Charlotte Smith
by Carl Thompson

The poet and novelist Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) is most associated with the counties of Hampshire and Sussex: in her poetry especially, she offers loving descriptions of the South Downs and of Beachy Head, based on her own extensive walking in these locations in the 1770s and early 1780s. Yet Smith also has important Surrey connections. She was baptised at Stoke Manor, near Guildford. Then in later life, in 1805, she moved to the village of Tilford, near Farnham. This was Smith’s last residence. In 1806, she died in her home in Tilford, and was subsequently buried in the churchyard at Stoke, where fifty-seven years previously she had been baptised.

Smith’s was a difficult life. Born into a genteel, upper-middle-class family, she was well-educated for a girl in this period. But her mother died when she was young and her father was improvident with money, repeatedly getting the family into financial difficulties. In 1765 he sought to remedy this situation by having Charlotte – then aged just 15 – marry a wealthy husband. The match he settled on was Benjamin Smith, son of a wealthy West India merchant. Benjamin’s apparent wealth, however, was an illusion, for he proved just as reckless with money as Charlotte’s father. He was also abusive and unfaithful, and the marriage was an unhappy one. Of necessity she stayed by his side even during a spell in debtor’s prison, and later when Benjamin fled to France to escape his creditors; the couple also had 12 children together, 6 of whom outlived Charlotte. But in 1787, after 22 years of marriage, she finally left Benjamin, fearing for her life if she were to continue living with him. In later years, reflecting on her father’s decision to marry her off, she commented that she had been made ‘a legal prostitute’.

Smith was able to leave her husband in part because of the growing success of her writing career, which gave her an income of her own. She originally took up writing for publication to help the family’s precarious finances. Initially she wrote poetry, then seen as a more respectable literary form than fiction. Her first volume, Elegiac Sonnets (1784), was a critical and commercial success, running to multiple editions and earning enough money to get her husband released from his debts. Further volumes of original verse followed, but in the late 1780s, newly separated from Benjamin, Smith switched to writing fiction – a genre less esteemed than poetry at this date but more lucrative. Over the next ten years, she produced roughly a novel a year.

Smith wrote for money, and out of desperation, but she was no hack-writer. The literary scholar Stuart Curran describes her as ‘the first poet in England whom in retrospect we would call Romantic’. Her fusion of intense personal feelings and precise descriptions of nature influenced more well-known Romantic writers like William Wordsworth, who described Smith as ‘a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered’. Her novels are perhaps less suited to modern tastes but they were innovative and influential in their day. Smith broached topics that were still controversial for women to write about in fiction, such as politics, women’s rights and the horrors of slavery. In this way she was part of a pioneering vanguard of women novelists who paved the way for later, more famous figures such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

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