1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charlotte Smith

Francis William Blagdon, "Biographical Sketches: Mrs. Charlotte Smith" Flowers of Literature for 1806 (1807) 23-30.



Three accounts of the Life and writings if Mrs. Smith have appeared, one, some years previous to her dissolution, in the third volume of Public Characters, and two since, the first, very imperfectly executed in the European Magazine for the month of November, and the second, in the first number of a work entitled Censura Literaria, by S. E. Bridges, Esq. who has paid a just tribute to the genius, literary talents, and private virtues of the lady; and the intention of her family has already been announced of publishing her Memoirs on a more enlarged plan, with a selection of her correspondence; it would therefore be anticipating the pleasure the public are likely to receive from so desirable and interesting a piece of biography, were we here to enter into a minute detail of circumstances.

Mrs. Smith was the eldest daughter of Nicholas Turner, Esq. a gentleman of fortune, who inherited considerable estates in the counties of Surry and Sussex. He was a man of very superior talents, remarkable for the brilliancy of his wit, his powers of conversation, and a peculiar vein of humour, which rendered him the delight of society. Her mother, whose maiden name was Towers, was as distinguished by the graces of her mind, as by a person of exquisite beauty; but this lady died in child-bed before her eldest daughter had attained her fourth year, and the care of her person devolved on an aunt, the sister of her deceased mother. Mr. Turner early discovered such indications of genius in the infant mind of his child, that he determined no expense should he spared in the cultivation of those talents which she seemed to have inherited from both her parents; and therefore bestowed on her what was thought the best education. She was placed in one of the most distinguished seminaries in the neighbourhood of London; and, on quitting school, which she did at an early age, she was attended by various masters: and, if expence constituted a good education, she may be said to have received the best that could have been given; but Mrs. Smith frequently regretted, that in the conduct of it so little judgment was shown, and that the time lost in the attainment of superficial accomplishments was not employed in more useful studies, in the acquirement of languages, and still more, that so little attention was paid to enforce those important principles which fortify the mind, and enable it to struggle against the inevitable evils of life. Her father was himself a poet, and encouraged this talent in his daughter, who, as she tells us in one of her last works, composed verses at a very early age; but her aunt had imbibed an opinion, that learning disqualified women for their own peculiar duties, and was in general unfavourable to their establishment in life, and observed with great disapprobation this turn of mind, and the passion of her niece for reading, and prohibited her from so employing her time, without however taking any effectual measure to prevent her gratifying this taste; to that she had always the power of carrying on her contraband studies, and every book that came in her way, she devoured with avidity, and with little discrimination. By this means she acquired a mass of desultory knowledge which, by exciting her curiosity, led her on at a subsequent period in pursuit or more perfect information. Her father, having sold his Surrey estates, divided his time between his house in Sussex and one he took in London; and his daughter was early introduced into society, partook of all the amusement and dissipation her father and aunt engaged in, and entered into them with that eagerness natural to a young person; and as her very fine form had attained the stature of a woman, she wore the dress of one, and it has been said that her father received proposals for her, at the early age of thirteen, from a gentleman who had seen her at a public assembly, and was struck with the charms of her figure — an offer which was declined on account of her extreme youth. It had been happy, had a reason so substantial operated a few years longer; but before she was sixteen, she was married to the younger son of Richard Smith, Esq., who was a West India merchant of much commence, and this son was associated in the father's business. After having been accustomed to the most boundless indulgence from her own family, (and to her aunt every wish his and caprice of her's was a law,) she as suddenly involved in household cares, and had many other causes to regret the union. From this marriage, which had been brought about by the officiousness of friends, and which was by no means the effect of attachment on either side, all the future misfortunes of the subject of these pages originated: an uncle of Mrs. S. was the only person of the family who saw, and foretold all the misery that would result from an union, an which neither the habits, nor the temper of the parties had been considered; when neither were arrived at time of life, to ascertain or appreciate the character of each other; but he had not sufficient weight to induce those, who saw this connection in a different view, to break it off. Mr. Turner was on the point of marrying a second wife, who although she exacted much consideration in consequence of her large fortune, had little claim to it from her personal qualities, and whose authority a grown-up daughter, who had never been accustomed to controul, would most probably have resisted: he consequently felt no reluctance in closing with proposals, which relieved him from the apprehensions he entertained, and this marriage took place on the 22d of February, 1765! The residence of the young people was in a very disgusting part of the city, from whence they removed in the course of two years; the death of their first child, and the effect this first affliction had on a young mother, so endangered her health, and that of her second child, whom she nursed, and who was born on the same day its brother expired, that it was found necessary to remove them to purer air. The village of Southgate was chosen for this purpose, where Mrs. Smith recovered from her indisposition; and her understanding in time subdued the sorrow which she had first given way to, with excess. In this quiet spot, she had now more command of her time, and the use of a good library, and the power, from being much alone, of following those pursuits to which she was attached, enabled her to form her taste and devote her thoughts to intellectual improvement: but this produced one unfortunate result, it opened her eyes to those defects she had hitherto been unwilling to see; yet, although she could no longer be blind to them herself, she endeavoured to conceal them from the observation of others, and in her own behaviour towards her husband, tried to give him consequence. His inattention to business was extremely displeasing to his father, and the increase of the family making a larger house necessary, their next residence was within five miles of London; and soon after Mr. Smith's father purchased an estate called Lys Farm, Hampshire. But he had no sooner removed thither, than he began enlarging the house, and making additions to the garden and offices on an extensive plan; his agricultural pursuits became expensive and ruinous in proportion to his inexperience; and Mrs. Smith soon found that her domestic comforts were by no means increased, and she had only bartered one species of misery for another. Here she lost her eldest son, a boy of very superior intellect, and who promised to partake much of his mother's genius: this was a deep affliction to his mother; he did not long survive his grandfather, the father of Mr. Smith, whose death was far from being an advantage to his daughter-in-law, for in him she lost a steady and affectionate friend, who had always her interest and happiness at heart. He left a very large property among his grandchildren, of which there were several, besides the eight children of his youngest son; but his will was so extremely prolix and confused, that no two lawyers understood it; so that the trustees appointed by it refused to act, and Mr. Smith became, as principal executor, possessed of the entire management of those extensive concerns, in the conduct of which he acted with so little caution, and so little to the satisfaction of the several collateral branches of the family concerned, that they felt themselves compelled to appeal to the law. The consequences were disastrous; but Mrs. Smith did not in the hour of distress desert her husband, but shared in the misery he had brought on himself, and exerted the powers office mind with such indefatigable zeal, that, after the space of a few months, she succeeded in disentangling him from his immediate embarrassments, and the property was vested in the hands of trustees, two of them gentlemen connected with Mr. Smith's family, high in situation and affluent in circumstances.

Soon after these events, Mrs. Smith collected such poems as she had originally written for her amusement; they were first offered to Dodsley and refused; they were afterwards shewn to Dilly in the poultry, who also declined them: it has been seen with what degree of judgment these decisions were made: through the interest of Mr. Hayley, they were at length printed by Dodsley on Mrs. Smith's account, and the rapid sale, and almost immediate demand for a second edition, sufficiently justified the author's confidence in her own powers, and encouraged her to proceed in a line, which, as it might render her in a great degree independent of the persons who had now the management of the affairs, contributed to divert her thoughts, and to lead her mind into the visionary regions of fancy, rendering the sad realities she was suffering under, in some measure, less poignant. The still encreasing derangement of Mr. Smith's affairs soon after obliged him to leave England, and in the autumn of 1781, he established his family in a gloomy and inconvenient chateau in Normandy, nine miles from any town. In the spring of 1785, the family returned to England, and soon after resided in the ancient mansion there belonging to Sir Charles Mill, at Woollading, now the residence of Lord Robert Spencer, and of which parish the father of Otway the poet had been rector; a circumstance which rendered it classic ground to Mrs. Smith, and inspired those beautiful sonnets in which his name is so happily introduced; here also she translated those very interesting extracts from Les Causes Celebres which have been so deservedly admired, and which was a most difficult undertaking from the singularity of the work, and the obscurity of the law-terms. Again it because necessary for Mrs. Smith to exert her fortitude, when she parted from her eldest son, who had been appointed to a writership in Bengal; and when the second was snatched from her by a rapid and malignant fever, which more or less affected the whole family, and which carried him off after an illness of three days. Other domestic calamities, insupportable to a spirit like hers, overtook her very soon afterwards; and circumstances which delicacy forbids us to detail, determined her to quit her husband's house, and withdraw with most of her children to a small village near Chichester. The charming novel of Emmeline was written at this place, in the course of a few months; the novelty of the descriptive scenery which Mrs. Smith first introduced, and the elegance of the style, obtained for it the most unbounded success, and encreased the ardour and persevering application of the author, which brought forward several other works of the same kind, almost all equally pleasing, and which followed with a rapidity and variety truly astonishing.

Mrs. Smith after some time removed to Brighton, where she continued till 1793, and where her talents introduced her to many distinguished and literary characters: circumstances and the love of change next carried her to another part of Sussex. Her third son had entered the army, and served on the continent in the campaign of that year, as ensign in the 14th regiment; he had been distinguished by his good conduct, but unfortunately received a dangerous wound before Dunkirk, which made the amputation of his leg necessary. He returned to England in this melancholy situation; and such a distressing event, combining with other causes, preyed on the constitution of his mother, who, having contracted a very alarming rheumatic complaint, was advised to try the Bath waters, and thither she removed in 1794, where in the spring of 1795, that which she considered as the heaviest of her domestic calamities befel her, in the death of her second daughter, a lovely and amiable young woman, of a rapid decline. She had been two years the wife of the Chevalier de Foville, an emigrant. Mrs. Smith is said never to have recovered this affliction; but at times the original chearfulness of her temper returned, and latterly she never mentioned her lost daughter. Her love of change, which might always be numbered among her foibles, was now become an habitual restlessness; and she continued to wander from place to place, in hopes of attaining that happiness which ever seemed to elude her pursuit. Her various residences may be traced in her poems. In 1801, she had to lament the death of that son who lost his limb in the service of his country, which took place at Barbadoes, where the affairs of his family had called him, and by his ardent spirit and exertions, the property situated there was disposed of; but he was not destined to reap the benefit of his successful negociation, he fell a victim to the yellow fever, from the benevolence of his disposition in attending his servant, who was first seized with the malady. His loss was deeply regretted by his mother and family. In 1803, Mrs. Smith removed from the neighbourhood of Tunbridge Wells, to a village in Surry, regarding it as her native soil, having passed her infancy at her father's place at Stoke, and there she had long expressed a desire that all her sorrows might repose. Her wishes have been complied with; she rests near her mother and many of her ancestors in the church of that village. Death closed her sufferings in her 57th year, on the 28th of October, 1806, after a most tedious and painful illness, which had totally exhausted her frame; but the powers of her extraordinary mind lost neither their strength nor their brilliancy. She was a widow at the time of her dissolution, and from that circumstance became possessed of her own fortune. Of a family of twelve children, six only are living, three sons and three daughters. In her then surviving sons she was particularly happy, having lived to see the two elder ones advanced to honourable and lucrative appointments in the civil service of India, and both as high in character as in situation; their conduct towards their mother, to whom so much was due, and whom they loved so sincerely, was uniformly everything that gratitude could dictate, and affection inspire. Her two other sons were in the army; the eldest of them a lieutenant colonel, now on service with his regiment whose conduct as a son, a gentleman, and a soldier, has ever been most truly gratifying to the feelings of a mother. The youngest son, who with such a brother to excite his emulation, was advancing with credit and success in his military career, fell a second victim to the fatal fever at Surinam, the 16th of September, 1806, in his 22d year. His mother, who was particularly attached to him, was fortunate in being spared the misery of knowing he had preceded her to the grave; the tidings not having reached England till after her decease.

Mrs. Smith's poetical works are too well known, and have been too long the admiration of the public, to requite any farther illustration; the number of editions through which they have passed, sufficiently establishes their merit. Those which have been published since her decease, offer an astonishing proof of the energy of her genius, for they were all written within the last two years, while she as undergoing such bodily suffering, and her mind was still harassed with many cares. Yet none of her earliest poems are superior either in taste or imagination to those which comprise this volume, and in the opinion of some very excellent judges they even exceed any she had ever written.

It would swell this article to too great a length, were we to enter into an acute examination of the various novels of this lady; that they brought on her much undeserved abuse, is not very surprising, her intellectual superiority was too obvious to escape the shafts of envy and malignity; the idle remarks of the stupid, the unfeeling, or the envious, either are, or will be forgotten, while the brilliancy of Mrs. Smith's genius will shine with undiminished lustre. Of her prose works, her schoolbooks are amongst the most admirable which have been written for the use of young persons, and are eminently calculated to form the taste, instruct the mind, and correct the heart.