Before I launch into the main topic of this post, I thought I should introduce myself: I am Leanne Cane, a PhD student at Northumbria University. I am working on the novels of Charlotte Smith and her engagement in the debate on education. Today is Day 50 since I officially began my PhD – so the project is in its very early stages. The reason I’ve started this blog is to give myself a space to talk informally about Smith’s life and her works, and the era in which she was living; it’s both a space to think and to, hopefully, converse with others about a relatively under-explored and under-discussed novelist. I also hope it will be a resource of information for others interested in Smith, and I am planning to create some digital resources for the blog such as interactive timelines of the novels, education in the period, and Smith’s life.
So who was Charlotte Smith?
Charlotte Smith was a novelist, poet and author of children’s educational books in the late eighteenth century. She was born on 4th May, 1749, and died at age 57 on 28th October, 1806.
Smith was the eldest daughter of Nicholas Turner and Anne Towers. She grew up in the family seat: Bignor Park, Sussex. Her mother, Anne, died when Smith was only three-years-old.
Under the guidance of her aunt, she received a largely ‘ornamental’ education consisting of the ‘modern accomplishments’ standard for girls of her station, such as drawing, dancing, and music. She attended a girls’ school in Kensington, and was tutored in art by George Smith. She was noted from an early age to be an avid reader, reading anything she could get her hands on, and she often wrote verses; even later in life, writing poetry was her particular passion.
Aged 15, she married Benjamin Smith (no relation of the artist mentioned above). It was a turbulent and troubled marriage during which the couple spent time in debtor’s jail and Benjamin exiled himself to France to avoid his creditors. During their time in jail, Smith wrote the first edition of Elegiac Sonnets in an attempt to raise money; writing to make money became a theme throughout her life, in the Preface to her novel Desmond she wrote: ‘I am an author by profession.’ After twenty years (and twelve children), Smith separated from her husband, and focused on raising her children and writing.
Between 1784 and 1806, Smith worked on poetry, translations, novels, educational books, a journalistic piece, and a stage play; she produced a total of 23 texts, not counting the various editions of Elegiac Sonnets which she expanded over the period. Writers such as Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, and William Wordsworth noted her influence and talent.
Sadly, Smith, like many other women writers, was written out of history and the literary canon during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; considered unimportant, despite their influence, beside such eighteenth-century and Romantic writers as Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron. Smith in recent decades, however, has begun to come to the fore again: her works are being re-published; her poems can be found in anthologies; she is being taught on undergraduate and postgraduate literature courses. The main focus so far has been her poetry and use of the sonnet form, due to its influence on Romantic poetry in the period, but her novels and other works are also sparking interest again.