Charlotte Turner Smith

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Charlotte Smith by George Romney

Charlotte Turner Smith (4 May 1749 – 28 October 1806) was an English Romantic poet and novelist. She initiated a revival of the English sonnet, helped establish the conventions of Gothic fiction, and wrote political novels of sensibility. A successful writer, she published ten novels, three books of poetry, four children's books, and other assorted works, over the course of her career. She saw herself as a poet first and foremost, poetry at that period being considered the most exalted form of literature. Smith's poetry and prose were praised by contemporaries such as poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and novelist Walter Scott. Scholars now credit her with transforming the sonnet into an expression of woeful sentiment.[1] Coleridge, in 1796, remarked that “those sonnets appear to me the most exquisite, in which moral Sentiments, Affections, or Feelings, are deduced from, and associated with the scenery of Nature”.[2] After 1798, however, Smith's popularity waned and by 1803 she was destitute and ill—she could barely hold a pen, and sold her books to pay off her debts. In 1806, Smith died. Largely forgotten by the middle of the 19th century, her works have now been republished and she is recognized as an important Romantic writer.

Smith was born into a wealthy family and received a typical education for a woman during the late 18th century. Her father's reckless spending then forced her to marry early. In a marriage that she later described as prostitution, she was given by her father to the violent and profligate Benjamin Smith. The match was deeply unhappy, but they had twelve children together. Charlotte joined Benjamin in debtor's prison, where she wrote her first book of poetry, Elegiac Sonnets. Its success allowed her to help pay for Benjamin's release. Benjamin's father attempted to leave money to Charlotte and her children upon his death, but legal technicalities barred her from acquiring it.

Charlotte Smith eventually left Benjamin and began writing to support their children. Smith's struggle to provide for her children and her frustrated attempts to gain legal protection as a woman provided themes for her poetry and novels; she included portraits of herself and her family in her novels as well as details about her life in her prefaces. Her early novels are exercises in aesthetic development, particularly of the Gothic and sentimentality. "The theme of her many sentimental and didactic novels was that of a badly married wife helped by a thoughtful sensible lover" (Smith's entry in British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary Ed. Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1952. pg. 478.) Her later novels, including The Old Manor House, often considered her best, supported the ideals of the French Revolution.

Early life[edit]

Smith was born on 4 May 1749 in London and baptized on 12 June; she was the oldest child of well-to-do Nicholas Turner and Anna Towers. Her two younger siblings, Nicholas and Catherine Ann, were born within the next five years.[3] Smith's childhood was shaped by her mother's early death (probably in giving birth to Catherine) and her father's reckless spending.[4] After losing his wife, Nicholas Turner travelled and the children were raised by Lucy Towers, their maternal aunt (when exactly their father returned is unknown).[3] At the age of six, Charlotte went to school in Chichester and took drawing lessons from the painter George Smith. Two years later, she, her aunt, and her sister moved to London and she attended a girls school in Kensington where she learned dancing, drawing, music, and acting. She loved to read and wrote poems, which her father encouraged. She even submitted a few to the Lady's Magazine for publication, but they were not accepted.[3]

Marriage and first publication[edit]

Smith signed herself "Charlotte Smith of Bignor Park" on the title page of Elegiac Sonnets, claiming the role of gentlewoman.[3]

Smith's father encountered financial difficulties upon his return to England and he was forced to sell some of the family's holdings and to marry the wealthy Henrietta Meriton in 1765. Smith entered society at the age of twelve, leaving school and being tutored at home. On 23 February 1765, at the age of fifteen, she married Benjamin Smith, the son of Richard Smith, a wealthy West Indian merchant and a director of the East India Company. The proposal was accepted for her by her father;[3] forty years later, Smith condemned her father's action, which she wrote had turned her into a "legal prostitute".[4]

Smith's marriage was unhappy. She detested living in commercial Cheapside (the family later moved to Southgate and Tottenham) and argued with her in-laws, who she believed were unrefined and uneducated. They, in turn, mocked her for spending time reading, writing, and drawing. Even worse, Benjamin proved to be violent, unfaithful, and profligate. Only her father-in-law, Richard, appreciated her writing abilities, although he wanted her to use them to further his business interests.[4] Richard Smith owned plantations in Barbados and he and his second wife brought five slaves to England, who, along with their descendants, were included as part of the family property in his will. Although Charlotte Smith later argued against slavery in works such as The Old Manor House (1793) and "Beachy Head", she herself benefited from the income and slave labour of Richard Smith's plantations.[3]

In 1766, Charlotte and Benjamin had their first child, who died the next year just days after the birth of their second, Benjamin Berney (1767–77). Between 1767 and 1785, the couple had ten more children: William Towers (born 1768), Charlotte Mary (born c. 1769), Braithwaite (born 1770), Nicholas Hankey (1771–1837), Married Anni Petroose (1779–1843), Charles Dyer (born 1773), Anna Augusta (1774–94), Lucy Eleanor (born 1776), Lionel (1778–1842), Harriet (born c. 1782), and George (born c. 1785). Only six of Smith's children survived her.[3]

Smith assisted in the family business that her husband had abandoned by helping Richard Smith with his correspondence. She persuaded Richard to set Benjamin up as a gentleman farmer in Hampshire and lived with him at Lys Farm from 1774 until 1783.[3] Worried about Charlotte's future and that of his grandchildren and concerned that his son would continue his irresponsible ways, Richard Smith willed the majority of his property to Charlotte's children. However, because he had drawn up the will himself, the documents contained legal problems. The inheritance, originally worth nearly £36,000, was tied up in chancery after his death in 1776 for almost forty years. Smith and her children saw little of it.[3] (It has been proposed that this may have inspired the famous fictional case of interminable legal proceedings, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in Dickens's Bleak House.[5]) In fact, Benjamin illegally spent at least a third of the legacy and ended up in King's Bench Prison in December 1783. Smith moved in with him and it was in this environment that she wrote and published her first work.[4] Elegiac Sonnets (1784) achieved instant success, allowing Charlotte to pay for their release from prison. Smith's sonnets helped initiate a revival of the form and granted an aura of respectability to her later novels, as poetry was then considered the highest art form. Smith revised Elegiac Poems several times over the years, eventually creating a two-volume work.[4]


Smith believed that her poetry, not her novels, granted her respectability.

After Benjamin Smith was released from prison, the entire family moved to Dieppe, France to avoid further creditors. Charlotte returned to negotiate with them, but failed to come to an agreement. She went back to France and in 1784 began translating works from French into English. In 1787 she published The Romance of Real Life, consisting of translated selections from François Gayot de Pitaval's trials. She was forced to withdraw her other translation, Manon Lescaut, after it was argued that the work was immoral and plagiarized. In 1786, she published it anonymously.[3]

In 1785, the family returned to England and moved to Woolbeding House near Midhurst, Sussex.[3] Smith's relationship with her husband did not improve and on 15 April 1787, after twenty-two years of marriage, she left him. She wrote that she might “have been contented to reside in the same house with him”, had not “his temper been so capricious and often so cruel” that her “life was not safe”.[6] When Charlotte left Benjamin, she did not secure a legal agreement that would protect her profits—he would have access to them under English primogeniture laws.[3] Smith knew that her children's future rested on a successful settlement of the lawsuit over her father-in-law's will, therefore she made every effort to earn enough money to fund the suit and retain the family's genteel status.[4]

Smith claimed the position of gentlewoman, signing herself "Charlotte Smith of Bignor Park" on the title page of Elegiac Sonnets.[3] All of her works were published under her own name, "a daring decision" for a woman at the time. Her success as a poet allowed her to make this choice.[3] Throughout her career, Smith identified herself as a poet. Although she published far more prose than poetry and her novels brought her more money and fame, she believed poetry would bring her respectability. As Sarah Zimmerman claimed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "She prized her verse for the role it gave her as a private woman whose sorrows were submitted only reluctantly to the public."[3]

After separating from her husband, Smith moved to a town near Chichester and decided to write novels, as they would make her more money than poetry. Her first novel, Emmeline (1788), was a success, selling 1500 copies within months. She wrote nine more novels in the next ten years: Ethelinde (1789), Celestina (1791), Desmond (1792), The Old Manor House (1793), The Wanderings of Warwick (1794), The Banished Man (1794), Montalbert (1795), Marchmont (1796), and The Young Philosopher (1798). Smith began her career as a novelist during the 1780s at a time when women's fiction was expected to focus on romance and to foreground "a chaste and flawless heroine subjected to repeated melodramatic distresses until reinstated in society by the virtuous hero".[4] Although Smith's novels employed this structure, they also incorporated political commentary, particularly support of the French Revolution, through the voices of male characters. At times, she challenged the typical romance plot by including "narratives of female desire" or "tales of females suffering despotism".[4] Smith's novels contributed to the development of Gothic fiction and the novel of sensibility.[3]

Smith's novels are autobiographical. While a common device at the time, Antje Blank writes in The Literary Encyclopedia, "few exploited fiction's potential of self-representation with such determination as Smith".[4] For example, Mr. and Mrs. Stafford in Emmeline are portraits of Charlotte and Benjamin.[3] The prefaces to Smith's novels told the story of her own struggles, including the deaths of several of her children. According to Zimmerman, "Smith mourned most publicly for her daughter Anna Augusta, who married an émigré...and died aged twenty in 1795."[3] Smith's prefaces positioned her as both a suffering sentimental heroine as well as a vocal critic of the laws that kept her and her children in poverty.[4]

The Young Philosopher was Smith's last novel and a piece of "outspoken radical fiction".[4]

Smith's experiences prompted her to argue for legal reforms that would grant women more rights, making the case for these reforms through her novels. Smith's stories showed the "legal, economic, and sexual exploitation" of women by marriage and property laws. Initially readers were swayed by her arguments and writers such as William Cowper patronized her. However, as the years passed, readers became exhausted by Smith's stories of struggle and inequality. Public opinion shifted towards the view of poet Anna Seward, who argued that Smith was "vain" and "indelicate" for exposing her husband to "public contempt".[6]

Smith moved frequently due to financial concerns and declining health. During the last twenty years of her life, she lived in: Chichester, Brighton, Storrington, Bath, Exmouth, Weymouth, Oxford, London, Frant, and Elstead. She eventually settled at Tilford, Surrey.[3]

Smith became involved with English radicals while she was living in Brighton from 1791 to 1793. Like them, she supported the French Revolution and its republican principles. Her epistolary novel Desmond tells the story of a man who journeys to revolutionary France and is convinced of the rightness of the revolution and contends that England should be reformed as well. The novel was published in June 1792, a year before France and England went to war and before the Reign of Terror began, which shocked the British public, turning them against the revolutionaries.[3] Like many radicals, Smith criticized the French, but she still endorsed the original ideals of the revolution.[3] In order to support her family, Smith had to sell her works, thus she was eventually forced to, as Blank claims, "tone down the radicalism that had characterised the authorial voice in Desmond and adopt more oblique techniques to express her libertarian ideals".[4] She therefore set her next novel, The Old Manor House (1793), during the American Revolutionary War, which allowed her to discuss democratic reform without directly addressing the French situation. However, in her last novel, The Young Philosopher (1798), Smith wrote a final piece of "outspoken radical fiction".[4] Smith's protagonist leaves Britain for America, as there is no hope for a reform in Britain.

The Old Manor House is "frequently deemed [Smith's] best" novel for its sentimental themes and development of minor characters. Novelist Walter Scott labeled it as such and poet and critic Anna Laetitia Barbauld chose it for her anthology of The British Novelists (1810).[3] As a successful novelist and poet, Smith communicated with famous artists and thinkers of the day, including musician Charles Burney (father of Frances Burney), poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, scientist and poet Erasmus Darwin, lawyer and radical Thomas Erskine, novelist Mary Hays, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and poet Robert Southey.[3] A wide array of periodicals reviewed her works, including the Anti-Jacobin Review, the Analytical Review, the British Critic, The Critical Review, the European Magazine, the Gentleman's Magazine, the Monthly Magazine, and the Universal Magazine.[3]

Smith earned the most money between 1787 and 1798, after which she was no longer as popular; several reasons have been suggested for the public's declining interest in Smith, including "a corresponding erosion of the quality of her work after so many years of literary labour, an eventual waning of readerly interest as she published, on average, one work per year for twenty-two years, and a controversy that attached to her public profile" as she wrote about the French revolution.[3] Both radical and conservative periodicals criticized her novels about the revolution. Her insistence on pursuing the lawsuit over Richard Smith's inheritance lost her several patrons. Also, her increasingly blunt prefaces made her less appealing to the public.[3]

In order to continue earning money, Smith began writing in less politically charged genres.[4] She published a collection of tales, Letters of a Solitary Wanderer (1801–02) and the play What Is She? (1799, attributed). Her most successful new foray was into children's literature: Rural Walks (1795), Rambles Farther (1796), Minor Morals (1798), and Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804). She also wrote two volumes of a history of England (1806) and A Natural History of Birds (1807, posthumous). She also returned to writing poetry and Beachy Head and Other Poems (1807) was published posthumously.[3] Publishers did not pay as much for these works, however, and by 1803, Smith was poverty-stricken. She could barely afford food and had no coal. She even sold her beloved library of 500 books in order to pay off debts, but feared being sent to jail for the remaining £20.[4]

Illness and death[edit]

Smith complained of gout for many years (it was probably rheumatoid arthritis), which made it increasingly difficult and painful for her to write. By the end of her life, it had almost paralyzed her. She wrote to a friend that she was "literally vegetating, for I have very little locomotive powers beyond those that appertain to a cauliflower".[6] On 23 February 1806, her husband died in a debtors' prison and Smith finally received some of the money he owed her, but she was too ill to do anything with it. She died a few months later, on 28 October 1806, at Tilford and was buried at Stoke Church, Stoke Park, near Guildford. The lawsuit over her father-in-law's estate was settled seven years later, on 22 April 1813, more than thirty-six years after Richard Smith's death.[3]


Stuart Curran, the editor of Smith's poems, has written that Smith is "the first poet in England whom in retrospect we would call Romantic". She helped shape the "patterns of thought and conventions of style" for the period, and William Wordsworth, the leading Romantic poet, was the most affected by her works.[7] He said of Smith in the 1830s that she was "a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered".[8] By the middle of the 19th century, however, Smith was largely forgotten.[7]

Smith's novels were republished at the end of the 20th century, and critics "interested in the period's women poets and prose writers, the Gothic novel, the historical novel, the social problem novel, and post-colonial studies" have argued for her significance as a writer.[3] They concluded that she helped to revitalize the English sonnet, a view found in Coleridge and others. Scott wrote that she "preserves in her landscapes the truth and precision of a painter" and poet and Barbauld claimed that Smith was the first to include sustained natural description in novels.[3] In 2008 Smith's complete prose became available to the general public. The edition contains all her novels, the children's stories and rural walks.[9]

Selected works[edit]



Educational works[edit]


  1. ^ ed, M. H. Abrams, general (2012). The Norton anthology of English literature. (9th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton. p. 53. ISBN 978-0-393-91248-7. 
  2. ^ Dolan, Elizabeth A. (2008). Seeing suffering in women's literature of the Romantic era (reprint. ed.). Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub. p. 29. ISBN 9780754654919. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad Zimmerman
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Blank.
  5. ^ Jacqueline M. Labbe, ed. The Old Manor House by Charlotte Turner Smith, Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2002 ISBN 978-1-55111-213-8, Introduction p. 17, note 3.
  6. ^ a b c Qtd. in Blank.
  7. ^ a b Curran, xix.
  8. ^ Quoted in Zimmerman.
  9. ^ The Works of Charlotte Smith. Volumes I-V by Charlotte Smith; Stuart Curran; Michael Gamer; Judith Stanton; Kristina Straub. Review by Gary Kelly, Keats-Shelley Journal Vol. 56, (2007), pp. 222–224. Published by: Keats-Shelley Association of America, Inc. Article Stable URL:


  • Blank, Antje. "Charlotte Smith" (subscription only). The Literary Encyclopedia. 23 June 2003. Retrieved 6 February 2009.
  • Craciun, Adriana. British Women Writers and the French Revolution: Citizens of the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1-4039-0235-6.
  • Curran, Stuart. "Introduction". The Poems of Charlotte Smith. Women Writers in English 1350–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-508358-X.
  • Fry, Carrol Lee. Charlotte Smith. New York: Twayne, 1996. ISBN 0-8057-7046-1.
  • Goodman, Kevis. "Conjectures on Beachy Head: Charlotte Smith’s Geological Poetics and the Ground of the Present." ELH 81.3 (2014): 983-1006.
  • Hart, Monica Smith. "Charlotte Smith's Exilic Persona." Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas. 8.2 (2010): 305-323.
  • Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. ISBN 0-271-03361-4.
  • Keane, Angela. Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s: Romantic Belongings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-02240-1.
  • Kelley, Theresa M. Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. ISBN 1-421-40517-2.
  • Kelley, Theresa M. “Romantic Histories: Charlotte Smith and Beachy Head,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 59:3 (2004): 281-314.
  • Klekar, Cynthia. “The Obligations of Form: Social Practice in Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline.” Philological Quarterly 86, no. 3 (2007): 269-89.
  • Labbe, Jacqueline M. Charlotte Smith: romanticism, poetry, and the culture of gender. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7190-6004-4.
  • Labbe, Jacqueline M., ed. Charlotte Smith in British Romanticism. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008. ISBN 1-851-96945-4.
  • Pascoe, Judith. “Female Botanists and the Poetry of Charlotte Smith.” Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776–1837 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 193-209. ISBN 0-812-21421-8.
  • Pascoe, Judith. Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-801-43304-5.
  • Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
  • Scarth, Kate. "Elite Metropolitan Culture, Women, and Greater London in Charlotte Smith's Emmeline and Celestina." European Romantic Review 25.5 (2014): 629-48.
  • Sodeman, Melissa. Sentimental Memorials: Women and the Novel in Literary History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. ISBN 0-804-79132-5.
  • Zimmerman, Sarah M. "Smith, Charlotte". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/25790.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)

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