The poet and author Charlotte Smith (aka Charlotte Turner Smith) was born on the 4th May 1749. Credited with reviving the English sonnet, Charlotte Smith also wrote political novels of sensibility and helped to establish the conventions of gothic fiction.
Charlotte Smith’s status as an important literary figure of her time has often been overlooked by academics in modern times. Her popularity waned in her later life and the years following her death. However, her poetry is said to have strongly influenced Wordsworth and changed the way he wrote his poetry. Her writing also had an impact on Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Coleridge, Walter Scott, Shelley and Keats.
Charlotte was the first child born to wealthy parents, Nicholas Turner and Ann Towers.Charlotte’s two younger siblings were born during her first five years and they were very young when their mother died. From the age of six the children were raised by their maternal aunt, Lucy Towers. Charlotte attended school in Chichester where her tutor for drawing was the painter George Smith. Moving with her sister and aunt to London two years later, Charlotte attended a school for girls in Kensington. From the age of twelve she was tutored at home and ‘entered society’. She was married, aged fifteen, to Benjamin Smith, son of a wealthy merchant, on 23rd February 1765. The marriage was very unhappy, fraught with violence and poverty – although they produced twelve children, nine surviving into adulthood. Charlotte herself described the marriage her father arranged for her as ‘legal prostitution’.
Charlotte Smith saw herself as a poet. Her first book, ‘Elegiac Sonnets’ (1784) was written and published while she lived with her husband in debtor’s prison. The success of this work paid the debt and secured her husband’s release. (Wives were allowed to live in prison with their husband but were not prisoners and had freedom to leave and return.) The couple moved to France to avoid further creditors but returned to England. On 15 April 1787 Charlotte decided to leave her husband.
Charlotte began writing novels to earn money to support herself and her children and published one novel a year for 22 years. Perhaps the most well-known of these is ‘The Old Manor House’ which is said to have strongly influenced Jane Austen.
Charlotte’s father-in-law, Richard Smith, had given up on his wayward son but had a great deal of respect for Charlotte. Before he died in 1776, Charlotte’s father-in-law had made a will bequeathing most of his property to Charlotte’s children and providing for Charlotte’s future too. There were legal complications and the issue wasn’t settled until forty years later. This case is thought to have inspired Charles Dickens’ fictional case of chancery in his novel Bleak House.
…to be continued…