Smith, Charlotte

Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) was one of the leading woman writers between 1780 and 1810 in England, publishing important novels and volumes of poetry. She was born into a prosperous London family but after the death of her mother (she was three at the time) Charlotte and her siblings were largely raised by her maternal aunt. While in school at Chichester, she took drawing lesssons from Charles Smith (he was from a Baptist family). Around the age of twelve her father experienced some financial difficulties and remarried, and Charlotte returned to London to finish her education there. She was presented an offer of marriage when she was 14 but refused, but the next year accepted an offer from Benjamin Smith (1743/4-1806), who was six years her senior. They married on 23 February 1765. She would bear some 11 children during her marriage, with six surviving her death. Her husband’s income in the early years of her marriage was about £2000 a year. Upon his father’s death in 1776, legal challenges kept his inheritance in court into the year 1798, prompting Charlotte Smith’s decision to become a writer as a means of supporting her family until the inheritance question (some £36,000 were at stake) was settled. Her husband was sent to debtor’s prison in 1783, another cause prompting Smith’s entry into the writing profession. Her first work, Elegiac Sonnets, appeared in 1784 and would reach 9 editions by 1800, earning her considerable profits, as did her novels. After her husband’s release from prison, they spent some time in France and then returned to England, settling in Sussex. In 1787, however, Smith separated from her husband but not legally, so her earnings were still subject to his wishes, if he so chose to acquire them. She settled near Chichester and began writing novels (ten by 1800, including Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle (1788), Ethelinde, or, The Recluse of the Lake (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). During these years she moved often, finding a permanent place to settle difficult to achieve. She was sympathetic to the French Revolution and radical politics and political reform in the early 1790s, though by the end of the decade had distanced herself from some of it more radical opinions and personages. She continued to view herself as a gentlewoman writer, and courted patrons who provided sufficient cover for her literary activities. 815 names grace the subscription list for the 1789 edition of Elegiac Sonnets, but by 1797 the list was down to 283 names, partially the result of her earlier attachment to radical politics and the French Revolution. She continued to write in her final years, publishing a collection of tales (5 vols), a comedy, and several works for children, including Rural Walks (1795), Rambles Farther (1796), Minor Morals (1798), and Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804), as well as the first two volumes of her History of England (3 vols, 1806), of which the third volume was completed by Mary Hays. She died in 1806, but her husband’s inheritance suit was not settled until 1813, the amount greatly reduced by that time due to legal costs. One of the more important revivalists of the English sonnet, Smith’s legacy as a writer continues to increase.