1799 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charlotte Smith

O., "Mrs. Charlotte Smith" Lady's Monthly Museum 2 (May 1799) 337-41.



Though the hey-day of life seems with this lady in the decline, her mental faculties are still lively and vigorous. Of her parentage, education, and domestic connections we have no authentic information. We take her up solely as a literary adventurer, and altogether insulated from considerations of consanguinity and relative society. And we have the pleasure of presenting her to our fair readers as an honour to the sex, by the display of very respectable talents, and laudable industry in cultivating the most agreeable walks of elegant literature.

Her first productions appeared in the year 1784, in a quarto volume, under the title of "Elegiac Sonnets, and other Essays." The peculiar modesty and diffidence under which these poems were originally published, indicated such a fund of good sense and decent feeling, as naturally procured them a favourable reception. They were much read, and certainly verified the taste of those friends by whose advice they were brought forward. Like all original writers, her imitators have been numerous and servile. Every periodical journal and diurnal production have latterly exhibited such endless swarms of stale and pointless trifles, under this designation, as have quite blown upon the world, and rendered it no longer acceptable. But the insignificance of the copy detracts nothing from the excellence of the original; and they will continue to sparkle and shine, when the poor meteors, which only caught a transitory gleam from the blaze, are absorbed in their parent element.

These beautiful verses, not by any means composed for publication, combine a singular cast of thinking, extreme sensibility, and an easy flow of elegant and copious expression. — They went, of course, through repeated editions, and have been lately republished in two duodecimo volumes, with very large additions, not at all inferior in beauty and merit. All her versification is tinctured with ever-musing melancholy, or what Shakespear calls the "pale cast of thought." And some of her friends, as stated by herself in her Preface, have endeavoured to rally her out of this into a livelier strain. Her mind, however, seems to labour under incurable sadness, though it is obvious, from various specimens introduced in these volumes, she is capable of the greatest sprightliness. — The Origin of Flattery specifies not only the happiest vivacity, but the entire command she possesses of all the Muses, in all their fascinating combinations and affinities. But the playfulness of good-humour is not easily assumed or supported under a sense of oppression, real or imaginary. The association is, besides, unnatural; and she does not appear to use capable of such hypocrisy and absurdity, as a character thus diametrically opposite to her own would implicate. Her heart, at the same time, seems deeply wrung by ill usage, which has been rankling in her mind for years. And the querulous tone of her poetry, with all its elegance and polish, betrays, occasionally, such a soreness, as must be painful to her most indulgent readers and friends. For this she endeavours to account, in one of her Prefaces, by observing (to one who marked the circumstance with regret, as impeding the success of her work) — "Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? Or can the effect cease while the cause remains? You know that when in the beech woods of Hampshire, 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. And I have, unfortunately, no reason yet, though nine years have since elapsed, to change my tone. The time is indeed arrived, when I have been promised by the honourable men, who, nine years ago, undertook to see that my family obtained the provision their grandfather designed for them — that all would be well — all should be settled. But still I am condemned to feel the hope delayed, that maketh the heart sick; still to receive, not a repetition of promises indeed, but of scorn and insult, when I apply to those gentlemen, who, though they acknowledge that all impediments to a division of the estate they have undertaken to manage are done away, will neither tell me when they will proceed to divide it, or whether they will ever so so at all!"

From these acrimonious reflections, it is but too perceivable our elegant authoress has smarted severely under the hard gripe of oppression. And from the vigour of her mind, and her masterly powers of expression, it is rather surprising that wounding sensibility has not tempted her to avenge her wrongs in a more signal and impressive manner. Nor can we help observing, they must be bold men, indeed, who thus dare to exasperate one of her genius and popularity. This is blurting rude insensibility in the very cannon's mouth, and putting themselves in the power of irretrievable infamy. And whatever interest slander, or any other artifice, may dictate, it is madness to irritate any one armed as she unquestionably is with faculties of the most extensive execution.

But her compositions in prose are much more numerous than those in verse. And she has chalked out for herself a line of novel or romance writing, which gives abundant scope, under the ample veil of fiction, to vent all the indignation she feels. Her Romance of Real Life appeared in 1787; and, though a mere translation, discovers in many places the lofty, independent impulse which guided the pen. This was succeeded by Emmeline, or, The Orphan of the Castle. To her industrious and fertile invention we are likewise indebted for Ethelinde, Celestina, Deldemonde; The Old Manor House; The Wanderings of Warwick; The Banished Man; Montalbert and Marchmont; The Emigrants, a poem; Rural Walks, in dialogues for the use of young persons; Rambles, farther in continuation of Rural Walks; and a Narrative of the Loss of the Catherine, Venus, &c. near Weymouth, drawn from information taken on the spot, and published for the benefit of an unfortunate survivor from one of the wrecks, and her infant child.

The remonstrances of the miserable and unfortunate but too frequently meet with no other redress or answer, than the vulgar and abrupt conclusion — that they are only the invectives of disappointed persons. Our fair author, we still suspect, is not in circumstances to command any other reply. But whatever the cause may be, it is a stigma on our age that such a writer as she should be reduced to the necessity of upbraiding the public, which she is so well capacitated to serve, with her indigence.

Ye blind, improvident, contemporaries of so much ill-requited merit as this Lady habitually exhibits in all her labours, had ye soothed her distressed and embarrassed mind, and by offices of tenderness and humanity kept her in good humour, who can tell the beneficial tendency of the instructions she might have tendered. By leaving her the victim of stern Adversity, is she to blame for the choler she indulges and disseminates?

Her writings are so acceptable to the young, the gay, the fair, and all who have any influence on the present and succeeding generations, that it was in her power to have amply repaid to society every blessing she could have enjoyed. And it is well, considering the usage she has received, that she does not exact a severe retribution on our children for the wanton aggression of their fathers.

Such is a brief literary Memoir of this elegant writer. We have no facts before us sufficiently authentic to warrant us in any statement or details of her private situation and connections in life. We probably, as is often the case, owe her labours to misfortune. And happy were it for every woman in narrow circumstances, if they had the same resource in talents as well cultivated, and exertions as indefatigable.