Smith, Charlotte (DNB00)

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SMITH, CHARLOTTE (1749–1806), poetess and novelist, the eldest daughter of Nicholas Turner of Stoke House, Surrey, and Bignor Park, Sussex, by his wife, Anna Towers, was born in London on 4 May 1749 at King Street, St. James's. When Charlotte was little more than three years old her mother died, and the child was brought up by an aunt, who sent her at the early age of six to a school at Chichester, and afterwards to another at Kensington. The education thus received was exceedingly superficial, and ceased entirely at the age of twelve, when Charlotte entered society. Two years later she received an offer of marriage, which was refused by her father on the score of her youth. In 1764 the father married a second wife, a woman of fortune. Charlotte's aunt at that time had an aversion to stepmothers, and hurriedly arranged a marriage for her niece with Benjamin Smith, second son of Richard Smith, a West India merchant, and director of the East India Company. The wedding took place on 23 Feb. 1765. The youthful couple (the husband was only twenty-one) lived over the elder Smith's house of business in the city of London, and Charlotte was in enforced attendance on an invalid mother-in-law of exacting disposition. The marriage was not one of affection; both parties had been talked into it by officious relatives, and it is not surprising that Charlotte found life dreary. Her father-in-law, on the death of his wife, married Charlotte's aunt.

Charlotte was now free to indulge her desire of living in the country. Her father-in-law, however, entertained a high opinion of her abilities, and offered her a considerable allowance if she would live in London and assist him in his business. He had on one occasion when he was libelled employed her to write a vindication of his character, a task that she fulfilled admirably. But a town life had never pleased her, and in 1774, with her husband and seven children, she went to live at Lys Farm, Hampshire. Her husband was at one time high sheriff of Hampshire (cf. L'Estrange, Life of M. R. Mitford, iii. 148; Letters of M. R. Mitford, ed. Chorley, 2nd ser. i. 29). But his extravagance and his attempts to realise wild and ruinous projects, propensities somewhat kept in check while he was living in his father's house, began to cause his wife uneasiness. She once expressed to a friend a desire that her husband should find rational employment. The friend suggested that his enthusiasm might be directed towards religion. ‘Oh!’ replied Charlotte, ‘for heaven's sake do not put it into his head to take to religion, for if he does he will instantly begin by building a cathedral’ (Nichols, Illustrations, viii. 35). In 1776 the elder Smith died, leaving a complicated will. The ensuing litigation increased the pecuniary difficulties of Charlotte and her husband; the Hampshire estate was sold, and in 1782 Smith was imprisoned for debt. His wife shared his confinement, which lasted for seven months.

For some years Charlotte Smith had been in the habit of writing sonnets, and it occurred to her that her compositions might afford a means of livelihood. She showed fourteen or fifteen of them to Dodsley, and afterwards to Dilly, but neither would publish them. She then appealed to Hayley—known to her by reputation, and a neighbour of her family in Sussex—who permitted her to dedicate to him a thin quarto volume of sonnets (‘Elegiac Sonnets and other Essays’). It was printed at Chichester at her own expense, and published by Dodsley at Hayley's persuasion in 1784. The poems found favour with the public; a second edition was called for the same year, and a fifth in 1789. They were reissued with a second volume and plates by Stothard, under the title of ‘Elegiac Sonnets and other poems,’ in 1797. Among the subscribers to that edition were the archbishop of Canterbury, Cowper, Charles James Fox, Horace Walpole, Mrs. Siddons, and the two Wartons. There were altogether eleven editions of the poems, the last dated in 1851.

But the circumstances of Mrs. Smith's family scarcely improved. They lived for a while in a dilapidated chateau near Dieppe in France, and there Mrs. Smith translated Prévost's ‘Manon Lescaut’ (1785), and wrote the ‘Romance of Real Life,’ an English version of some of the most remarkable trials from ‘Les Causes Célèbres;’ it appeared in 1786. About this time the family returned to England and settled at Woolbeding House, near Midhurst in Sussex. Mrs. Smith soon decided that a separation from her husband would be best for all concerned. The only reason assigned was incompatibility of temper, and the children remained with the mother. The husband and wife occasionally met and constantly corresponded; Mrs. Smith continued to give her husband pecuniary assistance, but firmly refused to live with him again. He died in March 1806.

In 1788 Charlotte Smith published her first novel, ‘Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle,’ in 4 vols., and it was so successful that her publisher, Cadell, supplemented the sum originally paid. It was admired by Sir Egerton Brydges and Sir Walter Scott. The latter indulgently declared the ‘tale of love and passion’ to be ‘told in a most interesting manner,’ praised the mingling of humour and satire with pathos, and considered that the ‘characters both of sentiment and of manners were sketched with a firmness of pencil and liveliness of colouring which belong to the highest branch of fictitious narrative.’ Hayley was even more extravagant in his praises (cf. Nichols, Lit. Illustr. vii. 708). Miss Seward, on the other hand, found it a servile imitation of Miss Burney's ‘Cecilia;’ and stated that the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Stafford were drawn from Mrs. Smith and her husband (Letters, ii. 213). A second novel, ‘Celestina,’ in 4 vols., came out in 1792, and was characterised as ‘a work of no common merit’ (cf. Nichols, Lit. Illustr. vii. 715), and a third, ‘Desmond,’ in 3 vols., in 1792. The character of Mrs. Manby in the last is said to represent Hannah More (Seward, Letters, iii. 329). In 1792 Mrs. Smith visited Hayley at Eartham, and met there Cowper, and probably Romney (Hayley, Memoirs, i. 432). ‘The Old Manor House,’ in 4 vols., considered by Scott her best piece of work, appeared in 1793.

Failing health was now added to the ever present pecuniary and family troubles. But Mrs. Smith's cheerful temperament enabled her to abstract herself from her cares, and publish a novel each year till 1799. Caldwell, writing to Bishop Percy in 1801, says: ‘Charlotte Smith is writing more volumes of “The Solitary Wanderer” for immediate subsistence. … She is a woman full of sorrows. One of her daughters made an imprudent marriage, and the man, after behaving extremely ill and tormenting the family, died. The widow has come to her mother not worth a shilling, and with three young children’ (Nichols, Lit. Illustr. viii. 38). In 1804 appeared her ‘Conversations introducing Poetry,’ a book treating chiefly of subjects connected with natural history for the use of children. It contains her versions of the well-known poems ‘The Ladybird’ and ‘The Snail.’ During the latter years of her life Mrs. Smith made many changes of residence, living at London, Brighthelmstone, and Bath. In 1805 she removed to Tilford, near Farnham in Surrey, where she died on 28 Oct. 1806. She was buried in Stoke church, near Guildford; a monument by Bacon marks her resting-place. Of her twelve children, eight survived her. Her youngest son, George Augustus, a lieutenant in the 16th foot, died at Surinam on 16 Sept., five weeks before his mother; another son, Lionel [q. v.], was a distinguished soldier.

If there is nothing great in Mrs. Smith's poems, they are ‘natural and touching’ (cf. Leigh Hunt, Men, Women, and Books, ii. 139). Miss Mitford told Miss Barrett that she never took a spring walk without feeling Charlotte Smith's love of external nature and her power of describing it (cf. L'Estrange, Life of M. R. Mitford, iii. 148), and in a letter to Mrs. Hofland declared that ‘she had, with all her faults, the eye and the mind of a landscape poet’ (Letters of M. R. Mitford, ed. Chorley, 2nd ser. i. 29). As a novelist she shows skill in portraying character, but the deficiencies of the plots render her novels tedious. Her English style is good, and it is said that whenever Erskine had a great speech to make, he used to read Charlotte Smith's works in order to catch their grace of composition (L'Estrange, Life of M. R. Mitford, iii. 299).

Her portrait was painted by Opie. A drawing from the picture by G. Clint, A.R.A., was engraved by A. Duncan and by Freeman. There is an engraving by Ridley and Holt of what seems to be another picture, and an unsigned engraving in which Mrs. Smith is represented in a curious dress. Her head in outline appears in ‘Public Characters’ (1800–1).

Other works by Charlotte Smith are: 1. ‘Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake,’ 5 vols. 1790; 2nd edit. 1814. 2. ‘The Banished Man,’ 4 vols. 1794. 3. ‘Montalbert,’ 1795. 4. ‘Marchmont.’ 5. ‘Rural Walks.’ 6. ‘Rambles Farther,’ 1796. 7. ‘Minor Morals interspersed with Sketches,’ 2 vols. 1798; other editions 1799, 1800, 1816, 1825. 8. ‘The Young Philosopher,’ a novel, 1798. 9. ‘The Solitary Wanderer,’ 1799. 10. ‘Beachy Head,’ a poem, 1807.

[Scott's biography, the facts for which were communicated to him by Mrs. Dorset, a sister of Charlotte Smith, in Miscellaneous Prose Works, i. 349–59, is the chief authority; see also Elwood's Literary Ladies, i. 284–309; Mathias's Pursuits of Lit. pp. 56, 58.]

E. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.253
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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29 i 21 Smith, Charlotte: for Tetford read Tilford