1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charlotte Smith

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 28:104-07.



CHARLOTTE SMITH, an elegant poetess, was born in 1749. She was the daughter of Nicholas Turner, esq. a gentleman of Sussex, whose seat was at Stoke, near Guilford; but he had another house at Bignor Park, on the banks of the Arun, where she passed many of her earliest years, amidst scenery which had nursed the fancies of Otway and Collins, and where every charm of nature seems to have left the most lively and distinct impression on her mind. She discovered from a very early age an insatiable thirst for reading, which was checked by an aunt, who had the care of her education; for she had lost her mother almost in her infancy. From her twelfth to her fifteenth year, her father resided occasionally in London, and she was introduced into various society. It is said that before she was sixteen, she married Mr. Smith, a partner in his father's house, who was a west India merchant, and also an East India director; an ill-assorted match, and the prime source of all her future misfortunes. After she had resided some time in London, and partly in the vicinity, Mr. Smith's father, who could never persuade his son to give his time or care sufficiently to the business in which he was engaged, allowed him to retire into the country, and purchased for him Lyss farm in Hampshire.

In this situation, Mrs. Smith, who had now eight children, passed several anxious and important years. Her husband was imprudent, kept a larger establishment than suited his fortune, and engaged in injudicious and wild speculations in agriculture. She foresaw the storm that was gathering over her; but she had no power to prevent it; and she endeavoured to console her uneasiness by recurring to the muse, whose first visitings had added force to the pleasures of her childhood. "When in the beech woods of Hampshire," she says, "I first struck the chords of the melancholy lyre: its notes were never intended for the public ear: it was unaffected sorrow drew them forth: I wrote mournfully, because I was unhappy."

In 1776, Mr. Smith's father died; in four or five years afterwards Mr. Smith served the office of high sheriff for Hampshire, and immediately afterwards, his affairs were brought to a crisis, and he was confined in the King's-bench prison. There Mrs. Smith accompanied him, and passed with him the greater part of his confinement, which lasted seven months, and it was by her exertions principally, that he was liberated. At this unhappy period, she had recourse to those talents, which had hitherto been cultivated only for her own private gratification. She collected together a few of those poems, which had hitherto been confined to the sight of one or two friends, and had them printed at Chichester in 1784, 4to, with the title Elegiac Sonnets and other Essays. A second edition was eagerly called for in the same year.

The little happiness she enjoyed from Mr. Smith's liberation was soon clouded, and he was obliged to fly to France to avoid the importunity of his creditors. Thither likewise Mrs. Smith accompanied him; and after immediately returning with the vain hope of settling his affairs, again passed over to the continent, where having hired a dreary chateau in Normandy, they spent an anxious, forlorn, and expensive winter, which it required all her fortitude, surrounded by so many children and so many cares, to survive. The next year she was called on again to try her efforts in England. In this she so far succeeded as to enable her husband to return; soon after which they hired the old mansion of the Mill family at Wolbeding in Sussex.

It now became necessary to exert her faculties again as a means of support; and she translated a little novel of abbe Prevost; and made a selection of extraordinary stories from Les Causes Celebres of the French, which she entitled The Romance of Real Life. Soon after this she was once more left to herself by a second flight of her husband abroad; and she removed with her children to a small cottage in another part of Sussex, whence she published a new edition of her Sonnets, with many additions, which afforded her a temporary relief. In this retirement, stimulated by necessity, she ventured to try her powers of original composition in a novel called Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle, 1788. This, says her biographer, "displayed such a simple energy of language, such an accurate and lively delineation of character, such a purity of sentiment, and such exquisite scenery of a picturesque and rich, yet most unaffected imagination, as gave it a hold upon all readers of true taste, of a new and captivating kind." The success of this novel encouraged her to produce others for some successive years, "with equal felicity, with an imagination still unexhausted, and a command of language, and a variety of character, which have not yet received their due commendation. Ethelinde appeared in 1789; Celestina in 1791; Desmond in 1792; and The Old Manor House in 1793. To these succeeded The Wanderings of Warwick; The Banished Man; Montalbert; Marchmont; The young Philosopher, and The Solitary Wanderer, making in all 38 volumes. They were not, however, all equally successful. She was led by indignant feelings to intersperse much of her private history and her law-suits; and this again involved her sometimes in a train of political sentiments which was by no means popular, and had it been just, was out of place in a moral fiction.

Besides these, Mrs. Smith wrote several beautiful little volumes for young persons, entitled Rural Walks; Rambles Farther; Minor Morals; and Conversations; and a poem in blank verse, called The Emigrant, in addition to a second volume of Sonnets.

During this long period of constant literary exertion, which alone seemed sufficient to have occupied all her time, Mrs. Smith had both family griefs and family business of the most perplexing and overwhelming nature to contend with. Her eldest son had been many years absent as a writer in Bengal; her second surviving son died of a rapid and violent fever; her third son lost his leg at Dunkirk, as an ensign in the 24th regiment, and her eldest daughter expired within two years after her marriage. The grandfather of her children had left his property, which lay in the West Indies, in the hands of trustees and agents, and it was long unproductive to her family. Some arrangements are said to have been attempted before her death which promised success, but it does not appear that these were completed. Her husband, who seems never to have conquered his habits of imprudence, died, it is said, in legal confinement, in March 1806; and on Oct. 28 following, Mrs. Smith died at Telford, near Farnham, in Surrey, after a lingering and painful illness, which she bore with the utmost patience.

The year following her death an additional volume of her poetry was published under the title of Beachy Head and other Poems, which certainly did not diminish her well-earned and acknowledged reputation as a genuine child of genius. Her novels may be forgotten, and, we believe, are in a great measure so at present; but we agree with her kind eulogist, that of her poetry it is not easy to speak in terms too high. "There is so much unaffected elegance: so much pathos and harmony in it: the images are so soothing, and so delightful; and the sentiments so touching, so consonant to the best movements of the heart, that no reader of pure taste can grow weary of perusing them." It was reported that her family intended to publish memoirs of her life, and a collection of her letters; but as at the distance of almost ten years nothing of this kind has appeared, we presume that the design, for whatever reason, has been abandoned.