CHARLOTTE SMITH, eldest daughter of Nicholas Turner, Esq., of Surrey, in England, was born in London, May 4th, 1749. She lost her mother when she was only three years old, and the charge of her education devolved on her aunt. Miss Turner was carefully instructed in all the accomplishments of the day, but she afterwards regretted that her attention had not been directed more to the solid branches of learning. She began to write when very young, and was always extravagantly fond of reading, especially poetry and romances. At the early age of of twelve she left school, and from that time was accustomed to frequent public amusements with her family, and even appear in society with them. She was beautiful, animated, and attractive, and appeared so much older than she really was, that at fourteen she received proposals of marriage, which were refused, and at fifteen she was married to Mr. Smith, son of Richard Smith, a West India merchant, and Director of the East India Company.
Mr. Smith's great inferiority to his wife, both in mind and principles, was more and more apparent every year, which Mrs. Smith felt keenly as she grew older; yet never to her most confidential friends did she allow a complaint or severe remark to escape her lips. Her father-in-law fully appreciated her, and often employed her pen on matters of business, and confided to her all his anxieties. He often remarked that she could expedite more business in an hour, from his dictation, than any one of his clerks could perform in a day. This affords a strong instance of the compass of her mind, which could adapt itself with equal facility to the charms of literature and the dry details of commerce.
In 1776, the death of her father-in-law, who left an incomprehensible will which kept them for some time involved in law-suits, occasioned the final ruin of their fortunes. Their estate in Hampshire was sold, and they removed to Sussex. Mrs. Smith never deserted her husband for a moment during the period of his misfortunes. While suffering from the calamities he had brought on himself and his children, she exerted herself with as much energy as though his conduct had been unexceptionable, made herself mistress of his affairs, and finally succeeded in settling them.
Mr. Smith found it expedient, in 1783, to retire to the continent, where his wife joined him with their children. They resided near Dieppe; and here her youngest son was born. She translated while there the novel called "Manon l'Escaut." In 1785, she returned to England; and soon after published "The Romance of Real Life" a translation of some of the most remarkable trials, from "Les Causes Celebres."
In 1786, Mrs. Smith, finding it impossible to live longer with any degree of comfort with her husband, resolved to separate from him; and, with the approbation of all her most judicious friends, she settled herself in a small house near Chichester. Her husband, becoming involved in fresh difficulties, again retired to the continent, after some ineffectual attempts to induce her to return to him. They sometimes met after this, and constantly corresponded, Mrs. Smith never relaxing her efforts to afford him assistance, or bring the family affairs to a final arrangement; but they never afterwards resided together.
In her seclusion at Wyhe, her novels of "Emmeline," "Ethelinde," and "Celestina," were written. These were very successful. In 1791, she went to reside near London; and, during the excitement caused by the French revolution, she wrote "Desmond," which was severely censured for its political and moral tendency. "But she regained public favour," says Mr. Chambers, "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 also wrote a "History of England," and a "Natural History of Birds," in 1807; "Conversations," and several other works. Her first publication was a volume of elegiac "Sonnets" and other Essays, in 1784. She died at Tilford, October 28th, 1806, in her fifty-eighth year. Her husband had died the preceding year. As a mother, she was most exemplary.
Mr. Chambers thus sums up his opinion of her writings: — "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 powers of description are displayed. Her sketches of English scenery are true and pleasing."
Sir Walter Scott also gives "high praise to the sweet and sad effusions of Mrs. Smith's pen;" but observes, "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."