1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charlotte Smith

Anonymous, "Biographical Memoir of Mrs. Charlotte Smith" New British Lady's Magazine 3 (September 1819) 93-97.



The subject of this memoir was the eldest daughter of Nicholas Turner, a gentleman possessed of considerable estates in the counties of Surry and Sussex; and her mother, whose maiden name was Towers, was no less distinguished for her personal charms, than for the qualities of her heart and understanding. Unfortunately for her children, she died when Charlotte was little more than three years old. In consequence of this event Mr. Turner placed his children under the care of their mother's sister; and, with a view of dissipating his sorrow, for some time left England. On his return they were removed from the care of their aunt, to receive the benefit of public instruction. Much of Miss Turner's time was consumed in the pursuit of what are considered polite accomplishments; but, whether her instructors had been ill-chosen, or whether her studies were too soon interrupted, it is certain, her progress was not adequate to the expectations which had been formed. In music, on which the greatest expense, was lavished, she attained but a slight degree of skill; and, though she sedulously devoted herself to drawing, the shortness of her sight prevented her from acquiring a proficiency in the art.

Charlotte early imbibed a love for reading; and, notwithstanding her other studies, passed whole days in that amusement. Mr. Turner cherished and encouraged the talents which he thought he perceived in his daughter, but her aunt regarded her devotion to books as a waste of time, and absolutely prohibited such as were most likely to flatter the taste of a young person. This restriction rather increased, than allayed, the passion; and she consequently seized, with indiscriminating avidity, every literary production that fell in her way. She thus acquired a superficial acquaintance with various subjects, and her success in the world of letters may be more attributed to curiosity and perseverance, than to any regularity of literary study.

At an early age Miss Turner was introduced into much fashionable company, but it is believed that all the gaiety she ever partook of was between her twelfth and fifteenth year. Of the dissipations of London, however, she was no admirer; and, with the mind of a poet, she preferred wandering amongst the romantic beauties of nature, which abounded in that part of Sussex where her father resided. But from these scenes she was soon to be removed. Mr. Turner married a second wife, with a large fortune, and conceiving that his daughters, the eldest having attained her fifteenth year, might object to the authority of a stepmother, suffered them to remain, for some months under the protection of their aunt. Charlotte, however, soon became admired by Mr. Smith, the son of a West India merchant, of considerable fortune, who was also an India director. At first Mr. Smith's father objected to her extreme youth; but, on farther acquaintance, this objection ceased, and the projected union was accomplished.

At the age of seventeen Mrs. Smith became a mother. Her father-in-law being a widower, much of her time was dedicated to his amusement, and the second year of her marriage gave birth to a second son, a few days from which event her first child died of a sore throat. From this time commenced those sorrows and anxieties which pursued her through life. Such was the malignity of the disorder that prevailed in her family, that, with the exception of herself and the newborn infant, no one escaped its attack; and that infant, though he survived ten years, suffered so much in this early state of his existence, that it much embittered the life of his mother. This severe affliction induced Mrs. Smith to remove to a small house, at a little distance from town, where, as her husband was occupied in the city, she passed much of her time alone, with the exception of her children; this revived her taste for reading, and afforded much solace for her weary hours.

After some removals to different houses in the neighbourhood of London, Mr. Smith's father, who had now married, as a third wife, that aunt of Mrs. Smith's who had brought her up, purchased for his son a house, with about a hundred acres of hind around it, called Lys Farm, in Hampshire. The senior Mr. Smith, in consequence, though far advanced in life, undertook the entire management of the West India business. At this place the family of Mrs. Smith, which was increased to five sons and three daughters, was occasionally increased by some orphan nephews and nieces of her husband; and in consequence of so many cares and a large establishment, (for Mr. Smith had launched into farming with more avidity than judgment, and had purchased other parcels of land,) her time was so much occupied, that but little leisure was left her for those pursuits in which she so much delighted. Surrounding circumstances, and the unavoidable expenses which were incurred, rendered her extremely unhappy; and, when a few hours of the solitude which she had learned to love were allowed her, her thoughts and feelings were expressed in some of those exquisite sonnets, which have acquired her so much reputation. Like many other productions of the muse, they were not at first intended for the public eye; nor, until many years after their composition, were they even seen by her most intimate friends.

More than one family loss had agonized her mind. Her own father had been dead several years; and the death of her father-in-law, which took place in the year 1776, was an irrecoverable blow. He had always expressed particular affection towards her; as a proof of which he appointed her, with his widow and his son, executrix to his will; a measure which her being a wife rendered ineffectual as to any present power. Unfortunately, his will, as is too frequently the case with such instruments, though it provided for all Mrs. Smith's children then born, was complex and confused, and, as the trustees refused to act, much inconvenience of course ensued. Whoever was to blame, Mrs. Smith and her children, now nine in number, were finally the sufferers.

In 1782 Mr. Smith served the office of Sheriff for the county of Southampton; but, the following year, his affairs became so deranged that his estate in Hampshire was under the necessity of being sold. In these trying moments Mrs. Smith's fortitude never forsook her; for seven months she was tortured by the chicanery of the law, and by the turpitude of some of its professors, and, during part of that distressing period, shared the imprisonment of her husband.

It was at this time that Mrs. Smith first turned her thoughts to the press. She thought it possible, that her simple and unassuming offerings at the shrine of poesy might be disposed of so as to afford a slight pecuniary resource. Impressed with this idea, she personally offered some of her sonnets to Mr. Dodsley, who declined their publication. Her brother then offered them to Messrs. Dilly, who likewise refused them. Mrs. Smith was therefore induced through the interposition of a friend to address herself to Mr. Hayley, who was particularly struck with the unaffected pathos of the productions, and, with a wish to oblige and foster unassuming merit, allowed his name to be used by the writer in a dedication. With this encouragement Mrs. Smith returned to Mr. Dodsley, and agreed with him for their publication on her own account. They therefore appeared in 1784, under the title of Elegiac Sonnets, and went through several editions. The following, which was the first in the collection, served as an elegant introduction, and must be considered as impressively characteristic of her feelings and situation:—

The partial muse has, from my earliest hours,
Smil'd on the rugged path I'm doom'd to tread;
And still, with sportive hand, hat snatch'd wild flowers,
To weave fantastic garland for my head:
But far, far happier is the lot of those
Who never learn'd her dear delusive art;
Which, while it decks the head with many a rose,
Reserves the thorn to fester in the heart.
For still she bids soft pity's melting eye
Stream o'er the ills she knows not to remove,
Points every pang, and deepens every sigh
Of mourning friendship, or unhappy love;
Ah! then how dear the muse's favour cost,
If those paint sorrow best, who feel it most?

The publication of this volume afforded some temporary relief, and after a considerable length of time she had the satisfaction of beholding the liberation of her husband from confinement. To preserve his freedom Mr. Smith retired to the continent, accompanied by his wife, who remained only one day with her husband at Dieppe, her presence being requisite in England. All her efforts were now to be renewed, and another interval of melancholy was to be endured. She, however, thought to arrange her husband's affairs; but her negociations proving fruitless, Mr. Smith was under the necessity of remaining abroad; and, becoming acquainted with some English gentlemen, he was persuaded to hire a large but comfortless chateau in upper Normandy, whither Mrs. Smith and her children were directed to repair. In this dreary exile she was doomed to pass a severe winter; and, devoid of all proper assistance and accommodation, added another child to her family. Chiefly owing to their insulated situation, their expenses were oppressively great; and, from a variety of circumstances, Mrs. Smith's return to England was considered expedient. She accordingly sent her three eldest sons before her, and followed with seven children, the youngest being scarcely two months old. On her they were now to depend for support, and she was likewise charged with the negociation of her husband's affairs. Happily she was more successful now than before, and soon had the pleasure of receiving her husband at his house, in Sussex. Soon after this her eldest son went out as a writer to Bengal, and in a short time after his departure, she lost her second son, who died of a fever, after a few hours illness; and all the others were affected with the same distemper, but they recovered.

To alleviate her distress Mrs. Smith again had recourse to the pen, and attempted the translation of a little French novel, written by the Abbe Prevost. This being published without a name, produced a very trivial sum. She next applied herself to the selection of extraordinary stories, from authenticated trials, as recorded in a set of books in old French, entitled, Les Causes Celebres. From the nature of the original performance it necessarily cost her a great deal of trouble, which was aggravated from the circumstances under which the translation was executed. In 1787 she published it under the title of the Romance of Real Life.

At this time Mrs. Smith resided with her children in a small cottage in Sussex, where, her time being less interrupted, she enlarged and corrected her collection of sonnets, which were published by subscription. In 1788 she produced a novel called Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle, and this following year Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake. Whilst engaged in this work she was under the necessity of leaving her peaceful abode, and of making new attempts to settle those affairs, which the persons employed to arrange, seemed to study only bow to entangle and perplex. During this period, she solely supported herself and family by her industry; for, of the interest of her own fortune, but a small share remained annually, and even that was irregularly paid. Though no longer in the absolute seclusion of a cottage, Mrs. Smith devoted herself entirely to her children, and to that species of labour by which she could most effectually assist them.

From the year 1791 to 1793, Mrs. Smith was occupied in composing the novels of Celestina, Desmond, and the Old Manor House, all of which experienced a very favourable reception; but, with all her perseverance and success as a writer, the task which she had undertaken was, notwithstanding the filial succours of her son in India, more than she could execute. Years passed on, but the persons entrusted with the property, made no progress in disembarrassing the estate of her children's grandfather; but, on the contrary, gave it up to the plunder of West India agents.

In September, 1793, her third son, an ensign, lost his leg before Dunkirk; and, shortly after, she had the misfortune of losing her second daughter, who expired within two years of her marriage. Mrs. Smith's feelings on this occasion were beautifully expressed in a sonnet entitled Snow-drops.

Two years after the death of her daughter, she repaired to London, in hopes of adjusting the affairs of her children's property, left them by their grandfather. But after remaining some time, and being wearied and baffled in her efforts, she was about to relinquish her endeavours, and return to her family, when an unexpected event gave a turn to her affairs. The brother-in-law of Mr. Smith, the claims of whose family had been the principal excuse for the detension of his father's effects, made offers of accommodation. This was too desirable to be declined; but her finances not being in a state to comply with the terms, she applied to a nobleman, who had previously assisted her family, who enabled her to accept the proposal, and she had the satisfaction of seeing her children restored to their rights.

In 1796 appeared her last novel, entitled Marchmont; the object of which was to inculcate the virtue of fortitude. Harrassed as Mrs. Smith had been, by several members of the legal profession, it was perhaps natural that in a performance of this nature, her feelings towards them should be expressed with some degree of asperity. We cannot say, however, that she succeeded in producing that horror at their crimes, in the minds of the reader, which she laboured to excite.

In 1797 she published, by subscription, a second volume of elegiac sonnets and other poems; to which was prefixed her portrait, with the following inscription, which strongly indicated the sombre cast of her mind:—

Oh! time has changed me since you saw me last,
And heavy hours, with time's deforming hand,
Have written strange defeatures in my face.

In a preface to this volume she says: "It rarely happens that a second attempt in any species of writing equals the first, when the first has been remarkably successful."

She afterwards employed some time in the translation of a French novel; but learning that another lady was engaged in the same pursuit, she declined entering into a competition.

About 1804 Mrs. Smith commenced a new History of England, in Letters to a Young Lady; but, finding it extend beyond the limits of her ideas, she put it into the hands of a female friend, who concluded and published it.

In October, 1800, Mrs. Smith closed a life of cares and anxieties at the village of Twyford, near Farnham, in Surrey. She endured a lingering and painful illness with the utmost fortitude, retaining her faculties to the last.

In addition to her works already enumerated, she was the author of The Emigrants, a poem; The Banished Man, a novel; The Wanderings of Warwick; Rural Walks, in dialogues for the use of young persons; Rambles Further, in continuation of Rural Walks; Minor Morals, interspersed with sketches of natural history, historical anecdotes, and original stories; Letters of a Solitary Wanderer; Conversations, introducing poetry, chiefly on subjects of natural history, for the use of children; A Narrative of the Loss of the Catherine, Venus, &c. near Weymouth, &c.

Though Mrs. Smith was the author of many novels, her fame rests chiefly upon her merit as a poet. Her poems are of a melancholy cast — a circumstance which may be accounted for from the almost peculiar severity of her fate — but they possess an exquisiteness of pathos scarcely to be excelled.