the Romantics' intense relationship...

(The entire section is 7637 words.)

Deborah Kennedy (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Deborah. “Thorns and Roses: The Sonnets of Charlotte Smith.” Women's Writing: The Elizabethan to Victorian Period 2, no. 1 (1995): 43-53.

[In the following essay, Kennedy discusses the autobiographical content of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets.]

In her book on sensibility, Janet Todd traces the development of the figure of the melancholy poet, which had become a common literary type by the mid-eighteenth century.1 The models were men of feeling like Thomas Gray and Edward Young; there were no popular female equivalents until Charlotte Smith published her aptly named Elegiac Sonnets in 1784.2 Although other women had...

(The entire section is 5455 words.)

Carrol L. Fry (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Fry, Carrol L. “The French Revolution in Charlotte Smith's Works: Desmond, The Emigrants, and The Banished Man.” In Charlotte Smith, pp. 64-88. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Fry discusses Smith's innovative use of contemporary political events in her novels and poetry.]

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!(1)

So wrote Wordsworth of the early days of the French Revolution after he arrived in Paris in 1791, the times that Charlotte Smith describes in volume 3 of Celestina. While he is in France, Willoughby mentions “hearing, and but hearing,...

(The entire section is 12633 words.)

Brent Raycroft (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Raycroft, Brent. “From Charlotte Smith to Nehemiah Higginbottom: Revising the Genealogy of the Early Romantic Sonnet.” European Romantic Review 9, no. 3 (summer 1998): 363-92.

[In the following essay, Raycroft examines Smith's long absence from the literary canon and her recent reinstatement as one of the earliest Romantic poets.]


This essay is primarily about writing Charlotte Smith back into the history of the early Romantic sonnet, but it is structured around a group of texts, critical and poetic, from the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. After sketching briefly the interconnected fame of Charlotte Smith and William Lisle...

(The entire section is 11484 words.)

Diane Long Hoeveler (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Hoeveler, Diane Long. “Gendering the Civilizing Process: The Case of Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle.” In Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës, pp. 27-50. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Hoeveler discusses Emmeline as an important text in the establishment of the female gothic novel tradition.]

This desire of being always women, is the very consciousness that degrades the sex.

—Mary Wollstonecraft


In 1753,...

(The entire section is 10324 words.)

John M. Anderson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Anderson, John M. “In the Churchyard, Outside the Church: Personal Mysticism and Ecclesiastical Politics in Two Poems by Charlotte Smith.” In Seeing into the Life of Things: Essays on Literature and Religious Experience, edited by John L. Mahoney, pp. 195-209. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Anderson explores Smith's use of the conventional tropes associated with religious poetry to address social and political concerns.]

Much of what we call great poetry, the poetry that stands most securely at the center of the canons of literature however much change may occur on its fringes, owes its stability to the fact that it is...

(The entire section is 5289 words.)

Sarah M. Zimmerman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Zimmerman, Sarah M. “‘Dost thou not know my voice?’: Charlotte Smith and the Lyric's Audience.” In Romanticism, Lyricism, and History, pp. 39-72. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Zimmerman explores Smith's strategy of appealing to the readers of her sonnets by developing a persona that is completely absorbed in private sorrow and oblivious to her audience.]

O! grief hath chang'd me since you saw me last,
And careful hours with time's deformed hand
Have written strange defeatures in my face:
But tell me yet, dost thou not know my voice?

The Comedy of Errors (V.i.298-301)


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Judith Hawley (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Hawley, Judith. “Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets: Losses and Gains.” In Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820, edited by Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain, pp. 184-98. Houndmills: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1999.

[In the following essay, Hawley discusses Smith's role in the revival of the elegiac sonnet.]

In Chapter 10 of the first volume of Persuasion, Jane Austen's favourite heroine, Anne Elliot, no longer in the spring of her life, finds herself musing on whether or not Captain Wentworth has transferred his affections from her to one of the Misses Musgrove. ‘She occupied her mind as much as possible’ by...

(The entire section is 6182 words.)

Judith Stanton (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Stanton, Judith. “Charlotte Smith and ‘Mr. Monstroso’: An Eighteenth-Century Marriage in Life and Fiction.” Women's Writing: The Elizabethan to Victorian Period 7, no. 1 (2000): 7-22.

[In the following essay, Stanton examines Smith's letters and concludes that her husband, Benjamin Smith, provided the model for many of the antagonists in her novels.]

Benjamin Smith was rich, charming and handsome. Yet his miserable 41-year marriage to Charlotte Smith was an almost textbook case of the atrocities a man could legally inflict upon his wife and children in eighteenth-century England Her two most reliable biographers until recently1 shed little...

(The entire section is 7172 words.)

Further Reading


Hilbish, Florence May Anna. Charlotte Smith, Poet and Novelist (1749-1806). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1941, 603 p.

Comprehensive biography and critical estimate of Smith's poetry and prose.

Stanton, Judith Phillips. “Charlotte Smith's ‘Literary Business’: Income, Patronage, and Indigence.” The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual 1 (1987): 375-401.

Details Smith's financial obligations as the impetus for much of her writing.


Cook, Kay K. “The Aesthetics of Loss: Charlotte Smith's The Emigrants and Beachy...

(The entire section is 574 words.)