1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charlotte Smith

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "Memoirs of Mrs. Charlotte Smith" Censura Literaria 4 (1807) 69-84.



There is a pleasure of a very pure and elevated kind in paying a tribute to the memory of departed genius. But there are characters which it requires a venturous spirit to touch; the nice shades of intellectual eminence, the evanescent movements of a trembling heart, demand no common pen to delineate them.

Mrs. Charlotte Smith was the daughter of Nicholas Turner, Esq. a gentleman of Sussex, whose seat at Stoke near Guilford was afterwards owned by Mr. Dyson. But her father possessed another house, as it seems, at Bignor Park, on the banks of the Arun, where she passed many of her earliest years: of which she speaks in the following beautiful stanza.

Then, from thy wildwood banks, Aruna, roving,
Thy thymy downs with sportive steps I sought,
And Nature's charms with artless transport loving,
Sung like the birds, unheeded and untaught.

How enchanting must have been the day-dreams of a mind thus endowed, in the early season of youth and hope! Amid scenery, which had nursed the fancies of Otway and of Collins, she trod on sacred ground: every charm of Nature seems to have made the most lively and distinct impression on her very vivid mind; and her rich imagination must have peopled it with beings of another world. She has often addressed the river Arun. The following is her

XXXth SONNET.
Be the proud Thames, of trade the busy mart!
Arun! to thee will other praise belong;
Dear to the lover's and the mourner's heart,
And ever sacred to the sons of Song!
Thy banks romantic hopeless Love shall seek,
Where o'er the rocks the mantling bindwith flaunts;
And Sorrow's drooping form, and faded cheek,
Choose on thy willow'd shore her lonely haunts!
Banks! which inspir'd thy Otway's plaintive strain
Wilds! whose lorn echoes learn'd the deeper tone
Of Collins' powerful shell! yet once again
Another poet — Hayley is thine own!
Thy classic streams anew still hear a lay,
Bright as its waves, and various as its way!

Again she thus speaks of her early propensities in her

XLVth SONNET.
Farewell, Aruna! on whose varied shore
My early vows were paid to Nature's shrine,
When thoughtless joy, and infant hope were mine,
And whose lorn stream has heard me since deplore
Too many sorrows! Sighing I resign
Thy solitary beauties; and no more
Or on thy rocks, or in thy woods recline;
Or on the heath, by moonlight lingering, pore
On air-drawn phantoms! While in Fancy's ear,
The Enthusiast of the lyre, who wander'd here,
Seems yet to strike his visionary shell,
Of power to call forth Pity's tenderest tear;
Or wake wild frenzy from her hideous cell

In her 5th Sonnet she addresses the South Downs, with her usual pathos.

Ah! hills belov'd, where once an happy child,
Your beechen shades, your turf, your flowers among,
I wove your blue-bells into garlands wild,
And woke your echoes with my artless song;
Ah, hills belov'd! your turf, your flowers remain;
But can they peace to this sad breast restore
For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,
And teach a breaking heart to throb no more?

Mrs. Smith also discovered from a very early age, like all minds of active and expanded curiosity, an insatiable thirst for reading, which yet was checked by her aunt, who had the care of her education; for she had lost her mother almost in her infancy. She did not read as a task; nor according to any regular system, which may be more proper for common faculties, but devoured with eager eyes, every book, which fell in her way; an indulgence that enlarged the sphere of her observation, and extended her powers. It did not tend to make her, in the pedantic sense, a learned woman; but surely it tended to make her something much better; it gave impulse to her powers of inquiry and of thinking; and mingled itself with the original operations of a vigorous and penetrating understanding.

From her twelfth to her fifteenth year her father resided occasionally in London, and she was introduced into frequent and various society. It would be curious to have a picture of her feelings and her remarks at that critical period. With that liveliness of perception, and that eloquent simplicity of language, which women of sensibility and talent possess, more especially at an early age, in a degree so superior to the other sex, she must not only have been highly attractive, but have exhibited such a brilliancy of imagination, and of sentiment, yet unsubdued by sorrows, as cannot have vanished unrecorded without justifying the severest regret. But as our faculties can only be ascertained by comparison, she probably did not yet know the strength or value of her own.

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, the prime source of all her future misfortunes. Thus early engaged in the cares of a family, and shut up in one of the narrow streets of the great city, away from the fields and woods which she loved, and among a set of people, whose habits and opinions could be little congenial with those of one who had indulged n all the visions of a poetical fancy on the banks of rivers, and in the solitude of heaths and downs, and hills, and vallies, a temporary damp must have been given to the expanse of her mind. After some time, when the irksomeness of this situation was aggravated by the loss of her second son, Mr. Smith indulged her with a small house, in the neighbourhood of London, where she soothed her retirement by cultivating her early propensity to books, in the intervals which the anxious attention to her children afforded.

At length 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 deeper 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. S. served the office of Sheriff of Hants; and immediately subsequent, his affairs were brought to a crisis. That dreadful receptacle, the King's Bench, opened her melancholy gates to him; as she daily does to the victims of innocent misfortune, as well as of imprudence, and dishonesty, "Noctes atque dies patet atri janua Ditis," and his wife had the virtue and the fortitude to accompany him, and spend the greater part of the seven months he was confined there, with him. But during this trying period she was not idle, nor passed her time in unavailing grief. By her exertions principally Mr. S. at length procured his liberation.

In this awful interval, those talents, which had hitherto been only cultivated for her own private gratification, seemed to offer a resource for the day of adversity. She collected together therefore a few of those poems, which had hitherto been confined to the sight of one or two friends, and offered them to Dodsley. This man, who was now grown old and rich, and who had probably been originally exalted into the station of an eminent publisher, rather by accident, or his brother's merits, than by any powers of his own, received the offer with coldness, cast a hasty and casual glance on the MSS. and returned them with a stupid indifference. Mrs. Smith, with the sensibility of real genius, felt oppressed and overcome with this brutal discouragement; and but for the impulse of imperious necessity, would probably have sunk into future silence, unconscious of that exquisite superiority of genius, which for two and twenty years has charmed the world.

Mr. Turner, her brother, now tried his powers of persuasion with Dilly, but with equal want of success. The sonnets were therefore printed at Chichester, at the expense of the author, with a dedication, dated May 10, 1784, to Mr. Hayley; and Dodsley, on this recommendation, undertook to be the publisher. A second edition was rapidly called for in the same year.

The manner, in which Mrs. Smith has described in a private letter, already given to the public, the event of her husband's liberation is so eminently interesting, as to call for a repetition of it in this place.

" It was on the 2d day of July, that we commenced our journey. For more than a month I had shared the restraint of my husband, in a prison, amidst scenes of misery, of vice, and even of terror. Two attempts had, since my last residence among them, been made by the prisoners to procure their liberation, by blowing up the walls of the house. Throughout the night appointed for this enterprize, I remained dressed, watching at the window, and expecting every moment to witness contention and bloodshed, or perhaps be overwhelmed by the projected explosion. After such scenes, and such apprehensions, how deliciously soothing to my wearied spirits was the soft, pure air, of the summer's morning, breathing over the dewy grass, as (having slept one night on the road) we passed over the heaths of Surrey! My native hills at length burst upon my view! I beheld once more the fields, where I had passed my happiest days, and amidst the perfumed turf with which one of those fields was strown, perceived with delight the beloved group, from whom I had been so long divided, and for whose fate my affections were ever anxious. The transports of this meeting were too much for my exhausted spirits. After all my sufferings, I began to hope I might taste content, or experience at least a respite from my calamities!"

But this state of happiness was of very short continuance. Mr. Smith's liberty was again threatened; and he was obliged to fly to France to secure it. Thither his wife accompanied him; and immediately returning with the vain hope of settling his affairs, again passed over to the Continent with her children, where having hired a dreary chateau in Normandy, they spent an anxious, inconvenient, forlorn, and yet expensive winter, which it required all her heroic 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; a parish, of which Otway's father had been Rector. Here she wrote her

XXVIth SONNET.
To the River Arun.
On thy wild banks, by frequent torrents worn,
No glittering fanes, or marble domes appear;
Yet shall the mournful Muse thy course adorn,
And still to her thy rustic waves be dear!
For with the infant Otway, lingering here,
Of early woes she bade her votary dream,
While thy low murmurs sooth'd his pensive ear;
And still the poet consecrates the stream.
Beneath the oak and beech, that fringe thy side,
The first-born violets of the year shall spring;
And in thy hazles, bending o'er the tide,
The earliest nightingale delight to sing:
While kindred spirits, pitying, shall relate
Thy Otway's sorrows, and lament his fate!

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 another line of literature, for here she wrote her novel of Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle, 1788. All that part of the public, who, though they were disgusted with the usual contents of a circulating library, yet had fancy and feeling enough to judge for themselves in spite of prejudice, received this enchanting fiction with a new kind of delight. It 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 most captivating kind. The simple charms of Emmeline; the description of the Old Castle in Wales; the marine scenery in the Isle of Wight; the character of Godolphin; and many other parts possessed a sort of charm, which had not hitherto been imparted to novels. How a mind oppressed with sorrows and injuries of the deepest dye, and loaded with hourly anxieties of the most pressing sort, could be endowed with strength and elasticity to combine and throw forth such visions with a pen dipped in all the glowing hues of a most playful and creative fancy, fills me with astonishment and admiration!

But whatever wonder may be excited by this first effort, it will yet be increased when we recollect that for several successive years, she still produced others with equal felicity, with an imagination still unexhausted, and a command of language, and 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 Wandrings of Warwick; the Banished Man; Montalbert, 1796; Marchmont; The Young Philosopher, 1798; The Solitary Wanderer; making, together, I believe, 38 volumes.

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 virulent fever; her third son lost his leg at Dunkirk, as an Ensign in the 24th Regt. and her eldest daughter, "the loveliest awl most beloved of her children," 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 when to this complication was added the unfortunate state of her husband's affairs, she had difficulties to surmount, in the endeavour to obtain justice, and a series of delays, pretences, misapplications, extortions and insults to endure, which must have agitated a sagacious and indignant spirit almost beyond human patience.

The aid of an high-minded nobleman is said to have enabled her at last to bring these affairs, of which the embarrassments were thus purposely aggravated, to an accommodation with the various parties, who had claims on them. But I have no opportunity of ascertaining whether these arrangements were ever completed before her death. The hour was arriving, when Grief was at last to subdue her long-tried victim. Her husband, who seems never to have conquered his habits of imprudence, died, as it is said, in legal confinement, in March 1806. On 28th Oct. following, at Telford, near Farnham in Surry, she died herself, and in the words of the newspapers, "much lamented by her family and a numerous and respectable acquaintance, after a lingering and painful illness, which she bore with the utmost patience, retaining her excellent faculties to the last."

I am totally unacquainted with the character of Mrs. Smith from any other source than her writings; but I consider those writings to furnish ample grounds for the delineation both of her intellectual and moral portrait. It appears to me scarce possible that in such a multitude of volumes, many of them written in haste, the same prominent features should materially vary from those of the author. When therefore I have heard dark hints of the harshness of her temper, or the freedom of her principles, I have been not only sceptical, but indignant; and have attributed these foul aspersions to that narrow envy and never-ceasing malice, which constantly attend on Genius, when it carries itself high, and will not bend to the follies and servilities of the world. I do not blame those imbecile and yielding spirits, which only smile or weep at the hand of the oppressor; and dare not lift an arm to defend themselves from insult or injustice; but I cannot admire them. I am not sufficiently an optimist to admit that upon all occasions all is for the best; to bear, without resistance, the insults of rank or wealth; the scorn of bloated prosperity, the robberies of legal extortion; or the taunts or frowns of unmerited unkindness.

I know that when great talents and superior taste are under the inflictions of adverse fortune, they are considered by stupidity and hard-heartedness as the fair victims on which they may indulge their vengeance and hatred. Then they conceive that the lion is chained down, disarmed of his claws, and they may commence their cowardly and cruel sports upon him, with impunity! If he growls, or lifts a paw, or shakes himself beneath his fetters, he commits an unpardonable offence, and is destined to endless persecution and calumny.

It is probable that the quickness of Mrs. Smith's penetration, and the boldness of her temper impelled her sometimes to speak unwelcome truths to some of the persons concerned in her affairs, who were generally accustomed to secure themselves by the glare of their riches from too near an inspection. This might be imprudent in point of self-interest; but surely it neither detracted from her virtue, nor from her claims to respect and admiration.

What are the traits which characterize every heroine delineated by her pen? An elevated simplicity, an unaffected purity of heart, of ardent and sublime affections, delighting in the scenery of Nature, and flying from the sophisticated and vicious commerce of the world; but capable, when necessity calls it forth, of displaying a vigorous sagacity and a lofty fortitude, which appals vice, and dignifies adversity! Can we doubt that the innocent and enchanting childhood of Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle, or the angelic affections of Celestina, were familiar to the heart of the author? They contain touches, which the warmest fancy, or the most ingenious head, could never supply.

Yet this is the writer, whose works have been deemed immoral! Immoral, by whom? By people who read with pleasure of fashionable intrigues; and wade with interest through all the base and stupid ordure of a circulating library! Who delight in the filthy, amours of Tom Jones, and Peregrine Pickle! Who are enraptured with stories of ghosts, and robberies, and rapes, and murders!

There is indeed one novel of Mrs. Smith, on which this charge of immorality has been more particularly fixed. This is Desmond, which turns on the attachment of the hero to a married woman. But how is that attachment regulated; and in what does it end? Does it seek any other gratification than to befriend and protect the beloved object under adversity, dereliction, and trials of the most aggravated nature? Does the lovely Geraldine indulge in any act, any thought or wish, that angels could disapprove? What then is the crime of the author? That she has drawn characters too virtuous for the world! And that she has placed them in situations of trial, which the world must not imitate, because it could not preserve its innocence in them!

But I hear it objected that there is a deficiency of religion in her works. Are novels then to be tried by the rules of a sermon? Surely in works of amusement the too frequent mention of this subject would profane it, and destroy rather than increase the reverence for it. Are any of the sentiments, or any of the characters, enforced by her, contrary to religion? It seems to have been her plan to pourtray virtue attractive by its own loveliness; and to leave it to divines to set forth the more awful motives of the Revealed Word!

"What moral effect," cry these censurers, "do her tales produce?" I cannot help smiling, when I hear this question asked by those, who hang with rapture over the hobgobleries of the nursery. I suppose they are under the influence of the lessons they were taught in their infancy, when they were studying some of the tedious fables of Aesop, or Gay, to value them only as an exemplification of the two lines of trite moral at the end!

Is there then no moral effect produced by an innocent amusement of the mind? Is there nothing in the delineation of scenes, which enchant the fancy, and melt the heart? Is there nothing in the picture of female loveliness,

Sitting like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at Grief?

Is there nothing in calling forth that exercise of the intellectual faculties, which at once refines and exalts?

But are these the real causes, why the admirable productions of this fair writer have been thus depreciated? I think not. In some the prejudice was founded on her political principles. She was an approver of the origin of the French Revolution, and in Desmond spoke with too much bitterness of the privileged orders; and of the abuses of ancient institutions. Is there then no freedom of opinion in this country? Is there no forgiveness for one, who was smarting under unjust oppression, and exasperated by the undeserved neglect and insolence of "boobies mounted over her head?" By, others her touches of character were too nice; they were too exquisite for the apprehension of some; while to many they laid open the obliquities of the heart, or the head, with too keen a pen. The broad caricatures, and glaring colours of common novels, which excited the heavy attention of ordinary readers, were too extravagant to touch the generality of those irritable beings, who shrunk at the sharp incision of Mrs. Smith.

For want of these glaring colours, and farce-like personages, some taxed her with want of fancy, and some with a departure from real life. The reverse appears to be the truth!

Of Mrs. Smith's 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. Sorrow was her constant companion; and she sung with a thorn at her bosom, which forced out strains of melody, expressive of the most affecting sensations, interwoven with the rich hues of an inspired fancy. Her name therefore is sure to live among the most favoured of the Muse: but in gratitude for the long and exquisite pleasure I have received from her compositions, I feel some satisfaction in having made this humble and hasty attempt to do justice to her character.

Jun. 11, 1807.