Charlotte Smith Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,382 words.)