Charlotte Turner Smith

The Works of Charlotte Smith - An Electronic Edition


Sonnet on the Death of Mrs. Charlotte Smith

Sweet songstress! whom the melancholy Muse
With more than fondness loved, for thee she strung
The lyre, on which herself enraptured hung,
And bade thee through the world its sweets diffuse.
Oft hath my childhood's tributary tear
Paid homage to the sad harmonious strain,
That told, alas! too true, the grief and pain
Which thy afflicted mind was doom'd to bear.
Rest, sainted spirit! from a life of woe,
And though no friendly hand on thee bestow
The stately marble, or emblazon'd name,
To tell a thoughtless world who sleeps below:
Yet o'er thy narrow bed a wreath shall blow,
Deriving vigour from the breath of fame!


Published in 1829, twenty-tree years after the death of Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806), this poem by the obscure poet Thomas Gent elegized the woman who was arguably the most important figure in the revival of the sonnet during the Romantic era in Great Britain, c. 1775-1835. Appropriately, Gent adopted the sonnet form for his tribute, in the process adding one more poem to the literally thousands of sonnets that had appeared in print in the wake of the first edition of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets (1), published in 1784. From a collection containing only sixteen sonnets when it first appeared, Smith's collection evolved during its author's lifetime through a sixteen-year sequence of editions - each displaying increasing technical, emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic sophistication - into two volumes whose nearly 250 pages finally included some 92 sonnets and nineteen "other poems" of various lengths.

Thomas Gent was not the only poet to appreciate Charlotte Smith's importance to English poetry, however. Following her death in 1806 dozens of tributary poems appeared in the periodical press and in subsequently published collections of verse alike. No less prominent a figure than William Wordsworth wrote in 1833 that Smith had been a poet "to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered."(2) By 1833 Wordsworth was himself already a "canonical" poet, having secured his enduring place in British literary history during the course of several decades that had in 1791 seen the then unknown young poet seeking out Smith for a letter of introduction to the expatriate author Helen Maria Williams before he traveled to France to observe the consequences of the French Revolution. By the middle of the twentieth century Wordsworth's judgment seemed to have been borne out, for Smith's name had virtually vanished from literary history and from the scholarship that records and shapes it. Neither acknowledged nor remembered by all but the very most specialized of scholars were not only the successive and ever-expanding editions of Elegiac Sonnets but also a series of important novels, writings for younger readers, translations from the French, and even a play. Indeed, during her literary career of just over twenty years, Smith published no fewer than 24 major works, totaling no fewer than seventy separate volumes.

Smith's ten novels were widely read and commented upon during her lifetime. They are remarkable exercises in social and political activism as well as engaging and "readable" narratives that employ the conventions of sentimental fiction in service to often radical ideology. Smith was widely perceived (and feared - or loathed) by her contemporaries as an effective advocate both of women's rights and of progressive politics in the years following the French Revolution. Her novels were freely pirated for editions published in Ireland and the United States, while many appeared in French translations.

Furthermore, Smith was an influential author of works for children, especially in areas like history and natural history. Smith's contemporary prominence as both a novelist and a poet is particularly significant, since most Romantic-era authors are not known for having achieved notable success in multiple genres. (Walter Scott is the most familiar exception, but both Smith and her well-known contemporary Mary Robinson enjoyed wide readerships in poetry, in fiction, and in non-fiction prose.)

Smith's works - regardless of their genre - were also famous (or notorious) for their highly personal and autobiographical prefaces, in which Smith aired her grievances over the personal and professional indignities to which she was subjected. Most particularly, they recorded her responses to her mistreatment at the hands of the British legal system during an endless wrangle over her inheritance from her father-in-law, a byzantine legal labyrinth that remained unresolved at her death and that inspired the interminable legal machinations involving the form of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Charles' Dickens's Bleak House. It is this tortured personal history, which Smith detailed with increasing self-dramatization in her prefaces, that Thomas Gent had in mind when in his sonnet he referred to her "life of woe" and to "the grief and pain / Which thy afflicted mind was doom'd to bear."

A witty product of a good family and a fashionable education, the young Charlotte Turner had, upon her widowed father's remarriage in 1764, been pressed in 1765 into an unwise marriage at the age of fifteen to the self-indulgent and profligate Benjamin Smith, to whom she bore twelve children. By 1784 the Smiths had fled to France (after a shared stint in King's Bench prison) in an attempt to escape Benjamin Smith's creditors. By 1787 Charlotte Smith had had enough; she formally separated from her husband. Without the means to secure a divorce, however - a costly and difficult procedure for an English woman in 1787 - Smith was never able to disentangle herself from her husband's financial demands: he remained legally able to make a claim on any or all of what she earned by her pen until his death in 1806, only months before Smith herself died. This is why her father-in-law had attempted in his will to bypass his son entirely and leave the bulk of his estate directly to the author, thus giving rise to the lawsuit from Hell.

Recent revisionist literary-historical scholarship has begun to recover and reassess Smith's works as part of a larger project to recover the lives and works of British women writers of the Romantic period generally. Today, Smith is widely studied - and taught - in institutions of higher learning around the world, and the scholarship on her work is rapidly increasing both in quantity and in intellectual and cultural substance. What was readily apparent to her contemporaries has been recovered by modern readers and scholars, who now trace in the novels the leading intellectual, social, political, and ideological themes of a turbulent era in British - and European - history. Indeed, those works participate in Smith's society's ongoing and general cultural debate about the relation of individuals - and especially women - to social units and power structures in an era of revolution in politics no less than in culture as a whole. So too the poetry, which in its shorter forms (like the sonnets) defined and articulated a sensibility for an entire generation, and which in its longer forms (like The Emigrants, 1793, and Beachy Head, 1806) directly engaged political and sociological concerns of compelling consequence for Smith's contemporaries. Both the poetry and the fiction reveal an author whose work contributed directly and materially both to contemporary discourse and to literary history. At the same time, the writings for younger readers, which have historically received only scant attention, reveal an author whose clear ideological and pedagogical agenda is embedded in both the forms and the substance of these works.

All of this being so, it is nevertheless an inescapable fact that modern scholarship and teaching relating to Charlotte Smith is significantly inhibited by the relative inaccessibility of many of the most important primary materials. In recent years several projects have been undertaken to make Smith's works available in modern texts, some of them in excellent paperbound editions and one in an extensive (and expensive) hardbound research edition. Each of these paper texts, however, has to contend with the problematic fact that Smith revised many of her works, some of them extensively. Two novels, for example, Emmeline; or, The Orphan of the Castle (1788) and The Old Manor House (1793), underwent major, substantive revisions immediately following their publication and were reissued in second editions in the same year of their first appearance. Available procedures for documenting and analyzing the nature and substance of Smith's revisions to these and other are necessarily limited by the physical limitations of conventional print media. Varia can be noted, tabulated, and appended in the form of notes on individual pages, for example, or included in addenda following the main texts, or in descriptive essays. However, the actual and most practical sort of comparative study of texts remains difficult because detailed annotation and itemization of varia is materially (and aesthetically) different from actual presentation (or re-presentation) of the entire texts in their variant forms.


One immediate advantage of a complete electronic edition of Smith's works lies in the fact that such an edition makes it possible to actually compare variant editions by studying them side by side in full-text electronic form. For instance, one might (with sufficient computers) line up all editions of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets to study the evolution of the collection by conducting actual page by page (indeed, line by line and word by word) comparisons. Using an electronic edition in this fashion enables the scholar to examine and evaluate comparatively the minutiae of individual poems while still physically retaining a view of the aesthetic whole that is represented in each case by the complete edition.

Another advantage involves the sophisticated search capacities of electronic editions. One can quickly and efficiently trace the appearance of words and phrases throughout any individual work or across a number of works. This data can form the basis for more extensive studies of usage, style, rhetoric, and other varieties of statistical analysis, while increasingly versatile search engines can be manipulated to accommodate more refined searches involving complex variables of reference.

The third - and perhaps most compelling - advantage of a complete electronic edition is that it makes accessible to a worldwide readership many works (and variant texts) that are not widely available and that are in some cases wholly inaccessible to any readers b