So, after this year’s romp through the Horrid Novels of Northanger Abbey, I have decided that my reading project for 2012 will be to revisit Charlotte Turner Smith.

Mrs Smith actually isn’t a gothic author, although a number of her works do contain gothic themes; but she is credited in having helped create the gothic due to her influence on Mrs Radcliffe and others. He contribution was in advancing the development of the sentimental novel, which was incredibly popular in her day, infusing it with an idea of the picturesque and sublime, heightening the emotional and aesthetic level of her work in line with contemporary ideas on Romanticism. This certainly created the framework upon which Mrs Radcliffe, her admirers and her imitators built their gothic style of the later 1790s.

Charlotte Turner was born in 1749 into a wealthy family, and received a typical education for a girl of her class at the time. However, when she was around 16 her father remarried, and her new step mother wanted her out of the family home. She was forcibly married off to a rich merchant and son of a West Indies plantation owner, Benjamin Smith in what was to become a violent and unhappy marriage, which she later described as legal prostitution. She bore the first of her twelve children to Smith the following year at the age of 17.

Smith was regularly unfaithful and profligate with money, he neglected the business and they eventually ended up in a debtor’s prison, where Charlotte and their family accompanied him. It was at this time she began writing in an attempt to raise money. Throughout her life she saw herself much more as a poet than a novelist, and it was her first publication of poetry, “Elegiac Sonnets”, that raised the money to see them released.

Charlotte did eventually leave Smith, and turned to writing full time to support her family. Smith’s father tried to help Charlotte and her family through his will, however legal issues meant that she never benefited from it and she was forced to write to avoid remaining in poverty throughout her life. She produced ten novels, three books of poetry and some books for children during this time. Her work was much praised by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Walter Scott although later in the 19th century she became largely forgotten.

Many of her works feature autobiographical themes, and she draws largely on the strong characters she encountered in her life in her works. Her experiences prompted her to argue for legal reforms to grant women more rights. These arguments she included in her novels, demonstrating the legal, economic and sexual exploitation of women engendered by the prevailing property laws. Her popularity waned towards the end of the eighteenth century, as readers tired of her campaigning themes, her later works were less politically charged and milder in nature as she moved from campaigning to writing children’s fiction. These –paid much less and again in the early 1800s she found herself poverty stricken, barely able to afford food or coal. She was forced to sell off her library to pay debts.

Six of her children died before her. Towards the end of her life she was almost paralysed by rheumatoid arthritis. Benjamin Smith died in a debtor’s prison in 1806 and coincidently Charlotte died a few months later at the age of 57.

I have, in the past. read Emmeline and The Old Manor House, which rank amongst her best known works. In the coming year I shall intersperse my regular gothic reading pile with a number of Charlotte’s works. Hopefully to include

  • Emmeline; or The Orphan of the Castle (1788)
  • The Old Manor House (1793)
  • Celestina (1791)
  • Ethelinde; or The Recluse of the Lake (1789)
  • Montalbert (1795)
  • Marchmont (1796)

Obviously depending on availability and price.

I should also look at Charlotte’s poetry, a sample of which is appended for starters

On Passing Over a Dreary Tract of Country,
<and near the Ruins of a Deserted Chapel, during a Tempest

Swift fleet the billowy clouds along the sky,
Earth seems to shudder at the storm aghast;
While only beings as forlorn as I,
Court the chill horrors of the howling blast.
Even round yon crumbling walls, in search of food,
The ravenous Owl foregoes his evening flight,
And in his cave, within the deepest wood,
The Fox eludes the tempest of the night.
But to my heart congenial is the gloom
Which hides me from a World I wish to shun;
That scene where Ruin saps the mouldering tomb,
Suits with the sadness of a wretch undone.
Nor is the deepest shade, the keenest air,
Black as my fate, or cold as my despair.

The sonnet is reproduced from The Literary Gothic website as is some of the biographical data.

Other information was gleaned from our old friend Wikipedia.