BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL,
AMONG those writers who have distinguished themselves in the polite literature of the present day, the late Mrs. Charlotte Smith well deserves a place, both from the number and elegance of her publications. She was the eldest daughter of Nicholas Turner, esq. a gentleman of fortune, who possessed estates in Surrey and Sussex; a man, it is said, of an improved mind and brilliant conversation. She lost her mother when very young, and was brought up under the care of an aunt, whose ideas of female education were less favourable to mental accomplishments than those of her father. She received, therefore, rather a fashionable than a literary education, and she was left to gratify her taste for books by desultory reading, and almost by stealth. Her genius, indeed, early showed itself in a propensity to poetry; but she was introduced while very young to the gaieties and dissipation of London, and, becoming a wife before she was sixteen, was plunged into the cares of a married life before her fine genius had received all the advantages it might have gained by a culture more regular and persevering.ii
Her husband, Mr. Smith, was the younger son of a rich West-Indian merchant, and associated with him in the business. The marriage had been brought about by parents, and did not prove a happy one; it had probably been hastened on her side by the dread of a mother-in-law, as her father was on the point of marrying a second wife. The married pair lived at first in London, in the busy part of the town, but soon after took a house at Southgate. The husband had little application to business; and probably, of the young couple, neither party had much notion of economy. The management of the concern was soon resigned to the father of Mr. Smith, who purchased for them an estate in Hampshire called Lys Farm. Here Mrs. Smith found her tastes for rural scenery and for elegant society gratified; but building and expensive improvements, joined to an increasing family, soon brought them into difficulties, which were not lessened by the death of her husband’s grandfather to whom Mr. Smith acted as executor, in the discharge of which office a litigation arose with the other branches of the family, which plunged them into lawsuits for life. The vexation attending these perplexities, together with the pecuniary embarrassments she was continually involved in, clouded the serenity of Mrs. Smith’s mind, and gave to her writings that bitter and querulous tone of complaint which is discernible in so many of them.
Possessed of a fine imagination, an ear and a taste for harmony, an elegant and correct style, the natural bent of Mrs. Smith’s genius seems iii to have been more to poetry than to any other walk of literature. Her Sonnets, which was the first publication she gave to the world, were universally admired. That species of verse, which in this country may be reckoned rather an exotic, had at that time been but little cultivated. For plaintive, tender, and polished sentiment the Sonnet forms a proper vehicle, and Mrs. Smith’s success fixed at once her reputation as a poet of no mean class. They were published while her husband was in the King’s Bench, where she attended him with laudable assiduity, and exerted herself to further his liberation; her feelings upon which event she thus describes in a letter to a friend: “For more than a month I had shared the restraint of my husband amidst scenes of misery, of vice, and even of terror. Two attempts had, since my last residence among them, been made by the prisoners to procure their liberation by blowing up the walls of the house. Throughout the night appointed for this enterprise I remained dressed, watching at the window. After such scenes and such apprehensions, how deliciously soothing to my wearied spirits was the soft, pure air of the summer’s morning, breathing over the dewy grass, as, having slept one night upon the road, we passed over the heaths of Surrey!”
Their difficulties, however, were far from being terminated; and the increasing derangement of Mr. Smith’s affairs soon afterwards obliged them to leave England, and they were settled some time in a large gloomy chateau in Normandy, where Mrs. Smith gave birth to her iv youngest child. Here also she translated Manon l’Escaut, a novel of the Abbé Prevôt, a work of affecting pathos, though exceptionable with regard to its moral tendency.
Returning to England, they occupied for some time an ancient mansion belonging to the Mills’ family, at Woodlading, in Sussex, where Mrs. Smith wrote several of her poems.
An entire separation afterwards taking place between her and her husband, she removed with most of her children to a small cottage near Chichester, where she wrote her novel of Emmeline in the course of a few months. She afterwards resided in various places, mostly on the coast of Sussex; for she was particularly fond of the neighbourhood of the sea. The frequent changes of scene which, either from necessity or inclination, she experienced, were no doubt favourable to that descriptive talent which forms a striking feature of her genius. Her frequent removals may be traced in her poems and other works. The name of the Arun is consecrated in poetry, and is often mentioned by her:
“Farewell, Aruna! on whose varied shore
My early vows were paid to Nature’s shrine,
And whose lorn stream has heard me since deplore
Too many sorrows.....”
In another sonnet she addresses the South Downs:
“Ah hills beloved, where once, a happy child,
Your beechen shades, your turf, your flowers among,
I wove your blue-bells into garlands wild,
And woke your echoes with my artless song;v
Ah hills beloved! your turf, your flowers remain,
But can they peace to this sad breast restore;
For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,
And teach a breaking heart to throb no more?”
Poets are apt to complain, and often take a pleasure in it; yet they should remember that the pleasure of their readers is only derived from the elegance and harmony with which they do it. The reader is a selfish being, and seeks only his own gratification. But for the language of complaint in plain prose, or the exasperations of personal resentment, he has seldom much sympathy. It is certain, however, that the life of this lady was a very chequered one.
Mrs. Smith had a family of twelve children, six only of whom survived her. Her third son lost a limb in the service of his country, and afterwards fell a sacrifice to the yellow fever at Barbadoes, whither he had gone to look after the family property. The severest stroke she met with was the loss of a favourite daughter, who died at Bath, where Mrs. Smith also was for the recovery of her health. The young lady had been married to the Chevalier de Faville, a French emigrant. Her mother is said never entirely to have recovered from this affliction.
Her last removal was to Stoke, a village in Surrey, endeared to her by her having spent there many years of her childhood; and there she died Oct. 28th, 1806, in her 57th year, after a tedious and painful illness. She was a widow at the time of her death, and, being in possession of her own fortune, had a prospect of greater ease in her pecuniary circumstances than she vi had for some time enjoyed. Her youngest son, who was advancing in the military career, fell a victim to the pestiferous climate of Surinam before her death, but the news had not reached her.
Though she was worn by illness, the powers of her mind retained their full vigour, and her last volume of poems, entitled Beachy Head, was in the press at the time of her decease; an elegant work, which no ways discredits her former performances.
She was the author of several publications for children and young people, which are executed with great taste and elegance, and communicate, in a pleasing way, much knowledge of botany and natural history, of which two studies she was very fond. That entitled Conversations is interspersed with beautiful little descriptive poems on natural objects.
Mrs. Smith is most known to readers in general by her novels; yet they seem to have been less the spontaneous offspring of her mind than her poems. She herself represents them as being written to supply money for those emergencies which, from the perplexed state of her affairs, she was often thrown into; but, though not of the first order, they hold a respectable rank among that class of publications. They are written in a style correct and elegant; they show a knowledge of life, and of genteel life; and there is much beauty in the descriptive scenery, which Mrs. Smith was one of the first to introduce. Descriptions, of whatever beauty, are but little attended to in a novel of high interest, particularly vii if introduced, as they often are, during a period of anxious suspense for the hero or heroine; but are very properly placed, at judicious intervals, in compositions of which variety rather than deep pathos, and elegance rather than strength, are the characteristics.
The two most finished novels of Mrs. Smith are Emmeline and Celestina. In the first she is supposed to have drawn her own character, (with what degree of impartiality others must judge,) in that of Mrs. Stafford.
Celestina is not inferior to Emmeline in the conduct of the piece, and possesses still more beauties of description. The romantic scenes in the south of France are rich and picturesque. The story of Jesse and her lover is interesting, as well as that of Jacquelina.
The Old Manor-House is said to be the most popular of the author’s productions. The best drawn character in it is that of a wealthy old lady who keeps all her relations in constant dependence, and will not be persuaded to name her heir. This was written during the war with America; and the author takes occasion, as also in many other of her publications, to show the strain of her politics.
She also wrote Desmond, The Wanderings of Warwick, Montalbert, and many others, to the number of thirty-eight volumes. They all show a knowledge of life, and facility of execution, without having any very strong features, or particularly aiming to illustrate any moral truth. The situations and the scenery are often viii romantic; the characters and the conversations are from common life.
Her later publications would have been more pleasing, if the author, in the exertions of fancy, could have forgotten herself; but the asperity of invective and the querulousness of complaint too frequently cloud the happier exertions of her imagination.
Another publication of this lady’s ought to have been mentioned, The Romance of real Life, a very entertaining work, consisting of a selection of remarkable trials from the Causes Célèbres. The title, though a happy and a just one, had the inconvenience of misleading many readers, who really thought it a novel. Their mistake was pardonable; for few novels present incidents so wonderful as are to be found in these surprising stories, which rest upon the sanction of judicial records.
The marriage . . . had probably been hastened on her side by the dread of a mother-in-law, as her father was on the point of marrying a second wife.
[For a couple of centuries, the English language used the terms “stepmother” and “mother-in-law” interchangeably, before returning to its senses not long after this passage was written. Lesson to take away: not all mistakes are the harbingers of irreversible linguistic change, no matter how much it may seem that way at the time.]
her husband was in the King’s Bench
[In 1810 you did not have to explain that this meant debtor’s prison.]
Manon l’Escaut, a novel . . . exceptionable with regard to its moral tendency
[The apostrophe is a hypercorrection; it was never anything but “Lescaut”. The title character is a courtesan, hence the “exceptionable”. (But it’s OK, because she dies in the end.) A century and a half later, the novel inspired back-to-back operas: the French Manon in 1884, and the Italian Manon Lescaut in 1893.]
“Ah hills beloved”
[If it gives you the fantods when people pronounce “beloved” in two syllables, do not try to read this poem aloud.]
she died Oct. 28th, 1806, in her 57th year
[Ahem, cough-cough. Charlotte Turner was born in May, so by October she was well into her 58th year.]
This was written during the war with America
[Is the editor implying that after finishing The Old Manor House, the author sat on it for ten to fifteen years? This seems incompatible with the assertion that she was doing it strictly for the money.]
The original of this text is in the public domain—at least in the U.S.
My notes are copyright, as are all under-the-hood elements.
If in doubt, ask.