1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charlotte Smith

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:273-74.



This lady (whose admirable prose fictions will afterwards be noticed) was the daughter of Mr. Turner of Stoke House, in Surrey, and was born on the 4th of May 1749. She was remarkable for precocity of talents, and for a lively playful humour that showed itself in conversation, and in compositions both in prose and verse. Being early deprived of her mother, she was carelessly though expensively educated, and introduced into society at a very early age. Her father having decided on a second marriage, the friends of the young and admired poetess endeavoured to establish her in life, and she was induced to accept the hand of Mr. Smith, the son and partner of a rich West India merchant. The husband was twenty-one years of age, and his wife fifteen! This rash union was productive of mutual discontent and misery. Mr. Smith was careless and extravagant, business was neglected, and his father dying, left a will so complicated and voluminous that no two lawyers understood it in the same sense. Lawsuits and embarrassments were therefore the portion of this ill-starred pair for all their after-lives. Mr. Smith was ultimately forced to sell the greater part of his property, after he had been thrown into prison, and his faithful wife had shared with him the misery and discomfort of his confinement. A numerous family also gathered around them, to add to their solicitude and difficulties. In 1782 Mrs. Smith published a volume of sonnets, irregular in structure but marked by poetical feeling and expression. They were favourably received by the public, and at length passed through no less than eleven editions, besides being translated into French and Italian. After an unhappy union of twenty-three years, Mrs. Smith separated from her husband, and, taking a cottage near Chichester, applied herself to her literary occupations with cheerful assiduity, supplying to her children the duties of both parents. In eight months she completed her novel of Emmeline, published in 1788. In the following year appeared another novel from her pen, entitled Ethelinde; and in 1791 a third under the name of Celestina. She imbibed the opinions of the French Revolution, and embodied them in a romance entitled Desmond. This work arrayed against her many of her friends and readers, but she regained the public favour by her tale, the Old Manor House, which is the best of her novels. Part of this work was written at Eartham, the residence of Hayley, during the period of Cowper's visit to that poetical retreat. "It was delightful," says Hayley, "to hear her read what she had just written, for she read, as she wrote, with simplicity and grace." Cowper was also astonished at the rapidity and excellence of her composition. Mrs. Smith continued her literary labours amidst private and family distress. She wrote a valuable little compendium for children, under the title of Conversations; A history of British Birds; a descriptive poem on Beachy Head, &c. The delays in the settlement of her property, which had been an endless source of vexation and anxiety to one possessing all the susceptibility and ardour of the poetical temperament, were adjusted by a compromise; but Mrs. Smith had sunk into ill health. She died at Tilford, near Farnham, on the 28th of October 1806. The poetry of Mrs. Smith is elegant and sentimental, and generally of a pathetic cast She wrote as if "melancholy had marked her for her own." The keen satire and observation evinced in her novels do not appear in her verse, but the same power of description are displayed. Her sketches of English scenery are true and pleasing. "But while we allow," says Sir Walter Scott, "high praise to the sweet and sad effusions of Mrs. Smith's muse, we cannot admit that by these alone she could ever have risen to the height of eminence which we are disposed to claim for her as authoress of her prose narratives."