Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Charlotte Turner Smith and the Revival of the English Sonnet

Charlotte Turner Smith (died 28 October 1806)


Although she is now acknowledged as a key figure in the Romantic movement, important for reviving the English sonnet, Charlotte Turner Smith was largely forgotten until the twentieth century.

Charlotte Turner Smith, 1792
chalk portrait by George Romney
Born on 4 May 1749, Charlotte Turner was the daughter of a wealthy but improvident father.

In 1765, at the age of fifteen, she was married off to a wealthy but improvident husband, Benjamin Smith. About the whole arrangement Charlotte Turner Smith would later write that her father had turned her into a "legal prostitute."

Although she detested her husband, who proved to be not only uneducated and uninterested in his wife's intellectual interests but also violent, the couple had twelve children, the first born in 1766, the last in 1785. (Although only two died in infancy, just six of Charlotte Turner Smith's would survive their mother.)

After her husband was arrested and imprisoned for his debts in 1783, Charlotte Turner Smith began the career that would continue until her death--she wrote and published a volume of poems, Elegiac Sonnets (1784). She spent seven months in debtors' prison with her husband and negotiated his release with the success of the book. She had printed the book of poetry at her own expense, her decision proving to be financially sound--with additional material, added periodically, the book went through nine more editions by 1800.

In the mean time, Smith fled to the continent with her husband after his release, hoping to avoid the debts he still owed. There she continued to write in order to support the family. Although in 1785 the two returned together to England, by 1787 Smith left her husband.

She turned her attention to novels, since she believed that fiction would provide her more of an income than poetry. Her novels helped to establish the conventions of the Gothic tradition, though they also included political themes, particularly focusing on the legal and economic disadvantages of married women and on slavery, among other topics. (Her husband's family had West Indian plantations and had brought slaves with them into England.) She also involved herself in the cause of the French Revolution on behalf of the Republican cause.

In the years twenty years before her death, she published ten novels, then, when her fiction became less popular, a series of children's books and even history. 

Despite her efforts and her work, she died in poverty.

Her contemporaries knew and valued her work--Samuel Taylor Coleridge credited her with reviving the English sonnet as a form, and Walter Scott praised her descriptions of the natural world. But William Wordsworth's judgment proved correct: Charlotte Turner Smith was "a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered."

By the time Wordsworth wrote about Smith, in the 1830s, her works had already all but disappeared. But it is now our great fortune to know that Charlotte Turner Smith and her work have been revived.

There are several affordable paperback editions of her Elegiac Sonnets and of her novels. Online, I like the texts available through the British Women Romantic Poets Project (access by clicking here). Her works are also available through Project Gutenberg and Google Books. 

Charlotte Turner Smith is buried in St John Churchyard, 
Stoke-next-Guildford, Surrey